The National Book Foundation announced selections in the third and final year of the Literature for Justice program (LFJ). This year the list includes seven titles that shed light on mass incarceration in the United States. Also announced today are the five committee members tasked with selecting the titles and elevating their visibility. This committee works alongside the Foundation as part of Literature for Justice, a three-year campaign that seeks to contextualize the issue of mass incarceration through literature, creating an accessible and thought-provoking collection of books crafted for broad public consumption.
These seven titles will serve as the foundation for LFJ’s third year of programming that will include events featuring these authors and committee members, and the selected books are part of a larger, overarching campaign that now includes 17 titles over the course of the program’s three years. Due to the pivot to virtual programming, this year’s committee unanimously elected to highlight seven books, rather than five. Literature for Justice has been made possible by a three-year grant from the Art for Justice Fund, a sponsored project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, in partnership with the Ford Foundation.
“Literature for Justice has been an inspiring addition to the Foundation’s work, and we are grateful to be able to elevate and champion these essential texts,” said Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “Sharing the reading lists and the work of thought leaders in the carceral space has expanded the narrative of how books can spark dialogue and contribute to national conversations. We are proud to share another year of Literature for Justice reading as the world’s attention turns to mass incarceration and its systemic roots.”
The 2020-2021 annual Literature for Justice committee is comprised of five esteemed authors who are also experts and leaders within the space of mass incarceration: Susan Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project in 1998, dedicating her life to helping other women break the cycle of incarceration. Her memoir Becoming Ms. Burton, a 2019-2020 Literature for Justice selected title, received a 2018 NAACP Image Award and the inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice. Natalie Diaz, a recently announced 2020 National Book Award Longlister for Poetry, is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. She is the Director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands, and the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of African American Studies at Princeton University. Glaude is the author of several books including Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. Mariame Kaba is an organizer, educator, and curator who is active in movements for racial, gender, and transformative justice. She is the founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with a vision to end youth incarceration. Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning original series for Netflix. Kerman collaborates with nonprofits, philanthropies, and other organizations working in the public interest and serves on the board of directors of the Women’s Prison Association.
“The National Book Foundation works to ensure that books are a central part of our shared culture,” said David Steinberger, Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “In addition to its reading list and associated programming, Literature for Justice provides an opportunity to further the Foundation’s efforts to reach readers everywhere through its distribution of LFJ-recognized titles into prisons and facilities across the country.”
These distributions will continue this year through a new partnership with the Million Book Project. This year’s LFJ book selections include poetry, an exploration of art in prisons, reported scholarly works with a localized focus, and the revolutionary autobiography, Assata, by Assata Shakur.
Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries is a book-length poem that follows a central protagonist, Yasmine, as she travels across borders, both physical—Algeria, Cuba, Canada, the United States—and conceptual, including music and art. Art is the focal point of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole R. Fleetwood, in which Fleetwood bases her narrative on “carceral aesthetics” from interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated artists and family members. The works of the artists, many of which are published for the first time in this volume, underscore the possibilities of art as both an outlet and a radical re-envisioning.
Two titles on this year’s reading list examine California’s position as one of the epicenters of mass incarceration. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore illuminates the exponential growth of California prisons beginning in the early 1980s. Gilmore provides the context of how California’s policies and economy of surplus fueled an expensive, and expansive, prison system, providing a model for the United States and world. In City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 by last year’s LFJ committee member, Kelly Lytle Hernández details the linkage between colonization and mass incarceration and how the histories of native elimination, immigrant exclusion, and Black disappearance spurred incarceration rates in Los Angeles.
Part collective history and part memoir, Solitary tells the story of a Black Panther Party member, Albert Woodfox, who spent four decades in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. Woodfox was released in February 2016. Solitary, written by Woodfox with Leslie George, was a National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction in 2019.
The list also highlights two landmark titles surrounding the carceral system’s relationship to Black women. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity by Sarah Haley depicts the stories of Southern Black women incarcerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries whose systems of captivity predated Jim Crow laws. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur recounts her life of activism, experience within the carceral system, and escape from prison in 1979. She was given political asylum by Cuba, where she now resides.
Dionne Brand, Ossuaries
McClelland & Stewart / Penguin Random House Canada
Nicole R. Fleetwood, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Harvard University Press
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
University of California Press
Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity
University of North Carolina Press
Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965
University of North Carolina Press
Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography
Lawrence Hill Books / Chicago Review Press
Albert Woodfox with Leslie George, Solitary
Grove Press / Grove Atlantic