Currently almost a million black people (adults and children) are locked up in prisons and jails across the U.S. Millions more are under some form of correctional supervision (probation, parole, etc…). How did we get here? and Is it possible to reverse course?

Understanding the history of black criminalization & incarceration in the U.S. is critical to answering these and other questions. Black/Inside: A History of Captivity & Confinement in the U.S. considers how a system of criminalizing & imprisoning Black men and women has been sustained from colonial times to the present. The exhibition illustrates the historical roots of black confinement and provides insights into how the U.S. became a Prison Nation, detaining & incarcerating over 2.3 million people. While we are focused on black confinement and captivity in this exhibition, we must also necessarily interrogate what it means to be “free.”

In her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration has replaced segregation as a form of social control for black people. Interviewed in Rethinking Schools, Alexander suggested that teachers should ask some key questions of their students with respect to the current epidemic of mass/hyper incarceration ravaging communities of color:

How did we get here? Why is this happening? How are things different in other communities? How is this linked to what has gone on in prior periods of our nation’s history? And what, then, can we do about it?

As you navigate through the artifacts in this exhibition, we ask that you keep the interrelated questions posed by Ms. Alexander in mind. Rather than resolving the issues raised by these questions, the documents, images and other artifacts in the exhibition will offer context for the political, social, economic aspects of racialized mass/hyper incarceration.

Black/Inside features original vintage photographs and postcards of black prisoners on chain gangs, black activists who used jail-ins during the civil rights movement to demand change and justice, newspaper articles exposing the brutality of the convict lease system, artifacts from black political prisoners like George Jackson and Angela Davis, artifacts from prison uprisings like Attica and much more…

As curators of Black/Inside, we believe that our lack of historical perspective about the origins of mass incarceration limits our ability to develop viable solutions. We hope to engage youth and adults across Chicago to consider the root causes and impacts of the criminal legal system and mass incarceration on the lives of black people. Ultimately, we want to mobilize a new generation of activists and organizers to work towards dismantling the prison industrial complex.

Below is a short video preview of the exhibition:

Now that Black/Inside has completed its scheduled run, we are turning it into a traveling exhibit. More details will be forthcoming.