In The Silver Swan, Sallie Bingham chronicles one of the great underexplored lives of the twentieth century. Bingham is especially interested in dissecting the stereotypes that have defined Duke’s story while also confronting the disturbing questions related to her legacy. According to Gloria Steinem, “Sallie Bingham rescues Doris Duke from this gendered prison and shows us just how brave, rebellious, and creative this unique woman really was, and how her generosity benefits us to this day.”
Treason: A Sallie Bingham Reader is a collection that captures the spirit of the author’s illustrious writing career via short stories, a novella, and a play. From the complex stories of artistic influence and the exhilaration and fright of solitude, to the incendiary rage of a betrayed young wife who sacrifices everything for revenge, to the struggles for independence of the three women who surrounded Ezra Pound like subservient stars, these fictions seize the reader’s attention while slashing stereotypes.
The popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black, based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, has brought renewed attention to the conditions inside U.S. women’s prisons. While prison reform has not been contemporarily understood as a priority of the LGBTQ and feminist communities, the special collections at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, illustrate the degree to which prison reform and anti-prison activism have, since the 19th century, operated as a cornerstone of both LGBTQ and feminist movements.
In the 19th century, charity efforts led by white middle-class feminists led to the creation of prison reform organizations such as the Women’s Prison Association (WPA) and the Gilbert Library and Prisoners’ Aid Society. These organizations advocated for separate women’s reformatories, the decriminalization of prostitution, rehabilitation programs for former inmates, and the creation and expansion of prison libraries.
These early reform efforts are reflected in the ledger and scrapbook of Linda Gilbert, the founder and president of the Gilbert Library and Prisoners’ Aid Society. The ledger details Gilbert’s fundraising efforts on behalf of the organization and the expenses it incurred from roughly 1868 to 1894, as it helped to establish libraries in institutions such as the New York House of Detention, Ludlow St. Jail, and Sing Sing Female Prison. A pamphlet included in the Linda Gilbert scrapbook speaks to the particular significance of prison libraries and literature to reformers of this period, who saw increasing literacy among prisoners and increasing access to reading material as central to their moral improvement.
The incarceration collections held in the Rubenstein Library, however, reflect the importance of circulating periodicals to prison reform efforts more generally, and the changing role of reading and writing in prison reform movements over time. In the 1960’s and 70’s, prison libraries and education programs helped to instigate an expanding prisoners’ rights movement both within and beyond prison walls. These efforts are reflected in several women’s prison newsletters and pamphlets that were published by lesbian feminist organizations in the late 20th century, including “No More Cages” and “Through the Looking Glass,” which are held in the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance Periodicals Collection and the Women’s and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Movements (LGBTQ) Periodicals Collection, respectively.
These newsletters were the collaborative projects of lesbian feminist and anti-prison activists in the late twentieth century in the context of neo-liberal economic policies, intensifying restrictions on access to welfare, and a corresponding rise in incarceration rates. The newsletters that grew out of these coalitions often aimed their critiques at increasing restrictions on access to welfare that, while initiated by the Nixon administration, were part of a larger conservative backlash against the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 that continued through the 1990’s, making women of color, in particular, vulnerable to mass incarceration.
“Break ‘de Chains of U.S. Legalized Slavery,” a joint publication between the Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists’ Prison Book Project and inmates at the North Carolina Correctional institute for women, documents a prison rebellion at the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women in 1975 that began as a work stoppage in the prison laundry. The pamphlet not only critiques healthcare and labor conditions in the prison, but contests media accounts of the rebellion itself. Additionally, the Rubenstein Library also holds a publication from Action for Forgotten Women, a feminist organization that was also active in the Triangle in the 1970’s.
Gay and lesbian publications such as Feminary, Lesbian Tide, RFD, and Gay Community News, which frequently reported on conditions inside prisons and incidents of police brutality, gave advice to gay and lesbian readers about how to protect themselves from law enforcement, and published letters from prisoners that also circulated widely both inside and outside of prisons during this period. These publications helped to galvanize support for prisoners, and encouraged readers to understand the policing and criminalization of gender and sexual non-normativity as intersecting with the policing and criminalization of people of color, immigrants, and the poor.
More recently, zines distributed by prison books programs, anti-prison zine distros, and collectively owned bookstores and activist centers have done similar work, attempting to fill a gap left by increasingly restrictive policies and funding for prison libraries and education.
Many of the most widely circulating zines are included in the Incarceration Zine Collection, part of the Human Rights Archive, which was acquired from the Chicago Anarchist Black Cross Zine Distro. The collection spans the years from 1995 to 2007, and includes 103 zines distributed inside and outside of jails and prisons, with writing by notable inmates and anti-prison activists, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Ashanti Alston Omowali, David Gilbert and his son, Chesa Boudin, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, Dennis Kyne, Anthony Rayson, Bobby Sands, Sean Swain, and Harold H. Thompson. Zines related specifically to the concerns of women and LGBTQ people, including The Invisibility of Women Prisoners’ Resistance, Reaching through the Bars, Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison, and Queers Bash Back can be found in the Bingham Center Women’s Zine Collection.
These resources offer researchers insight into the dialogue amongst prison reformers and anti-prison activists both inside and outside of prison, and into the particular role of reading and writing in the expansion of prison reform and prisoners’ rights movements.
Submitted by – Jennifer Ansley, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow, Thompson Writing Program, firstname.lastname@example.org
Since August of 2014 I’ve had the pleasure of arranging and describing the papers of Reverend Jeanne Audrey Powers. In 1958, Rev. Powers became one of the first women to be ordained in the United Methodist Church, and in 1995, she publicly came out as a lesbian in her most famous sermon, “The Journey.” The reactions she faced as a result of coming out were mixed. Many, like the GCCUIC (General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns) supported her unswervingly, while others, most notably the Institute on Religion & Democracy, campaigned against her, hoping to force Powers into an early retirement.
Reverend Powers was involved in organizing the Re-Imagining Conference, the Minneapolis interfaith conference of clergy, laypeople, and feminist theologians that stirred controversy in U.S. mainline Protestant denominations. “Re-Imagining: A Global Theological Conference By Women: For Men and Women,” grew out of a response to the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988–1998. The conference aimed to encourage churches to address injustices to women worldwide and promote equal partnership with men at all levels of religious life. Participants met at the Minneapolis Convention Center from November 4-7, 1993. It brought together 2,200 people, one third of them clergy, and most of them women. 83 men registered. Attendees represented 16 denominations, 27 countries, and 49 states.
Rev. Powers’ papers also document her extensive professional accomplishments and contributions as well as her personal history. Photographs from her childhood, stories about her family, and even two locks of hair can be found within the 98 boxes of material. The materials related to Rev. Powers’ activism, including her support for equal treatment for all persons in the church, are my favorite feature of the collection.
For example, the collection includes Rev. Powers’ files associated with the group, Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian/Gay Concerns. In 1984, in response to “unwelcoming policies toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons,” the group issued a call to local churches to “reaffirm that their ministry was open to all persons, including gays and lesbians.” The “Open the Doors” campaign was sponsored by the Reconciling Congregation group. The goal was to go to the United Methodist Church’s 1996 General Conference in Denver, Colorado to foster discussion around creating a more welcoming atmosphere in the church for lesbian and gay members. The campaign had a moderate level of success with several hundred people attending “Open the Doors” events at the General Conference. However, the UMC policies discriminating against gays and lesbians were not changed.
The Jeanne Audrey Powers Papers is a treasure trove of materials that I have greatly enjoyed processing. It’s hard to believe that they will be ready for researchers to use quite soon—an exciting prospect!
Post contributed by Rachel Sanders, Technical Services Intern for the Sallie Bingham Center.
While I processed a collection of correspondence between two lovers, a handful of letters stuck out. Martha Simpson, then Martha Eleanor Booker, a young African American woman working on her teaching degree at Elizabeth City Teachers College, had a penchant for writing in code. Paul Simpson, her love interest, did not share the same inclination, but did indulge her in his responses. As I read through the letters, the code used in three of them piqued my curiosity. My search revealed that the code used seems to be a form of carnival Pig Latin, also known as Czarny, Z-Latin, or Carny (Hautzinger 30).
Martha first sneaks in her secret code at the closing of a letter from January 10, 1951, with a little taunt, “Ha, ha, I bet you can’t read it.” Paul’s response to this letter, dated January 13, 1951, briefly acknowledges that he, indeed, could read her secret language with the opening line “Dizear Cizheré,” before continuing his letter unencumbered by the extra z’s.
But Martha doesn’t give up. She continues the code in a response from January 17, 1951, written half in this “z-language,” eventually switching back to conventional English.
Martha’s next letter clearly was not on pink paper (did you catch that one?), but she did keep on with her code. The secret language was formed by inserting iz after the first consonant, and if there was no consonant present, beginning the word with biz. In linguistic circles, this is known as iz-infixation and has been linked to rap and hip-hop music. Examples include Frankie Smith’s 1981 hits DoubleDutch Bus and Slang Thang (or Slizang Thizang), both of which boast the iz-infix in their lyrics. More recent examples include work by Snoop Dogg and Kanye West (Viau 1). But these letters come decades before the iz-infix made it big in music, and the question remains: Where did this secret language come from?
We think the answer is this: carnival slang. Published accounts of Carny go back to 1926 (Russell and Murray 401), well before Martha was writing to Paul. It was a language immersed in the subculture of the carnival, intended to distinguish between outsiders and the true Carnies, given the questionable legality of the carnival. Sarah Hautzinger describes it as a dialect that “rearranges English to make it unintelligible to the unenlightened ear” (32). In Czarny, “a Z-sound is inserted after the first consonant, and if the word begins with a vowel, before the vowel sound, in the first syllable only” (32). This certainly seems a lot like the iz-infixes found in the letters between Martha and Paul. Rumor has it that this carny talk found its way into popular culture years later.
Whether or not their secret language was descended from Z-Latin, the coded (and uncoded) correspondence between Martha and Paul D. Simpson provides an interesting read. Recently acquired by the Rubenstein, these roughly 300 letters detail the love, life, and struggles of a young African American couple on their way to becoming teachers.