An incarcerated Black college student challenged the nation’s prison educators to rethink how they consistently force predominant White cultural perspectives onto the non-Whites who fill their classrooms.
James King’s voice reached across the country to Indianapolis by way of video, where he introduced an academic paper he co-authored with Prison University Project (PUP) colleague Amber Shields at the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison.
“Unfortunately, I’m not able to attend,” King said in the pre-recorded message before the intimate crowd. “I had a prior engagement – San Quentin State Prison.”
Shields, who was there to present their paper in person Nov. 11, told San Quentin News: “The audience was intensely silent during the introduction, as if they were hanging off each word. It was a hard opening act to follow.”
King and Shields wrote in their Challenging Canons: Collaborating to Reimagine Knowledge Sharing in Higher Education in Prison:
• [P]risons take people who have grown up in marginalized neighborhoods that lack certain opportunities, and disenfranchise them even further through the explicit lack of rights for incarcerated people. The classroom itself carries the academic institution’s own history of marginalization.
• [W]e need to question the replication of power from traditional educational institutions and seek to overturn some of these practices by encouraging dialogue and democratic approaches in the classroom and curriculum.
They were inspired to write about these ideas when King and other students took great offense to the positive Klu Klux Klan imagery depicted in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The 1915 film was touted for its cinematic significance and historical relevance in PUP’s Intro to Film class. Shields was the teaching assistant.
“When we talked about not wanting to see it, not wanting to be exposed to it, the teacher said, ‘This film is important – part of canon,’” King commented in an interview. “I’d say the offensiveness of that movie is not debatable. There is no one who would say it’s not offensive.”
Challenging Canons argues that students need to feel included in the curriculum taught to them, rather than the traditional power dynamic where a teacher teaches and students simply listen. Particularly in a prison setting, incarcerated students get far more out of the educational process when they are proactively engaged.
Shields listened to the students’ grievances and empathized with their situation. She was already familiar with King through his role as PUP clerk, but the classroom environment provided further insight.
“We had a lot of discussions about film, and a lot of what brought us together to do this paper were discussions from that class,” said Shields.
“It was really great working with James,” she continued. “I feel I always came in with a million half-formed ideas and questions, and James is a calm sage who had the ability to listen to everything and then deliver a brilliant idea in a sentence or two.”
King and Shields researched their topic separately, meeting four or five times over a two-month period to work together. After submitting an abstract for the conference, their paper was awarded a slot on the schedule.
“James likes to paint things really starkly, but it makes for elegant writing,” said PUP’s academic program director, Amy Jamgochian. “Amber is the kindest person in the whole world.
“These collaborative pairings are great.”
Jamgochian attended the Indiana conference to present her own paper, “Overfamiliarity” and “College in Prison”.
“This conference was very different,” she said. “People care more – because lives are at stake.”
Without King in Indianapolis alongside her, Shields said, “It definitely felt like half the paper was missing.
“For me, the biggest moment was when an audience member came up afterwards and said that our paper made her want to take a new approach to examining the curriculum she and other teachers use in their program.”
Another PUP program director, Neil Terpkosh, said, “It was so exciting to see James’ face in this room in Indiana. It’s tremendously important for the voices of incarcerated folks to be at the center of these discussions.
“You guys know the system best, know the solutions to the system best.”
The four-day conference featured over 70 different panel discussions, presentations, and exhibits throughout the Sheraton Indianapolis Hotel, as well as scheduled lunch and dinner events for networking.
“This conference re-emphasized for me how important it is to create a safe space to question the status quo and bring different voices together to dream up new ways of doing things,” Shields said.
“I really became aware of all the barriers there are for programs like this existing, and the many ways we have to be innovative about overcoming those barriers,” said Terpkosh.
Because race factors so heavily into mass incarceration and prison education, Jamgochian and Terpkosh commented on the underlying theme of King and Shields’ paper – the juxtaposition of White educators amongst so many non-White students.
“I don’t know. Am I here because of White guilt?” Jamgochian openly wondered. “Certainly, there’s that feeling that ‘I’m not a racist, so I have to do something super not racist.’
“I’m sure a lot of us are trying to earn our ‘White liberal credentials’.”
“Why should White guys with Ph.D.s have all the control?” asked Terpkosh. “Higher education shouldn’t exclusively include White men, White philosophy.”
“White guilt doesn’t necessarily motivate me to do what I do,” he continued. “I believe in equity.
“Equity means everybody having access to everything they need – the resources to lead an empowered life, a life with choices.”
“Our field is on the frontlines trying to address inequality with race and ethics,” said Jamgochian. “It’s not easy, but it’s a good mission to have.
“How do we define inclusivity? It’s really difficult in a nation with deep historical inequalities and trauma.”
“I remembered that growing up my dad had volunteered at San Quentin,” shared Shields. “When I first reached out for more information, little did I know what an amazing place of learning I would find.”
“When I arrived at San Quentin, there was a TED Talk event here,” King recalled. “That was one of my first indications that we could write or say things to people outside of prison.”
Since then, King has become a published essayist, an online blogger for restorecal.org, and contributes to multiple criminal justice reform organizations.
He emphasized that he considers his proudest moment to be seeing PUP’s academic conference become a reality at San Quentin in October. King was a driving force behind the event’s planning and organizing, in addition to being a prominent participant.
“Higher education, when done right, helps people learn the tools to critically assess their environment and learn about themselves in the process,” King explains of his journey. “I’ve gained a lot from higher education in prison. I’ve learned that I love learning.
“Before that, I was working through trauma, and I didn’t have enough space – mentally or emotionally – to know what I liked or disliked.”
King wants to make one thing clear: “Any student could’ve done all this. These opportunities are there for everyone.
“We need more people who don’t consider themselves first and foremost inmates, but instead scholars, students, writers, and so forth.”
Shields envisions King doing speaking tours in the future. “James is a very eloquent writer and critical thinker, and at the same time is an engaging speaker – so it would be great to see him combine these talents in public speaking.”
What would King like to be doing in five years? “Hopefully, contributing to my community in some way.”