Courtesy of Orange Is the New Black.
Slave narratives became most fashionable among abolitionist circles in the mid-nineteenth century. These narratives remain deeply powerful, yet each one is framed by a white introduction, which authenticates the black experience. The white practice of verifying the lives of black fugitives who were skillfully plotting their own liberation has changed in circumstance and in medium—but the role of white people at its center has not. Today, its latest manifestation is playing out in the Netflix hit series, Orange Is the New Black.
I first saw a poster for the new series on a subway platform. The word “black” plastered near women of all colors in prison jumpsuits made me shake my head in disappointment, but I soon forgot about it along with all the other racist images I’m surrounded by daily. The next time I saw a reference to Orange Is the New Black was on a giant video billboard during the massive march in New York following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in connection with the killing of Trayvon Martin. As thousands of people took to the streets against white supremacy, there was an intense irony about a fictionalized depiction of black women cheering on a prison fight as a very blond white woman stood there, shocked with horror. I crudely tweeted, “Racist shit playing W 35 and 6th. It never ends. Neither do we. #HoodiesUp,” with a looping vine to illustrate my disappointment.
Since that time, many a friend and colleague has taken the time to explain to me that I was wrong about my gut reaction to Orange Is the New Black. They point out that the series is based on a book, whose author, Piper Kerman, spent time in prison. I answer that Assata Shakur wrote a brilliant book titled Assata: An Autobiography that includes details about her time as the only woman in an all-men’s prison—yet I’ve not seen it developed into a series. It would be timely to do so now that Shakur is the first woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list.
Orange Is the New Black defenders repeatedly tell me that Kerman is invested in prison reform. She very well might be. But the problem here lies in the fact that her investment in the issue has been repaid through a very different kind of investment in her by book publishers and budding media empires like Netflix. I don’t necessarily doubt that Kerman wants to see a change in the criminal justice system—just like I don’t doubt that she’s made a cottage industry for herself doing so. This started about a decade ago, when Kerman began selling “Free Piper” T-shirts through Paypal. As a bestselling author who’s sold the rights to stories of women that aren’t even hers, she’s profited from the criminalization of black and brown women who are disproportionately targeted for prison cages.