Motherhood on trial: Black mothers with incarcerated sons negotiating the criminal justice system in African American literature

Angela Hilton, Purdue University


The high rate of incarceration of African American men in the United States means that black mothers, more than mothers from any other racial or ethnic group, are often in a position where they must learn to negotiate the criminal justice system on behalf of their incarcerated sons. As an interdisciplinary project, this dissertation analyzes how these mothers are affected by the criminal justice system, while also demonstrating how African American literature contributes significant insights to the emergent field of Prison Studies. The primary sources for this dissertation consist of literary works from a number of African American writers including Ann Petry, John Oliver Killens, Richard Wright, Ernest Gaines, John Edgar Wideman, Gloria Naylor, Terry McMillan, and Leon Dash. These writers tackle issues and perspectives relating to black motherhood and incarceration that are sorely missing from sociological approaches to this topic. In the works by these authors, black mothers grapple with the juvenile justice system, death row, visiting an incarcerated son and their own personal encounters with the legal system as perpetrators of various crimes. These black mothers are able to use their agency against the criminal justice system despite the fact that they live in panoptic societies where surveillance constantly threatens their daily lives. Overall, these works of African American literature reveal that black motherhood is in danger in the United States. The toll that having an incarcerated son takes on mothers combined with the oppressive rates of incarceration for black men, leads to the unpleasant conclusion that the criminal justice system actually defines many aspects of what it means to be a black mother in America today. In an attempt to counteract the negative effects of the criminal justice system on their lives, many black mothers have moved from agency to activism and have become involved in various social movements aimed at helping them overcome the challenges they face as black mothers with incarcerated sons. The conclusion of this dissertation discusses some of these activist groups in addition to interviews with two black mothers who have experienced an incarceration crisis.




Peterson, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American studies|American literature|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

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