By Alice Kim
“Greetings, these words travel to you over a great distance of time and space for I write to you all live from planet Stateville, a dark place physically made to mentally break men by oppressing their bodies and shackling their minds to a sinking depth of hopelessness.” This is how one of my students aptly described where he is currently incarcerated.
“A Seattle like downpour of dust blankets the floor as if it’s helping to fight off the chills,” another student wrote. “The chipped paint off the cell walls speak in slang. The air is shit scented and heavy with burdens of change.”
Last fall, I had the opportunity to teach a class entitled Freedom Dreams at Stateville Prison through the Prison Neighborhood Arts Project, a collective that connects teaching artists and scholars with prisoners through classes, workshop and guest lectures. My students were among 1,648 men held captive, effectively disappeared from the general public by a 33-foot wall with guard towers. Sitting on 2,264 acres of land, thirty-eight miles outside of Chicago, this wall “breeds despair and stifles love, creativity and imagination,” according to another student. And yet, despite this, he says, “a person stripped of everything survives.”
For fourteen weeks, every Friday, I spent two and half hours in a classroom with twelve students, proud African American men ranging in age from twenty-something to fifty-something who contemplated the meaning of freedom in one of the most unfree places on the planet, a maximum security prison for men. We read James Baldwin, Ta-nehisi Coates, Grace Lee Boggs, Robin D.G. Kelley, Barbara Ransby, Marjane Satrapi, Martin Espada, and Angela Davis among others; we examined themes of freedom in the art of Ai Wei Wei and music of Nina Simone; and we interrogated our own notions of freedom.
In the pages of the Freedom Dreams chapbook you will find writings authored by the students in this class alongside original artwork created by Chicago-area artists in response to their writings. Both the writing and the art were featured in an exhibition, “Freedom Dreams in an Age of Mass Incarceration,” from April to October 2016 at the Pop Up Just Art gallery, a project of the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Pairing visual artists with the work of incarcerated writers was an experiment in building solidarity and diminishing the barriers between artists on the outside and inside. The artwork created was exquisite. It is ironic that something so beautiful and otherworldly could be inspired by words harboring a pained and confined existence on the fringes of society. But as the great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote: “Art hurts. Art urges voyages, and it’s easier to stay at home.”
My hope is that the artwork and the writing that inspired it will take you on a voyage, possibly to previously unknown territories of knowledge and imagination, where you are invited to grapple with some of the complexities, contradictions and difficulties of how we live, who we are, how we evolve and grow, and ultimately, how we can transform ourselves and the world.
Alice Kim is the Editor of Praxis Center. She teaches writing in prison with the Prison Neighborhood Arts Project and is a co-founder of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. She co-curated the Freedom Dreams in an Age of Mass Incarceration exhibition with Sarah Ross and Iván Arenas. Alice is a Soros Justice Fellow and is co-authoring a book about the struggles for justice in the Jon Burge torture cases with Joey Mogul.