Film and TV in contemporary society are important mediums that provide influential entertainment, insights, and values, that seep into society’s consciousness. I remember the rapturous applause that greeted the arrival of the groundbreaking movie Black Panther, which depicted the African nation of Wakanda, a fictitious world occupied by black people. As much as I enjoyed the spectacle of seeing a predominantly black cast, with a wonderful cinematic representation of futuristic black life, I did not jump up and down with glee. For me, the cinematic portrayal of black lives in relation to the criminal justice system has seldom been portrayed accurately, sensitively, or with any great depth. Ta-nehisi Coates is the writer of the comic book series Black Panther, who also wrote a spinoff entitled Black Panther and the Crew, which got cancelled after a few episodes. However, the major success of the film would suggest it was the film industry that benefitted from the black super hero, and one of the originators of the project has been superseded by the Hollywood elite, who have commodified this important literary development, and sold it back to black people. Here, I posit that similar portrayals of black criminality on both film and TV at times undermines the important work of black criminologists and practitioners, who are sidelined while many white academics seize on ‘race’ without considering the authors of those narratives. More importantly, this position, I would argue, significantly enhances the maintenance of inaccurate portrayals of black criminality that fuel ignorance, that seep into the consciousness of a society, where those distorted narratives shape negative perceptions of black involvement and investment in crime.
Mauthner and Doucet (2003) argue that though the importance of being reflexive is acknowledged within social science research, the difficulties, practicalities, and methods of doing it are rarely addressed. Thus, the implications of current theoretical and philosophical discussions about reflexivity, epistemology, and the construction of knowledge for empirical sociological research practice, specifically the analysis of qualitative data, remain underdeveloped. Mauthner and Doucet further argue that data analysis methods are not mere neutral techniques, but are imbued with theoretical, epistemological, and ontological assumptions – including conceptions of subjects and subjectivities, and understandings of how knowledge is constructed and produced. Similarly, Dean (2017) argues that reflexivity is vital in social research projects, but there remains relatively little advice on how to execute it in practice. Dean further calls for social science researchers to embrace the importance of thinking reflexively. Reflexivity is a vital source of my own continuing development given the complex nature of conducting race-specific research as a black male criminologist from an inner city background. Presenting ‘self’ in research, therefore, becomes an important modus operandi for researchers wanting to explore how a black art infused criminology can enhance or hinder notions of the academic identity. When an individual breaks the law, they are arrested, face a (performed) trial in front of an audience (jury), where characters (witnesses) are called into a staged scene (courtroom) to present both sides of the accused’s life and behaviours (backstory). The resulting outcome is either freedom, or loss of liberty, if found guilty.
This chapter contains many examples of the stories I used in my rehabilitative work with black offenders. I urge you to take the stories, adapt them and use them within your own context. For many black people, a history of subjugation and racial oppression has placed a massive strain on acquiring a sense of authenticity in relation to understanding their place in the world.
Using stories over many years to inspire, motivate, and uplift many individuals in the community, or in a prison, I would see how stories enabled them to work through problems using the ‘story wisdom’ that was imparted. McAdams (1988: vi) writes that, ‘we understand people in terms of their life stories, the dynamic narrative that we each create to make sense of the past and orient us towards the future’. McAdams further suggests that, ‘stories represent critical scene and turning points in our lives’, and that the life story ‘is a joint product of person and environment’. Therefore, stories represent something fundamental about the way we see life and how we learn to navigate key turning points in our own ‘life story’. In areas where individuals are disaffected, socially excluded, and marginalized it is especially important. As damaged individuals they cannot possibly reach their full potential, if they do not know how much potential they have. Therefore, by engaging in storytelling and story making as a generative activity using storytelling as a method of communication and connection in the black community may strengthen intergenerational ties relationships.
Defranz and Gonzalez (2014) argue that theoretically driven black performativity helps us decipher the imperatives of blackness. Blackness in this context is developing a unity of experience/s rooted in the social–historical–political–cultural aspects of not being white. Lynn (2005) further asserts that scholars with interests in ‘race and culture’ should develop new ways at looking at the links between race, culture, and pedagogy. Therefore, black arts movements become a key driver when examining the pragmatics associated with black arts and the criminological imagination. Pragmatics studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning, and encompasses theory, conversation, approaches to language behaviour, sociology, linguistics, and anthropology. Crawford (2017) similarly sees black arts movements as taking a position that is unapologetically black, and sees the artist/s as the shaper of notions of blackness, that are ongoing and constant, that require constant reworking and revising. Counsell and Wolf (2001) see black cultural identity as the foundation of social organization reproducing and reinforcing patterns of inequality connected with structures of social power – criminal justice being one such structure. It could be argued that it is ‘counter-narratives’ that through art expresses the way in which black identities are suppressed; the mobilization of a movement can then stand to assist racial parity within society, as will be discussed in this chapter. Baraka (2011) sees black people as oppressed, with the right of self-determination, expressed through art, acting as a conduit from which to speak without restriction.
The Ministry of Justice (2020) acknowledge there remains an over-representation of ethnic minorities within the criminal justice system and disparities in aspects of their treatment. The Lammy Review (2017) reflected an indictment on the criminal justice system as experienced by black people. It is clear that the case to address these disparities remains compelling. Lorde (1984) expresses the view that the ‘master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. It is, therefore, incumbent on any scholar who decides to challenge the orthodoxy to do so from a position that does not negate black epistemological concerns. Marable (2001) argues that, historically, it is black scholars who have theorized from the black experience who have often proposed practical steps for the empowerment of black people. In other words, there is a practical step between their scholarship and the struggle for racial parity, between social analysis and social transformation. The purpose of black scholarship, as Marable suggests, is more than restoration of identity and self-esteem; it is to use history and culture as tools through which black people interpret their collective experience for the purpose of transforming their actual conditions and the totality of the society all around them. Hall (1993) similarly sees black culture as a contradictory space that can never be simplified or explained in terms of binary opposites or statistical breakdowns. He goes further by suggesting that ‘it is only through the way in which we represent and imagine ourselves that we come to know how we are constituted and who we are’ (1993: 111).
It is time to disrupt current criminological discourses which still exclude the perspectives of black scholars.
Through the lens of black art, Martin Glynn explores the relevance black artistic contributions have for understanding crime and justice. Through art forms including black crime fiction, black theatre and black music, this book brings much needed attention to marginalized perspectives within mainstream criminology.
Refining academic and professional understandings of race, racialization and intersectional aspects of crime, this text provides a platform for the contributions to criminology which are currently rendered invisible.
Webster (2007) argues that black offenders, who end up in the criminal justice system and prison, are disproportionately represented compared to their numbers in the population. Patel and Tyrer (2011) express the view that when race enters the ‘othering’ process, particularly within the context of crime and deviancy, it is important to consider the roots of racially charged concepts that disproportionately target minority groups such as black people. Similarly, Gabbidon and Taylor-Greene (2012) argue that the disenfranchisement of black people involved in crime is ideologically driven as a way of bolstering the carceral estate. Tonry (2011) proposes that these ‘racial disparities’ are unjustifiable and are more about the maintenance of political dominance over blacks. Tonry concludes by arguing that the visualization of black people through the media, film, and TV has created a culture that views black people as criminals and as being predisposed to anti-social behaviour. Marable (1995) also suggests that inequality for black people involved in crime is based on black male stereotypes that white society imposes via institutions, and says the wider social structure generates the type of inequality that produces subordination for black people within the criminal justice system. If the picture painted of black criminality as aggressive, nihilistic, and purely criminal enterprise embeds itself in the consciousness of society and constructs racialized typographies of people as ‘criminal’, what are the consequences for the way black offenders achieve parity? Valdes et al (2002) argue that academics, activists, and artists must enable the subordinated person through a critical examination of black offenders’ own understandings so that their redemptive aspirations can be appropriately identified and understood.
Take collective action to break down the systemic barriers to representation of creators of colour. We know that people of colour are under-represented in the creative and cultural sectors. In this report we argue that one of the challenges to changing this is to confront a negative cycle of barriers which are reflective of those seen within our society more generally. (Ramdarshan, 2019: 15)
Similarly, I would argue that criminology, in its vision, should seek to provide for, and validate, new routes of access for stories of crime, be they fiction, or non-fiction, as a way of embedding and validating more diverse epistemological lenses from which to view the racialization of crime. Mordhorst (2008) argues for the reintroduction of experimental elements into academic approaches to criminological history. Mordhorst further argues that the story as counter-narrative method, may provide us with new insights into why some narratives attain hegemonic status, and how this can help us to understand the construction and function of historical consciousness. Colvin (2015) similarly sees the power of the dominant discourse is to include some stories as tellable and exclude others as marginal and abnormal.
The narrative potential of presenting research data creatively should offer the possibility of restorying the past and reimagining the future. The importance of creating a more contemporary and culturally competent approach to research data dissemination then became critical. In recognizing that few scholars have attempted to actualize the intersection of research data and the spoken word beyond the academy, the context for this development was set. Research impact centres on the understanding that generating knowledge by conducting research should contribute, benefit, influence, and transform the environment, culture, as well as the the wider society. To do so requires developing innovative approaches to producing knowledge that work alongside disseminating research data/findings using innovative and creative means. For most of my working life I have used creative approaches to my work – storytelling, poetry, theatre, and film in a variety of contexts and situations. However, the real challenge was to investigate how ‘creative dissemination’ of research data would stand up to scrutiny regarding issues concerning ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’. To my delight I discovered ‘bricolage research’. Bricolage research is a critical, multi-perspectival, multi-theoretical and multi-methodological approach to research inquiry. The French word ‘bricoleur’ describes a handyman/woman who makes use of the tools available to complete a task. Bricolage research in essence means unifying multiple qualitative research approaches. For progressive researchers using, a bricolage research approach creates an exciting new proposition. In October 2016 I was given a small development grant from Birmingham City University to develop the Data Verbalization Lab, an experimental space for individuals interested in using the data berbalization technique on their own research.
Some of the greatest moments in my creative life have been as a dramatist and theatre director. It is also true that many of my most important teachable moments emerged from watching and studying the iconic theatre of August Wilson, alongside the uncompromising theatrics of Amiri Baraka, who both chronicled black life unapologetically, with beautiful dramatic brush strokes unimpeded by the expectations of society. Their dramatic works have created a route map into understanding the oppression of black people and its relationship to criminality based on a black condition shaped by a history of racial subordination. Equally as important is in the role played by applied theatre, which has enabled me to tell the real stories concerning black criminality, the plight of black offenders, the communities they came from, and the victims they have affected. Applied theatre, in this context, is a term that defines theatre that operates beyond the traditional and restrictive nature of Western theatre forms. It is characterized by work that deliberately engages in spaces with groups of people excluded, marginalized, or rendered invisible within the so-called mainstream theatre landscape. Applied theatre laid the foundation for me to bring the lived experiences of black offenders to a heightened prominence, providing a voice and an embodied space from which to explore issues traditional criminologists have feared or avoided to engage with on account of art not being scientifically robust enough.
The historical conundrum that belied black British theatre is one where white producers selected and staged plays of the black experience with little attention, discussion, or engagement with the diversity of black theatre practitioners themselves.