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Wrestling With Angels: Walidah Imarisha on Harm and Accountability

Walidah Imarisha. (Credit: Pete Shaw)

Part of the Series

Human beings are capable of doing terrible harm to one another. The US prison system does not provide justice, accountability or safety — so how can we build a world that does? Walidah Imarisha confronts this question through three intertwined lives in Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption. Order this remarkable book by making a donation to Truthout now!

Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces is in some ways a hard book to describe, at least in a way that does it full justice. One of the few comparable books I’ve read is, in fact, Truthout editor in chief Maya Schenwar’s Locked Down, Locked Out: It shares with Imarisha’s book the focus on an incarcerated sibling, a commitment to grappling with the need for prison abolition and imagining how communities could instead respond to harm, and an unflinching honesty in admitting when the author’s own life and emotions do not line up neatly with political theory.

Angels with Dirty Faces could most simply be described as the story of three lives: the author herself; her adopted, incarcerated brother Kakamia Jahad Imarisha; and James “Mac” McElroy, a member of the Westies, the notorious Irish gang that ran Hell’s Kitchen in New York City for decades. Weaved through these stories, however, are other histories, from the racist prison system in the United States and those who have rebelled against it, to the shifting demographics and eventual gentrification of Hell’s Kitchen. There is also a compelling argument being made: Punishment systems that treat human beings as disposable or hopeless overlook the fact that “every person has the capacity to salvage their tattered humanity.”

Walidah Imarisha spoke with Truthout about some of the complex issues with which Angels with Dirty Faces is concerned.

Joe Macaré: Our previous interview was about a book that largely collected fiction and in which you had a fiction piece. Angels with Dirty Faces is narrative nonfiction and early on in the book you tackle what that means head on — how changing some names and details is necessary to avoid harm, but also how reconstructing both history and personal memory is an imperfect process. Can you talk a little about the challenges and responsibilities of this kind of writing?

Walidah Imarisha: Writing Angels with Dirty Faces taught me that whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, every person in the book is a character, not a real human being. There is no way to capture all of the complexities of a full person. Just like pinning down a butterfly under glass: You don’t see the beauty of flight, don’t feel the movement of air through wings. You can look at it stuck on a wall, but so much is lost.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned is to welcome folks where they are at, with all of their complexities and contradictions.”

And then the immense difficulties of writing people’s story through prison walls. Trying to capture stories told in a prison visit where you only have scraps of paper and a tiny nub of a pencil to write with (or later when I couldn’t take notes at all), told through letters that are held up in the mail room sometimes for weeks, through 15 minute phone calls that are interrupted every three minutes by a voice reminding you [that] you are talking to someone who is incarcerated.

Lastly, I really struggle with the ideas of what is true, what is fact, what is right and how those things don’t necessarily mean the same thing. When sharing details of people’s lives who didn’t consent to be included — the victims of the harm I explore in the book — what is my responsibility to them? What is my responsibility to folks behind walls who often deal with harsh reprisals from administration if their names are used? How do I tell these stories in a way that is accountable and aware of the immense power inequalities embedded into publishing, writing, storytelling?

Angels with Dirty Faces is a book that took over 10 years to write. How did the stories that the book tells change in that time, and why?

This book has changed immensely over time. When I began, it was just going to be an interview with Jimmy Mac (James McElroy), with whom Kakamia was incarcerated. Then Mac asked if I wanted to write his biography after a few interviews, which I was honestly already thinking about. I very quickly realized that objectivity in this kind of nonfiction is, to me, a complete fallacy. How do you interview another human being, get to know everything about their life, rummage through their pain and scars and shame, without having an emotional reaction? Without being emotionally impacted?

“The whole goal of prisons is to isolate folks, to cut them off from communities and support systems.”

I also quickly realized that to tell Mac’s story, the story of this member of the notorious Irish mob, the Westies, I needed to talk about larger issues I had been working on, around criminalization, around poverty, around prisons, around harm and systems of accountability. I was really influenced by the work of T.J. English, who wrote both the definitive book on the Westies and a history of the Irish gangster in America, and his framing around marginalized identities and underground capitalist economies. I wanted to explore as much of these issues as I could, show the complexities, the contradictions, and pull out as many questions to try to shift conversations happening around these issues.

Your relationship with your adopted brother, Kakamia, is one of the core emotional pillars of the book. Can you tell Truthout readers who haven’t yet read the book a little about how the bond between the two of you developed?

I always say that I mail-ordered myself a brother. I met Kakamia when I was still in high school. He was already incarcerated and had put an ad in the San Francisco Bay View paper, which I received, to sell some of his art. I was exploring my own racial identity, and his description of Afrocentric art appealed to me. We started writing and quickly adopted one another as brother and sister.

He has been one of my biggest support systems and I have learned so much from him, especially around organizing. Kakamia can and does talk to anyone, finds something to connect around with folks. He builds community wherever he goes, and can make a prison visiting room seem like a family barbecue. One of the lessons I’ve learned is to welcome folks where they are at, with all of their complexities and contradictions. To not expect folks to be perfect, just that they come, be their full selves, try their best, and that folks will figure it out from there.

Prison visiting rooms form the location for many of the book’s key conversations. What are some of the ways in which the US prison system makes the process of visiting incarcerated people difficult and dehumanizing?

The whole goal of prisons is to isolate folks, to cut them off from communities and support systems. Prisons serve to destabilize families, neighborhoods and oppressed communities by stealing so many of the members of that community. So prisons are often hours and hours away from the urban centers that the majority of those incarcerated come from, most often working-class communities of color.

“To me, prisons have nothing to do with crime, and everything to do with social control.”

The visiting process often feels like some Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare folks have to navigate to get access to their loved ones. I start the book with a time I was made to rip out the underwire in my bra which made the metal detector go off, and then dig around in the trash for the metal strips I had thrown away. The prison made me “check” the underwire so I could reclaim it at the end of the visit, even though I said I didn’t want it.

Another time I had been going to visit Black Panther political prisoner Sundiata Acoli every month for years. Suddenly, in the middle of an East Coast summer, the prison decided that open-toed shoes would not longer be allowed, but didn’t inform any of us until it went into effect.

These are really the most minor of issues that I’ve experienced personally. I have seen so much worse harassment and dehumanization happen to folks visiting. And I always work to remember that every time someone incarcerated comes out to visit with me, they have to go through a strip search and often a body cavity search on the way into visiting and on the way out of visiting. A degrading reminder that even for the brief few hours of a visit, they cannot imagine themselves free.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately among prison reform and abolition advocates about whether focus on wrongful convictions and “innocent” people in jail is a useful tool or not in the fight against mass incarceration. How is that question addressed in Angels with Dirty Faces?

As with everything in Angels with Dirty Faces, my goal around this was to get folks to hold complexities rather than trying to simplify situations. It’s when we simplify real human conditions that the danger sets in.

So we have to see the systems of oppression inherent in prisons and the criminal legal system, and see that it connects to every social injustice we have. To me, prisons have nothing to do with crime, and everything to do with social control. Because it is not what you do that lands you in prison, it is who you are. When we see that those incarcerated through the war on drugs are 80 percent people of color, but the majority of those who use and sell unregulated narcotics are white, we know this cannot be about crime or even justice.

“How do we hold people accountable for what are sometimes monstrous acts, while also holding their humanity?”

It is important for us to hold long-term futures in mind for all decisions we make. I am not opposed to prison reform; I think those who scoff at prison reform are incredibly privileged. Anyone who has been incarcerated, or has a loved one incarcerated, knows that these reforms are necessary to the survival of the people we care about. I liken it to the Black Panther Party’s social programs, like their free breakfast for children programs, their health clinics, and so much more. They called them Survival Pending Revolution programs. The Panthers recognize the goal is complete and total system transformation, but they also recognize folks have to live and have their basic needs met to be able to build that new future into existence.

So all reform has to be held in that light — is this moving us toward that transformation? Are we “pending revolution,” or is this actually something that can be used to strengthen the brutal criminal legal system that is already choking the life out of millions?

Angels with Dirty Faces asks us to imagine a world without prisons, but also confronts head on what you call “one of the hardest things to imagine” about such a world: the question, “What will we do with the rapists?” You’re extremely frank in the book about the messy realities of trying to implement accountability processes that aren’t carceral, your own experience in trying to do that and the possible pitfalls. Were you wary in writing about this — and especially choosing to “leave things messy,” as you describe it, rather than offer answers — given that these kind of approaches to harm are still very new and may already seem counterintuitive to many people?

I was incredibly worried about how to address issues of assault, issues of serious harm, issues of accountability processes. Because I didn’t have a set, neat, nice answer to provide. But I was lucky enough to realize, through the incredible work of folks doing transformative justice on the ground, that that was exactly why I needed to talk about these issues, about my own experience with my failed community accountability process after I was assaulted by my then partner. Because we cannot build different ways of being without asking ourselves incredibly difficult, painful questions: How do we hold people accountable for what are sometimes monstrous acts, while also holding their humanity? We can’t build new, just futures on a carceral mentality.

How does the story of Mac fit into the book? Can you talk about some of the similarities and differences you highlight in the book between how a white supremacist society perceives white and Black “crime” and “gangsters”?

I have always been someone who was fascinated by gangsters, even as a kid. And in that I’m not unique — America is often fascinated with the outlaw, the gangster, the bandit — as long as they are white. It is incredibly telling that when people ask what my book is about and I say one of the stories in it is of a leader of the Irish mob who worked with the Gambino family doing hits, they lean in, fascinated. Then when I say that another story is of my adopted brother, who was a 16-year-old Puerto Rican gang member sentenced to 15 to life for conspiracy to commit murder, they try to contain looks of disgust. And when I say the book explores my own assault and process after it, folks shift their eyes in embarrassment, pity and sometimes shame for me. I think this sums up pretty well how this society deals with serious harm, and how intricately it is tied to identities like race, class, gender, sexual identity, and more.

Mac himself helped with making the comparisons between glorified white gangsters and vilified Black “criminals.” He read drafts of the book and he loved that I was discussing Black liberation political prisoners. He talked about how the government was using prisons to silence these folks and stop the important work they were doing. In one interview, he said, “Those are the guys you should be writing about; they got put in here for doing something. You shouldn’t waste your time writing about us, about gangsters.” Which is the exact opposite mentality the nation at large has.

Finally, can you give us an update on Kakamia, who emerges as such a compelling personality in the book? What was his reaction to the book?

Kakamia is doing as well as can be under the circumstances. He has spent 23 years in prison, more than half his life. Even though he was deemed eligible for parole by the parole board a year ago, the governor denied his parole, showing the brutal arbitrariness of these systems. Kakamia is trying to get ready for the parole board again, which is such a continually crushing process of hope and disappointment. But he has stayed so positive, and worked to continue focusing on himself, starting community organizations, going to college after earning his GED in prison, and he recently married a wonderful woman who has been such a strong, loving support for him.

He has been incredibly supportive of the book. I worked throughout to make sure he was comfortable with my sharing so much personal information about him and his life. But he told me he trusted me to tell the story, and that these were conversations and questions that need to be raised over and over again. After he read the first full draft, Kakamia told me he was proud of me and the book. Which was the best review I could ever hope for.

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