“Pushing Into Open Air”: Poetry, Art, and Public Space in Educating Audiences about Mass Incarceration

Scene report by
Alfredo Aguilar
Michael Borshuk
Shayla Corprew
Jill Murphy Elberson
Apryl Lewis
Amelia Reyes

A group photo depicting the Texas Tech University’s Spring 2017 English 5327 class. From left to right, Trevor Pace, Chen Chen, Kyle Bassett, Jennifer Popa, Shayla Corprew, Amelia Reyes, Apryl Lewis, Jill Murphy Elberson, and Alfredo Aguilar.
Dr. Michael Borshuk (center) with students of Texas Tech University’s Spring 2017 English 5327 class. From left to right, Trevor Pace, Chen Chen, Kyle Bassett, Jennifer Popa, Shayla Corprew, Amelia Reyes, Apryl Lewis, Jill Murphy Elberson, and Alfredo Aguilar.


In this scene report, we offer a narrative summary of a spring 2017 event, through which our group addressed the problem of broadening critical conversations about race and injustice beyond the academy. Specifically, our project emerged from asking ourselves how we might educate general audiences about mass incarceration and the racialized discourse about criminalization in American life by hosting a public discussion that involved creative expression. The setting for our event was a staged reading and scholarly conversation at an open art gallery during our college town’s well-attended First Friday Art Trail. The architects and performers for this project were members of a Texas Tech University (TTU) English class on African American writing about race and injustice, including the professor and graduate students specializing in literature, creative writing, rhetoric, and history. In the essay that follows we explain our intellectual rationale and summarize the various stages of our project, with the confidence that our event might provide a model for similar interventions in other settings and locations.


On May 5, 2017, as a capstone to a graduate-level English course focused on contemporary African American writing on race and injustice, members of the class hosted a public discussion and literary reading at Studio 4, one of the open art galleries that participate in the busiest recurring occasion in Lubbock, Texas: the city’s First Friday Art Trail. Our event was entitled “‘A Push Out Into Open Air’: A Conversation On Criminality,” a title that both alluded to a line from Nate Marshall (2015), one of the poets we’d read during the semester, and made clear our program’s political nature.

The small gallery was crowded that night, a mix of guests who included people arriving in response to advertising on social media and others who’d come in the heavy foot traffic that spreads across the arts district at the start of each month. While the latter might have dropped by merely to observe new work by our host, the printmaker Victoria Marie Bee, many stayed to listen to the social issues we introduced. As moderator and course instructor Dr. Michael Borshuk offered in his opening remarks: “Regardless of political worldview or ideological perspective, it would be hard to find people who say that this country is comfortable discussing racial difference, or has settled into a consistently harmonious relationship between diverse populations. These hard truths are especially evident through the high visibility of problems around policing, criminalization, and state-sponsored violence.”

Indeed, our event occurred on the eve of fifty-year anniversaries of urban uprisings in Newark and Detroit, which were sparked by police violence against black citizens, and just after the twenty-five-year anniversary of the L.A. Rebellion that followed the acquittal of Rodney King’s LAPD abusers. Even closer, we were speaking just six days after Officer Roy Oliver of Balch Springs, Texas had killed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, adding him to two lists: the 300-plus Americans killed by the police to that point in the year, and, as Borshuk summarized, “the ever-growing register of murdered African Americans who speak to ongoing racial injustice and fuel our national despair.” But as we made clear, constabulary violence against black citizens was only one component in a much broader problem: a flawed criminal justice system that vilifies African Americans and exposes through its exaggerated incarceration rates for people of color what the public intellectual Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. (2016) labels “the value gap” between racial groups in America. Our mission that night was to call attention to these problems through a rhetorical mix that blended the presentation of statistical information and legal facts alongside poetry from African American writers who engage in affective and imaginary terms these same disturbing contexts.

In this scene report, we look back on our event over a year later, offering testimony from various participants to explain decisions we made along the way and to reflect on its success as a means of educating audiences about mass incarceration and criminal justice and suggesting possibilities for redress. Some of our choices were practical, like our awareness of the art trail as one of the most attended and diverse gatherings of people in our city, and the usefulness of “entertaining” an art-interested audience with staged readings of literary works. Other decisions were principle-driven, as with our interest in using the empirical data around mass incarceration and race as a point of departure for our broader conversation about white supremacy’s enduring hold over American political and economic interests. In this scene report, we will explain why we chose the literary works we did, and how we complemented these texts’ twofold emphasis on creativity and information with the artifacts we produced for the event. Using various modalities, we looked to illuminate mass incarceration’s damages and highlight its ubiquitous reach. Indeed, as we discussed that night last May, while we were speaking as academics representing a research university in a college town, there exists a prison operated by a major private corrections corporation a mere forty miles away.

Dr. Michael Borshuk on the pedagogical rationale that led to our event and a reflection on the class

For this graduate class, “‘Freedom is a Constant Struggle’: Contemporary African American Writers on Race and Injustice,” I included, for the first time, what I called an outreach assignment. This course requirement was intended to expand the reach of our discussion beyond the narrow confines of the academic seminar. My rationale was manifold. One, I was inspired by the specific conditions of my university, Texas Tech University, a big public institution that dominates the life of its college town, Lubbock. Given the oversized role the school plays in the city, I was hopeful that we could use that power to bring our scholarly discussions about white supremacy and its deleterious political effects back to the community at large. In this, I looked to realize arguments that remained with me from my own time in graduate school in the 1990s, when critics like bell hooks (1994) argued against the “dualistic separation of public and private, [which encourages] teachers and students to see no connection between life practices, habits of being, and the roles of professors” (p. 16). More specifically, I wanted to situate this course within a growing number of public activities at Texas Tech with which I was already affiliated. These included Lubbock’s Sexism|Cinema series at our local Alamo Drafthouse, a forum where students and specialists regularly screen films and discuss representations of gender and sexuality together; or the lunchtime academic talks hosted by my department’s Literature, Social Justice, and the Environment program, a monthly gathering for faculty and graduate students to discuss social justice research in a setting open to all visitors. In short, TTU had a rich culture of public engagement already in place for our class to build upon. When we first convened to start the semester, a week after Trump’s inauguration, amid a moment of national anxiety for those committed to resisting the open bigotries central to the previous fall’s campaign discourse, our imperative not just to study injustice but to engage it in public seemed all the more timely.

The reading list for the class began with a range of scholarly texts by African American public intellectuals including Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Eddie Glaude, E. Patrick Johnson, and Angela Davis. These scholars articulated the variety of racial injustices that persisted in our contemporary moment and defined the landscape of political topics with which we engaged all semester. These included problems around policing and the justice system, economic disparities between different demographics, the global reach of white supremacy and the relationship of domestic problems to American foreign policy, the oft-neglected intersectional nature of racial identity, and the relationship between cultural representations and material inequalities. After Spring Break, we switched gears and moved to a range of creative texts in both poetry and prose that engaged these various social problems. In this second section of reading, we considered, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s fusion of memoir and essay as a means of confronting racist policing in Between the World and Me, or Claudia Rankine’s narration of the synergy between microaggressions and white supremacist violence in her hybrid text Citizen, or Reginald Dwayne Betts’s confrontation with the personal depredations mass incarceration visits on black America in his poetry collection Bastards of the Reagan Era. (See fig. 1 for the complete reading list.

This figure of Course Reading List, with an accessible version of the reading list available for download next to the caption.
Figure 1. Syllabus detail with course reading list. (Accessible version of reading list.)

Our group’s demographic make-up was a model of diversity, from the range of our ethnic identities to our varying points of geographical origin to our dissimilar scholarly profiles. Of the nine students in the class, only two were graduate students in literary studies; of the remaining bunch, five were graduate students with a focus in Creative Writing, one was a graduate student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric (with an undergraduate background in African American studies), and the last was a doctoral student from History who enrolled in the class because of his research interests in race, ethnicity, and mass incarceration. Our heterogeneity on all of these fronts informed the weekly conversation and inspired a truly memorable level of intellectual expansiveness. Discussions moved between theoretical interrogations of race, gender, and sexuality to lengthy consideration of writers’ aesthetic choices in creative texts to historical deliberation about the connection between white supremacy, economics, and the state. Moreover, as we traversed this scholarly terrain, and increasingly built trust as a group, the conversation frequently opened up to more collective candor and self-reflection. As time went by, that is, who we were and what we’d experienced, and how those factors informed our individual perspectives on race and injustice, was as much a topic of concern as any of the contexts our readings introduced. This academic move we made, from an abstracted confrontation with political context to an intersectional and personal investment, was fortuitously in line with many of the arguments we read throughout the semester. It realized, for instance, the feminist practice for which Angela Davis (2016) calls in Freedom is a Constant Struggle, the text that gave our class its name. As Davis (2016) writes: “[F]eminist methodologies impel us to explore connections that are not always apparent. And they drive us to inhabit contradictions and discover what is productive in these contradictions” (p. 104).

A class assignment evolves into an act of public engagement

As we made our way through the reading list, students were working on the outreach assignment in small groups, preparing proposals for what we might do by semester’s end to fulfill our collective goal of broadening the audience for our conversation. Dr. Borshuk assigned the membership for these groups alphabetically to enable some degree of randomness: the historian working with two poets, for instance, or the rhetorician with another poet and a literature scholar. As seen in fig. 2, the project instructions were fairly open-ended, the chief imperative being the invention of an event or activity that would facilitate public engagement.

Figure 2. Syllabus detail with instructions for Outreach Assignment with an accessible version of the syllabus text available for download next to the caption.
Figure 2. Syllabus detail with instructions for Outreach Assignment. (Accessible version of fig. 2.)

When groups presented their proposals to the full class for discussion and voting, there was an intriguing mix of divergence and overlap. All three groups imagined a one-off event for a live audience, for example, and all three argued for including the arts in some way, either in the form of a literary reading or an exhibition of creative materials. On the other hand, groups were divided in their intended location: between hosting on campus primarily for students or in a public space somewhere else in Lubbock for the community at large. The technological scope of the competing ideas varied as well, including one plan that proposed recording oral narratives for presentation at our group event, or another that envisioned designing an interactive computer kiosk to educate visitors about racism and injustice. In our workshopping of the various plans, we discussed the unlikeliness of completing the latter ideas in time for our early May deadline, but ultimately, as a class we voted to create an event that included elements from all three proposals.

Figure 2. An image of letterpress posters for sale on a table, bearing the slogan "staying woke is not child's play."
Figure 3. For sale: Letterpress broadsides bearing the slogan “Staying Woke Is Not Child’s Play.”

In the end, we decided we would partner with a gallery at Lubbock’s First Friday Art Trail, to host an event that included both a scholarly discussion and a literary reading. In an effort to further merge our emphasis on creativity and political practice, we would design and sell broadsides made in our department’s Letterpress Studio to raise charitable donations for the East Lubbock Community Alliance, a non-profit that works locally to redress racial inequality. (See fig. 3.) While our broad goal was to engage a public audience about race and injustice broadly, our last major decision as a group was to find a more specific point of entry. Almost immediately, we decided to tighten our thematic focus to a discussion of mass incarceration, criminality, and the prison-industrial complex. The choice was fairly obvious given how neatly those contexts corresponded with the broad themes we’d engaged all semester: race, history, theory, politics, and justice. With that focus in place, we ironed out the finer details quickly. Our staged reading, for instance, would draw from different types of texts, presenting work from both the public intellectuals and the poets we’d read. (At the event itself, our readings were both live and mediated, with in-person readings from class members Trevor Pace, Jennifer Popa, and Apryl Lewis, and an audio recording from the poet Ross Gay.) Our academic panel included representatives across the group’s disciplinary range: Creative Writing majors Kyle Bassett and Chen Chen, History major Alfredo Aguilar, and Technical Communication and Rhetoric major Shayla Corprew. For educational purposes, we prepared a handout for attendees that included key scholarly terms, a list of the texts we read aloud with suggestions for further reading, and a timeline of mass incarceration as a damaging social phenomenon. (See figs. 4 & 5.)

Figure 3. An image of the event handout titled "A Push Out into Open Air: A Conversation on Criminality" with the event agenda and text summarizing the prison industrial complex.
Figure 4. Event handout, side 1. (Accessible version of figs. 4 & 5.)

On the night of the event, we both followed and challenged the expectations for any of the many gallery exhibitions at First Friday Art Trail. In the hour before our scheduled program began, guests filtered into Studio 4 to view Victoria Marie Bee’s visual art and enjoyed complimentary refreshments. At the same time, class members Jill Murphy Elberson and Amelia Reyes greeted guests with our handout, explained the nature of our event, and pointed people to the donation table. Kendrick Lamar’s music played on the gallery sound system. At 7 p.m., our readers and speakers convened at the front of the gallery, and we began. Our presentation was a mix of the prepared and the improvised, framing topics of discussion with intermittent creative readings, and moving between panelists who each spoke on a set theme: Kyle Bassett on the scope of the prison-industrial complex, Alfredo Aguilar on the history and ethical contradictions of mass incarceration, Shayla Corprew on the pitfalls of American colorblind rhetoric, Chen Chen on means of redress through self-education and civic engagement. Interspersed with these discussion sections, Trevor Pace read from Angela Davis and Jennifer Popa and Apryl Lewis recited poems from Reginald Harris and Reginald Dwayne Betts, respectively.

Figure 4. The opposite side of the event handout, showing a graphical timeline of the history of mass incarceration and some key terms related to the issue.
Figure 5. Event handout, side 2. (Accessible version of figs. 4 & 5.)

In all of these components we advertised the inseparability of creativity and political engagement and tried to expand the terms by which mass incarceration might be understood. That is, while Mass Incarceration Studies as a scholarly field has seen tremendous growth in the last decade, this scholarship primarily focuses on the historical exploration of the phenomenon through legal, political, and social developments. Prominent scholars like Michelle Alexander, Heather Ann Thompson, James Forman Jr., and Elizabeth Hinton all primarily frame their insights through the social sciences and position their arguments in chiefly legal terms. Their works largely explore mass incarceration by examining the large-scale apparatuses that have contributed to the phenomenon’s rise and spread. As we proposed, while this academic work is invaluable, there is also a need to expand beyond these frameworks and move into the realm of personal interpretation and intimate experience.

We used poetry to draw out the individual voice that articulates mass incarceration’s raw effects. As Reginald Dwayne Betts—whose poem “Crimson” Apryl Lewis read at our event—suggests in distinguishing the usefulness of creative writing: “One of the things that those [scholarly] texts written about incarceration fundamentally can’t grapple with is what it means to be guilty, what it means to be violent, what it means to know violent people” (Lithub, 2018, para. 6). Moreover, by using literature, we hoped to avoid well-worn paths in American racial discourse, like the default responses that Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine (2015) identify as “the language of scandal” and “the sentimental.” As these writers summarize, scandal “polarizes” responses to racism into easy separations between offender and offended; sentimental “smudges” the severity of inequality and conflict into facile feelings (p. 13-14). In turning to the nuance of poetry, we invited our audience to sidestep the binary and overly emotional reactions that too often simplify the much more complicated discussion that race and mass incarceration demand.

Panelist Shayla Corprew on colorblindness and its effects on mass incarceration

When our class decided on this project, I wondered how I could best contribute to the discussion. By this point in the semester, we were well-read in texts that documented African Americans’ current day problems with inequality and reminded us that freedom is indeed a constant struggle. In addition, in what was becoming too familiar in the early days of Trump’s America, we encountered frequent stories reporting on racial discrimination or narrating accounts of white supremacy showing itself unapologetically. Social media highlighted many of these cases and also provided open forums for people to discuss these sensitive issues.

However, during the course of the Spring 2017 semester, one of the most troubling issues I found was in the nature of many responses to first-hand accounts from African Americans about the discrimination they’d faced. It was all too common, that is, to see responses from non-blacks that softly dismissed African American experiences by purporting to be colorblind in nature. Online posters and interviewees explaining their experiences with racial profiling, for example, were automatically made to feel they had experienced an isolated incident. Enduring white supremacy in America was casually dismissed with responses like “I love everyone” and “I don’t see color, just fellow human beings.” While these sentiments allegedly came from a non-malicious place, they effectively silenced black individuals and presupposed a false narrative of racial equality that closed down further discussion. Furthermore, as Michelle Alexander (2010) reminds us in The New Jim Crow, this erasure of racialized experiences enables the disproportionate number of African Americans affected by the prison industrial complex by maintaining the illusion of fairness. So, with these issues in mind, I decided to focus on how the wide-spread misinterpretation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech has led not to the utopian future for which King hoped but instead to a total disregard for color that hurts African Americans more often than it helps.

Reader Apryl Lewis on Reginald Dwayne Betts’s “Crimson” and her performance

As a class we decided what poems would be read aloud at the event. I volunteered to read Reginald Dwayne Betts’ “Crimson” from the collection Bastards of the Reagan Era because it was a text that resonated with me beyond the words on the page. As an African American woman reading from a collection written by an African American poet, I could not help but feel a sense of solidarity in surveying the experiences he describes.

I approached my reading in performance terms. I practiced reading the poem aloud many times, both alone and in front of my colleagues who are poets. I wanted to make sure my rhythm and timing would not be problems. Also, I didn’t want to trip over any words, especially the profanity and the word “nigga.” This word can be emotionally charged on its own, especially in a space like West Texas. While I wanted to be sensitive to an environment that might potentially have children listening, I did not want to minimize Betts’s words or insinuate any lack of support for his message by hesitating.

Given that we didn’t disseminate the text of the readings beforehand, our readings provided the audience an opportunity to reflect on what panelists said by offering a brief pause in the academic conversation. In other words, audience members could get a small dose of performance to go with the panel discussion. Betts’s poem “Crimson” was rather fitting for the occasion, mainly because it directly complements our scholarly attention to mass incarceration. Betts was incarcerated for over eight years at the age of sixteen. However, Betts overcame his imprisonment and is a successful author, and holds multiple degrees, including a J.D. from the Yale Law School.

When I read at the event, I made an impromptu decision to stand on top of the bench we sat on so that I could project my voice better, as well as make myself visible to those in the back of the crowded studio. I embodied, I hoped, the poem’s speaker: a slightly enraged man who remains dismayed at the prospect of losing someone he knows to the prison system. My objective behind reading “Crimson” was not only to provide listeners with a brief mental reprieve from the abundance of facts pertaining to mass incarceration, but also to make listeners understand that real people are affected by mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.

Panelist Alfredo Aguilar historicizes mass incarceration and questions the role of prisons from an ethical perspective

My contribution began with asking the rhetorical question: what is the purpose of prisons in society? In this, I posed the tension between ideas about rehabilitation or retribution. One scholar I cited, Robert Perkinson (2010), has argued that prisons are based more on retribution. While many Americans console themselves with the idea that the prison system works to rehabilitate convicts, the reality Perkinson (2010) describes illuminates that system’s punitive nature. Making good on my research as a history Ph.D. student, I then briefly summarized the evolution that incarceration took from the 19th century to the present in the United States. I illustrated that our system of incarceration grew in tandem with capitalism and industry, synopsizing how the United States moved from the 13th amendment (which abolished slavery, except as punishment), to expanding Black Codes and the culture of Jim Crow, to the convict leasing system, sharecropping, and finally, contemporarily, to mass incarceration.

I also pointed out the statistics necessary to understanding the reach of mass incarceration in this country. For example, I stated that the United States has less than 5% of the world’s people, yet accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners. The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people. The incarceration rate in the United States is seven times higher than the rate in Western Europe; more than 1 in 100 adults are behind bars today (ACLU, n.d.). I then stated that one in three black men can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime. One in six Latino males can expect the same but only one in 17 white males (The Sentencing Project, 2013). This helped address the racial disparities in which people of color are affected more by the policies and practices of mass incarceration.

After briefly providing this striking yet common statistical information on incarceration, I then asked the audience how many people knew about G4S. The response was silence. I explained how G4S is a British multinational security services company. They provide Israeli security, security equipment, and security systems for Israeli prisons and immigration detention centers (Davis, 2016, pp. 55-8). While this is an example that stems from abroad, it establishes a global framework, and my purpose was to postulate a macro view of incarceration before I provided a micro view of prisons. The point was to eventually bring the conversation back to the United States.

Here is how I explained the way that G4S is relevant to us in America. G4S owns one of the three largest private prison companies in the USA, Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut). (Private prison corporations, I pointed out, frequently change their names.) The other two are Corrections Corporation of America and Management and Training Corporation. I then explained this was relevant to Lubbock and West Texas because two facilities in a 40-mile radius—Giles W. Dalby prison (in Post) and West Texas Facility (in Brownfield)—are run by MTC. This illustrated the global reach through the local impact. West Texas, which many perceive as isolated, is not removed from the reaches of privatized incarceration. The privatization of prisons, I argued, is a locally relevant issue. The reach of private prisons and mass incarceration is visible even in places like West Texas, and we are not as removed from these policies as we believe. I also questioned why prisons are built in rural areas. I explained there is an economic connection to these communities because they cannot say no to an offer of economic growth. I then asked the audience to think if this was ethical or moral.

I posed another rhetorical question: should prisons be an industry? Some examples I used were the food industry and car industry. There is a supply and a demand. These are crimes against the country but not the corporations. But, those who seek to expand on private prisons are motivated by problematic ideas. I left the audience a quote from Thomas W. Beasley, one of CCA’s founders. He told Inc. magazine in 1983 his strategy for promoting the concept of private prisons: “You just sell it like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers” (Larson, 1998, para. 16).

Assessing the audience and their reaction

Our event enjoyed a relatively full crowd that ranged widely in ethnicity and age. Especially encouraging in assessing the audience was the large number of guests who stayed to engage with our group beyond the formal program. Community events like Lubbock’s First Friday Art Trail (FFAT) thrive on the appeal of a relaxed window-shopping experience wherein the public largely views creativity from a distance. There are sometimes interactive displays at FFAT that stimulate the public with a different perspective or others that implicitly address topics important to the community. However, our panel had the challenging intention of inaugurating a potentially controversial conversation, and it is significant to consider how much attention we commanded from a crowd that usually expects less engagement and more passive consumption.

According to the U.S. census, Lubbock’s population consists of mostly white, high school educated individuals with a majority population in the 18 to 65 age range. Since Lubbock defines itself primarily as a college town (with Texas Tech University, Lubbock Christian University, South Plains College, Texas Tech University’s School of Law, and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center all located within the city limits), the common demographic for most FFAT events is college students from an expansive ideological, cultural, and economic background. Understanding that vast demographic and how to engage the walking traffic during a FFAT evening was a challenge for this panel, but ultimately not impossible.

Most of the early attendees initially stopped into the gallery space to view the visual art on display, but a sizable crowd stayed to listen and communicate with the panel. What stopped most passersby after the formal program began were the reading performances by Trevor Pace, Jennifer Popa, and Apryl Lewis. It is also important to note that we publicized this event aggressively within the TTU community via social media and e-mail blasts. So, some of the audience did come with the intention of staying and engaging with us.

Finally, it’s worth reporting that while the response to the event was largely favorable, the discussion period concluded with one notable dissenter. This speaker was a college-age white woman who asked for the microphone during the Q&A and began to read (from her phone) an excerpt from Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist. The woman then proceeded to suggest that Gay and other voices on race and injustice contradict their supposedly egalitarian rhetoric by being just as racist to white citizens. The cultural evidence of this hypocrisy, the speaker suggested, was the recently released Netflix program, Dear White People, a satire whose very title she found inflammatory and unfair.

While our panelists might have dismissed a non sequitur like this out of hand, instead we responded as respectfully as possible. In this, we found a moment for potential education, and used the speaker’s question to reassert the uneven effects race produces across identities. Shayla Corprew, for example, suggested calmly that the quiet suspicion with which store employees frequently greet her as a black shopper constituted an ongoing Dear Black People narrative unmitigated by the luxury of fictional distance. As Shayla recalled later, it was vital, in her words, “to modulate my voice in such a way that I would not be seen as challenging or aggressive. Sure, I realized that I was on display in a humid, tight space in front of strangers. But, I felt I owed it to myself, my classmates, Dr. Borshuk, and the audience to ensure that I gave a raw and honest reply.” Kyle Bassett followed by reminding the speaker of all the information we’d presented that evening about policing and mass incarceration. “In contrast, if the worst that a white person faces,” he asked, “is a show that hurts your feelings, how bad do you really have it?” While, unfortunately, the speaker was not among the crowd that stayed into the evening after our program ended to continue the conversation, we can be gratified by the way we responded to the moment with equal parts confidence and kindness. In this, as in all components of our event, we modeled ways that so-called “difficult conversations”—in this case, about race and incarceration—might be staged for a diverse audience in a public setting.

A virtual tour of our event

One of our group members, Jill Murphy Elberson, documented our event photographically, offering the images we have shared throughout this essay. Afterwards, Jill created this video montage, which provides a virtual tour of “A Push Out Into Open Air,” and showcases the various components we used that night to animate the ideas we have discussed throughout here.

(Accessible version of “A Push Into Open Air” event video.)


Alexander, Michelle. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. NY, NY: The New Press.

Davis, Angela. (2016). Freedom is a constant struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the foundations of a movement. Chicago, IL: Haymarket.

Glaude, Eddie S., Jr. (2016). Democracy in black: How race still enslaves the American soul. NY, NY: Crown.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. NY, NY: Routledge.

Larson, Erik. (1998, June 1). Captive company. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/magazine/19880601/803.html

Loffreda, Beth, & Rankine, Claudia. (2015). Introduction. In C. Rankine, B. Loffreda & M. King Cap (Eds.), The racial imaginary: Writers on race and the life of the mind (pp. 1322). Albany, NY: Fence Books.

Marshall, Nate. (2015). “repetition & repetition &.” Wild Hundreds (p. 65). Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P.

ACLU. (n.d.). Mass incarceration. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/issues/mass-incarceration

Perkinson, Robert. (2010). Texas tough: The rise of America’s prison empire. NY, NY: Metropolitan Books.

The Sentencing Project. (2013). Report of the Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Retrieved from https://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Race-and-Justice-Shadow-Report-ICCPR.pdf.

LitHub. (2018, May 31). Writing about mass incarceration across genres. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/writing-about-mass-incarceration-across-genres/.


“It Isn’t Nice” by Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers from Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, Smithsonian Folkways Records, FA 2468, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways. © 2004. Used by permission.

Author Bios

Alfredo Aguilar (he/him/his) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Texas Tech University. He is also a volunteer at the Lubbock County Detention Center. His research is focused on Mexican American history, prison gangs, mass incarceration, and the carceral state. You can reach him at alfredo.aguilar@ttu.edu.

Michael Borshuk (he/him/his) is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University.  He is the author of the book Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature and many other publications on African American literature, American modernism, and music.

Shayla Corprew (she/her/hers) is a graduate of Texas Tech University’s Master of Arts in Technical Communication program. Her research focuses on the intersection of rhetoric, technical communication, and social justice. You can follow her on Twitter @shayluv01.

Jill Murphy Elberson (she/her/hers) received her bachelor’s from Austin College in 2013 and her Master’s in English with a Creative Writing focus from Texas Tech in 2017. Her focus was in poetry and her research interests include power dynamics in both private and public spheres. Jill was a composition instructor in the English department from May 2017—December 2018. Currently, she is taking time off to raise her son born in the fall of 2018. This is her first publication.

Apryl Lewis (she/her/hers) is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in English at Texas Tech University in the areas of African American literature, trauma studies, and cultural studies. She has presented work at the Futures of American Studies Institute, South Central Modern Language Association, Popular Culture Association, and the National Association of African American Studies. Apryl completed her BA in English at Texas Tech University and her MA in English at Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Amelia Reyes (she/her/hers) holds a Master’s Degree in Literature with a focus on Social Justice and Environment. She currently works for an arts non-profit organization in her home town of San Antonio, Texas.