Skip to main content

The Role of Artists in Ending Jim Crow: Michelle Alexander's Take


Throughout the first five chapters of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander shows that many of the laws of the Jim Crow Era are still present in America today. To illustrate this point, she focuses on showing to the reader the injustices implemented by the American prison system against black men incarcerated on drug charges. She demonstrates this point throughout her book through numerous aspects of supporting evidence, such as the experiences of many black men being stripped of their right to vote after incarceration and facing harsher sentencing compared to the sentences of similar trials with a white suspect.

After laying this groundwork, in a chapter entitled “The Fire This Time" (chapter six), Alexander switches objectives. In this chapter, she attempts to demonstrate that a major cultural movement is the only way to successfully remove any semblance of Jim Crow Era sentiment in the modern United States.

Artists and Cultural Transformation

A cultural movement of the same magnitude as the Civil Rights Movement is necessary to correct the problems Alexander described throughout the earlier chapters. Alexander believes that occasional policy changes and political passivity that categorizes the current mindset of American society and politicians regarding the rights and treatment of America’s incarcerated will never truly resolve Jim-Crow-esque injustices. Rather, these methods of correction have been tried and failed, and only perpetuate the Jim Crow racial sentiment in differing forms. Once one form of Jim Crow racial sentiment in American society is identified and uprooted through legislative correction, societal pressures enable that same sentiment to take on a new form.

Alexander argues that the entire American prison system, which is the current manifestation of the Jim Crow sentiment, ought to be overturned and rebuilt through a conscious and deliberate societal effort. In shifting the focus of her book’s sixth chapter, Alexander elicits a call to action for her readers to become the changing force against prison injustices, but more broadly, against the institutionalization of Jim Crow sentiment. In proving this point, Alexander references the contributions of several of America’s artists who have worked against the institutionalization of Jim Crow. By doing this, Alexander is attempting to show that these artists, whose work largely informs American culture and our interpersonal relationships, are and ought to be chiefly responsible for initiating the large-scale cultural movement for which she longs.

James Baldwin and The Fire Next Time

Firstly, Michelle Alexander references the writings of James Baldwin in her chapter title. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes to his nephew about living in a society that explicitly tells some of its marginalized citizens that their lives are meaningless and not worth living. Similarly, American society has implemented its prison system in such a way that these marginalized people living within prison are intended to live and die without impacting anything greater than themselves. Baldwin attempts to show that there exists a deeply woven structural injustice that predisposed America’s black and incarcerated communities to be constricted from societal opportunities, thus degrading their personhood and justifying a widely felt rage.

The “fire” that Baldwin refers to in the title of his book represents the rage of these marginalized people that has been kindling for several centuries regarding the struggle against Jim Crow sentiment. In the passage used by Alexander, Baldwin demonstrates that his nephew ought to be enraged by the situation in which he is living and the prejudices that he faces. At some point in the future, Baldwin continues, the nephew should make known the struggles that he faces to the rest of society that presently is ignorant of the nephew’s reality. Baldwin urges his nephew, in communion with others from society who face marginalization, that “we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (Alexander 148). This demonstrates that Baldwin calls for a social renewal that is forceful yet loving, motivated by the desire to help “our brothers,” the rest of American society, to witness reality as it truly is.

Situating Struggles in the Present

The fire that Baldwin speaks of carries the same connotation of the fire that Alexander references in her chapter titled “The Fire This Time." Alexander, however, by changing “Next” to “This” presents the issue Baldwin illustrates as one of today rather than one of the future. While Baldwin looks to the future for an opportunity to initiate a large-scale cultural movement to restructure the general societal view on the black and incarcerated communities, Alexander would claim that Baldwin’s nephew should not wait until “Next Time.” Alexander rather urges the reader to take action “This Time” and to be more proactive about creating meaning to the nephew’s otherwise meaningless life through a social revival.

In doing so, Alexander also calls upon the reader’s responsibility to advocate for these marginalized communities who are often not respected enough by society to be able to advocate for themselves. By including a reference to Baldwin within this chapter, Alexander affirms what Baldwin says about the need for a large-scale cultural movement as opposed to minor policy corrections, but also argues that today’s society, not American society in the future, is responsible for that change. The use of referencing Baldwin demonstrates that he, being an artist and an advocate for America’s marginalized, has done his part in creating the mindset of change. The onus is now upon the reader to see the “reality” that Baldwin illustrates and continue Baldwin’s activism and spread his message.

The Role of Artists

Alexander also references the presence of rappers such as Mos Def, Ice Cube, and Salt-n-Pepa during the protests in Jena, Louisiana, in September of 2007. The protests were a result of the filing of attempted murder charges of six black teenagers against a white teenager. The protests gathered thousands of supporters, as well as numerous reporters who chose to propagate the story of the protest throughout America. In this way, the rappers’ presence brought light to what could have otherwise been an ineffective protest. The events of Jena and the resulting protest had the possibility of being an isolated event and news story, covered only in the local area, but the support of the rappers gave the movement a sense of greater credibility. The rappers’ presence offered publicity to the marginalized people in Jena, arguably their greatest contribution to the protest. The struggles felt by these marginalized people could now be seen across the country, forcing the American people to “see themselves as they really are," in the hope that they “begin to change it”, hearkening back to the vision of Baldwin for the future (Alexander 148). In this way, Alexander demonstrates that the vision of Baldwin may be coming to fruition through modern events contributing to the realization of Jim Crow’s grip in America, such as the protests in Jena.

By referencing this event in particular, Alexander shows that artists have a unique ability to spread an event, story, or idea further than its original scope. Their presence is, in a sense, what fueled the protests to be more successful than it would otherwise be. Also, because artists inform the American culture, the rappers, by participating in the protests, utilized their unique ability to share the emotions of the Jena protests throughout the nation. They enabled people from across the country to empathize with the cause of the protest and thus garnered support for the hopefully impending large-scale social movement. The rapper’s presence primed the American public for cultural change. Alexander’s reference to this event illustrates that the reader ought to be vigilant regarding the end of Jim Crow because the seeds for the movement have already been planted within the minds of many Americans.

In referencing these artists and demonstrating their capacity for impacting the minds of American society, Michelle Alexander elicits an emotional response from the reader. She demonstrates that art can be used as an effective medium for causing change. Art is able to penetrate American society deeply enough to begin the large-scale cultural movement that Alexander calls for. James Baldwin and the rappers present during the Jena protests understand and agree with the points that Alexander is making, and are doing their part to demonstrate the injustices faced by America’s black community in regard to incarceration. However, while they do have a certain social power, others have the power to support Alexander’s thoughts too. Specifically, the reader now has a new responsibility to continue Alexander’s argument through advocacy and sharing the knowledge learned with others. For fear of delaying the “fire” spoken about by Baldwin and Alexander, the reader ought not to remain passive in their understanding of the injustices faced by America’s marginalized population, but rather plant the seeds for radical cultural change that is necessary to rid America of its Jim Crow racial sentiment.

Read the Book

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press. 2012.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 PseudonymousBoch