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October 11, 2018 | Theatre, Race and Equity,

The Peculiar Patriot: An Extended Reading Guide

Not only is Liza Jessie Peterson a remarkable playwright, performer, and activist, but she is also an accomplished author in the genres of spoken word poetry and non-fiction. Peterson published her first book All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids At Rikers Island in April 2017 which details Peterson’s experiences at Rikers Island Academy where she taught a GED class to young inmates

Peterson’s dedication and activism surrounding mass incarceration has become lifelong work and we’re incredibly excited to partner with The 10th Annual Boston Book Festival (OCT 13) for an event covering the topics of both her book and her one-person show. In addition to a short performance, Peterson will be participating in a discussion and Q+A at the Roxbury location of the Boston Book Festival, moderated by our own artistic director, David Dower, entitled Arts Activism in America: Igniting Change.

With her book and upcoming run of The Peculiar Patriot, we were inspired to create this guide to other pieces of literature and media about mass incarceration in the United States. Check out these other books about injustice in the justice system:

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

One of the most famous pieces on the prison industrial system is this The New Jim Crow, published in 2010 by legal scholar and activist Michelle Alexander. In this book, Alexander argues that mass incarceration in the United States is a reinvention of the Jim Crow Laws that enforced racial segregation during the Reconstruction period. Alexander takes a close look at the disproportionate rates of black men in prisons, particularly those incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. This book, heavily praised by The New York Times, Forbes and Publishers Weekly not only looks at how United States penitentiaries impact inmates, but how they affect families and others in the community.

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton

Like The New Jim Crow, Hinton’s book explores the political and social causes behind the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States, however, she takes a slightly different approach and looks more towards the legislature created by the Johnson administration during the Civil Rights Era as to how prison inequality originated. This book is useful in the conversation about mass incarceration because, although it examines a democratic president’s policies, it actually redirects blame away from any particular political party and frames prison inequality as something all Americans have contributed to, whether knowingly or not.

Rikers: An American Jail produced by Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, executive edited by Bill Moyers

Created by the highly respected broadcast journalist Bill Moyers, this documentary looks inside the infamous Rikers Island where, of the more than 7,500 people detained at the prison on any given day, almost 80% have not yet been found guilty or innocent of the charges they face. Rikers: An American Jail contains interviews with inmates, guards and others involved in the United States prison system, with each of them giving their own accounts on how mass incarceration and injustice in jails came to be. Moyers’ work has been praised by many notable individuals including Michelle Alexander, who said the film “shows a highly organized system of violence, where people are treated like they are less than human and leave detention more badly damaged than they entered.” Rikers: An American Jail is a particularly handy companion to The Peculiar Patriot as much of the play is based on Peterson’s observations at this very prison.

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor


Shaka Senghor was released from prison at age thirty-eight, after serving a nineteen-year sentence—seven of which took place in solitary confinement. This memoir reflects on Senghor’s time spent in jail and offers a rethinking to how the United States approaches crime and prison. After his release, he became a mentor and activist to incarcerated men and women. This riveting memoir provides a first-hand account of what really goes on behind bars and examines how the poor treatment of prisoners in the United States can have devastating effects on the nation.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Acclaimed author Tayari Jones tells the story of Roy, a young black man, who is tried tried and wrongly convicted of a crime while his wife, Celestial, waits for his return. This novel does not explore Roy’s life behind bars in depth but instead focuses on the impact his conviction has on Celestial and how, upon his release, Roy is unable to regain the economic and professional stability he once had. An American Marriage echoes the themes of The Peculiar Patriot as it examines what happens to the families of those incarcerated and what difficulties people face once they are released and thrown back into the world as someone society dismisses, an ex-con. Jones’s book takes a look at race relations in the United States and how racial inequality plays out in the justice system. Tayari Jones will also be a part of this year’s Boston Book Festival as a keynote speaker.

13th directed by Ava DuVerney

This award-winning documentary, released in 2016 by Netflix, explores the “intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States,” with a specific focus on the War on Drugs, mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex in ways that are similar to how social issues are addressed in The Peculiar Patriot. In fact, a number of prolific activists, scholars and politicians are interviewed in 13th, including Jessie Liza Peterson. DuVerney examines how private prisons have contributed to the disparate incarceration of men and women of color and how the over-incarceration of these adults has severely damaged generations of black and minority families and their children.

Want to learn more about the United States prison system? Don’t miss The Peculiar Patriot at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box in the Emerson Paramount Center OCT 17-28 and our special engagement at the Boston Book Festival this upcoming Saturday!


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