The earliest known prison memoir by an African American writer - recently discovered and authenticated by a team of Yale scholars - sheds light on the longstanding connection between race and incarceration in America.
In 2009, scholars at Yale University came across a startling manuscript: the memoir of Austin Reed, a free black man born in the 1820s who spent most of his early life ricocheting between forced labor in prison and forced labor as an indentured servant. Lost for more than 150 years, the handwritten document is the first known prison memoir written by an African American. Corroborated by prison records and other documentary sources, Reed's text gives a gripping first-person account of an antebellum Northern life lived outside slavery that nonetheless bore, in its day-to-day details, unsettling resemblances to that very institution.
Now, for the first time, we can hear Austin Reed's story as he meant to tell it. He was born to a middle-class black family in the boomtown of Rochester, New York, but when his father died, his mother struggled to make ends meet. Still a child, Austin was placed as an indentured servant to a family of white farmers near Rochester. He was caught attempting to set fire to a building and sentenced to 10 years at Manhattan's brutal House of Refuge, an early juvenile reformatory that would soon become known for beatings and forced labor.
Seven years later, Reed found himself at New York's infamous Auburn State Prison. It was there that he finished writing this memoir, which explores America's first reformatory and first industrial prison from an inmate's point of view, recalling the great cruelties and kindnesses he experienced in those places and excavating patterns of racial segregation, exploitation, and bondage that extended beyond the boundaries of the slaveholding South into free New York.
Formatted for optimal listenability and including fascinating historical documents (including a series of poignant letters written by Reed near the end of his life), The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict is a work of uncommon beauty that tells a story of 19th-century racism, violence, labor, and captivity in a proud, defiant voice. Reed's memoir illuminates his own life and times - as well as ours today.
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"This extraordinary first-person account, from New York's House of Refuge to the Auburn State Prison, exposes the roots of a prison culture that continues to haunt far too many black families today. We owe a great debt to Austin Reed for writing it and to Caleb Smith for unraveling the mysteries of identity and authentication after its discovery a century-and-a-half later." (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University)
"The discovery story behind this memoir by a black prisoner - written 150 years ago and hidden for generations - is a modern gumshoe plot, and the tale it tells of perennial jail for the crime of blackness reads like a case study from today's age of mass incarceration." (Edward Ball, author of the National Book Award winner Slaves in the Family)
"The voice of Austin Reed, a black man in early 19th-century America who was incarcerated at the tender age of 10, rises up and speaks to us now, in artful, almost picaresque tones, to tell of his own unbelievable suffering. He's a riveting figure." (Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers)
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