Talitha LeFlouria, a scholar of mass incarceration and historian of Black women in America, spoke about the importance of centering the stories of Black women in the traditional historical narrative at a panel discussion sponsored by the Emory’s Department of History on Sept. 15. 

About 40 people attended the virtual event, which was moderated by Assistant Professor of African American History Carl Suddler as part of a series of discussions centered around mass incarceration in the U.S.

LeFlouria, the Lisa Smith Discovery Associate Professor of African-American Studies at the University of Virginia, discussed her most recent book, “Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South,” which explores the contributions of Black women in the creation of Georgia’s industrial economy after the Civil War. 

“All their stories need to be visible and legible,” LeFlouria said, speaking about the stories of Black women and their exclusion from the mainstream historical narrative. 

LeFlouria detailed the process of searching through archival records and meeting with descendants of individuals whose stories she wanted to chronicle. Her research led to her accidental discovery of a set of valuable documents once owned by John Steinbeck, an author and Nobel Prize winner, who used them for research on his novels about chain gangs in the South. 

Writing the book was also deeply personal for LeFlouria, whose grandparents were born in the “shade of Jim Crow” and were witnesses to the experiences she wrote about.

“They lived in the threat of violence,” LeFlouria said. “For me, it was a way to honor them, and to honor their experience.” 

In conjunction with the discussion about LeFlouria’s research process, Suddler inquired about the book’s connection to the modern day. Suddler referenced recent reports of forced hysterectomies of women at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, which LeFlouria said “disturbed” her.

“I don’t believe the system is capable of being reformed,” LeFlouria said. “It needs to be dismantled. ICE detention centers are nothing but an extension of the carceral state.” 

She elaborated on the misunderstanding of the origins of mass incarceration, noting that many believe it is an issue only pertaining to Black males. However, LeFlouria countered that during the war on drugs, the ratio of Black to white women being incarcerated was seven to one. She continued to elaborate on how incarceration has manifested into what it is today.

Suddler also made the distinction that crime cannot be quantified. Crime statistics such as arrest rates and incarceration rates are unreliable because they do not measure the crimes that have occured. What determines “criminal behavior” can be interpreted differently by different people. 

Audience members also discussed the portrayal of incarcerated Black women in the media and the semantic differences in phrases such as the “opioid epidemic” versus the title “the war on drugs.” 

“It’s not wrong grammatically, but there is a difference in the language choice and language use,” Suddler explained, referring to what he aims to teach his students. 

Both Suddler and LeFlouria highlighted their desire to “re-humanize” how people reference incarcerated individuals. They alluded to the evolution of society’s semantics that reject the “system’s language” or titles. 

“In the last few years, since the book was published, the semantics and … the language that we use around incarcerated people has changed,” LeFlouria said. “It has been formerly incarcerated people who have taught me how to speak it.” 

Joshua Ni (19Ox, 21C) said he was inspired by LeFlouria’s work and appreciated her explanation of the research process. 

“As a history student who has to do a lot of research, it’s really inspiring the amount of detailed work that she puts into this multiple year project,” Ni said. “The work itself is a heroic act. Slave history and people who were systematically discriminated against and persecuted, it’s very difficult to find their stories.”