Girl with Doll

Image: Cynthia Via
Le Pavilion Hotel | Image: Cynthia Via

I left a photograph, titled Girl with Doll bookmarked on my browser, and I looked at it with new eyes. (Found in  Lens: The New York Time Focusing on Prison Photography.)

The photo, taken by Steve Davis, shows an inmate in an orange jumpsuit holding a doll with missing arms and legs. The doll, which looks more like a statue, is being held by a black girl. And it’s odd writing inmate if she is indeed a young person. Her nails are painted a bright sea-blue, and she has side braids falling over her shoulders.

We cannot see her eyes, just the lower part of her face. She’s pressing her lips together as if holding her words, perhaps a smile. At first I thought the expression conveyed a lack of freedom to speak due to fear or shame. What drew me to this photo, when I looked at it then, was the statue in the hands of a young girl. The statue is a work of art, and the master is the young girl.

A second look makes me think this doll or statue is something she carries, as a reminder of her youth. The braids, the sea-blue nail polish and the doll are clues to who she is, who she might be if she wasn’t in jail. She’s more than a girl or woman in an orange jump suit, surrounded by the monotone colors of a jail-cell. It becomes evident the absence of her descriptive eyes and a doll without arms or legs. We only receive a forced smile, closed and signaling at a situation that is without remedy for now.

This could be an accident that the photographer fell upon. He may have asked her to hold the item, or at a moments notice the subject didn’t know what do and picked up the doll. Still this is a story the photographer is telling. It allows us to see past the preconceived notion of what we might expect.

By cutting out the eyes of the subject, we are left without the complete picture, and that is exactly what happens when someone enters the criminal system. The photographer is trying to convey the idea of something unfinished or cut out. Something has been stripped away, and what’s left is an incomplete understanding of a human being.


Thoughts: The Idea of Ancestry

The Idea of Ancestry, by Etheridge Knight

When I read this poem it struck me as something powerful, a distant cry for a story that stayed within the confines of a jail cell.

The Idea of Ancestry makes me think about the people we leave behind. The narrator often interjects with anecdotal memories he draws from his recollection. In the 1960s Knight was sentenced to eight years for robbery, of which he documented in Poems from Prison.

“Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black

faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-

fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,

cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare

across the space at me sprawling on my bunk.”

The number of family members are tied to his present state; he feels they depend on his future. He carries with him a family legacy but also a burden. His family’s photos are taped to the wall of his cell as a reminder of where he came from, and it brings him pain that he can’t do more.

“The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took

off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year

when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in

the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93

and who keeps the Family Bible with everbody’s birth dates

(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no

place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”

There’s something comically sad about the stubbornness of his grandmother that goes by the name of my father’s mother. (How well does Knight know her?) She’s adamant not to include any member who has disappeared or abandoned the family. There is no place in her bible for “whereabouts unknown.” Knight is perhaps inferring that this has happened to him.

“This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream…and I have no childrento float in the space between.” He paces back and forth in his cell, thinking he’ll have no one to call son or daughter, no one to call him dad.

The poem travels from present to past then back to present. This is often how I map my thoughts especially when writing a journal entry, which comes off as natural and intuitive. It beautiful to capture a story through the movement  of thought.

For the full poem have a read here.