"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."
Mr. Reed writes in an utterly idiosyncratic pastiche of styles and genres — part confession, part jeremiad, part lamentation, part picaresque novel (reminiscent, at times, of Dickens and Defoe) ... Though Mr. Reed’s book suggests he found some solace in the act of writing, it is also a chilling reminder to the reader of the roots of an American prison system that has grown no more humane and grown so exponentially that it now houses a startling 2.2 million people.
There are many reasons this book is remarkable, not least that while Reed is brutalized regularly, he remains triumphantly defiant. Though the only formal education he received was while in the House of Refuge, he writes with a novelist's sense of nuance and adventure—or misadventure. The memoir anticipates that the American penitentiary system would become a kind of successor to slavery's shackles.
Reed worked on Haunted Convict intermittently during his long years of confinement, as well as during brief interludes of freedom. Never entirely finished or published—in fact, unknown in its day—it provides a perfect example of problematic encounters with black captivity: How to be enlightened without treating as entertainment the consumption of black suffering? A historical artifact, the book holds both archive and mirror for the present antagonisms about racism, policing, and mass incarceration, contributing to the ongoing exploration and debates concerning American democracy and racial identity built upon black captivity.