During a spell of extreme cold in early February, haunting footage of inmates banging on the windows of their cells at a federal jail in Brooklyn went viral. The men were hard to see — a flurry of brown fists glimpsed through slits — but the sound reverberated throughout the street. It was a shocking sound, the percussion of hundreds of dangerously neglected prisoners freezing in a building that had gone unheated for over a week. The video was also a jarring reminder that much of the time most of us have no idea what happens to people when they are locked away.
It was an odd thing to witness in a place like Brooklyn, where there is certainly plenty of strife but markers of black prosperity abound. The video was another reminder that the roller coaster transition from the Obama to the post-Obama era has revealed an extraordinary complexity and self-contradiction at the heart of the contemporary black experience in America. The country has never been more cognizant of its brutal past, or more resolved to a better, more inclusive future — and yet its stubborn capacity for recidivism is impossible to ignore. The paradox of life in a society in which a not-insignificant number of the traditional lower caste can be fully integrated into the highest social and political strata at the very same time that many of their less fortunate peers remain profoundly excluded from the mainstream highlights, among many other things, the need for as wide as possible a variety of chroniclers of this fractured reality.