Constructing an Archive and Deconstructing Carcerality
Stories of South Asian Americans Affected by Incarceration
By Savannah Kumar |
FEBRUARY 15, 2021
Today, South Asian Americans are largely erased from racial and ethnic demographic data about incarceration because county jails and state prisons often classify them as “Other” rather than as South Asian Americans or even Asians. But our stories are not “Other”; they are ours. Documenting our stories will allow us to understand our role in a system that erases our identity. The “model minority” myth further obscures information about incarcerated South Asian Americans because it portrays South Asian Americans as model citizens who are not impacted by the carceral state. In fact, many South Asian American communities are over-policed, with community members incarcerated in immigration detention facilities, jails, and prisons.
As a civil rights lawyer, I’m new to the archival process. I appreciate that control of the stories in the archive belongs to the storytellers. In contrast, the legal system controls whose stories are told, when they can be told, and even how many words can be used to tell them. Courts usually don’t care about which spices are available to incarcerated people in commissary, whether they are allowed to talk in their Nani’s language on the phone, or what traditions they must reinvent. Legal advocacy can uplift and address specific rights-based struggles. However, I intend for my archival project to do what legal briefs and court hearings often do not: allow people affected by incarceration to tell their own stories in all of their fullness and complexity.
For my Archival Creators project, I am documenting the experiences of South Asian Americans affected by incarceration. A wide range of South Asian Americans have been affected by incarceration. Some have spent time in jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers, or immigration detention centers; others have loved ones who have been impacted by these systems. Some have had court involvement with the threat of incarceration, even if they never ultimately spent time behind bars. Some of us are descendants of South Asian American elders who were incarcerated in South Asia during colonial rule or were detained when they first came to the U.S. in the early 1900s. In many cases, the intergenerational impacts of incarceration began abroad but continue in the United States today. The archive has space for all of these stories. If your life has been impacted in any way by incarceration, you can share about your experiences using this FORM.
Documenting experiences of incarceration is sensitive work with potential legal and social consequences, especially if a person’s legal case is still pending. Interviewees participating in my archival project can document their stories anonymously through pseudonyms, voice alteration, or transcripts instead of traditional oral history interviews. I am also working with local organizations to make this project accessible to those who are currently incarcerated by creating ways for people to send in letters documenting their memories and experiences.
South Asian Americans cannot be silent about surveillance, policing, or incarceration. We must confront the anti-Black racism that fuels the carceral state and that is present in our own communities. As Angela Davis writes, “Since people who are inside are not allowed out, the people who are outside need to knock on the gates of the nation’s prisons and jails.” Through this archival project, I will work with my community to continue the critical work of knocking, witnessing, and documenting to preserve the memories made behind bars and barbed wire.
Savannah (she/they) is a civil rights lawyer and community artist working on decarceration. Savannah's fellowship project involves bearing witness to South Asian Americans whose lives have been impacted by incarceration in jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers, and immigration detention centers. Savannah is collecting these intergenerational narratives and offering them back to the community to facilitate healing and solidarity. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.