Michelle Jones, Confederate Memory, and "doing history" with Mental Illness



The New York Times, in collaboration with The Marshall Project, recently published an article on Michelle Jones, a Ph.D student in American Studies at NYU who was recently released from the Indiana Women’s Prison. The organizing principle of the essay was was that of “redemption” and the ways in which Harvard professors and administrators failed Jones (though there were important exceptions, like Dr. Elizabeth Hinton). But what does the author mean by redemption, and why exactly does Michelle Jones need to be redeemed? Is our ethics surrounding crime and incarceration so black and white that people who commit crimes need to be redeemed? It seems to me that as we seek to humanize the incarcerated in scholarship, we should focus not on redemption but the idea that good and bad is not black and white and why, exactly, do we crave redemption?


Jones’ crime was a violent crime. And surely upsetting to many. But it also happened two decades ago and involved rape, teenage pregnancy, and mental illness. This wasn’t a black and white case. And even if it was, Michelle was released after 20 years for good behavior. She succeeded both academically and creatively and made her own unique contributions to historical scholarship. Yet, professors at Harvard felt the need to deny her admission, implicitly arguing that prison wasn’t punishment and neither redemption or rehabilitation was possible.


One of the professors at Harvard opposed to Jones’ admission, Dr. Stauffer, was featured in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2011 Atlantic blog post “Black Confederates at Harvard”, in which Coates writes about Harvard Professors who argue that there were African Americans in the Confederate Army, a standard argument of neo-confederates.


At a time when confederate memory and the place of confederate monuments is centered in the public consciousness, after the events in Charlottesville left little doubt in anyone’s mind that confederate memory and white supremacy are linked, it shouldn’t be surprising that a vocal supporter of confederate mythology loudly opposed the admission of a formerly incarcerated African American women to Harvard. Those halls of power were designed to keep people like Michelle Jones out.


Professors in both the history and American studies programs Harvard wondered if it would cause drama with right wing pundits or even if they should provide funding to a formerly incarcerated women, according to the New York Times article. Even professors at NYU, where Jones has enrolled, contend that Jones “has a lot to prove.” My question is, what does Michelle Jones have to prove that she did not prove by reading and writing, graduating with an undergraduate degree, and taking graduate course while inside prison? These feats are difficult for many outside of prison. Jones wrote a play, The Dutchess of Stringtown, based on archival research. She had presented research add professional conferences. All while incarcerated.


But for many, those accomplishments don’t seem to prove Jones’ deservedness. Though she was released after 20 years in prison for good behavior, and the state of Indiana, deemed her ready for freedom, Harvard University does not agree. If the prison deems someone ready for life outside of prison, that they have been “rehabilitated”, why do institutions outside of prison continue to punish her?(and others her similar positions).


The comment made by one faculty member, that the “pressure-cooker” atmosphere of graduate study might be too challenging for someone who has suffered with mental illness and was incarcerated for so long. These comments are framed as concern for Jones’ well being, and more than a little paternalistic, but they are all too familiar to me. Though I have almost none of the challenges Michelle Jones does, I faced similar sentiments as I struggled with depression, anxiety, and PTSD during graduate school. More than a few faculty members feigned concern as they suggested I couldn’t handle the high pressure atmosphere of graduate school with “my issues” and that working with incarcerated people was probably beyond my capacity. The “pressure cooker” atmosphere of a Ph.D program is a point of pride for many, not something that reinforces ableist privilege.


I had the opportunity to see Jones’ play, The Dutchess of Stringtown at the Indiana Women’s Prison as part of the National Council on Public History conference in April. My thoughts on the play and its relation to African American Women’s Prison Writing write large were published on the Society for U.S Intellectual History Blog.


While we weren’t able to see all of the acts, The Dutchess of Stringtown was beautifully written and well researched. The Dutchess of Stringtown was Jones’ interpretation of history, after deep archival research. Though many would not recognize a play as such, it is very much history. Michelle Jones has already been doing scholarly historical work, regardless of what professors at Harvard think. And she has nothing left to prove.

Holly Genovese