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What Did Herman Wallace Dream of During 41 Years in Solitary? A House

Michael Steven Smith May 18

#76759: Featuring the House That Herman Built
Brooklyn Public Library, Central Branch
Through June 5


You walk through the main door of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch and it hits you: a jail cell. It is a full-scale reconstruction of Herman Wallace’s 6-by-9-foot cell, right there in the lobby. It is part of the exhibition, “The House That Herman Built,” and it gets better.

Herman Wallace spent a U.S.-record-setting 41 years in solitary confinement in that cell in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana.

In 2003 Brooklyn-born visual artist Jackie Sumell, then an art student in California, asked Herman, a Black Panther prison activist and member of the Angola Three, “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?” Their exchange resulted in a collaboration that transformed both their lives and produced this internationally renowned exhibit, as well as a book and a documentary film.

It gets better when you walk past the jail cell to a model of the house where he wanted to live, which he designed with Jackie’s help. It’s lovely and open, with views of the sky, exposed spaces, vegetable and flower gardens and green trees. And showing Herman’s sense of humor, it has a swimming pool with a black panther in tile at the bottom.

There are two phones attached to the cabinet displaying the model house. You can listen to Herman speaking from the prison: He tells you all about the house, taking special pride in mentioning the stand-alone guest room for his visiting friends and comrades. Listening, you really get to like him. You want to learn more about him, about what he thought and read and how he kept it together all those many years alone in a cell so confining that he says it was like being locked in a bathroom.

Herman, Albert Woodfox and Robert King were framed and charged with murdering a prison guard. Herman lived 41 years in solitary, until a brave judge reversed his sentence and ordered a new trial based on the exclusion of women from the jury. He was released and died three days later. King got out in 2001; Woodfox’s conviction was overturned this February, but he is still inside pending the state’s appeal.

The balcony of the library has display cases containing some of his 12-year-long correspondence with Sumell. She wrote and visited Herman over the years, and worked with him to realize his ideas. Getting out of prison and dying a free man was a triumph of Herman’s will to live, and with Sumell’s help, his dream has been realized, if only in model form thus far. Sumell is currently raising the funds to construct the house life-size in New Orleans.

Herman was self-taught, a poor kid from New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. He came to understand, along with America’s most famous intellectual Albert Einstein, that socialism is humanity’s attempt “to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development.”

On display at the library is Herman’s handwritten reading list, which constitutes a real treasure to enhance our understanding of the world and how to change it. It includes, among others, the speeches of Malcolm X; Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; Woman’s Evolution, the great work by pioneering feminist anthropologist Evelyn Reed; and Democracy and Revolution, by the late philosopher and historian George Novak.

That the Brooklyn Public Library would put on this show destroys the notion that librarians are a timid lot. They took a risk promoting a “convicted cop killer,” and a Black Panther no less. In doing so they distinguished themselves by taking on the racists and the promoters and apologists of mass incarceration and prolonged solitary confinement, a form of torture.

The show is being used to educate people through accompanying library programs about the 80,000 prisoners, including children, who are held in solitary confinement today in America’s prisons. The confinement of 2.3 million people has put the United States in the lead throughout the world, where, although it makes up only 6 percent of the world’s population, it has managed to lock up 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

So go see this exhibition. Herman’s steadfastness and spirit is contagious. It will be good for your soul. And incidentally, while you’re there, check out a book or two.

Michael Steven Smith is a New York City attorney and author. He is a co-host of the WBAI radio show “Law and Disorder” and the co-editor of Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA.


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