Great Cultural Influences by African American Prisoner Poets

This is an article on the past five years, both online and offline of African American prisoners and former prisoners creating original works of visual art with original works of poetry.

The Lexicon of Western Poetry has missed the mark on the influence of its former slaves and the power of their Songs of Solomon on its culture. From negro prison camp work songs, Bob Marley, to Jay-Z, these sources of Black poetry on Western and Global culture is undeniable. Rap, which is the dominant music genre on planet Earth, derived from prison Toasts. Now, African American prisoners and former prisoners are creating a new form of poetry, but this time a mirror will be held to the dominant culture, if they once again ignore the Black contribution to Western Poetry.


In 2016, C-Note wrote a widely distributed abstract, known as “The Untapped Potential of Prison Art.”

If the 2.3 million American prison population were a city it would be the fourth largest behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, all known for very vibrant art scenes. ___C-Note

He has been telling the world ever since that innovative works of art are being created from behind-the-wall.

In 2016, C-Note was asked to create poetry, around some of his artwork being exhibited at the Escaping Time, Prisoner Art Exhibit, on Governors Island, New York City, July 26, 2016-October 2, 2016. Out of that experience, and other Prison art exhibitions he created the Paintoem.

Paintoems- are poems inspired by paintings or drawings; or paintings and drawings inspired by poems. They are combined together as a single work of Digital art. All paintoems are classified as a Creative Commons (CC). This means the public has the right to freely use these works as long as the artist or artists are acknowledged.

In a 2016 article, “WHAT ARE PAINTOEMS?,” in Mprisond Thotz, C-Note goes into details about this art form, and why he sees it as becoming a potential movement.

“I had found that prison art exhibitions were not solely about the visual arts. There was always some literary component to it. Be it creative writing, poetry, or small plays. So the curators who were putting on these exhibits equally felt, having the public hear in their own words, the prisoners’ voices, greatly enriched their prison art exhibitions.”

From September through December in 2021, the Maine based grassroots organization Freedom and Captivity held an online art exhibition, Art on Abolition. It had three artistic goals, “What does abolition look like, sound like, feel like?” Over 70-works from over 40-artists responded to these prompts.

The exhibition was organized thematically:

History and New Futures

Protest and Revolution

Finding Voice, Power, Joy


History and New Futures

History lives in the present, visibly and invisibly, memorialized in public and disappeared into private memories. Some of the works in this theme honor events, people, and structures of feeling that hover at the underside of memory and breathe life into possibilities for future transformations. Other works take the future as the present, offering a distanced reflection on current carceral practices.

Protest and Revolution

The contemporary abolitionist movement is part of a long struggle for freedom and liberation from carceral systems created to support white supremacy, colonialism, and inequality. Art that documents and celebrates these struggles can motivate and clarify, embolden and enrage, and offer inspiration for revolutionary change.

Finding Voice, Power, Joy

Carcerality silences, disappears, and destroys. Abolition validates, repairs, and liberates. These works show the power of art for finding voice – to challenge oppression, express joy, build community and solidarity, and claim shared humanity.


What does liberation look like, sound like, move like, feel like? Art offers unique access to liberation’s sensoria, exhibited here in fantasy visions and soundwaves, movement and lyricism. The radical imagination and expression of freedom is liberatory.

C-Note had two works in the exhibition, and both were in the Liberation theme. One was the Paintoem The Prism of Abolitionism, while the other was the 10:00 movie short Abolish It. It stars C-Note and Min King X Aka Pyeface, with the soundtrack being produced by Min King X Aka Pyeface and featuring his sister Abrique Brown on vocals. The movie chronicles how C-Note and King first meet in prison, and how Art has played a role in their shared journey. While C-Note is still locked up, King is free, and is pursuing their dream of going from the Kage to the Stage.

From March 31st through May 5th in 2019, on the second floor of MoMA PS1 was the first exhibition of The Redaction Project.The exhibition featured more than 30 prints that examined the issue of money bail. How the conditions of the state and federal court systems for those arrested are unable to afford bail, and remain incarcerated even though they have neither been tried nor convicted.

Drawing inspiration and source material from lawsuits filed by the Civil Rights Corps (CRC) on behalf of people incarcerated because of an inability to pay court fines and fees, The Redaction features poetry by Reginald Dwayne Betts in combination with painter Titus Kaphar, both African Americans.

At 16, Betts committed an armed carjacking, and was prosecuted as an adult in Virginia.

He received a sentence of nine years in prison. While in solitary confinement he was introduced to Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets. “It introduced me to the poets that made me believe words can be carved into a kind of freedom,” says Betts.

Kaphar’s etched portraits of incarcerated individuals. Betts utilizes the legal strategy of redaction to craft verse out of legal documents, capturing the complicated and pervasive effects of time spent incarcerated. These poems have been screen printed by Kaphar onto handmade paper using the Redaction font, a new open-source typeface created for the project. Together, Betts’s poems and Kaphar’s printed portraits blend the voices of poet and artist with those of the plaintiffs and prosecutors, reclaiming these lost narratives and drawing attention to some of the many individuals whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration.

The poems, which are screen-printed onto Kaphar’s delicate portraits, illustrate the financial realities that undergird the court process and emphasize the humanity of the individuals ensnared within the system.

The collaborations create portraits that meld the intimate and the institutional, drawing attention to some of the many individuals whose lives have been impacted by the racialized and socio-economic biases of the U.S. criminal justice system.

Despite these Innovations in poetry, acknowledgement of it has gone ignored. A 2022 Google search does not recognize these works, nor is there to be found a relationship between actual physical paintings and poetry.

In 2019, on the website Writing Stack Exchange, a user asked, “Pairing poetry with original artwork: is this done?” Writing Stack Exchange is a Q&A website for anybody interested in the craft of writing, editing, and publishing, for professional writing, including fiction, non-fiction, technical, scholarly, and commercial writing.

As noted by the responses to the question, “Pairing poetry with original artwork: is this done?” It is not. However, these African American Poets from the world of imprisonment are not only doing it, but are creating exhibited works. Yet in the established world of Art, and the established world of Poetry, prejudices or the filters of unconscious biases have failed to give these new forms of art, a Lexicon in the annals of Western literary or visual art.

To learn more about these African American imprisoned poets and other great imprisoned poets of the 20th and 21st century, check out, “Imprisoned African American Poets You Should Know.”

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