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The Trap: Black Youth and the Carceral State in California, 1929-1939


James Smith was orphaned at 11 years of age when both his parents died. Soon after he began following harvest labor from Tennessee, throughout the U.S. South, and across the American West. Like many itinerant youth, James lived a precarious life hopping trains to search for work. His journey sheds light on the consequences of being a young Black male looking for work, particularly in Alabama and Texas where he was captured and imprisoned for vagrancy. After surviving “hard labor” in southern jails, James followed farm labor into California. At this time, the cotton industries in the southern Cotton Belt declined as the political economy of cotton production in California became a global commodity.

James arrived in California in the midst of the Great Depression, at a time when anti-vagrancy laws and border patrols were being strictly enforced due to the influx of indigent Southwestern migrants. Nearly everywhere James Smith looked for work, he was jailed. Seasonal harvest labor and racial hiring practices in California trapped James in a revolving door of short-term work and then punished him for being unemployed. Thus, The Trap maps the role of the carceral state in restricting the mobility and labor of Black itinerant laborers during a national economic crisis.

Throughout this study, the story of Black itinerant youth is unfolded to uncover the operation of agricultural capitalism, surplus labor, and imprisonment in California. Itinerant laborers were an excess labor force accessible when farm unions were on strike, yet neglected and subjected to exploitation in the private and public labor markets. The criminalization of unemployment funneled Black itinerant laborers into low wage work as a convenient, dispensable class of workers. Sometimes their labor was welcomed—other times, migrants were told “to disappear” or “float” out of regions. To survive, many committed non-violent, petty crimes to get by, which placed them in a never-ending cycle of incarceration and unfree labor. This thesis traces James’ work and carceral history over eleven years. By the age twenty-three, he was convicted of a petty theft crime and sentenced to serve five years to life in San Quentin state prison in California.

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