20 years later, ‘United States of Attica’ is still a rallying cry for prison reform

Alife® and the Brooklyn Museum teamed to bring Faith Ringgold’s seminal work to a new audience for its inaugural Black History Month capsule collection.

It’s not a secret that prison conditions can be inhumane, and in 1971, inmates at Attica Correctional Facility in New York staged the most important uprisings for better living conditions and political rights. Just two weeks after the murder of prison activist and author George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison, approximately 1,281 of Attica’s 2,200 inmates rioted during a hostile takeover of the prison, taking 42 members of its staff hostage. Authorities would eventually agree to all 27 of the prisoners’ Manifesto of Demands, but not before 43 people lost their lives—10 civilian employees and correctional officers, and 33 inmates. Fifty-four percent of the prisoners incarcerated at the time were black, and some corrections officers were openly racist and regularly beat black prisoners with their batons, which they called their “niggersticks.”

Over the course of 1971 to 1972, New York artist Faith Ringgold created The United States of Attica, a green, black, and red map that takes its colors from political leader and civil rights activist Marcus Garvey’s Black Nationalist Flag. The United States of Attica commemorates the pivotal 1971 uprising by marking the genocides and murders that occurred in the United States from the colonial era, noting 2,260 deaths during the Civil War, 264 deaths in the Battle of Little Bighorn, and 45,564 lives lost during the Vietnam War. Four decades later, Ringgold’s political artwork still remains relevant—especially with the recent reports of heat and power failures at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn—and Alife® and the Brooklyn Museum are inaugurating a special-edition Black History Month collaboration with the piece.  Alife® and the Brooklyn Museum are showing The United States of Attica through a new lens in the form of a capsule collection consisting of a t-shirt and hoodie with an image of Ringgold’s work that will be available at the Brooklyn Museum through Black History Month.

The United States of Attica is extremely timely, as we speak, inmates in the Brooklyn jail have no heat and forced to live in darkness and freezing temperatures,” said Treis Hill, general manager of Alife®. “And the atrocities depicted within Faith Ringgold’s art are still prevalent throughout America today.”

Hill was first exposed to Ringgold’s work as a child, when his parents, who owned several daycare centers, bought several copies of her 1996 children’s book, Tar Beach. “Children’s books depicting African Americans were few and far between,” said Hill, who was reintroduced to the artist at the Brooklyn Museum, where The United States of Attica was on view in the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power .

The Brooklyn Museum and Alife® hope that the collaboration will bring the importance of Ringgold’s work to a new audience, especially during Black History Month. “I felt it was important to introduce her as an artist and her art work to our audience,” said Hill. “And hopefully we can inspire those who may not know her to dig a little deeper and discover all she’s done in the name of art, equality, and civil rights.”

For more information on the Alife® x Brooklyn Museum The United States of Attica collaboration, visit: www.alifenewyork.com