Angels with Dirty Faces is no romanticized tale of crime and punishment. The three lives in this creative nonfiction account are united by the presence of actual harm—sometimes horrific violence. Imarisha, dealing with the complexities of her own experience with sexual assault and accountability, brings us behind prison walls to visit her adopted brother Kakamia and his fellow inmate Jimmy “Mac” McElroy, a member of the brutal Irish gang the Westies. Together they explore the questions: People can do unimaginable things to one another—and then what? What do we as a society do? What might redemption look like?
Imarisha doesn’t flinch as she guides us through the difficulties and contradictions, eschewing theory for a much messier reality. The result is a nuanced and deeply personal analysis that connects readers emotionally with the lives of people caught up within, and often destroyed by, our criminal justice system.
What people are saying about Angels with Dirty Faces:
“Walidah Imarisha has written a brave book. It demonstrates both the universality and distinctiveness of three lives enmeshed through the US prison system. Imarisha pushes us to give up easy distinctions between innocence and guilt, good and evil, and to experience punishment and imprisonment as the messy, complex systems they are. And she reminds us that, while there are no winners in this game, it is one replete with compassion, care, and resistance enough to permeate walls and cages.” —Rachel Herzing
“Some authors approach the subject of incarceration from a great distance, but with Angels with Dirty Faces, author/activist Walidah Imarisha goes as deep as any writer can without actually serving time. The result is a highly personalized and intimate portrait by a courageous writer who goes beyond clichés and platitudes. This book is a bracing, clear-eyed exploration of one of the most important issues of our time: the growing incarceration rate in the U.S., and the consequences of this for citizens both inside and outside prison walls.” —T.J. English, New York Times best-selling author of Where the Bodies Were Buried and The Westies
“Angels with Dirty Faces is a powerful exploration of America’s prison nation. Using three disparate yet interconnected stories, including her own, Walidah Imarisha gives us an unvarnished take on prison abolition. Beyond slogans or strategy, we are left with people, in all our imperfections and possibilities. This is a bold, beautiful, and absolutely necessary book, told with urgency and passion.” —Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era
“We live in a violent state, run by a violent economic trap, that a violent prison system perpetuates and hides. The reality of violence in the US is so pervasive that the state has all the mirrors in the house covered up. Angels with Dirty Faces is a memoir of a reality so crucial and transformative that the state is desperate to keep it locked out of our collective consciousness. And yet we live it. Here, Imarisha is doing the work that we all must do if we are going to have the world we deserve. She is looking deeply at the violence of prisons and the lives and impact of people who have engaged in violent acts with a love that never stops believing that we are more than the violence that structures our days. There is hope, love, and honesty here. And a model for the conversations we need to have right now, right here in hell.” —Alexis Pauline Gumbs
“Walidah Imarisha relates the experiences of crime, punishment, and victimization, not as abstractions, but as lived human tragedies. She shows us how they diminish and distort—but never define—the lives of those who suffer them. Writing with sorrow, and anger, and courageous hope, she forces us to reconsider what we mean by ‘justice,’ and by what endeavors its cause might be advanced, if never finally achieved.” —Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America
“A brave, honest search for answers regarding incarceration.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Angels with Dirty Faces is actually three biographies in one, a ‘triography’ so to speak, of the lives of Mac, Kakamia, and Walidah converging at a California prison. In the beginning they all thought they would just be telling a story... until they made the decision to tell the truth. Angels with Dirty Faces is a superbly written, shocking, sensuous, sometimes sadistic and even scandalous binding of biographies struggling with the question: What does redemption actually mean? It is impossible for one to engage this work and not emerge on the other side profoundly affected.” —Sundiata Acoli
“I read Angels With Dirty Faces in one sitting, mesmerized by what Walidah Imarisha has accomplished: a daring dive into the real deal about why prisons don’t work, filled with love for hustlers, rebels. and the criminalized, imperfect survivors that the prison-industrial complex locks up. Written in such lyrical, fierce poetry it takes your breath away.” —Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, author of Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home
Walidah Imarisha is a writer, organizer, educator, and spoken-word artist. She is the author of the poetry collection Scars/Stars and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. She has facilitated writing workshops at schools, community centers, youth detention facilities, and women’s prisons.
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