Jermaine Thibodeaux never thought he’d end up in Oklahoma.
Jermaine has been an educator for several years, most recently at the Cambridge School of Weston near Boston. And while the Houston native has ventured to several places during his academic journey, he never envisioned a stop in the center of the U.S., much less at OU.
Following graduate school, Jermaine became enamored with studying the rise of the Texas prison system and how that institution and the circumstances surrounding it still relate to life today. He now finds himself in the middle of a state which, according to Prison Policy Initiative, has the highest incarceration rate in the nation — a perfect place to continue his life’s work.
Stepping in as OU’s new assistant professor for African and African-American Studies in August, he’ll be responsible for teaching everything to do with prisons, mass incarceration and prison labor. Furthermore, he’ll be tasked with influencing students to think critically about how prison history and race has and will continue to shape a nation still crying out for justice over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others while simultaneously demanding police and prison reform.
“This is a great time to be working at a university, to be rubbing up against young people's ideas and to be engaging with the really critical, important issues of the day,” Jermaine said. “I'm just happy to be a part of the conversation. And though I never thought I would be in Oklahoma ever, I think this is one of the better places to be in conversation about the topics and the issues that I really care about, but also the issues that I think are super important for the future direction of the country.”
'A special individual'
Jermaine overcame much in his journey to OU. He grew up in Houston’s Greater Third Ward, an area known for its high crime rates. Despite obstacles, he rose to pursue an undergraduate degree in history at Cornell, where he also became a Mellon Mays undergraduate fellow.
After finishing his degree and returning to Houston to teach at a private K-12 institution, St. John’s School, he later made his way to the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his master’s degree in American history and began working toward a doctorate.
While Jermaine was at Cornell, his cousin Calvin was in Norman, busy tackling ball carriers as a defensive lineman for the Sooners. OU’s defensive line coach since 2016, Calvin has maintained a close relationship with Jermaine, who he considers to be the favorite cousin of the family.
Despite all the smack talk that ensued during Jermaine’s days at UT, Calvin said he recognizes the trials Jermaine has overcome to arrive at OU.
“(Houston’s Greater Third Ward) isn’t the easiest place to come from and accomplish the things that he's accomplished — and that's rare,” Calvin said. “You have to be mentally tough to make it out of there, and you have to be self-driven. You have to be great at time management, you’ve got to be focused on what you want to accomplish. And he's a special individual, and it’s very rare to see guys accomplish what he’s accomplished.”
Now Jermaine lives right down the street from Calvin’s family, which Calvin called a blessing — one he said he plans to use to his advantage by employing his studious cousin as a babysitter.
As Jermaine continued to succeed academically, he eventually discovered his life’s calling. When he began at Texas, he became intrigued by the bonds developed in the Pre-Emancipation era between Black enslaved children and children of white planters in the Old South and how those relationships changed over time.
There was just one problem — a book about that subject had already been written by another researcher and Jermaine preferred to do research on topics that had not been examined thoroughly.
Thus, Jermaine quickly shifted his area of study. Instead, he began to focus on gender and race during the days of slavery and how men on Louisiana sugar plantations defined masculinity.
He wrote his master’s thesis on that topic, finishing his degree before returning to St. John's. Though he had attained great knowledge in Austin, Jermaine said he didn’t like it there and wanted to be back in Houston.
Three years later he felt compelled to leave St. John’s and embarked on another journey, moving to the Boston area to teach at the Cambridge School of Weston. Around the time he left Austin, he’d found his real scholarly interest while continuing work on his dissertation.
The book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander caught Jermaine’s eye, and he became intrigued by the development of the prison system.
Jermaine said he was drawn to the subject because of its current relevance and a desire to produce work with “contemporary reverberation.”
“I figured studying manhood and masculinity on antebellum slave plantations is a great sort of intellectual exercise, and there's some knowledge produced there, but I don't know what kind of relevance and urgency that work would have had at the present moment,” Jermaine said. “So I basically shifted my focus away from — but not totally — slavery and started looking at the prison as an interesting site, where again, I could talk about race, I could talk about gender, I could talk about power, I could talk about racial capitalism — all of these things.”
Jermaine pursued a project regarding the construction of the post-slavery Texas prison system and its ties to sugar — a commodity he had already studied during his examinations of Louisiana.
In particular, the time frame in which the prison complex was developed was an important aspect of Jermaine’s work emphasized by Nedra Lee, an assistant professor of anthropology at UMASS Boston, who worked and studied alongside Jermaine in Austin.
“(The period after slavery) is actually a period that definitely gets overshadowed in some of our conversations about the ways that race continues to have a legacy and continues to have an impact on U.S. society,” Lee said. “We put a lot of emphasis on slavery, and we don't oftentimes pay attention to the ways that race both continued in terms of operating as a mechanism of power, but how it also changed meaning and changed form in society.”
Through his research, Jermaine discovered for years the success of Texas’ robust sugar industry was proportional to the well-being of its prison complex. Without sugar, the state could not afford to fund its prisons. And without prison labor — particularly that of Black male convicts — the sugar industry would not have prospered.
Rarely did white convicts work on sugar plantations, which Jermaine attributed to a fictional racial theory that Black people were more predisposed to working in harsh conditions.
Jermaine maintained sugar harvesting — an exhausting job of cutting down and loading up heavy cane stalks in a hot and mosquito-laden climate — was tougher than all other labor from enslaved people, such as cotton picking, and gave the Texas prison system undeniable ties to the origins of slavery.
“The big reason the Europeans started to import Africans or export Africans from the continent (was) to harvest sugar,” Jermaine said. “So there's a long history of coercive labor attached to Black people and sugar, and so it's interesting to see how that sort of history continues. It continues (and) it evolves all the way through the 20th century and Texas. It's a very fascinating history because again — and I always have to doubly emphasize this — it’s because Texas made sugar work the exclusive domain of Black convicts.”
Texas prisons and their arduous workloads tallied what Jermaine called “devastating costs” for Black male convicts, who were treated terribly during their days of incarceration.
It’s the racially biased choices regarding labor made by Americans that Jarvis Givens — an assistant professor of education at Harvard, fellow Mellon Mays scholar and friend of Jermaine’s — said Jermaine contemplates well in his work.
“I think what Jermaine is doing by focusing on sugar is that he really is forcing us to reconsider a lot of these early historical narratives that we have about the relationship between slavery and the rise of prisons,” Givens said. “I think his work is very rich in terms of the ways in which it tells us, teaches us and forces us to think about this experience from a number of different angles which is very important in the context of African American Studies.”
'Our New Reality'
Now, after five years in Boston, Thibodeaux has been hired to relay the information he’s learned about prisons, race and gender to OU students while emphasizing its continued relevance to the state and the nation today.
Today, more than 1 in 100 Oklahoma adults are in jail or prison at any given time. The state average of incarcerated women — 151 in 100,000 — is twice the national average, and Oklahoma also boasts one of the most robust private prison industries in the U.S., housing 26.6 percent of the state’s convicts.
Meanwhile, Black convicts outnumber White convicts 5 to 1 in Oklahoma. Black inmates also account for a percentage of the state’s overall population 9 times that of White prisoners.
Jermaine said he believes Oklahoma legislators are working to reshape the state’s carceral landscape, and he thinks young people, particularly OU students, can be a part of that change. He said he intends to allow students to draw their own conclusions about the topics discussed, but believes regardless of their views they will leave OU more well-rounded and better prepared to impact society.
“I'm excited to have students who are passionate about these topics, but also students who see the fierce urgency of the moment to try to bring forth some kind of change or transformation, for the better for all folks involved,” Jermaine said. “And so, if anything, I'm tremendously hopeful, because I think what the last couple of weeks have demonstrated ... is that young people, especially the Gen Z group, are really out here kicking butt, and they are really forcing older folks to take notice and to respond sensibly to their demands.”
Considering his ability to empower students, Jermaine isn’t the only person who’s excited about the potential of his influence at OU.
Described by friends and family as a charismatic and funny character, Jermaine is also known as a great communicator — a skill that has helped him relate to students throughout his teaching career and should continue to benefit him at Oklahoma.
“When it comes to higher education, I think oftentimes, pedagogy can be seen as somewhat of an afterthought when it comes to being a professor at the university level, where research is very important,” Givens said. “I think Jermaine is someone who has a very rigorous approach to the research that he's doing, but he's also a very skilled teacher. And I think that those two elements are very important — especially given the subject matter and how important it is for our time.”
Jermaine said his main goals in his first year at OU are to heighten the visibility of OU’s African and African-American Studies Department and to promote activism related to the critical issues students will be discussing.
His arrival will also serve to diversify the faculty and curriculum of a university whose president, Joseph Harroz, has said he plans to promote more diversity and equity among students and instructors following several racist events at OU and across the nation in recent months.
As of fall 2019, OU had only 31 Black full-time faculty members compared to 1,109 white full-time administrators and instructors — but Harroz said he intends to hire more faculty of color.
“I think it’s really important when you think about teaching about race — oftentimes in places that have been very slow to diversify — to even begin to confront a legacy of racism, you sometimes have to be adaptable and flexible in terms of the tools that you're bringing to that,” Lee said. “I think (Jermaine) can do that and I think he will do that.”
Despite the occurrences at OU and abroad, Jermaine said he was not deterred from accepting a job in Norman. He said he thinks Oklahoma is a phenomenal place to continue his prison studies while educating students on the institution and its relationship to race, gender and other issues.
Jermaine said he hopes OU administrators realize the current national climate is not just a “fleeting moment.” He said he believes young people are going to continue to promote the reforms they believe in beyond the days of movements such as Black Lives Matter and defunding the police.
“I think students have recognized how powerful they are, and they will always advocate for what they believe is right,” Jermaine said. “And so, universities, administrators, faculty, beware. This is our new reality.”