For Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter of Philadelphia, her art is a way to “ensure that no other woman goes through what I experienced, and no other child, for that matter.”
Baxter spent six months in a county jail in Pennsylvania, where she gave birth to her son, Rasir, now 11.
For the 43 hours Baxter was in labor with Rasir, she was shackled to her hospital bed.
“It was the most dehumanizing thing that I’ve ever experienced, but it feels good to be on the right side right now, and fighting for those women who still experience this in 30 states across the country,” Baxter said.
Baxter made a short film about her experience, called “Ain’t I a Woman.”
It’s linked on the Ben & Jerry’s blog, and was part of the Ben & Jerry’s Justice Remix’d art exhibit that opened Tuesday at the Waterbury factory on Route 100.
Baxter’s video opens with shots of Rasir’s childhood, showing the boy with a gap-toothed smile, laughing and beaming, resting his head on his mother; interspersed with those images was footage of a heavily pregnant Baxter, in chains and an orange prison uniform, using rap music to detail the agony of her C-section and the treatment she received while pregnant.
“Journey to infirmary, stretched out on the gurney, just fired my attorney … waiting on the day that I’m free,” Baxter rapped on camera.
“Ain’t I a Woman” is vividly compelling, impossible to pause or look away from; to imagine 43 hours of labor in such a condition makes the viewer flinch.
“I want you to know that the United States is an incarcerated nation,” Baxter told the crowd at the art exhibit’s opening.
She says the number of people in prison has increased more than 500 percent in 40 years, and now one in three Americans has a criminal record.
“I’m glad that my art has now been tied with policy,” she said — the Dignity for Incarcerated Woman Act, proposed in 2017 and again this year by U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J), deals with family visitation rights, medical care and access to feminine hygiene products for women in prison.
“My life has truly come full circle,” Baxter said.
Four artists — Baxter, Jesse Krimes, Reginald Dwayne Betts and Russell Craig — are featured in the exhibit, which will run until July 2020.
“What this initiative does, and what this fund does, is demonstrate the dignity and potential of every single human being,” said T.J. Donovan, Vermont’s attorney general.
“As a representative of the criminal justice system in Vermont, for you to suffer that injustice and that inhumane treatment, it’s simply wrong,” Donovan told Baxter. “The injustice of the criminal justice system is this: We label people, for the rest of their lives, for an act or a decision that they certainly regret. We are all better than our worst moments, and they don’t define us, and that’s exactly what the criminal justice system does for far too many people.”
He pointed out that the poor, people of color and the mentally ill are disproportionately sent to prison, something Baxter touched on in “Ain’t I a Woman.”
“Being broke is a pet peeve. Imagine being trapped in the ’hood and can’t leave,” Baxter rapped. “You know what that do to your self-esteem?”
“When we talk about the criminal justice system, we have to talk about the racial inequity of our system that has marginalized an entire subset of our population — people of color,” Donovan said. He has championed broadening the laws that allow criminal convictions to be erased from the public record.
“It does matter where you grow up. It does matter how the police enforce the law in your neighborhood,” he said. “The starting line is not the same for everybody, but we can all cross that finish line by standing together.”
Baxter remembered a few incidents from her childhood that made it harder for her to succeed.
She became a ward of the state at age 11, and was abandoned by her foster family as an older teen.
“That didn’t set me up for success,” Baxter said.
She encouraged other woman to tell their stories.
“You have to put a face and a race to these horrible, horrendous conditions. No woman should be forced to be shackled to a bed for 43 hours while they’re in labor. It’s not healthy for the woman or the child. The child’s done nothing, but the child is experiencing all the trauma that the mother is experiencing. I would encourage them to share their story,” Baxter said.
Those stories make a difference.
“The more I learn about the negative impacts of the criminal justice system on people and on communities here in the United States, the more angry I get, the more frustrated I get, and the more that I feel that not only that I as a business person but I as a person need to take action,” said Ben & Jerry’s CEO Matthew McCarthy. “I’ve been very lucky in my life. … As a white guy from a middle-income background, I had a lot of privileges I didn’t understand until I got a little bit older.”
That privilege “creates more urgency for me to take action,” McCarthy said, and hosting a space for formerly imprisoned artists to share their experience is a good way for Ben & Jerry’s to help amplify their voices.
Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, said it’s important for the company to “use its voice, and its presence, and its ice cream to bring attention to the work that people do and to the work that needs to be done. In this case, it’s an incredibly important issue: criminal justice reform. It’s an exhibit that’s not just designed to be thoughtful and inspire people. It’s designed to help people move to the next step and to take action, and I hope we’ll all give that some thought and view it as an opportunity.”