James Forman Jr. is one of the nation’s leading authorities on race, education, and the criminal justice system, and a tireless advocate for young people who others have written off. Forman worked as a law clerk for Judge William Norris of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court. After clerking, he took a job at the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., where for six years he represented juveniles and adults in felony and misdemeanor cases. At Yale Law School, where has taught since 2011, Forman teaches Constitutional Law and a course called Race, Class, and Punishment. Last year he took his teaching behind prison walls, offering a seminar called Inside-Out Prison Exchange: Issues in Criminal Justice, which brought together, in the same classroom, 10 Yale Law students and 10 men incarcerated in a CT prison. Forman’s first book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America is a Washington Post bestseller and a New York Times Editor’s Choice.
On December 5th, he will be speaking at House of SpeakEasy’s Seriously Entertaining show, Caught in the Act alongside David Friend, Laura Lippman, and JT Rogers (tickets). We spoke to James ahead of the show…
Describe your current project: Over the last fifty years, the United States has embarked on an unprecedented venture: locking up more our fellow citizens than any country in the history of the world. My book examines this half-century through the lens of African-American police, prosecutors, judges, mayors, legislators, and ordinary citizens. Many of these officials ended up embracing policies that had devastating consequences for the black community. My book tries to figure out why.
What is your earliest memory involving reading or writing? I wrote my first book for my grandmother. It was called “A Gum Guide.” It was, as the name promises, a guide to various types of gum (chewing and bubble). It was terrible, even accounting for my age. My grandparents have passed away, but my brother lives in their house. He is in possession of “A Gum Guide” and still can torture me with it.
What is your favorite line from your current work? The dedication. To Ify and Emeka, the loves of my life. (Ify is my wife and Emeka is our son).
What advice would you give to aspiring writers? It’s not new advice, but it works for me. Write every day. Even a little bit. Put your cellphone in another room, disconnect the internet (best done by turning off the server if your housemates will tolerate it), and write. Ideally, find a set time of the day. For me, it is always the morning, after I take my son to school. But if you miss that time, still do it later in the same day. Even when my day is terrible, if I start with some writing, I can always say I did that.
What writer past or present do you wish you could eat dinner with? Elizabeth Alexander. And bell hooks.
What writer do you wish you could share with the world? Michelle Kuo. And Jim St. Germain.
What are you reading right now? Law. I’ll spare you the details. Sorry. It’s boring. But it is my job.