OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Dan Berger

Portrait of Dan Berger
Image Credit: Kyle Cassidy

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell and an adjunct affiliate associate professor of history at the University of Washington Seattle. His books include Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (2014), which won the OAH James A. Rawley Prize and explores the central role that prisoners played in the civil rights and Black Power movements. He is most recently a coeditor, with Emily Hobson, of Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973-2001. Berger publishes regularly in Black Perspectives, Dissent, Salon, the Seattle Times, and Truthout, among other publications. He coordinates the Washington Prison History Project, a multimedia digital archive of regional history. An expert on the carceral state and twentieth-century American social movements, he is currently writing Stayed on Freedom: One Family's Journey in the Black Freedom Struggle, and Prison: An American History, both under contract with Basic Books.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Prison is more than a place of punishment: it is also a site of knowledge production. From sentencing reports and parole files to lawsuits, the prison is constantly producing artifacts. It is, in other words, an archive. The archive is shaped both by the government, which oversees prisons, and by incarcerated people themselves. This talk explores how prisons constitute an archive. Focusing especially on the creative projects of currently and formerly incarcerated people have created, Berger shows how prisoners have turned their conditions of confinement into a space to imagine freedom--a speculative archive. This talk draws from an emerging digital project of prisoner activism in the 1970s and 1980s.
Like slavery, prisons force a reckoning with the idea of freedom in American life. This lecture draws from historians of slavery and the carceral state to interrogate the meaning of freedom in a country that has the world's largest prison population. Reviewing the contradictory meanings of freedom, this lecture discusses freedom not as a creed but as a set of practices.
This lecture examines the often unwitting but unfortunate role that prison reform has played in prison expansion. Thinking across the 20th century and into the present, this talk raises critical questions for the contemporary interest in ending mass incarceration.