“Imagining a New World Without Cages”: An Interview with Stephen Wilson

*This interview is the conclusion of our online forum on ‘The Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition,’ organized by Stephen Wilson and Garrett Felber. The forum is in honor of Black August, which recognizes the overlapping histories of Black resistance.

Incarcerated abolitionist Stevie Wilson. (Photo: Stevie Wilson).

For more than a year, Stevie and I have been in discussion about the prison movement: its history and possible futures, its coalitions and contradictions. He pointed to the history that Toussaint Losier and I chronicled in Rethinking the American Prison Movement as an inspiration for him to locate his work in the context of a larger Black radical tradition in prison—a tradition that he, like other incarcerated dissidents, not only practice but extend and reimagine through correspondence, study, and organizing. Rather than draft a formal concluding essay, Stevie asked to maintain the dialog format of the roundtable itself. I sent him some questions to garner his reflections on the roundtable process and on how this discussion might inform intellectual and political work in this period.

Dan Berger: What lead you to convene this roundtable, and what did you learn from doing it? How do you see yourself operating within or extending this tradition?

Stephen Wilson: When I was invited to contribute to Black Perspectives, I initially planned an essay on the need to employ an intersectional analysis in discourses on prisons and policing. My imagined readers were others working within the Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition. But then I realized my actual audience would mainly be “free-world” Black intellectuals. Are these folks aware of the work of imprisoned Black radical intellectuals? Did they recognize the Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition? I decided to convene the roundtable as a way of introducing or reintroducing Black intellectuals to this tradition. My desire was to encourage engagement with and connection to the tradition and its practitioners.

What I learned was that, like every successful endeavor, it won’t happen without the support of others. This lesson is applicable to the actual logistics of producing this roundtable and the the preservation, production and expansion of the Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition. Without support and connections across the walls, I could never have pulled this roundtable together, and I couldn’t do the work I am doing within the tradition.

Berger: What threats or barriers do you see to the tradition today?

Wilson: I see my work within the tradition as mainly a corrective or intervention. I continually challenge those working within the tradition to expand their definitions of prisoner, freedom, community and blackness. Some folks working within the tradition have truncated definitions that ignore the lived experiences of marginalized persons. Their myopic views of liberation erase so many imprisoned people from discourses on prisons and policing. The solutions they propose not only provide no relief for marginalized prisoners, but also harm so many prisoners who come from communities that exist on the margins and in the interstices of society. I hope my work expands the concerns and foci of the tradition.

Berger: One thing that emerges from the conversation is about connections across the walls. What ways do you see, or wish, that people outside participated in or supported this tradition inside? What do you think people on the outside should know or learn about what is happening inside?

Wilson: The barriers/threats to the Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition can be summarized into three categories:

The PIC. A learned prisoner is an affront to the PIC. Those of us working within the tradition continually find ourselves confronted with and challenging policies and procedures designed to frustrate our connections to the free world. Whether it be outright censorship/denial of materials or intimidation tactics (shakedowns/threats of solitary confinement), the PIC relentlessly works to eradicate the Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition.

Prisoners. We have yet to learn how to truly work across differences. We allow difference to become division. This only helps the PIC. The Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition has different tendencies. But the ultimate goal is one: liberation. Too often, we forget that and commit lateral violence. Another issue with prisoners is that we have allowed ourselves to become distracted by the jailhouse “amenities” the PIC dangles in front of us. We spend more time playing games than feeding our minds. That is just what the PIC wants. You leave the same way you came in. So they will keep a light on for you.

Allies. So much of the American Prison Movement has moved online. This effectively precludes prisoner participation. Whether it is actual discussions, publication, or events, social media-only activism shuts us out. We need allies to remember this point and find ways to include us. Without our participation, the picture will always be incomplete. We have the most intimate knowledge of imprisonment and policing. The move online coupled with the dwindling of print publications works against the Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition.

As mentioned above, accessibility is a major issue. I wish people outside would remember those without internet access and find ways to include them. Also, using their platforms to amplify the voices and works of those working within the tradition is important. I know that without outside supporters providing me space on their platforms and at events, my work would not be known.

I want people outside to know that work is being done inside. We are imagining a new world, a world without cages. We are theorizing and practicing what we want the world to be. Get familiar with our work.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.