The Complexities of the ‘Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition’

*This interview is part 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.

Mural of Angela Davis at Abode of Chaos (Theirry Ehrmann, Flickr)
Stephen Wilson: What are the different tendencies within the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition? What are some of its internal contradictions?

Toussaint Losier: This tradition’s tendencies largely fall under the broader umbrella of Black Nationalism, ranging from the cultural politics of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths, to the revolutionary nationalism of the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, and the Republic of New Afrika, to more politically sophisticated factions of street and prison organizations like the Crips, the Conservative Vice Lords, and the Black Guerilla Family. These tensions have largely revolved around larger strategic questions of how to secure freedom, dignity, and recognition of Black peoples’ human rights.  One important contradiction that this tradition faces is that while it has been enriched by efforts to mobilize towards these goals, these efforts have largely been defined by the spatially-limited, sex-segregated characteristics of the prison environment. Not only have these characteristics largely constrained the degree to which Black prisoners can organize with one another, they have also largely left Black men and women prisoners disconnected from each other. As a result, just as a mass imprisonment has given rise to a unique culture of liberation behind bars, sex segregation has given rise to particularly gendered conceptions of prison struggle. In women’s prisons, this struggle is assumed to be a more covert form of survival as resistance, while in men’s prisons, it is expected to pose a more overt and direct challenge. Despite glaring exceptions, these gendered conceptions of prison struggle help to reify, rather than subvert, stereotypical conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Here, mass imprisonment not only gives rise to its own distinct culture of liberation, but also, by its very nature, largely dictates the gendered responses its repression will provoke.

Casey Goonan: I guess in more recent years, we see the sites and scenes that practitioners in this tradition understand movement-building as taking space and making place within, and it’s interesting how the “where” of abolition begins to get mapped moving into the twenty-first-century, and its emergence as a present-day orientation and approach to praxis in the Black radical tradition. Fundamental to understanding this tradition is in fact the decentering of the inside/outside relation as the 20th century came to a close. This geographic revision is seen largely as an historical necessity by its most rigorous theoreticians, and is invoked often by leadership, directives, curation, mediation, intervention, criticism, and embodied contributions from imprisoned Black radicals to the trajectory of the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex. 1998 is a year marking a substantial proliferation of convergences from marches to conferences, and merging not only of nonimprisoned activists. These organizing efforts can be traced back to an urgency galvanized post-“Crime Bill” denaturalization of antiBlack genocide and warfare, an urgency itself given its spark from a decentralized and broad-based apparatus of intellectual, legal, and culture workers whose pedagogical influence cannot be taken for granted.  Marches on the outside that year included Jericho 98 March for political prisoners, the first Black Radical Congress, Critical Resistance’s first national conference in Oakland, the CR ‘98 pre-conference in Colorado which Dr. James recently writes about. For texts that demonstrate the intellectual shifts in perspective on how and where counter-carceral movements take place, I feel Cinosole’s brilliantly edited volume Schooling the Generations in the Politics of Prison and NOBO’s Black Prison Movements offers good works to read, which also coincide with a mid-nineties surge in reprinting of George Jackson and Assata Shakur’s writings. One of the best collections of writings from the IBRT as we are defining it is Dr. James’ edited volumes Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals, The New Abolitionists, and The Angela Y. Davis Reader.

Orisanmi Burton: In my view, a major contradiction of Black radicalism in prisons is that Black radical praxis has been one of the major drivers of U.S. carceral development and innovation. In other words, historically, one of the major consequences of this phenomena is that prisons have gotten better at isolating people, better at surveilling people, better at co-opting radical and proto-radical activities, better at naturalizing discourse of rehabilitation, and better at controlling the flow of information. I do not mean to suggest that better prisons has been the only outcome of the radical praxis of imprisoned people, but when we historicize the prisons of today – not just in the United States but around the world – we can trace how particular prison policies, protocols, and programs came into being in reaction to earlier cycles of Black-led struggle. This dialectic is most apparent when we look at the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period termed by one imprisoned intellectual, “the prison rebellion years.” At that point, when the U.S. prison population was on the precipice of its meteoric rise, the major municipal jail and state prison systems were not very sophisticated in terms of their management and order-maintenance techniques. Captive populations were basically managed through racism and brute violence. They are still managed through racism and brute violence but also through a diverse repertoire of pacification tactics that had to be adopted in order for prisons to survive the crisis they were facing. In 1972, immediately following San Quentin, Attica, and several other lesser known prison rebellions, prisons began to attract more federal resources and more expertise, which has enabled them to more effectively punish and incapacitate people and prevent the kinds of rebellions that appeared in the 1970s from reemerging. So right now, as we witness a new cycle of Black radicalism in prisons – from the Pelican Bay strikes of 2013 to the National Prison Strikes of 2016 and 2018. These actions and the many in between have been inspiring and right-on in terms of their analysis and methods, yet despite the deep organizing that made them actions possible – I would wager that the majority of people inside and outside of prisons remain largely unaware that these events took place. And a major reason for this is that prisons have become adept at public relations – at managing the flow of information and shaping public perception. This is one small example among many of how Black radical praxis heightens the consciousness of the actors on both sides of the struggle. So I think this is something we have to contend with. Prisons are laboratories of repression and prison authorities pay attention to each assertion of political will and they shift their tactics accordingly. For me, prison abolition is about breaking this dialectic of rebellion and counter-rebellion, which has been so central to U.S. carceral development.

Stephen Wilson: What are some of its influences upon other African American intellectual traditions?

Dylan Rodríguez: Incarcerated Black radicalism challenges all African American (and for that matter, “anti-racist”) intellectual traditions that suggest the possibility that robust forms of Black being—that is, the fullness of Black human being beyond notions of the “Black citizen,” the “free” (and/or “respectable,” “responsible”) Black person, and African American communities—can be fully actualized within the modern US national project.  Put another way, the carceral Black radical tradition suggest a deeply and completely upheaving conceptualization of (Black) freedom and (Black) human liberation that is in confrontation with the modern white supremacist and antiBlack hemispheric and global hegemony.

Joy James: The Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition’s breadcrumb trail and navigation include: David Walker’s 1829 Appeal; Haywood Patterson’s 1950 Scottsboro Boy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; Malcolm X’s 1965 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (shaped by Alex Haley); Anne Moody’s 1968 Coming of Age in Mississippi; George Jackson’s 1970 Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson; The Attica Men’s 1971 The Attica Manifesto; Assata Shakur’s 1987 Assata: An Autobiography; Safiya Bukhari’s 2010 The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, and Fighting for Those Left Behind.

Stephen Wilson: Where is the imprisoned Black radical tradition today? What are some emerging trends?

Joy James: The Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition’s past manifests in the present. Victories exist but not as “successes.” We the people have not transcended captivity, social violence, exploitation, poverty, trafficking, femicide and infanticide, transphobia and devastation of the natural world. Yet, we have a legacy. Not all of it is written down. Not all existing Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition writings are evenly distributed and read. Still, we continue to learn from the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition’s oral and written contributions. Led by the formerly and currently incarcerated, the Jericho Movement encourages us to contemplate the upcoming 70th anniversary of the 1951 We Charge Genocide document, which utilizes the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. We are all indebted to Imprisoned Black Radical Traditions. As we organize—and mourn our losses—we will continue to build upon our inheritance.

Dylan Rodríguez: I think it is everywhere, constantly changing, and internally contested while it is also in permanent confrontation with the carceral antiBlack and racist state. It traverses prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile halls, and reentry homes. Some emerging trends include new organizing strategies (utilizing cell phones, social media, email, and letter-writing), re-visiting Black radical ideological traditions of the recent and long historical past, feminist abolitionist Black radicalism, and trans* Black radicalism.

Stephen Wilson: If someone studies the African American intellectual tradition but does not include the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition, is that study complete?

Toussaint Losier: Studies that ignore the imprisoned Black radical tradition are not simply incomplete. Even more troubling, they concede defeat to prisons as brutal instruments of social control. For even though they are not fully able to disconnect those they hold from their loved ones, prisons do attempt to convey the idea that prisoners no longer matter, effectively disappearing those held behind prison walls from the rest of society Thus studies that ignore the cultural and intellectual contributions of prisoners to this tradition, as well as how they have forged their own branch of this broader culture of liberation, risk reinforcing the main ideological falsehoods that prisons promote.

Joy James: Without the inclusion of the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition, African American intellectualism becomes less clear and more likely to be polished with a glossy preservative that appeals to the privileged and reassures with palliative rather than “curative” politics. We’ve learned not to erase women, children, LGBTQ leaders, and revolutionaries from our political memories and analyses. Therefore, we know how to hold onto our radicals as imprisoned radical teachers, and to support them during their trials. The contributions of Rev. Joy Powell show us how important it is to stay vigilant and protect each other. The legacy of international political prisoners who took risks in political action to build communities and nations—Patrice Lumumba, Tom Mboya, Nelson Mandela, and Dulcie September (incarcerated for six years, she later worked for the ANC in Paris, where she was assassinated in 1988) are also instructive.

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