The Lasting Influence 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.

“Where’s the Dream” (Victoria Pickering, Flickr)
Stephen Wilson: How has the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition influenced your work? How do you teach/introduce people to it?

Dylan Rodríguez: It’s central to my work, including my first book and my next one. I teach from my favorite “classic” Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition writings/books as well as unpublished and newer ones. One book I think we need to reprint is Schooling the Generations in the Politics of Prison! It is so crucial, and it was not widely circulated.  Tons of great stuff in that book.

Orisanmi Burton: Assata’s biography was the first book I ever read from cover to cover. Before that I didn’t think I liked to read. After that you couldn’t find me without a book in my hand.

Toussaint Losier: The Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition has influenced my work, in that much of my current research on the PIC is focused on examining the ways in which key aspects of mass incarceration emerged in response to this tradition. In addition to introducing people to the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition through classroom teaching and public scholarship, I try to introduce people to it by directly connecting them to prisoners helping to carry it on today.

Stephen Wilson:  I read an interview Dylan did with Viet Mike Ngo in which they spoke about the differences between the prison environments of yesterday and today, specifically how people read more back then. There weren’t so many distractions (televisions, tablets, radios, sports, activities). In light of these changes, how do we get prisoners to engage with this work and to contribute?

Orisanmi Burton: I have prison administrators on record discussing the utility of television for keeping incarcerated people occupied and depoliticized. These distractions are part of an explicit pacification strategy. One counter strategy would be to try to explain this to your people in historical context, but I know you’re already doing that. 

Dylan Rodríguez: Form study and reading groups! Bridge these groups with study/reading groups in the non-incarcerated world through different means and technologies!

Toussaint Losier: The distractions will be there to one degree or another. As much as they have increased though, there has also been a decline in access to printed material, particular non-law books. Much more than decades, prisons reflexively ban any literature that appears to be radical or revolutionary in nature.

Stephen Wilson: One thing folks who are incarcerated can do is write in a request a catalog from True Leap Press’s “zine-to-prison” distro (408197 Chicago IL 60640) or the South Chicago Anarchist Black Cross Zine Distro (721 Homewood, IL 60430). In fact I write about zines quite a bit and believe them to be a central archive of the Black radical tradition over the last twenty years as produced by prisoners. What roles have zines played in disseminating the works of imprisoned Black radical intellectuals?

Toussaint Losier: Zines plays a crucial role in disseminating these ideas.

Dylan Rodríguez: Zines also seem to be a great way to get students (esp. advanced high school and college/university students) to engage with the important work of publishing Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition work and corresponding with incarcerated thinkers and writers.

Casey Goonan: Zines are wonderful. I send a lot of zines into prison. I learned very quickly that zines have been a staple tool for organizing behind prison walls since the 1990s, and I really can’t wait to learn more about this. I think you mentioning South Chicago ABC Zine Distro is crucial here. This ABC in particular became a key source of literature for incarcerated people and prisoner-led/prisoner-populated organizations emerging in this last decade of proliferating mass-scale prison strikes. The archive is housed at DePaul. All of these names folk keep mentioning in this conversation are all published to some degree by South Chicago ABC Zine Distro. From compa Kevin Rashid Johnson’s original ink drawings to analysis from organic collectives of Black prisoners organizing study groups and mutual aid networks in the early-2000s. It’s all there.

Moreover, Mariame Kaba and the entire Survived and Punished network co-create zines with criminalized and incarcerated survivors of patriarchal violence, and imprisoned people who face compounded criminalization, and organize with these texts. This is one contemporary group that I think does really well by sticking with the guidance and leadership of their co-strugglers in state captivity.

Stephen Wilson: I think the best way to honor a tradition is to study it, engage with it, and critique it, while working to expand and extend it. Where is this work being done?

Joy James: The best way to honor Black radical traditions is to study, engage, and critique, while working to share within and collectives. Where is this work being done? Everywhere where folks organize. From classrooms to zoom conferences to litigations and petitions for bail funds, demands to release the incarcerated, and protests for freedom. We are not all in ideological agreement. We have never been so. We face different levels of threat, fear, depression and repression. Logically, increasing the zones for study, engagement, critique, and constructive work would leverage civil and human rights through a multi-realm compressor: from the mechanisms of policing and imprisonment within an imperial democracy through the realm of social justice movements to the maroon sites of study collectives built from repurposed time and labor to more engagement with changing the quality and duration of life for our community members. In New York prisons, over 1279 staff and 511 incarcerated have tested positive for covid-19.

Solitary confinement is used as “medical isolation” and Governor Cuomo touts hand sanitizer “New York Clean” made by imprisoned laborers (paid on average 65 cents/hour). Over 40,000 people are incarcerated in NY, less than 400 have been released to protect them from a pandemic; in effect, the state recklessly endangers lives to make a political point about its control over society. Simultaneously, protests over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others unfold alongside austerity measures. Government has defunded safety nets while refusing to tax billionaires whose wealth largely increased during the pandemic; “first  line defenders” and those vulnerable to death are disproportionately Black, Brown and Indigenous.

The POTUS enmeshed with the deadly theatrics of comingled white supremacy and police violence has called for lengthy prison sentences for protestors facing recession, covid-19 and police brutality. Witnesses—who are more than audiences—are vigilant. Today (June 1, 2020), they just declared curfew for NYC. The police tried to intimidate protestors by ramming them with cars, shooting them with rubber bullets, and lobbying tear gas at them. Police exacerbate and inflame violence as provocateurs. Witnesses mobilize. They maintain memory and record archives. As Captive Maternals crafting strategies to quell violence and sustain communities, by resisting, they build (upon) traditions for crises in sites where peaceful protestors and journalists are attacked as if they were combatants in a war zone.

Stephen Wilson: Hortense Spillers said: “Traditions are not, like objects of nature, here to stay, but survive as created social events only to the extent that an audience cares to intersect them.” With most prisoners precluded from accessing the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition, who is our audience?

Dylan Rodríguez: Anyone who alleges to be involved in freedom focused struggle.

Casey Goonan: I think when people do all of their intellectual work online or in paywalled journals it is only telling of who their analysis is intended for. Print media is what sustains movements behind and across bars more than digital information and cell phones still, no matter what anyone says or how they want to spin that. Spoken stories, verbally shared analysis, embodied memory, and printed words on paper are where the biggest impact is. That’s where you find the most sustained communion of ideas converging, I think Sharon Luk calls this the “life of paper.”

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