The Makings of a Forum: “Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition”

*This is the introduction to 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).
From Stephen Wilson

“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.” –Hortense Spillers

Last year, while imprisoned at SCI-Smithfield, I received a letter from Garrett Felber, inviting me to submit an essay, around 1500 words, to be posted on Black Perspectives. I was ecstatic. This is a rare opportunity: an imprisoned Black radical intellectual publishing on a well-known, well-respected site. I had used material from the blog in my study groups so I was familiar with the caliber of writers and intellectuals who have written for Black Perspectives.

Initially, I was going to write an essay on the need to employ an intersectional analysis when engaged in critical prison studies. Much of my work has underscored this point. Too often, in discourses on prisons and policing, a totalizing definition of prisoner or defendant, usually Black or Brown, able-bodied, cis-het male, is used, thereby invisibilizing the lived experiences of so many other people behind the walls. There is no monolithic prison experience. Marginalized populations often find themselves erased from the conversation. I see my work as an intervention, a correction.

But then I realized that my audience may not be aware of or recognize the intellectual tradition I work within. For too long, the Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition and the Black Radical Tradition have been estranged. They have not spoken to each other in quite some time. I viewed this invitation as a chance to effect a rapprochement of sorts.

I felt I needed to establish the facticity of it first. I pitched the idea of a roundtable to Garrett. He enthusiastically agreed with my view and we brainstormed possible participants. Being imprisoned, I could not contact possible participants. Moreover, I didn’t have the connections to approach certain people. Garrett Felber and Dan Berger handled the communication between potential and eventual participants. They facilitated communications between the participants and me. And there was a lot of facilitating that was necessary. But through phone calls, emails, snail mail- and prayer-, we got it done. We got it done.

The Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition, a discipline with a history and a body of rigorous scholarship, is the origin of the Black Radical Intellectual Tradition. As Dylan Rodríguez has argued, “Black radicalism is the Black radicalism created and mobilized under conditions of imprisonment and incarceration. As soon as the colonial chattel project occupied Africa, the carceral Black radical tradition emerged.” It is imperative that African American intellectuals engage with this tradition. The most vexatious issues that free world Black intellectuals grapple with are the very same issues imprisoned Black radical intellectuals are struggling with: the continual devaluation of Black life. As Joy James explains, the work and “analyses of imprisoned intellectuals both deconstruct dominant ideologies and reconstruct new strategies for humanity. Their writings proffer reactive and proactive readings of struggle and freedom.” Free world Black intellectuals can greatly benefit from these works.

Moreover, I believe any discourse on policing and imprisonment that does not center the voices of prisoners is incomplete and very likely to promote ‘solutions’ that reify state power over Black life. If free world scholars are not willing to engage the work of imprisoned intellectuals, from where will they get their information, the factual basis, of their work? Do they expect the departments of corrections or the police to provide accurate information or analyses? No one has more intimate knowledge of policing and imprisonment than those who live at the most concentrated point of the prison-industrial complex. But that knowledge often goes unheard, a detriment to the cause of Black liberation.

This roundtable is a product of the very kind of collaboration I am calling for in the roundtable.  The Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition  is facing numerous barriers and obstacles to its existence. We need intellectuals on the other side of the wall to engage, critique, preserve and expand the tradition with us. I truly feel honored to have been given the chance to do this work and with great partners. I am grateful for this opportunity to effect a remembering of sorts, a reintroduction to the Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition.

It is my hope that having established the facticity and relevance of the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition, there will be more opportunities like this one for other working within the tradition. I hope it motivates the reader to make connections with the work and the intellectuals producing the work. Our success as a people depends upon us staying connected and engaged. Let this roundtable be a means of achieving this goal.

From Garrett Felber

This forum began over a year ago when I pitched the editors at Black Perspectives the idea of soliciting more writings by incarcerated people on Black intellectual history. Stevie Wilson, a Black abolitionist activist and intellectual incarcerated at SCI-Fayette, located on a toxic waste dump an hour South of Pittsburgh, wrote me enthusiastically with a list of scholars he wanted to engage on the Black Radical Tradition and its relationship to what he called the “Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition.” This distinction was provocative by design. As Stevie argues, the two have become alienated from one another and he “viewed this invitation as a chance to effect a rapprochement of sorts.” 

My role was mostly logistical: I corresponded with Stevie, who conveyed questions through me to our panelists, and we repeated this cycle several times. As I prepared to send the first round of questions to participants in April, Stevie was thrown in solitary for 30 days for declaring his solidarity with hunger strikers at Rikers Island who were protesting deadly overcrowding and lack of protective equipment during the COVID-19 outbreak. Stevie himself went on hunger strike for over a week while in solitary confinement, refusing more than twenty meals. 

I briefly lay out the context for producing this roundtable because without it, the content becomes disembodied, replicating the same divisions that the prison works so tirelessly to create. Without the context of captivity, content becomes, to borrow Stevie’s words, “estranged.” As you will read in the upcoming discussion, the idea of two distinct Black Radical Traditions breaks down quickly, complicating the simplistic dichotomy of freedom and unfreedom. As Joy James points out, “the two [traditions] have always co-existed and overlapped.” 

Stevie argues in his introduction that the Black Radical Tradition’s origin point is in fact theorized through, although not contained by, captivity. Yet the challenge of communicating and organizing across the impediments which separate these intersecting traditions remains. I hope a basic function of this roundtable is to encourage non-imprisoned scholars and activists to engage with the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition and its theoreticians more deeply—not simply as its students, but as comrades in struggle. 

*Update: Stevie was placed in solitary confinement on August 17 for speaking out about the reduction of time out of cells on his block. 

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Stephen Wilson & Garrett Felber

Stephen Wilson is a currently incarcerated, Black, queer writer, activist and student. He is a founding member of Dreaming Freedom Practicing Abolition, a network of self-organized prisoner study groups building abolitionist community behind and across prison walls. Follow him on Twitter @agitateorganize. Garrett Felber is Assistant Professor in the Arch Dalrymple III Department of History at the University of Mississippi. Felber is the author of Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement and the Carceral State (UNC Press, 2020) and co-author of The Portable Malcolm X Reader with the late Manning Marable (Penguin Classics, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @garrett_felber.

Comments on “The Makings of a Forum: “Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition”

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    Great article…..
    I’ve been home a few years, now. I was away for Twenty in Illinois. Forward my information to any one who would like to build.
    Lewis DeJan

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