The Roots 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.

Harriet Tubman. Photo: Wikipedia.
Harriet Tubman. Photo: Wikipedia.
Stephen Wilson: What is the Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition?

Dylan Rodríguez: 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—rebellions against the trade and transport of captive and enslaved Africans are the foundation of the broader Black radical tradition, and the original sites of incarcerated/imprisoned Black radicalisms.

Joy James: It is difficult to define the “Imprisoned Black Radical Tradition” (IBRT) if it is enveloped by the “Black Radical Tradition” (BRT). The latter is often tethered to academic texts. Also, differences in ideologies and strategies can be ill-defined if both phenomena—IBRT and BRT— are referenced in the singular, not in the plural (e.g., “Black feminism” as opposed to “Black feminisms”). It is easier for a hegemonic (Black) left—if such an entity exists—to shape definitional norms if IBRT is presented as a unitary formation. Using the standard nonplural, I see IBRT as fluid, multi-layered, and aligned with BRT.  The two have always co-existed and overlapped. They produced extraordinary leadership against the atrocities of chattel slavery, convict prison leasing, Jim Crow, COINTELPRO, mass incarceration, medical neglect and experimentation. Despite the constant wars we face—including President Nixon’s attempt to crush dissent by fabricating a “war on drugs” through unions we are able to build the capacity out of our traditions.

Toussaint Losier: In his brief preface to the first edition of Black Marxism (2000), Cedric Robinson lays claim to the Black Radical Tradition as much more than simply the ideas that emerged out of past struggles for freedom. Rather, it had more to do with how we, as Black people, continue to live through a shared sense of that past. This tradition was, he wrote, “the collective wisdom” that has emerged out of the habits, ways of life, and experiences forged in these struggles. More than an intellectual legacy, it was, for Robinson, a collectively-held historical consciousness. Built up over time, through small acts of resistance and epic moments of revolt, it was “a construct possessing its own terms, exacting its own truths.” It was, as he would explain in later writings, best understood as a living culture of liberation.  Following Robinson, the imprisoned Black Radical Tradition might be thought of as both a current within this broader culture of liberation as well as its own unique tributary. While, it is certainly part of a larger whole, this culture has at times also branched off, developing more and more on its own terms, as prisons – these sometimes-racially, but always sex-segregated carceral institutions – have been used to suppress Black peoples’ struggles. Put another way, if the social function of convict lease camps and supermax prisons hasn’t just been to control crime, but also to contain mass disruptions to the prevailing social order, disruptions caused, in part, by Black peoples’ struggles for freedom, than that containment has made prison a terrain of protracted struggle that has at times given rise to this tradition as its own unique culture of liberation.

Stephen Wilson: What would you consider the foundation(s) of that tradition? What are some of its foundational texts and major figures?

Toussaint Losier: Rooted in Black peoples’ opposition to domination, this tradition has its foundations in the forms of resistance developed during the late 19th and early 20th century. It was during this period that Black people first faced mass imprisonment through convict lease, prison farms, and the convict lease system. Each of these were institutions that emerged in response to the profound disruption to the social order of former slaveholding states caused by Black peoples’ struggles for freedom. The forms of resistance that served as the foundation of this tradition included work slowdowns and prison escape, as well as theft and sabotage. For men, these acts of sabotage included not simply the destruction of prison equipment, but also intentionally injuring themselves. For women, resistance also took the form of arson, most notably, the burning of the striped men’s prison clothes that they were often forced to wear. The prison work song, which both helped to coordinate the actions of dozens of individuals as well as provide some collective relief amidst the boredom and brutality of workday, is best thought of laying the groundwork for this culture of liberation. Out of this legacy of collective resistance have emerged a number of key figures. First among them is George Jackson and Soledad Brother (1970), his collection of prison letters. Other important figures include Martin Sostre, who authored important legal briefs and his own book of prison letters; Angela Davis, whose own trial documents and essays have been enormously influential; Atiba Shana, a writer and theoretician who remained incredibly influential, particularly amongst New African prisoners; Assata Shakur, who is best known for her escape from prison, but also published a number of crucial essays, including, “Women in Prison: How it Is With Us”; journalist Mumia Abu Jamal through his radio series, “Live from Death Row”; Richard Mafundi Lake and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, both political prisoners who mentored a generation of those within some of the toughest institutions in Alabama and Pennsylvania, respectively; and Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, who has wrote “What’s Left of the Left? A Critical Question” and other evolutionary essays.  Lastly, influential groups include the Attica Brothers and their “Manifesto of Demands and Anti-Depression Platform,” the PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective and its “Agreement to Cease Hostilities,” as well as the Black August Organizing Committee, the Free Alabama Movement, and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak.

Joy James: Antebellum enslavement was a prison. Postbellum prisons are enslavement sites. IBRT’s literary and theoretical legacy spans centuries of testimonials, speeches, and writings by abolitionists from the antebellum to the contemporary era: David Walker; Nat Turner; Harriet Tubman; Frederick Douglass; and the leadership collectives of NYC’s RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison); Chicago’s CFIST (Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Police Torture); the Jericho Movement; and (former) political prisoners Marshall Eddie Conway, Real News Network journalist, and author Mumia Abu-Jamal, incarcerated for nearly four decades.

Orisanmi Burton: Robinson writes that the Black Radical Tradition evolved largely without consciousness of itself as such and that this generalized lack of historical self-consciousness has had certain benefits. He writes: “There have been no sacred texts to be preserved from the ravages of history. There have been no intellects or leaders whose authority secured ideological and theoretical conformity and protected their ideas from criticism. There has been no theory to inoculate the movements of resistance from change.” So to evoke the Black radical tradition is in a certain sense, to defy the very notion of foundational texts. But if we operationalize a capacious notion of text; one that encompasses the scope of Black expressive culture and political praxis, a rich Black radical archive becomes available through oral tradition, artistic production, ancestral divination, and through the deeds of communities engaged in collective struggle. The stories we tell about Harriet Tubman’s life are our foundational texts. The literary and scholarly aspects of Black radicalism are inseparable from its embodied, organizational, and martial aspects.

With that said there are clearly are a number of texts that have been and that continue to be essential to the elaboration of Black radicalism in prisons: the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soledad Brother, Blood in My Eye, and Assata are unquestionably among them; as are the writings of Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela, and Frantz Fanon. Joy James’ anthologies are an indispensable resource. Interestingly, though, when I talk to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people about the texts that played a key role in their politicization they rarely mention these texts with the possible exception of the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Rather, they are more likely to list obscure and seemingly non-radical works of history, anthropology, and criminology, or works of fiction and poetry that are not explicitly about prisons or radical politics. They cite Henry David Thoreau or something like that. This tells me that what is important is not necessarily the politics of the text in question, but how people relate to the text, what the text enables them to see and do collectively. This is indicative of a radical reading and interpretive praxis in which you are searching for tool of liberation in what you have at your disposal.

Casey Goonan: I think there is also an importance in emphasizing that there are queer, transgender, and gender-nonconforming Black people that always are theorizing from or are motivated by their encounters and confrontations with police-state incarceration. We can say that Angela Davis is a queer Black woman who is formerly incarcerated and a pivotal writer and theorist during the 1970s formation of the American Prison Movement and its late-1990s bridging of all movements against systemic state and interpersonal violence, as the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex. Eric Stanley speaks about this quite a bit. And if we want to talk about how this tradition is both embedded within or the source of inspiration not only for scholarly pursuits but also of revolutionary community organizing, you can start with Marsha P. Johnson who was arrested during the Stonewall uprising and jailed. If I’m not mistaken, this experience is what incites her to start an organization and shelter with Sylvia Rivera called the STAR House in the 1970s. I’ve learned this from the archival and documentary work of Tourmaline (formerly Reina Gossett) and building on the knowledge of so many abolitionists who archive, write, and theorize the queer and trans liberationist dimensions of PIC abolition praxis. It’s neither abolitionist nor radical thought unless it prioritizes the needs, safety, access, and works to change the material circumstances of the most marginalized of imprisoned/impacted people. It is certainly not radical prison praxis if the framework refuses to study the way differently positioned people are differently criminalized, which translates into how imprisonment is experienced as well. Stevie, as a queer and abolitionist prisoner, your work speaks directly to this. You inhabit and sustain this imprisoned Black radical tradition as a community organizer, accountability facilitator, and abolitionist theorist.

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