We were honored to partner with the Black Student Alliance to host a groundbreaking speaker at our weekly Social Justice Colloquium Series earlier this month. Orisanmi Burton joined us from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is a doctoral candidate in social anthropology, to give a presentation based on a chapter of his dissertation.
Burton’s dissertation, entitled Taller Than The Wall: Prison-based Organizing in the Empire State, has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and by multiple UNC-CH fellowships. It broadly explores forty years of activism, organizing, and intellectual production in New York state men’s prisons.
In his talk, Burton spoke with us about how gender—and specifically Black masculinity—mediates men’s experience of imprisonment and the strategies they use to resist dehumanization. Below is a quick recap of key takeaways and quotes from Burton’s presentation:
Burton discussed the 1971 prison rebellion in Attica, New York, pointing to the rebellion as an important challenge to patriarchal prison structures. He showed us an aerial map of Attica Correctional Facility, which is 340 miles west of New York City, and said:
“Notice that the prison is divided into four major cell blocks, and this is really important, because as Audre Lorde has said, divide and conquer is the first patriarchal lesson. So we can see the principle of patriarchy really clearly by looking at prison architecture and design. It separates captives from each other, but the prison also thrives on multiple levels of isolation and alienation. Captives are geographically isolated from their home communities and social networks, they are isolated from civil society, and the prolonged solitude of confinement leads many captives to express a strong sense of isolation and alienation from their own personalities and their own bodies. And this sort of experience is often likened to death. You’ll hear it called living death, social death—this is how people actually talk about it.”
A focus of Burton’s research has been to explore how groups of imprisoned men fight to preserve their humanity, dignity, and masculinity within and against the dehumanization of state captivity. Burton read from a letter from incarcerated man named Absolute who is a member of a collective. Burton said:
“This letter shows that Absolute and other members of activists know what’s going on. They know how the prison operates because they’ve studied it and formulated critiques of it. One of my key interventions in the dissertation is to argue that imprisoned activists are in fact the true ethnographers of the criminal justice continuum. The bars, fences, and walls that Absolute talks about keep imprisoned activists within tight material and geographic limits, but these groups also function against compliance. Compliance is a key term of state power in various institutional settings within and beyond the prison, but within the prison, it invokes specifically racialized and patriarchal dimensions of domination. The guards and the prison authorities have the sole authority to define compliance. They have the sole authority to interpret it and enforce it, and in practice it means, ‘Do what the man of the house says or else.’ Compliance becomes really important as a form of power after Attica. Because after Attica, prison authorities recognized that it wasn’t enough to control imprisoned bodies; they also had to control imprisoned minds.”
Burton discussed the concept of “fugitive masculinity,” a body of protofeminist thought and analysis being developed by incarcerated men.
“I am using the term fugitive masculinity to describe an emergent politics that improvises many of the the tactics and strategies associated with black feminist politics. It’s a protofeminist politics in which captive men seek to escape and abolish the logic of racist patriarchy as it is enacted in the prison. It is about constructing a manhood that does not rely on symbols of hegemonic masculinity. It is about building a masculine power that does not presuppose or reenact domination. When I’m talking about black feminist politics, I’m citing women such as Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Julia Oparah, Joy James, and many others. According to these theorists, some of the key aspects of black feminist theory include building unity across difference, using experience as a mode of analysis, enacting a politics of care, and preserving and transmitting knowledge.”
We invite you to join us for future sessions in the Social Justice Colloquium Series.