- Ourselves at StakeSocial Reproduction in the Age of Prisons
I have seen the kind become the blind and the blind become the bind in one easy lesson.—Assata Shakur, "Affirmation"
Throughout my intellectual trajectory, trusted teachers and visionaries have reminded me of the singular injunction to put oneself at stake in the activity of thinking.1 Now with a structural privilege to pass along this calling, I do my best to enjoin students toward this mode of study too, however they may be positioned or position themselves in the terrain of social struggle. My own lessons in this sense begin anew. Case in point: reading Assata: An Autobiography (Shakur 1987), a treatise on twentieth-century black liberation struggles, during a winter season inaugurated by the formal corporate and white nationalist takeover of all major U.S. state apparatuses, with an undergraduate honors class whose overwhelming ethno-racial homogeneity reflects [End Page 225] the victories of "white-only" settler colonialism in the Pacific Northwest. One student, prompted during a student-led exercise to reflect on the material, responded anonymously that they could not engage with the text because "she is a terrorist and a murderer." Followup to this comment led another student (or perhaps the same one) to express out loud that they could not see the difference between Shakur's revolutionary ideals and those of Al Qaeda. Such delimits the horizon of their thinking at this historical conjuncture, having lived their lifetimes inured to dominant racial-ideological campaigns equating "radicalism" with some primordial terror and, all the while, habituated to accept that their classrooms could be shot up at any moment by another white or Asian classmate who learned too well the pathologies of business as usual.
So, I listened and allowed dialogue to ensue. Dissenting voices emerged as other students began exercising their language to explore thoughts on legitimate uses of force and, however tentatively, to articulate differences between supremacist and democratic social movements. This student bloc, defending the use of "extreme" tactics to respond to extreme circumstances of oppression, posed their opposition by deploying references to contemporary mass incarceration as the new slavery and to criminalization as voter disfranchisement and hence exclusion from democracy. Interestingly, such references to slavery and criminalization again elided Shakur's text altogether—the form, substance, and specificities of her analyses on their own terms, however debatable in the final instance—instead to rely on popular arguments currently circulating in progressive political culture. I share these limits of class discussion, patterned on those of dominant discourse at large, not to embarrass any students for their most sincere efforts to find their way through but to highlight two phenomena that come into view through this episode and for which the educator (by virtue of institutional power at least theoretically entitled), not the student, is ultimately accountable. First, we generally think and teach within normative environments in which students and scholars at all levels are not only expected to come with answers already packaged but rewarded for it, effectively foreclosing the act and meaning of study—for how else could these students, singled out as the best and brightest for segregation to their own elite college in the state's only public research university, have [End Page 226] made it to this desk; for that matter, having known this, how have I navigated a way to mine? Second, and to my mind even more disturbing, greater original thought went into the student's attempt to formulate a historical connection between the Black Panther Party and Al Qaeda than really to formulate that between mass incarceration, criminalization, and slavery: the latter, from an activist perspective, somehow assumed a foregone conclusion.
In naming this ultimately political crisis for the Left, a crisis of thought, my intent is not to diminish any of the preexisting intellectual labor that has, indeed, succeeded in alarming a cross section of communities throughout the United States to the perils of today's criminal justice system. My hope, instead, is to take seriously such analyses and, through further engagement, prevent their reduction to palatable talking points and easy lessons to be repeated like instructions on a box. This article, then...