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AAADS Critical Issues Lecture

“Black Masculinity and Geographies of Incarceration”

Presented by Rashad Shabazz
Feb. 11, 2008

Rashad Shabazz, a PhD candidate in the history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has incorporated his work as a prison abolitionist with his dissertation-in-progress. As the spring speaker in the AAADS Critical Issues Lecture Series, Shabazz addressed "Black Masculinities and Geographies of Incarceration" as representing the intersections around prison masculinity and spatial order, drawing his research questions from history, literature, and geography. By using the Robert Taylor housing projects of Chicago, he expanded on the consequences of spatial order beginning prior to prison in the lives and performance of masculinity for African American males. He cited the existence of a certain spatial logic in such an environment that informs the spatial ordering of lives and the production of subjectivity in those who live there. He further made a comparison of U.S. housing project spatial logics to those of South Africa and other parts of apartheid Africa.

Shabazz explained how, during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, the Southside of Chicago was full of mansions and apartments that were divided into smaller spaces rented out at exorbitant rates. These "kitchenettes" allowed many families, and additional people, to occupy spaces that had originally been built for single families. Such overcrowded conditions set the stage for black people to live life under carceral conditions. (Shabazz noted that Richard Wright had, in fact, referred to such housing, which he knew firsthand, as "prisons." ) By the end of World War II, as cities changed, kitchenettes were becoming obsolete and housing projects replaced them, which at first seemed an improvement. But with the rise of consumerism, highways, and the entrenchment of black poverty, the projects went from a place of promise to a spatially constrained housing trend that contributed to the discriminatory patterns of spatial logic. Housing emerged as a way to maintain the stereotype of "black equals ghetto and black equals prison." Furthermore, said Shabazz, such housing facilitated the exploitation of African Americans by "spatially cordoning them off from and for the public good."

The Robert Taylor project epitomizes the logic of carceral living space, according to Shabazz, because it is by far the biggest and costliest of the nation's projects -and is more associated with dread, violence, and poverty than any other. With 34,000 people living in the 4,400 stacked units in 28 identical U-shaped sets of buildings, that environment "normalized carceral characteristics in public space" through the use of cameras and police surveillance, lack of healthful foods in the nearby expensive stores selling cheap products (and which refused to accept the food stamps that might have relived customer poverty), the use of turnstiles for exchanging money for good (a very prison-like mode), and led to an underground economy of cashless bartering. Eventually, many of the residents demanded help and ended up with police surveillance in hallways and a resident i.d. system, which became another way of monitoring black bodies. The next "improvement," installing steel bars around and on each building, was even more obviously prison-like. Those whose lives are shaped by the experience of dwelling under such conditions actually refer to their living space as "vertical prisons."

Shabazz stated that, on the heels of such prison-like housing for African Americans, today's prison-industrial complex is on the rise. As impoverished black people lose jobs and turn to illegal activities and hustling, prisons help the state deal with employment issues and superfluous black bodies that are no longer employable. For black males, going from project confinement to prison confinement is a transition from one carceral space to another. They are already familiar with "prison masculinity" because they have already performed it in the "post-industrial ghettoes" of their lives prior to prison.

Shabazz noted the characteristics of prison masculinity as being "ultra masculine," with physical toughness required to survive the violence. It proclaims itself through a prison-imitation look: sculpted bodies, tank tops, sagging clothes, and tattoos, especially of guns. Ironically, said Shabazz, prison masculinity is rooted in the hegemonic masculinity of society, rooted in whiteness, competition, and dominance. But some form of power, real or abstract, is required to imitate the hegemonic model. In lieu of that in prison, bodies are used to perform masculinity.

In the larger society, black prison masculinity has increasingly been articulated in popular culture even as there has been an increasing prisonization of black male space -a point Shabazz illustrated with slides showing rappers such as 50 Cent. The bulky muscles, tattoos, and clothing styles, especially in hip-hop, allow black males -and others- to create identity and difference from the hegemonic society, as well as to provide a form of self-protection.

While the conditions of carceration have long been the dominant environmental equation for African Americans in this nation, the headlong plunge into the prison-industrial complex as an employment solution and repository for black males is today at its zenith. As Rashad Shabazz noted, racial spatial containment is segregation is apartheid and is the carceral order that defines far too many black lives in the 21st century.