Orisanmi Burton, assistant professor of anthropology at American University, is one of six recipients of the $1.5 million Freedom Scholars Awards for 2021. The annual award from Marguerite Casey Foundation and Group Health Foundation, established in 2020, provides each scholar $250,000 in unrestricted funds, distributed over two years, to utilize as they see fit. The Freedom Scholars are leading research in critical fields including abolitionist, Black, feminist, queer, radical, and anti-colonialist studies.
Burton holds a Ph.D. in anthropology, and is trained as an archivist and librarian. As a scholar of social anthropology, Black studies, and prisons and policing, his current area of focus involves the wave of prison rebellions across the United States in the 1970s. He seeks to reframe our understanding of these pivotal events and how they inform the abolitionist movements of today. Burton is finalizing his first book “Tip of the Spear: The Long Attica Rebellion and Prison Pacification in the Empire State.”
The Freedom Scholars awards program is now in its second year. Past Freedom Scholars have utilized their award in a variety of ways – from writing books and articles, to resourcing organizations at the frontline of movement work, to creating a fellowship for young activists to convene and ideate on what movements are fighting for. Below Burton discusses his work and how the award will advance his scholarship.
Q: Congratulations on this great honor. How will the award help with the goals of your scholarship?
Burton: I’m deeply honored to receive this award, which will put me in a great position to sustain my work over the long term. What Cedric Robinson and my esteemed co-Freedom Scholar, Robin D.G. Kelley, have called “The Black radical tradition” is an archive, a library of largely unknown knowledge. The research I’ve been doing is collecting, organizing and interpreting this extensive archive.
I am working on a book project about Dhoruba al-Mujahid bin Wahad, a Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member. I am also researching what I call “Black Masculine care work,” both inside of prisons and beyond. I recently published an article that subverts the narrative that Black men in prison are always hypermasculine and hyperviolent. Rather, it shows how they establish deep bonds of kinship, through various kinds of tenderness and care in ways that often go unacknowledged.
Q: Tell me about “Tip of the Spear.” What are some of the misconceptions the public has about the prison uprisings of the 1970s, including the Attica Prison riot, and what can we learn from them to drive social change today?
Burton: A key misconception about the Attica rebellion was that it lasted for only four days and took place only in Attica Prison. My book is about what I call “the long Attica rebellion.” It extends its duration to at least 13 months of ongoing struggle and shows that it was dispersed across multiple jails and prisons across New York, the United States, and to some extent internationally. It also situates this rebellion within the much broader context of the Black radical tradition. The book centers the forms of analysis, the modes of consciousness, and the kinds of demands asserted by those who were part of that struggle and who understood themselves to be Black radicals and revolutionaries. It also disrupts the idea that the rebellion’s primary demand was for prison reform, arguing that it was really about abolition and a much deeper kind of social transformation, not only of our politics and our economy, but in our ways of being human.
Q: Can you elaborate further on what you reveal in the book?
Burton: If you look into the historical archives around the prison movement in the 1970s, you will see that administrators, functionaries and technocrats understood the prison as a site of war. For instance, J. Edgar Hoover [first and longest-serving FBI director] used the language of war to describe Black activists and how they should be contained. That language authorized the deployment of counterinsurgency techniques against Black populations within and beyond prisons, techniques that were then legitimized through a national prison reform agenda.
In my book, I explore prison reform as a consciously designed strategy deployed to prevent abolition from taking root in the public imagination and in policy. Essentially, a key reason that prison reform becomes such powerful discourse after Attica is to crowd out and suffocate more radical demands for abolition. In other words, since the 1970s, prison reform has covertly functioned as counterinsurgency and this has profound implications for today, as abolitionist movements are increasingly confronted with notions of reform.
Q: As a social anthropologist and trained archivist, much of your work involves archival research. What other methods do you use?
Burton: I conduct oral histories, mostly with elders, people who were active in the 1960s and 1970s. There’s an African proverb that says, “when an elder dies, a library is burned.” So oral history, especially within the context of the Black radical tradition, is archival research. Elders are living archives. They’ve accumulated knowledge, experience and consciousness, and I feel obligated to access that knowledge, to keep it alive, and share it in a way that will be useful to others who want to change our world.