University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Geography

Geography in Black and White

Rashad Shabazz

Rashad Shabazz will introduce his longtime mentor in activist scholarship, Angela Davis, before she speaks on March 25, 7 p.m. in Ira Allen Chapel. Learn more about the event. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Surveillance cameras. Confined -- and defined -- spaces. Human interactions through Plexiglas barriers. Hard lives, hardened men. This is prison. But not necessarily one you enter by order of a court, argues Rashad Shabazz, assistant professor of geography. Some prisons you inhabit simply by being poor or working class and black.

It's more than a metaphor for oppression. Based on Shabazz's study of the 1962 Robert Taylor housing project in Chicago, as well as research on South African mining compounds and observations of current communities from New York ghettos to South Central Los Angeles, there is an architecture and landscape designed to exert control.

"Robert Taylor's open spaces," writes Shabazz in a recent issue of the journal Souls, "were 'dead spaces' with no trees, pathways, or playgrounds; tons of concrete isolated residents from the surrounding Black community. Robert Taylor's landscape gave the appearance of openness, while concealing its carceral logic."

There was, he explains, constant policing and surveillance. Interior units were cage-like. With no supermarkets nearby, small corner stores stocked with processed foods and fatty meats contributed to obesity along with the humiliation of dealing with cashiers enclosed behind bulletproof walls, merchandise received through turnstiles.

Robert Taylor was a training ground and one stop on a relentless circuit. As Shabazz quotes a former resident on growing up there, "Prison was just a change of address."

Man in space

This geography of prison culture, the geography that shapes how poor black men define themselves, is central to Shabazz's work. "The way in which black communities are structured -- the containment, the bars, the closed space -- what impact does that have on the body?" he asks, helping further define his research. "What impact does it have on gender performance?"

By way of contrasting the impact of prison on expressions of masculinity, Shabazz notes the tough posturing that even little boys on the playground are subject to. As adults, middleclass white men prove themselves through acquiring property, financial stability, power in the workplace, heterosexual marriage.

The need is ubiquitous in our society, but without access to mainstream norms, prisoners take on an exaggerated masculinity.

"Because of the geography of prison," Shabazz says, "the sheer horror of prison life, the suffering, the isolation, it exaggerates the desire for patriarchal control. Toughness is not only articulated by a posture there, but by bulking up the body, by inking the body. Tattoos say something about pain. There's no need to posture any more."

What prison does to men, so too do the prison-like spaces in which poor black men grow up, and return to, after release from the "inside." In their desperation for credibility, they articulate a will to hurt others; in their powerlessness, they exert control over women and children. They learn, Shabazz says, "a prisonized masculinity, to negotiate and survive violence."

Rap up

This equation between prison culture and inner city black men became so pervasive that it is now iconic, made cool even, co-opted, ironically, by white youth who may not understand the troubled origins of hip-hop.

The infamously violent and misogynistic lyrics of rap music evolved from this phenomenon. The aesthetics that originated in the "'hood," so confounding to much of the middleclass -- the baggie pants, exposed boxer shorts, large T-shirts and bandanas -- is a replication of carceral life. "Prisoners wear baggy clothes," writes Shabazz, "because in prison they do not receive clothes that fit; neither do they receive belts, so that their pants sag."

The implications of creating communities that serve as prep school for prison, having a circular system that feeds what has become a major industry in the U.S., is deeply troubling to Shabazz.

He is a member of Critical Resistance, an organization seeking to abolish the prison industrial complex, co-founded by Shabazz's mentor Angela Davis, professor emerita of history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and an activist who spent 18 months in jail and on trial during the civil rights movement.

"The biggest lesson I learned from (Davis)," says Shabazz, "is that my scholarship must have stakes in the greater good.

So he looks for answers in education, ending poverty, in decent shelter and basic freedoms.

"Why," Shabazz asks, "do we keep people in cages? Does it work? It punishes, but does it keep people safe?"