The Seeds of Abolition

Analysis

While millions protested the murder of George Floyd and police brutality against Black people all over the world, there have been many voices criticizing the lack of acknowledgement of the injustices towards Black women, and of their leading roles in social justice movements. Historian Edna Bonhomme analyses the significance of Black women within social movements – starting with the fight for the abolishment of slavery and the civil rights movement to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Two women at Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol, 2016

Sojourner Truth never failed to evoke the severity of slavery and feminism; when she was granted a platform to speak during the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron Ohio, she lamented, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man.”  Determined to quell the critiques by male anti-slavery advocates who suggested that the women should not participate in abolition struggles. Being both Black and woman, Truth drove home the capacity of women to actively participate and shape the abolition struggle.

Near the end of her speech there was an avalanche of applause, a change of hearts and a recognition that more needed to be done to link the abolition movement with women’s suffrage. Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 in New York State, Sojourner Truth exercised her abolition. After her enslaver defied his word to respect the 1827 New York State anti-slave law, she took matters from her hand and liberated herself from his reign. 

Fast forward to 2020, abolition has taken on a different tone - predicated on abolishing the police and prisons. The murder of Breonna Taylor, an African American woman by Louisville police, has sparked some debates about the precarity of Black women’s life. On 13 March 2020, in the middle of the night, officers entered into her apartment, fired multiple shots, striking Ms. Taylor to the point that she struggled to breathe, leading to her eventual death.

Breonna Tyler

While the murder of African American George Floyd has sparked international demonstrations in the United States and beyond, with many reigniting a new form of abolition, Breonna Taylor’s murderers still roam free. This begs the question:  What does it mean that despite contemporary theorists and activists for abolition are Black women, yet the arc of uprisings disproportionately venerates Black men? 

We no longer live in the 1800s, but today, Black activists such as Mariame Kaba “have been advocating the abolition of the police for years.”  Like their predecessors, they call for full abolition of violent institutions, rather than full reform. From slavery to now, the seeds for abolition were often planted by Black women, even when their male counterparts received credit. An account for how these politics emerged as well as the evolution of the politics can be understood from the social positioning of Black women in America from the periods of enslavement, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Under Jim Crow, there were legal sanctions that dictated physical separation of white and Black people in the United States, in buses, restaurants, schools, and beyond.

As Ashley Farmer wrote in Black Perspectives, Black civil Rights women such as Rosa Parks were not docile figures rather, they were critical of gradualism and deployed radicalism in their politics.   The social movements against Jim Crow and the Black lives matter movement today recognize that respectability is not enough to challenge racist, capitalist, and heteropatrichal institutions. Black women have been at the center of abolitionist frameworks and they were often tied to reproductive health, sexual politics, and as Breonna Taylor’s death shows, the precariousness of Black women’s lives even in their domestic spaces.

Given Black women’s location at the interstices of multiple oppressions, they have been at the center of systematically challenging racism, sexism, and classism. This mobilization is often grounded by Black radical tradition with Black feminist overtones. Coined by Mary Helen Washington, Black left feminism was originally used to describe the post-World War II literary work of Black women radicals. This tradition is important insofar as it shows the connections between Black women whose particular mobilization was tied to the ongoing struggle for bodily autonomy—a dynamic that was unique to their reproduction.

Deconstructing Abolition

Abolition can appear abstract, unattainable and vast, and often centered on Black men, yet, any thorough investigation of the history of enslavement in the Americas, presents another reading of Black insurrection. Black women in the settler colonial United States, like Sojourner Truth, were at the helm of disrupting brutal systems that treated them like cattle, often surmounting the injustices through everyday acts of resistance—from slowing down their labor to poisoning their white enslavers.

They left an indelible mark and led anti-slavery campaigns in the United States and beyond. Whether they were leaders or orators, they organized with such fervor because there was a promise for more, and a turning away from the veritable conditions of chattel slavery, the substandard way of living and the acute sense that labor struggles can be seen in the freedom struggles. 

When people profess their knowledge of the nineteenth century anti-slavery movement, the Black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass is often cited, with accounts about his enslavement circulating amongst people who were horrified by the brutality of not being treated fully human. As the founder of the abolitionist newsletter, North Star, he became active in anti-slavery campaigns in the United States and spoke out against slavery.

Although he was at the center of the abolition movement, “[t]he story of Frederick Douglass’ hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom,” as his daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague mentioned, “has been told—you know it. It was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray.”  The erasure of Anna in the mainstream social imagination of abolition history is partially attributed to the effacement of Black women in history.

The extent that Black women get credit for abolition is a barometer for the value that societies place on Black women. Yet, it does not mean that their efforts to dismantle racism and sexism are absent. Under slavery, Black women were systematically raped by their masters and overseers so that they could bear 8, 10, 12 children and reproduce the next generation of slaves. Nevertheless, these abuses did not go without defiance. As Angela Davis noted in Women, Race, and Class black women resisted by poisoning their masters, sabotaging their crops, and escaping for freedom (1).  

There are countless examples of where Black women participated in guerilla style combat to challenge slavery. In 1816, the US military discovered a community of three hundred formerly enslaved people—Black men, women and children—who occupied a fort in Florida. When they refused to surrender themselves, the army launched a battle. The women fought back on equal terms with the men, but after ten days of fighting, more than two hundred of the inhabitants were murdered by the military. By the time that Black people were emancipated in the United States in 1865, the fight for life had not been complete. In fact, retaliation continued under the rubric of Jim Crow segregation, the legal parameters for separate and unequal.

Against Respectability

In the early twentieth century, Black women freedom fighters were not circumspect about their position and their campaigns for Black abolition was part and parcel connected to anti-lynching and anti-sexual assault campaigns. In her book Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, African American activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett documented the sexual exploitation of Black women who were assaulted while their offenders faced little to no retribution (2).  At the height of Jim Crow segregation in the US American South, Wells-Barnett who was an editor for the Memphis Free Press commented:

Last winter [in 1891] in Baltimore, Md., three white ruffians [lawless; bully] assaulted a Miss Camphor, a young Afro-American girl, while out walking with a young man of her own race … The case went to the courts, an Afro-American lawyer defended the men and they were acquitted. (3)

What she found was that the sexual assault of Black girls and women rarely contributed to any form of justice. Their bodies were not their own and this showed how unjust the legal system was. As a journalist, Wells-Barnett documented the horrors of lynching and faced intimidation from white Southerners who drove her out of towns. And her investigative reporting on the sexual violence directed towards Black women was unprecedented at the time.

Civil rights march
Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

As the contemporary African American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has noted, Wells-Barnett was “a feminist long before it was popular and ‘a race woman’ when the leadership of the growing civil rights organizations of the time were resoundingly male.”  In 2020, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize ninety years after her death. She was ahead of her time. She recognized that so long as Black girls and women were not free from sexual assault, then no one could be free. 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was not alone in this fight, many Black feminist activists in the early twentieth century were not only organizing around state and racist vigilante violence, they incorporated an anti-imperialist and pro-worker approach. Trinidadian-born journalist and Communist Claudia Jones was one of the most famed black radical women who were members of the party.

Not only did she organize around local issues in Harlem but she was on the editorial staff of the Daily Worker and secretary of the Women’s Commission for the Communist Party USA. In her essay, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” she wrote:

The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem know, that once Negro women begin to take action, the militancy of the whole Negro people, and thus the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced. 

Jones’s activism was maligned by the US government to the point that she was imprisoned and eventually deported, by the US government. Although the criminalization of Jones conferred her temporary statelessness, it also contributed to what Carole Boyce Davies pushed Jones to create “an international identity in the [African] diaspora.” (4)

The Civil Rights era was a turning point for Black women’s liberation, mostly because the contours of liberation were grounded on recalibrating and upending the legal structures of segregation and racial terror. During the black freedom struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, Black women were theorizing, collaborating, and redefining feminism but these communities and coalitions would not take fore without the radical traditions that preceded them – anti-lynching campaigns. 

Beyond that, reproductive health and sexual politics was at the heart of Black liberation. One case in point was when Fannie Lou Hamer, an African American Civil Rights leader and former sharecropper was unknowingly sterilized. Her sterilization was part of Mississippi’s state sanctioned move to diminish the number of poor blacks in the state. This was due, in part, to the racist fear of Black hyper fertility, reproduction rates for Black people declined in the era of Jim Crow, as Professor Dorothy Roberts noted in her book Killing the Black Body. (5)

The battle for Black women’s reproductive autonomy is salient and an ongoing tragedy whether it be access to abortions or reproductive care. Although Hamer is famously known for lamenting, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” her sterilization became an impetus to challenge the pervasive sterilization of Black women in the American South as well as increasing African American voter registration in the midst of Jim Crow.

Class was at the center of abolitionist projects and poor women like Fannie Lou Hamer insisted on galvanizing people to address their reproductive and bodily harm. In the essay, “The Revolt of Poor Black Women,” the authors insisted that revolution ushered in a brand-new beginning; strengthening the power of freed imagination and eliminating the dead weight of the past. (6)  

Abolish the Police

Black womens lives matter

Policing in American continues to be a linchpin that plagues Black Americans. Many of the leaders and activists of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014-2015 echo the names of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, but resonating directly behind their calls are the names of Black women such as Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd. The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 shows how protest and social upheaval are ensconced in Black American freedom struggle. 

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement as an international call for Black liberation could be done so because of the women, queer and transgender Black people who shaped it. On the front lines and online, freedom is inching closer and closer to Black feminist and queer logics. As transgender writer and archivist Che Gossett points out, “the radical visions of abolition point us toward a more liberatory horizon for our world.”  This is articulated through what filmmaker and activist Tourmaline describes as freedom dreams

A principle group that has been celebrated for this work is the Combahee River Collective, who manifested abolition through a manifesto. In their 1977 statement: “If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in The New Yorker, “Black women were at the helm of the growing Black Lives Matter movement, and they, too, were gravitating to the politics of the C.R.C.” The knowledge that gets passed on—whether it be directly or indirectly—is one worth bear in Black radical feminism.

As the African American legal scholar Michelle Alexander has noted “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have redesigned it.” (7). In the age of mass incarceration in America, understanding the trajectory from slavery to the present is pivotal in grappling with what abolition might look like, one that is concretely directed at ending state sanctioned oppression. Abolishing the police, as living abolitionists are arguing today, simultaneously combat sexism and racism.

Today, people are demanding that Black life be lived without subjugation, it calls for restructuring society and addressing how historical oppression is rooted in a capitalist, patriarchal system. The ongoing traumas of racism are maintained through as a continuum without not being fully free: less pay, poor housing, and with the Covid-19 crisis, freedom means standing up in the face of an unpopular crowd and demanding the impossible.

 


References

(1) Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race, & Class. Vol. 1st. New York: Random House, 1981.

(2) Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, 1892.

(3) For more information on lynching, refer to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Available, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14975/14975-h/14975-h.htm

(4) Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, S. 137.

(5) Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.

(6) Lessons from the Damned, New York: Times Change Press, 1973.

(7) M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 2.