Reclaiming the Black-Centeredness of Abolition
Despite the misconceived and misremembered history of abolition in America's duplicitous founding, contemporary activists— from the streets to classrooms and every sphere of influence in between—look to the abolitionism of old as a source and model for strategies, tactics, and moral authority. In the previous chapter, Dr. Harvey operationalized abolitionist
as a passionately human, radically moral, no less divine freedom conspirator who embodies (or is consumed by) the principles of collective community power, the transformative justice of love, the universal emancipation of all oppressed people, the dismantling of subjugating social systems, and the practice of imagining and pursuing a new world, a new way, and a new witness.
Referring to the abolitionist movement of the antebellum period, Manisha Sinha interprets, "Abolition was a radical, interracial movement, one which addressed the entrenched problems of exploitation and disfranchisement in a liberal democracy and anticipated debates over race, labor, and empire."3 Abolition broadened the boundaries of democracy and opened ground for new political passions. The work of abolition organically offers possibilities for the realization of democratic life in every area of community, particularly in teaching and learning spaces. Given the complicated racial politics of the American democratic project, that historical context of abolition is scarcely engaged in classrooms, congressional hearings, courtrooms, or social society more broadly, which is often the bedrock of the tension in contemporary social movements that evoke the language of abolition.
Though popular and significant academic assumptions further the narrative that free enslaved Blacks were merely the objects of white abolitionist sympathy, Sinha underscores, "Black abolitionists were integral to the broader, interracial milieu of the movement. To read them out of the abolition movement is to profoundly miss the part they played in defining traditions of American democratic radicalism."4 We must take seriously that authentic abolitionism centers the experiential voices, comprehensive well-being, and moral leadership of impacted persons. Abolitionist luminaries like Sojourner Truth, Douglass, Tubman, William Still, Prince Hall, and Sarah Parker Redmond played critical roles in the abolition movement and the remaking of this democracy. An ancestral imagination animated by the memory of Black freedom fighters and white allies primes our passion for the possible, an invention of hope that freedom remains within reach. This imagination draws the impacted to the center and projects an equitable vision in sharp relief to the crises compounding the contemporary moment. And this ancestral imagination of abolitionism convinces us of the possibility for social changes because of the embodied realizations littered throughout history.
The stories and valiance of our abolitionist ancestry reach deep beneath our layered vocations as educators and school leaders. The vast presence of "the gone but never forgotten" freedom fighters powers our work to mobilize exoduses, within and beyond our classrooms and schools, from domination. A new exodus from whiteness, patriarchy, queer-phobias, and poverty—to catalog only a few origins of crisis—rewinds our memory to lay claim to the wisdom of yesterday, because a dehistoricized leadership praxis makes our work vulnerable to shortsighted apathy and hauntingly dishonors the risks of abolitionists as democratic exemplars. Abolitionism now, and then, offers us an ethic to remember the evilest capacity of a human community feigning commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of justice. As a hardly pursued tradition of activism, abolitionism uniquely functions as a way of being in the public domain that disabuses a nation of its obsession with moral superiority and the myth of innocence. Reticence to the concept involves much more of a fear of the historical reminders of the chattel regime that exposes white inhumanity than it does a sense of fantastical idealism.
Though detrimental to all Black life, slavery should be seen as a white problem—a social crisis borne out of the moral dereliction and grave inhumanity of a class of folx that exposed the empty promises of this nation. Crisis in this work, as a reminder, is
any unexpected communally conscious situation with high levels of uncertainty and unease, oppression and injustice that, in private or in the public domain, has sociocultural, sociopolitical, and/or socioemotional impact, influence, and implication, thereby threatening to destabilize the emotional, environmental, operational, financial, or reputational wellbeing of a community and its members
and is detrimental to all life. The crisis of whiteness undergirding the slave regime of the United States attempted to obliterate the culture, soul, and well-being of Black bodies as constitutive to some patriotic project to build a free nation—a beacon on the hill. In plain sight, propertied white folx shelved their humanity as they accumulated wealth and built an economy to rival European allies and immediate adversaries. The slavery enterprise recruited every American institution to guarantee its longevity in the nascent republic—every, including teaching and learning institutions. In fact, government allied with white religion, normalized the attempted destruction of human flesh and minds, criminalizing Black literacy and learning. Consequently, as crisis, slavery destabilized the emotional, environmental, operational, financial, and reputational well-being of its survivors.