The lesson is to remain woke, because not all abolitionists share the goal of Black liberation.
“Prison nation exposes the reach of the carceral state beyond prison walls to schools, social welfare agencies, immigration and detention, and surveillance technologies.”
In this series we ask organizers, artists, and academics to share books that inform their thinking about abolition. This week’s contributor is Anima Adjepong.
Three texts that radicalized me:
Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing, and Cathy Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare queens” taught me how anti-colonial black queer feminist praxis can manifest our freedom dreams.
Scenes of Subjection, by Saidiya Hartman
I first read Scenes of Subjection in a graduate seminar with Joy James at the University of Texas at Austin. Scenes offered me a language to make sense of unfreedom, that is, the ongoing subjugation of Black people in the United States despite codified claims to the contrary. For me, Scenes offers a queer feminist analysis of the liberal (non)distinctions between public and private, freedom and emancipation, the limits of rights discourse, and the continued work required to attain Black liberation. The last sentence reads: “Bound by the fetters of sentiment, held captive by the vestiges of the past, and cast into a legal condition of subjection – these features limn the circumstances of an anomalous, misbegotten, and burdened subject no longer enslaved but not yet free.” I often sit with that last part of the sentence – “no longer enslaved but not yet free.” Despite emancipation in the Americas, despite anticolonial struggles that ostensibly ended colonial rule, Black people are still struggling to get free. In Scenes, Hartman traces the long history of this struggle, demonstrating how juridical processes and certain coalitional projects maintain the not yet freeness of Black people in the United States. Scenes invites us to maintain these tense processes in view as part of the work of liberation. In other words, the lesson is to remain woke because: not all abolitionists share the goal of Black liberation; for some of us there is a demand to prove our right to humanity; and freedom is still not free. As such, we must remain vigilant until freedom is won.
Pedagogies of Crossing, by M. Jacqui Alexander
M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing restructured the way I think and am in the world. Simone Browne recommended the book my first year of graduate school when I disclosed my disillusionment with sociology. My introduction to the discipline suggested a studied disregard for the urgent structural inequalities of social life. Alexander’s transnational postcolonial queer feminist sociology undid this falsely apolitical stance and instead invited an inquiry into, and a roadmap for, how modes of radical organizing can be accepted and reinterpreted to serve existing power structures. In so doing, Pedagogies turned me on to the need for vigilance and agility in political organizing. I read this book as a direct critique of the sociology I was being introduced to and felt empowered to know that something else was possible. Pedagogies’s wide-ranging series of essays addresses questions of imperialism, capitalism, feminism, and sexuality; how power structures social movements through its “habitual distaste for accountability, a distaste it exhibits through deflection and distortion” (146); and the role of memory, sacred energies, love, and community in the task of creating a world in which liberation can be attained. As with Scenes, Pedagogies cautions us to stay woke to the workings of power and offers sacred paths towards attaining liberation.
“Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens,” by Cathy Cohen
Cathy Cohen’s 1997, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens,” was enlightening, illuminating, and inspiring. I read this essay in my queer theory class as an undergraduate student at Princeton University. Until week 4 when this essay was assigned, I largely felt discomfited. I could not find myself in the assigned texts except as disembodied and/or white. How could queer theory help me make sense of the world if I was only in it when I squinted really hard and disappeared other parts of me. “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens” taught me that I did not have to squint so hard, did not have to assimilate into dominant institutions in order to claim my freedom. Cohen’s proposal for a queer politics centered sexuality as a system of power and domination and did not let racism or capitalism off the hook. It was, in a word, all-encompassing. This essay showed me that a framework for organizing that left no one behind is possible.
Two texts I think with every day:
“The Combahee River Collective Statement,” by the Combahee River Collective
I think with the Combahee River Collective Black Feminist Statement every day. The short political tract articulates core tenets of my political and intellectual practice. The Black Feminist Statement offers a sharp analysis of what bell hooks would later call white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and outlines strategies for how we get free. The statement provides a genealogy of Black feminist organizing and affirms the importance of organizing for ourselves, “not as an adjunct to somebody else’s [liberation] but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.” For me, the CRC Black Feminist Statement’s refusal to capitulate to radical lesbian separatism, white feminist racism, black patriarchy, and capitalist exploitation is a reminder of our capacity to resist attractive dominant ideologies in our liberation practice. The statement stands with integrity, refusing to concede any points in the name of keeping the peace. It is internationalist, identifying imperialism as a structure of domination; anti-capitalist in its solidarity with workers around the world; and maintains a wide umbrella to accommodate those who share a goal of liberation. Regardless of the political moment, the CRC Statement is a shining example of how to keep interlocking systems of oppression in view as part of a practice of freedom.
The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is a book I find myself returning to daily. This study of how the neoliberal state supports and sustains the rapacious agenda of transnational capitalism encourages vigor around the explanations being sold to us in the current moment. Vulturous justifications for why life-affirming budget cuts are required; untenable claims about why we must cede social goods to private corporations, etc. Klein’s book exposes the collusion and invites critical attention to the decisions made in moments of both manufactured and organic crises. Who benefits from these decisions? How do decisions affect the social good? For example, what are we to make of the current U.S. government push to reopen schools in the midst of a global pandemic? How might the proliferation of for-profit online K-12 schools benefit from a disastrous reopening? How might public education be eviscerated in the process? Such questions can inspire and direct radical organizing against the forces of neoliberal capitalism and in the service of creating a more just world.
One book every abolitionist should read:
Arrested Justice, by Beth Richie
I first read Beth Richie’s Arrested Justice in researching texts to teach in my undergraduate Inequalities class. Believing, as the CRC Statement teaches us, that “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,” I wanted to teach Inequalities by centering Black women and Black feminism. Richie’s book gave me that and so much more. Grounded in anti-violence activism and Black feminist scholarship, Arrested Justice traces a long history of feminist organizing around violence against women, showing the concessions movement organizers made to mainstream anti-violence. These concessions maintained ideological positions of racist capitalist heterosexual patriarchy and therefore abandoned the most vulnerable women who needed to be freed from the grip of racialized gendered capitalist violence. Ultimately, winning the mainstream contributed to the expansion of what Richie calls America’s prison nation. Prison nation exposes the reach of the carceral state beyond prison walls to schools, social welfare agencies, immigration and detention, and surveillance technologies. The notion of a prison nation also reveals the ideological, legislative, cultural, and institutional dimensions of the carceral state. Arrested Justice gave me a profound understanding of how far reaching this system is and in so doing clearly articulated a case for abolition. A must read for every abolitionist and especially for those still unsure about whether abolition and reconstruction are truly needed in response to the longstanding inequalities of our time.
Anima Adjepong (pronouns: they/them) is a sociologist, critical race, gender, and sexualities scholar. They primarily focus on West African cultural politics and social justice efforts across the African diaspora.
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