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The Alchemy of Abolitionisms

When academics are read more than incarcerated thinkers, it becomes possible to forget the movement’s radical roots.


Editors’ Note: In the four-part series Abolition Alchemy, Kalonji Changa and Joy James engage in an extended conversation with imprisoned intellectuals and organizers. A new installment will be posted at this time each month throughout the spring. The series kicks off today with an adapted excerpt from James’s most recent book, In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities, which offers reflections on alchemy in abolition struggles that emerged from the analyses of Stephen Wilson, an incarcerated author in Pennsylvania.

Changa and James continue this discussion on YouTube with a new conversation they recorded for Black Power Media to accompany their Inquest article.

The abolitionist is an alchemist, if by alchemy we mean a significant transformation in political agency toward the pursuit of freedom. In the rational world of unabated loss and terror, it is only natural that the liberator would be a magical thinker and radical doer. Trying to better understand incarcerated people as intellectuals and political agents in global abolitionist struggles, I reflect here on the spiritual and political drive of activists. Their labors suggest a force of nature that calls upon the ancestral in order to design a future beyond captivity.

A fluid, multilayered abolitionism—one aligned with dedicated activists experimenting as alchemists—shares leadership with imprisoned intellectuals. Radical alliances forge a golden norm for addressing crises. Susceptible to being diverted into backing glossy reforms endorsed by the privileged, police, and policy wonks, abolitionism without alchemy cannot meet the demands of captives, particularly the differently abled, the impoverished, women, children, and LGBTQ+ radicals.

“Abolition” has always existed for those with wealth and power. Elite “offenders”—if they are even prosecuted and convicted—are largely redirected to therapy, counseling, drug trials/protocols, and expensive residential treatment centers. Internationally (and nationally), they can also engage in crimes against humanity or human rights violations yet still accumulate wealth and prestige and remain in governance.

The alchemical abolitionist quest is how to obtain abolitionism for all and instill justice as a universal norm when caught between a rock and a hard place—with predatory opportunistic civilian violence on one side, predatory police violence on the other, and prisons run as organized zones of trauma and terror. The quest to control organized violence is highly politicized on all sides. Hence, abolitionists seek strategies in radical traditions.

Academic abolitionists often speak of the Black Radical Tradition, tracing it to anti-slavery abolitionism, the civil rights and Black liberation movements, and analyses of “racial capitalism” in texts by Black academics. I first encountered the term “Imprisoned Black Radical Intellectual Tradition” as part of a group of academics who were working with imprisoned Black queer educator and abolitionist Stephen “Stevie” Wilson. One query Wilson posed to us was: “If free world scholars are not willing to engage [with] the work of imprisoned intellectuals, from where will they get their information, the factual basis, of their work?”

Eighteenth-century abolitionists depicted enslaved Blacks/Africans primarily as sufferers in need of the assistance of white elites. The Black/African captives also included intellectuals, theorists, activists, rebels, and warriors—but the optics for autonomous Black agency proved disturbing to many white abolitionists. It is not a stretch to say that this eighteenth-century elite approach to abolition is still operational in our moment. Yet should that be the norm?

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The insight of political prisoners is key to understanding the longevity of U.S. policing and imprisonment, and how they are continuous with the atrocities of chattel slavery, alongside convict leasing, Jim Crow, COINTELPRO, the fabricated “War on Drugs,” mass incarceration, medical (pandemic) neglect, and experimentation in prisons.

The Incarcerated Black Radical Tradition spans the centuries from the first kidnapping/purchase of Black Africans to the present moment of mass protests. Its leaders, captives, combatants, and casualties are both historically known and anonymous. The better-known nineteenth-century abolitionists include David Walker, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. Its history also includes forgotten or less well-known insurrectionists imprisoned and killed for their abolitionism. Osborne Perry Anderson, Shields Green, Lewis Sheridan Leary, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., and Dangerfield Newby, for example, were Black men who accompanied and fought with John Brown during the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry that some argue precipitated the Civil War. Some were killed during the raid, others imprisoned and hanged. Brown’s body was given a ceremonial burial in New York. Yet the bodies of the named Black men, who fought to free their families and communities, were dissected in the streets or “donated” to a local medical college for experimentation.

During the twentieth-century civil rights movements, incarcerated intellectuals and activists—such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, and W. L. Nolen (who mentored George Jackson)—were caged in jails or prisons and beaten and tortured with “surplus” punishment to discourage or destroy their political commitments. Contemporary abolitionists continue to draw inspiration from—and fight for the release of—incarcerated Black political prisoners such as Kamau Sadiki, Imam Jamil al-Amin, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Joy Powell; and American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier.

When academics dominate abolitionist print culture, it becomes possible to forget the alchemical lineage of radical street and prison movements. Books on incarceration and abolitionism written by academics are at times more popular and celebrated than the memoirs and analyses of incarcerated radicals. The under-acknowledged schism between the worldviews of abolitionist academics and radical imprisoned abolitionists creates a blind spot that obscures radical agency from within prisons and jails.

Imprisoned intellectuals face challenges—especially from the carceral administrators—that outside academic abolitionists simply never face. The intellectual and personal property of imprisoned educators are routinely confiscated. Solitary confinement disrupts movements, inside and outside, as educators are removed from their communities. JPay—a pay-per-email system many incarcerated people are forced to use, or else forego all communication—is costly. Books and other materials are likewise expensive and difficult to access—especially given that, as Wilson notes, Pennsylvania imprisoned workers earn nineteen cents per hour.

Speaking for incarcerated intellectuals, Wilson reflects: “We are not part of the conversations. We are afterthoughts.” Noting that (sometimes inaccessible) abolitionist texts often lack writings by the incarcerated, Wilson poses this challenge to academic and pundit abolitionists:

Too often, in discourses on prisons and policing, a totalizing definition of prisoner or defendant, usually Black or brown, able-bodied, cis-het male, is used, thereby making invisible the lived experiences of so many other people behind the walls. There is no monolithic prison experience. Marginalized populations often find themselves erased from the conversation. I see my work as an intervention, a correction.

Wilson and other incarcerated intellectuals do this work at their peril. The Thirteenth Amendment legalizes slavery in U.S. prisons, thus essentially nullifying most constitutional rights, including First Amendment rights. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections retaliated against Wilson for reporting on COVID-19 conditions in prison. Using “vague, shifting, and contradictory accusations of misconduct,” it silenced him, putting him in solitary confinement. In April 2020, Wilson undertook a hunger strike of more than a week to protest his mistreatment, asserting, “Now I am truly a political prisoner.”

In August 2020 U.S. media reported that some 21 million people had participated in marches or protests since the May 2020 police lynching of George Floyd. Hundreds if not thousands of those protestors have been or will be arrested. Some will become the Incarcerated Black Radical Tradition thinkers of a new generation of political prisoners.

The Incarcerated Black Radical Tradition’s literary and theoretical legacy spans centuries of testimonials, speeches, and writings by abolitionists, from the antebellum to the contemporary era. Its breadcrumb trail includes: David Walker’s 1829 Appeal; Haywood Patterson’s 1950 Scottsboro Boy; Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; Malcolm X’s 1965 The Autobiography of Malcolm X (shaped by Alex Haley); Anne Moody’s 1968 Coming of Age in Mississippi; George Jackson’s 1970 Soledad Brother; the 1971 Attica Manifesto”; Assata Shakur’s 1987 autobiography; Safiya Bukhari’s 2010 The War Before; and the work of former and current political prisoners who serve as journalists: The Real News Network’s Eddie Conway (Conway transitioned on February 13, 2023), and Prison Radio’s Mumia Abu-Jamal (Abu-Jamal currently awaits an evidentiary hearing to review malfeasance in his 1982-83 trial) . The narratives are not pretty or reassuring. They are powerful, disturbing, and disquieting. Neither pessimistic nor optimistic, their realism dominates. The Incarcerated Black Radical Tradition’s past manifests in the present.

Victories exist but not as “successes.” Without the inclusion of the Black Radical Tradition shaped by the incarcerated, Black intellectualism becomes less clear and more likely to be polished to a gloss that appeals to the privileged and reassures with palliative rather than “curative” politics. We the people have not transcended captivity, social violence, exploitation, poverty, trafficking, femicide and infanticide, transphobia, and the devastation of the natural world. Yet we have a legacy. Not all Incarcerated Black Radical Tradition writings are distributed and read. Not all of its texts are written down. Still, we continue to learn from oral and written contributions.

What then is the nature of the relationship(s) between white-collar abolitionists and enslaved rebel abolitionists? What structures our encounters with each other? The open heart, vocal advocacy, the raised fist? When do the imaginaries of incarcerated maroons meld with those of the professionalized educators? Do we even share the same “freedom dreams”?

Global struggles encompass pandemic deaths and health precarity; recessions and increased poverty; climate devastations and forced migration; regional wars and execution; police and paramilitary repression of dissenters and authoritarian rule. Fighting for and with those battling within the bowels of prisons and jails—the “disposables” from the waste generated by prison regimes, profiteers, and politicians—continues the traditions of ancient experimentations in transmutation, as we imperfectly measure but determinedly perform how radical traditions enlighten and transpose trauma into freedom.

Excerpts adapted from Joy James, In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities (Brussels and London: Divided 2022).

Image: Matt Artz/Unsplash