Abolition is Ancestral: a Meditation

In These Dissenting Times

we are aware that we did not make

ourselves, that the line stretches

all the way back, perhaps, to God; or

to Gods. We remember them because it

is an easy thing to forget; that we

are not the first to suffer, rebel,

fight, love and die. The grace with

which we embrace life, in spite of

the pain, the sorrows, is always a

measure of what has gone before.

Alice Walker, “Fundamental Difference” in Revolutionay Petunias

In the spirt of Alice Walker’s poem, I’ve started the practice of calling to mind ancestors. In these moments, I reflect on the worlds they dreamed into existence and the ways their practices of resistance, hope, radical action, and love made possible my existence that of the generations to come.

I realized that the more we are in touch with our heritage, the more the ancestors whisper in our hearts the truths that tie us together. I used to teach my students that learning is about activating not just the head, but also our hearts & hands. Eventually, I realized this is a core teaching of Sikhi guiding me through my beji, dwelling deep in my core.

Gayatri Sethi, Unbelonging

Over the last few days I have been communing with ancestor Mother Sallie. In contemplating the violence — the intense racialized violence that manifests in California, Atlanta, Memphis and in so many other places — her presence becomes essential in finding ways forward.

Celebrating survival is a particular sort of approach. While non-indigenous research has been intent on documenting the demise and cultural assimilation of indigenous peoples, celebrating survival accentuates not so much our demise but the degree to which indigenous peoples and communities have successfully retained cultural and spiritual values and authenticity.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies

Sometime in the early 1900s, Mother Sallie intervened in act of violence. That supreme act of intercession made my life and those of hundreds of kin possible. The details drift in an out of clarity, the paths to “exact” knowing — times, places, names, hours, conversations — have largely been lost to time and trauma. From what I can understand, her sister-in-law suffered grave injury in an incident of interpersonal violence. Mother Sallie took the responsibility providing the life sustaining love, shelter sustenance to her niece and nephews — my grandfather, his sister and brother. It seems that at some point, the sister she sought to protect perished. It was Mother Sallie who made it possible for those three children to survive. I know little else besides these basic outlines. I know that the person who manifested the violence was also an ancestor.

Mural of Atlanta mothers,

When I meditate on the lives of both Mother Sallie and her sister through marriage whom I will call Mother Mary, I consider that they both had been born at the very end of slavery. That as children, they’d grown up with the possibility of Black freedom in the Georgia of the Reconstruction era. I know that Mother Sallie had watched the freedoms erode and disappear. I know, by my very existence, that she’d had to hold onto and create a world around her family that allowed the possibility of freedom, that she had in the very routines of kisses and stories and song and prayers shown those children what it was to be human, to be fully human. That this in itself was a profound and radical act of resistance.

I know from Freedman Bureau records and from the histories of post-Reconstruction Georgia that their lives were always subject to duress, to highly monitored and regulated employment, movement, articulation, and being. A form of less-than-personhood that existed in a shadow legality between enslavement and non-freedom: share cropping, tenuous work in lumber mills, “domestic” work with no safety and accountability. The conditions of Georgia sharecroppers of the early 20th century; the conditions of migrant workers in 21st century Georgia, the persisting condition of Black descendants of sharecroppers in Georgia, the condition of migrant workers in 21st century Half Moon Bay California.

I ask what would have made the world right for Mother Sallie, what would have allowed her sister-in-law to live into old age? I envision resources of food and healing centers and an abundance of resources that would have guaranteed safety. I envision a place where the other healers and herbalists of that community would have been given the space and resources to devote their days to the building a thriving community. I envision how the Black schools and churches in that small east Georgia would have been laboratories in which to throw off shackles of patriarchy and masculinist violence. I envision a commune in which Black men teach each other ways of accountability, practices of transformative justice, new ways of relation in which people who were once enslaved choose not to participate in “owning” each other.

A whites-only “justice” system (white police, judges, juries, prison staff) arrested and imprisoned the ancestor who committed the violence. The time spent in prison was devoted to labor for white property owners. The time spent in prison only exacerbated an existing mental health crises. The time spent in prison put other pressures on the community — instead of replacing tenuous income, providing support to struggling victims, punishment was disbursed upon the family and extended community. We know from many stories of the carceral system in Georgia that it was a key piece of keeping Black folk “in their place” — certainly not a place of justice, or healing, or accountability. We know from the work of Mariame Kaba and many others that the “justice” system punishes victims of domestic violence. What were the ways in which she bore the brunt of other violences? What property was seized? Which resources were denied?

To make it plain for you, nothing about the “justice system”s of 1900 or 2023 brings safety to Black people, or undocumented people, or people who try to make ends meet from migrant labor or “gig economy” precarity, or people who must try somehow to live without a house or the privilege of “citizenship”. What I hear Mother Sallie asking for is safety, is for healing. What I know by my very existence is that she and her Sisters built safety — what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls infrastructures of feelings

The infrastructure of feeling is then consciousness-foundation, sturdy but not static, that underlies our capacity to select, to recognize viscerally (no less than prudently) immanent possibility as we select and reselect liberatory lineages—in a lifetime, as Du Bois and Tubman exemplify, as well as between and across generations.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Abolition — the end of policing and prisons, of borders, of caste exclusions, of ableist gates, of gendered violence, of all of the interlocked systems of domination and violent anti-humanness — is about creating the community where Mother Sallie and those children live full lives; with the resources needed to heal and thrive. Abolition is really about abolishing cycles of abuse and neglect and perpetual under-resourced-ness because of being over-policed and over-surveilled and over-caged. Abolition is releases punishment to create ground in which living growing communities thrive. Abolition is a place with free healthcare and abundant access to healing; abolition is the building of a plethora of places where Mother Mary finds shelter and safety; abolition is the building of a place where Black men are inculcated in an ancestral way of relating that has no place for masculinist violence and pathways toward acceptance and love are charted; abolition means ending white supremacy; abolition has no place for “whiteness’ as an attachment to property and humanity stolen from Black existence. Abolition is the process of building communities of support where the spiral of mental and emotional distress that unravels families is seen and acknowledged — where people ask “Are you ok, Sister?”, “You ok Brother?” and there are a hundred pathways to safety that are opened Abolition in short, is the process of creating spaces of life.

Survived and Punished works to create safety for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The organization embodies abolitionist approaches to harm reduction without police and prisons.

Interrupting Criminalization provides concrete resources for dealing with crises outside of police involvement. Their guide on community care offers strategies out of the recurring cycles of violence and oppression. The Half Moon Bay survivors fund https://bit.ly/3XZxOP5

her courage, she arrived quarreled by instinct, a petition
for presence, it was a woman who nanny'd neglect in maroon
parishes, hooting and hollering, she midwifed revolutions in rain
forests, amazons, and cities. sediments of her sorrow

beseeching, because the eye of the storm within her,
they called her magic. merely more, she was
a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight.

Aja Monet, from the poem my mother was a freedom fighter in her collection My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter

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