Abolition

The legal prohibition and ending of slavery, especially of slavery of blacks in the U.S.

“Abolition” is a word we use when we want to activate scholarship with a sense of urgency, relevance, or potential for the future. W. E. B. Du Bois deployed it in this manner when he coined the term “abolition-democracy” (1935/1999, 184) to summarize the grand, unrealized potential of social and economic change initiated during the Reconstruction era. Looking back on the progressive labor politics, liberal economic policies, and civil rights efforts of the late nineteenth century, Du Bois left little doubt that he intended abolition to be a critical modifier for democracy in his own time, providing a corrective to an imperialist, global capitalism bent on exploiting the “basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black” (16). “Abolition” continues to play this pivotal role in the vocabulary of American studies and cultural studies, interjecting the history of radical social justice movements into conversations about injustices that have not been abolished and charging U.S. history with unmet political needs and ambitions that render it neither finished nor secure.

“Abolition” entered the vocabulary of eighteenth-century Anglo-European liberalism with more specific ambitions. Modifying earlier usages that referenced the disestablishment of religion, the term emerged as a demand and mandate for the termination of the transatlantic slave trade. Laying bare a chain of atrocities that began on the coasts of West Africa, reformers in Britain, France, and colonial America defined this trade as the worst link of a corrupt, monopolistic, state-run international economy that converted Africans into articles of commerce, conveyed them through the horrors of the Middle Passage, and condemned them to punishing, coerced labor on American plantations. Joining a transatlantic consensus of liberal political economists, philosophers, religious figures, and politicians against the slave trade were formerly enslaved authors such as Ottobah Cugoano, Phyllis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano, giving abolition the repute of a cosmopolitan, universal ideal (Gould 2003; Nwankwo 2005). Abolition, in this context, linked the end of the slave trade to the claim that Anglo-Europeans and British Americans could halt the degeneration of their own nature, evinced by their barbaric mistreatment of enslaved Africans, and bring their management of the colonial economy and international capitalism under the ethical principles of a “humanitarian sensibility” that recognized all people’s interests and suffering (D. Davis 1975; Bender 1992). Because it promised to end the slave trade while upholding whites’ economic and political dominance, this usage of abolition ascribed an inhuman, reactive, and tragic violence to all acts of African and Afro-creole self-liberation, including those that led to the Haitian Revolution in 1795, positioning those more radical acts of abolition as threats to white capitalist rule in North America’s plantation-based societies (Blackburn 1988; Fischer 2003; Trouillot 1995; James 1938/1989; E. Williams 1944/1994).

When the U.S. Congress officially ended the importation of slaves into the United States in 1807, it linked this specific usage of the term to the project of nation formation by making the abolition of the international slave trade—but not the domestic slave trade—the ethical cornerstone of a nation whose freedom from colonialism was supposed to have revealed a universal human capacity for liberty. By the 1820s, this abolitionist decree had inspired a new generation of white national leaders to advocate eradicating the degrading colonial legacy of slavery in the United States once and for all, producing a movement that was committed to ending slaveholding and to removing African Americans from the nation’s borders (P. Goodman 1998; Jordan 1969). The nineteenth-century “colonization movement,” which enjoyed the broad support of religious and political elites and financed the emigration of freed slaves and free African Americans to Liberia, was an abolition movement in the eighteenth-century sense of the word, to the extent that it identified both slavery and enslaved Africans as obstacles to the moral and national development of whites in the United States.

Just a decade later, a broad coalition of former temperance reformers, free black community leaders, emergent feminists, labor activists, and Protestant evangelicals wrested “abolition” from its past usage and gave it lasting meaning as a synonym for radical social equality and integration. William Lloyd Garrison, a veteran white newspaper editor, affirmed northern African Americans’ participation in the struggle against southern slavery, extending the resources of a robust free black anticolonization movement and employing former slaves such as Frederick Douglass as spokespersons of a national abolition movement (Stauffer 2004; R. Levine 1997; Fanuzzi 2003). Garrison took further advantage of the crisis-oriented moral vocabulary that was flourishing within women’s Christian evangelical movements in pairing “abolition” with the modifier “immediate.” Linked to almost every socially insurgent, publicly visible movement of the antebellum era, abolition made the end of slavery the beginning of a state of racial and gender equality that more moderate opponents of slavery called “ultraism.”

Beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, American studies scholars made ample use of this nineteenth-century history, both to trace the origins of modern feminist and African American civil rights movements and to create an alternative narrative of national progress. Scholars in the emerging fields of African American studies and women’s studies turned the rich archive of nineteenth-century abolition newspapers, propaganda, and literature into the wellspring for a new kind of politics that accommodated categories of gender, race, and embodiment, as well as aesthetic modes of feeling, sentimentality, and interiority. Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s new coinage—“feminist-abolitionist” (1993, 16)—reflected an emerging consensus that abolition was, as Du Bois had suggested, not a fixed historical milestone but an open-ended category for imagining political formations that lay within the domains of literature and culture, outside the legal definition of U.S. citizenship.

Labor historians and cultural studies scholars of the 1980s and ’90s also followed Du Bois’s lead and placed the discussion of the abolition of slavery within ongoing capitalist, institutional, governmental, and cultural forces that were responsible for new and intractable forms of racial inequality. Scholars such as David Roediger (1994), Angela Davis (2003), and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) worked from the assumption that the end of slavery in 1865 was a necessary but insufficient step in the process of eradicating a structurally racist capitalist system and that the full meaning and realization of abolition would require a succession of modifiers and new mandates, including the “abolition of whiteness” and “prison abolition,” in order to bring scholarship that much closer to understanding the roots of racial injustice, both historical and contemporary. Their accretions remind us that “abolition,” the byword for finality, is at bottom the symbol for urgent democratic social and political change that has not yet occurred.

African American History Since Emancipation

An analysis of the social, political, legal, and cultural dimensions of the African American experience in the United States throughout critical historical moments such as Reconstruction, suffrage, the Great Migration, war, the Great Depression, the New Deal, the Civil Rights era, the black power movement, and contemporary racial politics.

African American Literature: Origins to 1910

This introductory course focuses on black literature and literary culture from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth; it will cover the poetry of Phillis Wheatley and Paul L. Dunbar; the political oratory of Sojourner Truth and David Walker; slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs; non-fiction prose by W. E. B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper; and Frances Harper’s and James Weldon Johnson’s novels. In readings, assignments, and discussions, we will explore the unique cultural contexts, aesthetic debates, and socio-political forces that surround the production of an early African American literary tradition.

Introduction to the Study of African American Cultural Practices

As the introductory course required to earn a certificate in African American Studies, this course examines the past and present, the doings and the sufferings of Americans of African descent from a multidisciplinary perspective. It highlights the ways in which serious intellectual scrutiny of the agency of black people in the United States help redefine what it means to be American, new world, modern and post modern.

Haiti: History, Literature, and Arts of the First Black Republic

This course will offer an overview of the history and culture of Haiti, the world’s first black republic. In 1804, the former slaves of French St. Domingue under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture defeated the most powerful army in the world, Napoleon’s to become the world’s first post-slavery, black republic. The course will sample the rich history, novels, Afro-caribbean religion (Vodun), plays, music, film, and visual arts of this unique postcolonial nation.

New Diasporas: Black British Literature

This is a course on the dynamic body of works produced by migrants and descendants of migrants from Africa and the Caribbean in Britain since the 1950s. How has the migrant experience transformed the British cultural landscape after the end of an empire? What does it mean to be British and Black? How have migrant writers created new aesthetic forms to respond to the meaning of postcolonial Britishness? How does writing function as a mode of imagining alternative spaces of belonging? Readings will range from the novels of migrant arrival in the 1950s and the works of Zadie Smith to “post-racial” novels by Helen Oyeyemi and Aminatta Forna.

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This workshop explores the link between racial identity and poetic innovation in work by contemporary poets of color. Experimental or avant-garde poetry in the American literary tradition has often defined itself as “impersonal,” “against expression” or “post-identity.” Unfortunately, this mindset has tended to exclude or downplay poems that engage issues of racial identity. This course explores works where poets of color have treated racial identity as a means to destabilize literary ideals of beauty, mastery and the autonomy of the text while at the same time engaging in poetic practices that subvert conceptions of identity or authenticity.

Race and the American Legal Process

This course examines the dynamic and often conflicted relationships between African American struggles for inclusion, and the legislative, administrative, and judicial decision-making responding to or rejecting those struggles, from Reconstruction to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In tracing these relationships we will cover issues such as property, criminal law, suffrage, education, and immigration, with a focus on the following theoretical frameworks: equal protection, due process, civic participation and engagement, and political recognition.

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Born in the late 1800s, the New Negro movement demanded political equality, desegregation, and an end to lynching, while also launching new forms of international Black cultural expression. The visionary modernity of its artists not only reimagined the history of the black diaspora by developing new artistic languages through travel, music, religion and poetry, but also shaped modernism as a whole in the 20th century. Incorporating field trips and sessions in the Princeton University Art Museum, this course explores Afro-modern forms of artistic expression from the late 19th-century into the mid-20th century.

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This special topics course will focus on artists and intellectuals whose corpus reflects and illuminates 20th century African American life. Lorraine Hansberry, the first African American female playwright to have a play open on Broadway, explored a series of critical themes in her work, including: race, migration, colonialism, gender and social class. In addition to having a distinguished career as a playwright, Hansberry was an activist and advocate for gender and racial justice. Students will study her published and unpublished plays, essays and poetry, as well as relevant social and cultural history and literary criticism.