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Centering Black Principles: Abolition, Liberation, and Womanism

Abolition has become a buzzword, even though it shouldn’t be. With the work of Black abolitionists, there are misconceptions about Black critical thinkers and activists due to the consideration of human rights and social justice always being deemed as marxist, communist and socialist agendas (which is not an insult in juxtaposition to the atrocities due to capitalism). The concept of human rights is one rooted in “protecting” people amidst the harms and errors of society or rather ensuring there is a combatting effort in place to hold those accountable for committing crimes against humanity. Yet there is no measure against lynchings indicated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the United States, in terms of international evaluation. Viewing Black oppression domestically, the Second Wave feminism movement was a changing point for white women’s rights in the United States which was built upon transitioning and advocating for economic equality and white liberation. With the growing and ever-persistent exclusion of Black opinion, thoughts, perspectives and ideologies, it is essential to evaluate the intersectionality within these terms and movements while emphasizing that Black theories are centered on protecting members of the community with the rights, spaces and actions society has always denied to Black people. Abolition, Liberation and Womanism are not limited to strictly being terminologies, they are life practices. 

Overview of Racist/Exclusionary Practices During the Second Wave.

The Second Wave Feminism period took place during the 1960s to the early 1980s. The purpose of this wave of the movement was to yet again center economic and social equality for white women inside and outside of the workplace. Notable feminists, such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were uplifted within this second factor of the movement. The 1960s-1980s represented a tumultuous time in the U.S. through the Watergate Scandal, the continuation of the modern Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam and Anti-War movements, attempting to ratify the Equal Rights movement, the rise of Black Power movements, etc. The shift presented in the United States during this is indicative of the “liberating” factors centered on protecting and expanding whiteness; not considering how whiteness comes with privilege in which white people benefit from and also aid in causing harm. The goal of the Second Wave, whether it was intentional or not, centered on attempting to use marginalized groups as props to protect the traditional American fabric with a side of dismantling the patriarchy. The incorporation of neoliberalism into this conversation also expanded the liberal mindset of colorblindness, gaslighting and tokenism. Like every era before and afterward, the Second Wave was constructed on treating Black women and WOC perspectives as subsets through the lens of erasure, privilege and racial entitlement. With counterculture and sexual liberation also becoming essential topics during this time, there was also a common representation of it: the white gaze. Upon examining the Second Wave, Black women (and folks) along with women (and folks) of color always appeared to be in the background or on the sidelines. While there has been recognition of the harm by this wave in regards to the exclusion of centering the experiences of Black women and women of color, it should be made very clear that they had movements and groundbreaking ideologies of their own which did not rely on the approval from predominantly white ideologies, principles, expectations or institutions.

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What is Womanism?

Alice Walker is known for her work as an author (The Color Purple and You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down), an activist and a poet. She is also known for creating Womanism. If this is your first time hearing about the movement, Womanism is centered on elevating Black women and people (including Black Queer, Trans*, and Non-Binary folks) while serving as safe spaces for Black women. One of the goals of the movement is based on acknowledging how the rights of all women should be viewed from an intersectional lens. As the broader movements under Women’s Rights and feminism are historically exclusive, Womanism serves as an ideology and practice based on being anti-racism and anti-oppression. I identify as a Womanist because as a young Black woman, there is a lack of protection or connection in all non-Black spaces in regard to uplifting and supporting Black people. My belief is that, if what is being engaged in is not intersectional, it is corrupt at the root. Womanism puts up boundaries (in my opinion) to be based on supporting women and folks of color through elevating our spaces and encouraging us to be proud and bold in our lives, perspectives, aspirations, concerns, sexualities, gender and our overall sense of being. 

Related: Being a Black Woman: A Guide to Self-Love

Abolition: Pathways Toward Accountability and Healing.

When you say the word, abolition, virtually everyone starts running. One of the goals of abolition is to eradicate systems and institutions of oppression which cause harm, murder and structural inequalities against marginalized groups. There is a phrase being said that, “the system is broken.” If the foundation of a nation, system and institution was built corrupt, there is no “reforming” or “fixing” it. To believe so implies that the system is fine and just requires a few adjustments but that is not the case upon examining the plight against Indigenous people following the impeding by white colonizers from Europe and other places who stole Indigenous land and disrespected it and their humanity. Such is not the case when examining the basis of capitalism in the United States through the Transatlantic Slave Trade with plantation economies, influences of mercantilism and dehumanization tactics by law and practice in order to police, murder and hold Black people in captivity. 

Abolition is not a word to be taken lightly. It is simple to criticize the importance of eradicating oppression when you do not share the individual and collective concerns about policing, unequal distribution of resources and other forms of injustice. Abolition is centered on dismantling systems and aspects which murder Black and Indigenous people while actively working to create and install principles, practices and policies centered on the necessities and wants of marginalized communities without being policed. Every day, a Black and/or Indigenous person is thinking of the question, will I be next? The “good” cops and “bad” cops scenario is not or will ever be applicable. There are systems, trainings and laws deeply embedded into the nation-state which sanctions violence and white supremacist terrorism, especially considering how police departments were first formed as slave patrols during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. 

There are wounds and scars of trauma against the Black community which repeats. To think of abolition is to envision and enact supporting marginalized communities and not policing their every move. Abolition is also something to take place within oneself which means actively working to eradicate behaviors that are detrimental and harmful, taking roles to engage in your anti-oppression education and using the tools you have to aid in the collective fight against tyranny, patriarchy, privilege, corruption, racism, etc. Part of this process also recognizes that without the work of Black and Indigenous advocates and activists, abolition would not be considered what it currently is. Abolition is also centered on eradicating transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, classism (capitalism), sexism and all forms of oppression which seek to suppress Black contributions and efforts as well as keeping the American fabric enabled through whitewashing its original and current sins.  

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What Does Black Liberation Look Like?

Black Liberation is centered on Blackness being exactly what is supposed to be. Ours. Our collective liberation is not just for Black cishet people (cisgender and heterosexual folks), it is also for Black Queer, Transgender, Non-Binary, Disabled and Neurodiverse people. It is centered on Black people being able to live in whatever way they choose and whatever manner they deem fit. Black liberation is centered on eradicating policing and not having the constant targets on our backs. It is letting us love whomever we want. It is considering the radical to be the most humane. It is protecting Blackness and not appropriating it. It is elevating the needs and concerns of the community. It is not restricting one’s sexuality, gender, gender expression or perspectives. It is not gaslighting or negating the weight of metaphorical and literal chains that are still attached. The goals and ideas for Black liberation are not a monolith.

Black people have every right to envision their own version of Black liberation and what it entails. The power is ours and we are the sole ones to decide. 

The Importance of Intersectional Black Thought 

In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a community consisting of Black Queer women (and folks), drafted a manifesto based on supporting on elevating the needs of the Black women. They stated:

“Before looking at the recent development of Black feminism we would like to affirm that we find our origins in the historical reality of Afro-American women’s continuous life-and-death struggle for survival and liberation. Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes. A Black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection with the second wave of the American women’s movement beginning in the late 1960s. Black, other Third World, and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation. We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.”

As this excerpt represents a small fraction of the essential issues represented, the importance of discussing women such as Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks and the Combahee River Collective is to center and remember that Black ideology is centered on rebelling against the status quo, remaining in our truths, knowing our history and keeping every part of our authenticity whether society deems it “respectable” or not. During the Second Wave, before and afterward, it emphasized how different life stakes were for different groups. These leaders and more emphasized human rights through the lens of recognizing that our lives are worthy of justice, they are worthy of daily living in our melanin skin and the truth of our needs being different from others. Black Feminist Thought is centered on having our own unique spaces dedicated to specifically us reflecting, growing, healing and learning. Everything you engage in must be intersectional. Choosing to do otherwise is indicative of a choice based on the politics of the nation-state and violent societal behavior. Know that Black spaces are not for you to invade. And no, you are not invited to the barbecue under any circumstance. Part of these ideas is elevating the humanity of us as a people while also recognizing the damage from disrespecting Black women. Black lives are not issues you can choose to disagree on and if we are being clear, many social justice movements would not have excelled or been able to succeed without the work of Black women (including Trans* and Non-Binary folks) but guess what? Our job is not to carry you. Our job is not to hold you. And we owe you no explanation into our decisions or how we choose to live our lives. Our freedom and liberation are aspects that we have full control over for deciding how we will proceed. 

The work @blackwomenradicals engage in is centered on uplifting these truths and narratives.

Related: The Art of Being a Black Feminist

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How Thought and Theory Expand into Action. 

Black Liberation and its movements did not die off or resurface this summer. The power in Black youth is exponential. However, the responsibility is not just on us. Recognize that these are systems that we did not create and you have more of a job to deconstruct them. Stop referring to our leaders or to us as Kings, Queens, or Non-Binary terms to celebrate leaders if you are not going to reflect those sentiments in your actions. Education and action must coexist. As many of you are failing terribly in supporting the Black community and marginalized communities in the Post-Election space, let this year serve as a reflection on your part to not post a Black square or say that “I am not Black but I hear you.” This is your problem. Eradicating Anti-Blackness is multifaceted and consists of the beneficiaries bearing the brunt of the responsibility concerning how these injustices persist. There is dancing around these issues in which Black leaders have discussed. It is not your job to manipulate their words to fit your narrative. It is your job to learn, know your place and use your abilities to deconstruct and aid. 

Learn the importance of never passing your place.

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IG Accounts to follow. 

  1. @raquel_willis.

  2. @ihartericka

  3. @queerbirthworker

  4. @angelicaross.

  5. @missmajor1

  6. @bjoyg

  7. @blmlosangeles

  8. @thewomanistreader.

  9. @galdemzine

  10. @freeblackuni

  11. @decolonizemyself

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Final Remarks as Tips.

  1. Never assume what Blackness is.

  2. Never tell a Black person how they should go about their Blackness.

  3. Just because you may educate yourself does not mean your work is done.

  4. Black people owe you zero explanations.

  5. Black is beautiful (in every single way).

  6. Do not turn Black leaders into martyrs.

  7. You have no invitations into any Black function just because you repeat what we have been saying for centuries.

  8. Open your purse.

  9. Gaslighting is a microaggression.

  10. Black people are not your teachers.

  11. You owe us reparations.

  12. Impact over intent.

[bf_image id="j679gws8s98gtf5msnp43z3s"] It is time to rid of the gravel which symbolizes the death sentence and a life deferred.

It is time to rid of the American tokens which symbolize partiality and the blunt hypocrisy of dual injustices shown by an imbalanced scale. 

It is time to get rid of what is killing us.

What has been stated throughout this article are not new concepts.

We are not waiting for you. 

No justice, no peace.

I will not break bread and smile in the eyes of my oppressor through the guise of compromise. 

Related Materials

  1. The Second Wave: Trouble with White Feminism.

  2. Some Background on Abolition. 

  3. Transform Harm | Abolition. 

  4. NPR | American Policing. 

  5. Black Feminism. 

  6. Kimberle Crenshaw | Intersectionality. 

  7. Dr. Patricia Hill Collins | Black Feminism, Intersectionality, and Democratic Possibilities. 

  8. Angela Davis on The Fallacy of Prison Reform.

Nautia Smalls

George Mason University '23

Nautia Smalls is a writer, filmmaker, and an Integrative Studies major (with a concentration in Social Justice and Human Rights) at George Mason University. Her pronouns are (She/Her/Hers). Originally from the state of Georgia, Smalls is currently the Undersecretary of Identity Affairs in Student Government at George Mason.
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