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In July 2020, under the guidance of a dark and rainy sky, several Black community organizers and I led a protest with over 2,000 people in Gainesville, Florida. The gloomy yet hopeful air married their powerful voices, cries, and sweat. In a call-and-response, we almost entered into a trance by repeatedly chanting:

“What do we want?”

“Abolition”

“And when do we want it?”

“Now!”

In the wake of state murders of numerous Black people, this seemingly simple yet radical statement caused a shift in the United States. Contrary to popular thinking, abolition is neither a catchy slogan nor a poetic metaphor. It is part of the work of moving ideology into sustained practice. As abolition is popularized in mass media, questions about what abolition means circulate through many academic departments. Feminist scholar-activists ask how abolition and Black feminist thought meet at various intersections to challenge and disrupt anti-Blackness and sexist agendas to radically create a future where Black lives thrive and flourish.

Credit: Jordan Martinez-Mazurek
Protest
Alexandra at a protest.

While organizing the 2020 uprisings, I advocated for abolition as the solution to police brutality and other forms of violence. Mainstream attention pushed me to comprehend the urgent need for abolition. Even during mass protests, I heard and chanted, “We need abolition now!” Yet, despite calling myself a hardcore Black feminist abolitionist, I could not see a Black feminist abolitionist future because I saw abolition as moments or single events: a demand, a protest, a city council meeting, another killing of a Black person, or a sit-in. I grappled even more with the vision of abolition after its cooptation into mainstream settings, where reform tactics, such as mandatory body cameras and the arrest of police officers for killing Black people, stood for abolitionist praxis.

But a comrade, Kiara Laurent, encouraged me to sit with holding contradictions and complexities in the service of liberation. This sitting continually asked me to affirm my ongoing commitment and engagement. I kept wrestling with my understanding of abolition until I attended a political education meeting on Zoom organized by the Rising Tides, a think tank for Florida’s grassroots feminist collaboration. A community organizer in that Zoom meeting said, “If the revolution is not a one-time event, why would abolition be a single event? Abolition will lead the revolution, so don’t confuse ideas that comfort us that are then coopted.” This statement challenged and questioned my prevailing notion of abolition as a single event and emphasized that, like a revolution, it should be an ongoing process. But most importantly, it highlighted the need to distinguish between abolitionist principles and the misconstrued, mainstream discourse on abolition. This statement, to this day, has solidified my political framework, vision, and career path.

For instance, by working on the Bail Fund Program organized by Dream Defenders, a youth grassroots organization, I helped comrades arrested by police during various protests to secure funding to make bail. My growing awareness of and support for abolitionist movements, coupled with my impactful contributions toward my community, pushed me to study anthropology at the intersection of social justice. I believe a degree in anthropology will allow me to contribute to research that informs policies and practices that promote social justice and human rights. This, to me, means to be an engaged scholar.

But I am not only an anthropologist. I am also a community organizer and a Black, African, Haitian woman, or what anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod calls a “halfie”—being caught between two or more cultural boundaries and identities. Standing at the intersection of those cultural boundaries and navigating my positionality, lived experiences, and material conditions has led me to Shange’s theoretical stance of abolitionist anthropology. In her book, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco, Shange posits “abolitionist anthropology as one of the many possible names for apprehending the necessary conjecture of antiblackness theory and a critical anthropology of the state.” Abolitionist anthropology is an approach within Black studies that seeks to “encompass the ways in which Black people and our accomplices work within, against, and beyond the state in the service of collective liberation.”

Shange’s work made me reflect on the 2020 uprisings, and I asked myself, “What if I knew what I know now?” Abolition is not a solution but a process, an ongoing method and strategy working toward liberation. Considering abolition as a modality, abolitionist anthropology cannot be reduced to a Band-Aid fix; it is a theoretical framework we use to create and transform institutions, such as academia. It ruptures the invisibility of the institutionalization of the afterlife of slavery, which demands that anthropologists abolish the “cop within.” Abolishing the cop within implies a deep commitment to challenging and changing internalized beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that align with oppressive systems of power, like policing. In tandem, anthropologists ought to institutionally develop antiracist interventions, policies, ongoing training, and systems of accountability rooted in transformative justice practices.

Most importantly, by realizing that abolitionist anthropology is a way to engage with and conceptualize issues, we are tasked with a rasanbleman, a gathering of“ideas, things, people, spirits to create lasting solutions. In other words, transforming systems of power is not an individual responsibility but a konbit, a collective enterprise, so to speak. Konbit is a Haitian concept for putting one’s hands together to accomplish a task. It suggests that the foundation for change is the consensus of a critical mass mobilization of people fighting for liberation. I do not argue that adopting abolitionist anthropology will dismantle the webs of violence in this colonized world or the neoliberal university system. Still, it gets us closer to actualizing that because abolitionist anthropology lays the groundwork for envisioning and implementing alternative systems to think and build the world we inhabit. Abolitionist anthropology is fundamentally about “doing the work.”

“Doing the work” advocates for abolitionist anthropological practices—such as repairing ethnographic misconceptions and (mis)representations, allowing others to speak for themselves, asking communities what they want instead of assuming, and being held accountable to those communities. Abolitionist anthropology necessitates an intersectionality approach because all forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing and must be analyzed simultaneously, as Black feminists argued long ago. In this sense, the scholarly genealogy of Black feminist intellectuals is centrally positioned in abolition. In her Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis draws the parallel that Black feminist thought and critique are vital components to understanding abolition. Abolitionist anthropology weaves the tenants of Black feminism to critique the ways in which anti-Blackness and sexism persist across various levels of institutions. For instance, academia is constructed on the conditions of Black suffering, especially of Black women. It is the labor, seen and unseen, of Black women that academia stands on. In Abolition. Feminism. Now, a collaborative work from Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie, the authors unravel the genealogies of abolitionist praxis, which constitutes radical Black feminism as a tenant. Therefore, abolitionist anthropology is intricately linked to the liberation of Black women. The relationship between abolitionist anthropology and Black feminism works to defend Black lives now and the various futures we fashion.

​​I embraced abolitionist anthropology because I was hurt by the realities of state violence and by how academia often is complacent in the implicit (sociocultural patterns and socioeconomic structures) and explicit (individual attitudes, prejudices, and perceptions) neocolonial practices of violence. For example, Black women are not cited enough, have a more challenging time obtaining academic positions (let alone being accepted for the tenure track), and have to meet the demands of being a Black woman in academia, which entails going above and beyond for the academic institution while failing to receive validation or proper accommodations. Despite this history of marginalization, Black women, such as Katherine Dunham and Zora Neale Hurston, have been canon-setting and made waves in anthropology. So, abolition and anthropology will always go hand in hand as long as the citation politics, hiring practices, and job expectations of academia do not address and correct the epistemic erasure and job exclusion of Black women, as well as the disproportionate demands placed on them and the lack of recognition they experience once inside.

“The personal is political” weighs differently when you are perpetually the subject of structural and individual violence. Being Black is synonymous with being political because to be apolitical is to deny one’s need for survival and agency. In other words, as a Black woman living in a colonized world, I am not afforded the option to be complacent with injustices and inequalities. I am a fighter like my ancestors. Thus, for me, a Black, feminist abolitionist anthropology is one of many bridges that lead Black people back to the principled struggle to dismantle institutional power and its inherent racism and sexism, because abolitionist anthropology is a methodology rooted in a love ethic. Black suffering and domination cannot prevail where a love ethic exists. In this ethic, love is a set of socio-political acts of resistance to domination. It is a commitment to challenging racist ideologies and practices that dehumanize Black lives. In anthropology departments, this means building generative and equitable collaborations with local grassroots organizations, listening to and citing Black voices in and outside academia, centering the stories and experiences of marginalized and oppressed communities, decanonizing the anthropological discipline, uprooting racist and discriminatory practices within the university, and doing anthropological research that positively changes the material conditions of the communities we collaborate with and learn from. To engage with abolitionist anthropology, we must ask, “Why and for whom do we do this work?”

Part of the answer is we must break the yolk of structural and symbolic violence. To break this yolk, abolitionist anthropology cannot be reduced to performative allyship or equal liberalism’s reformist tactics; it is about collectively constructing new radical realities, political and intellectual practices, and institutional structures. And those of us grounded in feminist practice know that institutions will not save us or come to our rescue. Audre Lorde reminds us that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And as Assata Shakur has taught me, it is our duty and obligation to achieve liberation. I may not live to see the day when abolitionist anthropology is for every anthropologist. Still, I want to light a torch for the day all oppressive systems of power come burning down, for all empire is set to fall and crumble. That is the ancestor I want to be.

María Lis Baiocchi and Leyla Savloff are contributing editors for the Association for Feminist Anthropology’s section column.

Authors

Alexandra St Tellien

Alexandra St Tellien is an African-Haitian scholar from Gonaïves, Haiti. She is a graduate student of anthropology at Georgia State University. She uses Black theoretical frameworks and decolonizing methodologies to critically examine the construction of race and gender within the field of anthropology.

Cite as

St Tellien, Alexandra. 2024. “Abolition as Process.” Anthropology News website, April 4, 2024.

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