“I’d open every cell in Attica—send ’em to Africa.”
-Nas “If I Ruled the World”
Last week Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, spoke at Rankin Chapel about the need for Black students to reject American consumerism and sacrifice for a cause greater than them. Alexander, following in the tradition of Angela Davis, has identified the elimination of mass incarceration as a noble cause.
Davis’ scholarship and activism shows how prisons are a multi-billion dollar industry primarily because, according to the 13th amendment, enslavement is legal in the U.S. in the form of prisons. Therefore, Davis identifies as a prison abolitionist and traces her political lineage to the abolitionist movement in antebellum U.S. Unfortunately, most Black students are totally unaware of their own abolitionist tradition.
Several notable Black abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnet began political organizing at the African Free School in the 1830s. While a student, Garnet caused uproar in the community when he helped to found an anti-slavery organization named after one of the most militant abolitionists of the time, William Lloyd Garrison. After graduation, he was an uncompromising advocate for armed struggle to end enslavement and emigration to Africa.
Another standout Black student abolitionist, John A. Copeland, while a student at Oberlin College helped to liberate a Black man in Ohio who was captured after escaping from enslavement. He eventually dropped out of Oberlin to join John Brown in his violent attempt to overthrow the slave system. Copeland gave the ultimate sacrifice, his life.
Howard University is no stranger to Black student abolitionism. In the 1930s, Howard students joined the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). (The first Snick!) SNYC was founded by two Black communists. Although its membership included non-communists, its communist members envisioned and struggled to create a classless-stateless society without prisons.
If the current generation is to pick up the torch of abolitionism similar to Garnet, Copeland, and SNYC members, they must reject American individualism, consumerism, and celebrity culture. In a society that states our human worth is determined by material possessions and the amount of goods you consume, the notion of fighting to abolish all prisons is perceived to be futile and utopian, but the tide may just be turning.
All over the world, from Arab countries to the Africa to Latin America, as Martin Luther King stated “the cry is we want to be free.” The abolition of all prisons can only come as a result of a complete transformation of the economic system.
It appears that we are entering the beginning stages of such a movement. Here is our chance. Now is the time for us to reclaim the Black student abolitionist tradition.
Benjamin Woods is a PhD candidate at Howard University.
This article originally appeared in the Howard newspaper, The Hilltop.