What does the struggle against racial slavery in the nineteenth century have to teach us about ongoing struggles for freedom and social justice in America today? This course will examine critical connections between Atlantic slavery and mass incarceration and, furthermore, between the two social movements that have emerged in response to them: slavery abolition and prison abolition.
Our readings will raise questions about abolition as a concept, a historical phenomenon, and a contemporary political strategy. The first several weeks will focus on the literature and history of the nineteenth-century U.S. and Caribbean. These materials use literary form to document not only the structural and everyday violences of slavery, but also the many efforts undertaken by abolitionists—and by enslaved people themselves—to outlaw, resist, or refuse these violences. We will then turn our attention to twentieth- and twenty-first century critical texts on gender, race, class, and prisons, as well as literary and visual artworks by incarcerated people. Considered together, these diverse forms and genres will help us to see not only the continuities between plantations and prisons, but also the makings of a new abolitionism—one that would seek to uproot violent systems by offering forms of life, and of freedom, that are built upon entirely new foundations.
Through readings of authors like David Walker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, Harriet Jacobs, W. E. B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, we will reflect on the usefulness of abolitionism as a general approach to enacting social change today and in the uncertain future. Students in all majors are welcome to enroll in this Junior Research Seminar, which will support the development of skills in academic research and critical writing.