The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning “how to be more antiracist.” It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism. What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.— Saidiya Hartman
The morning of Saturday, November 7, 2020, I was in southern movement space. We were rolling three hundred deep for the 9th Southern Movement Assembly (SMA9), coming together across the South to make a plan to protect our people, disrupt capital, and build infrastructure for the First 100 Days in office. We did not know whose First 100 Days it would be, but we did know, in the words of Frederick Douglass, that “power concedes nothing without an *organized* demand.” The news that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared president- and vice president-elect rippled through our morning breakout sessions. We had just finished talking about how we must celebrate all of our wins. Getting Trump out was a huge victory for southern people power. My dear friend Deon Haywood named it: “People flexed their power, and saw that they could win. We have to pause and celebrate that.”
We also grounded ourselves, with the guidance of the New Orleans healing justice team, in our present and in our power to build the world otherwise. (one) Breathe in what we need, Breathe out the gremlins; (two) Breathe in what we need, Breathe out the gremlins; (three) Breathe in what we need, Breathe out the gremlins . . . until we got to nine, the number of Oya, the orisha of the winds, lightening, and storms, the guardian between life and death. The winds of change are around us, Spirit McIntyre affirmed. Can we bend like the weeping willow brought nearly parallel to the ground by hurricane force winds? And can we do so, like her, while trusting that we will stay deeply and firmly rooted? Breathe in what we need, Breathe out the gremlins.
White siblings, the work of today is the work of this year is the work of our lifetimes.
Fifty-five percent of white women voted for Trump in 2020. That statistic has been aired like the dirty laundry it is since exit polls were tallied. Two percentage points higher than in 2016. Even more of us saw the literal death march that was four years of Trump and said “sign me up for four more.” It is shameful. And we know it. As the nation’s post-election night gaze shifted to Georgia and Stacey Abrams, white women were waving our arms frenetically, falling over ourselves on social media with expressions of gratitude. All these thank yous quickly severed Stacey Abrams from the movements in which she was enmeshed on the ground in Georgia; they also erased the hundreds of thousands of organizers nationwide who are just like her. Abolitionist lawyer Derecka Purnell called out the capitalist, carceral logics that this hagiography rests on. We have talked less about the religious ones. It is a particularly sick form of white Christian sorcery to (yet again) ask Black women’s freedom practices to deliver us from evil, especially when what we need saving from is literally our own inability to confront the antiblack heteronormative terror in our own communities and family bloodlines.
What is our work? What are we dismantling? What are we creating?
I open this essay with a quote from Saidiya Hartman, which I started sharing the Wednesday after the election when it seemed like a different outcome was materializing. Hartman’s words read like a clarion call to me: 55 percent of white women voted for Trump? Here is what we do. Hartman tells us in no uncertain terms that overtures toward becoming antiracist leave the structures of whiteness intact. They are the pedagogical version of centrist political calls for civility and unifying with people who literally want many of us dead. Reform will never be enough. As Audre Lorde taught us, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. What is required is abolition. Hartman calls us to an active project of dismantling white supremacy and remaking our social order together. That is because abolition requires, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, that we change everything. And as I write this, we are already creating abolitionist futures in real time.
Abolition is sacred work. How else could we term the work to refuse the question, “What do we have now and how can we make it better?” and instead to ask, in the words of Mariame Kaba, “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” Indeed, “the fight to save your life is,” as BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullors has named it, “a spiritual fight.” Let me be clear: Abolition is not made through the religious practices of antiblackness that conscript our imaginations to a “White Jesus” who demands that whiteness be forgiven rather than dismantled. Abolition is being made through the deep and enduring world-building knowledges through which our Black, Indigenous, queer, trans, womanist, feminist, and disabled kin have survived centuries of colonial, capitalist, and carceral warfare. These are the transformative religio-racial practices that movement organizers have been using to cross worlds, open portals, and conjure revolution for years, indeed for generations.1 Breathe in what we need, Breathe out the gremlins.
Over the last two and a half decades, I have had the privilege of learning in revolutionary community how we can hold one another differently through abolitionist spiritual practices. Within the Reconstruction, Inc. community led by formerly incarcerated people in Philadelphia, every meeting starts with a three-part check-in: how are you, how is your family and community, and how are you doing in the world. The person-by-person go around is followed by an open question and answer period, in which members track for one another the growth or inconsistencies or silences or celebrations in what has been shared. Mapping the nuances of these concentric spheres of personal, social, and political life is an essential part of how Reconstruction makes their mission for “Changing Ourselves to Change the World” actionable. The check-in is, for all Reconstruction members, sacred work. It brings us in touch not only with what is, but also with what could be—and it also asks us to reckon with the ways we are holding back from speaking these possibilities in ourselves, our communities, and the world into being.
I have been a Reconstruction member for more than fifteen years, invited into the fold by elders after my dearest friend and organizing partner John Bell relapsed and overdosed on heroin. Reconstruction quite literally saved my life; the check-in was our lifeline for transforming harm and creating a future worth living. When I joined the faculty of Florida State University in 2019 and began building a teaching program on abolition in the Department of Religion, I committed to opening every single class with a check-in. Any classroom at this large public university in the American South renders visible the deep fault lines that run through our country and the histories that have produced them. I am not interested in teaching an intellectual history of the idea of abolition, still less in rehearsing Black suffering for white edification. What I am working with my students to do is to build learning communities that are sacred, creative sites of abolitionist praxis—and through which we are all accountable to movements on the ground.
This semester, students flocked to my teaching on abolition and the South, most newly politicized as this current chapter of the long Black freedom struggle took the streets and the globe in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. In the days following the election, I brought the SMA9 plan and Spirit’s breathwork for Oya to my students. My undergraduate class was immersed in pod presentations on mapping how “if the prison is everywhere, then abolition must be, too” at sites of their choosing, including the university testing center and Covid-expanded online surveillance. My graduate students were completing a unit on the violence of white womanhood—and specifically on the role of mediumship as a site of spiritual authority that white women have used throughout history to appropriate Black pain and expand white supremacy. Breathe in what we need, Breathe out the gremlins. My undergrads mapped out their visions and strategies for decarcerating learning at FSU and building liberatory education modeled on the freedom schools created by Black and Indigenous activists. My grads used the week’s primary sources to draw connections to our present, to critique their own complicity in systems of white authority, and to clarify how they could build scholarly practices of accompliceship that are not deadly. We have spent twelve weeks now moving at the speed of trust in order to develop the sort of relationships through which this creating and reckoning could come. The work is also still just beginning.
White siblings, the work of today is the work of this year is the work of our lifetimes.
We are at a critical juncture globally right now. Through people power, we have already toppled so much, even while so much more violence is steadily being assembled around us. Covid infection rates are at an all-time high. Our country is in the midst of an economic crisis. Jobs are gone and with them housing stability and food access. Targeted criminalization and state murder of our people abounds. And the centrist arms of the Democratic Party are trying to discredit the very abolitionist movements that kicked Trump out of the White House.
But we shall not be moved. The path forward is clear. To radically divest from whiteness, to join the groundswell of Black-led radical organizing to defund the police, to rip these systems up by their roots, and to commit ourselves to working in relationship to make abolition together. Let these be our watchwords: “May we grow back, not to what was, but instead towards what we can become.” And as Octavia Butler might seal that spell, “So be it. See to it.”
For a discussion of Judith Weisenfeld’s concept of “religio-racial” as a theoretical and methodological intervention for the field of Religious Studies writ large, please see the “‘Religio-Racial Identity’ as Challenge and Critique” roundtable published in the Journal for the American Academy of Religion‘s June 2020 issue: https://doi.org/10.1093/jaarel/lfaa015.↩