The History of Abolition
What are some of the historical legacies of abolition? What does it mean for education? What does it have to do with us today?
We speak with Robert P. Robinson, former high school English teacher and current doctoral student in Urban Education at CUNY Graduate Center about the historical legacy of abolition. He describes abolition democracy as put forth by W.E.B. du Bois and the echoes of that tradition in the Black Panther Party’s Oakland Community School.
Follow Robert P. Robinson on Twitter @robertprobinson and LinkedIn
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction: An essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. Harcourt, Brace and Company.
(Please excuse any errors. Contains some coarse language.)
[Music Intro ♫]
LaToya [LS]: Hey listeners! Welcome to Abolition Science Radio, we’re your hosts. I’m LaToya Strong-
Atasi [AD]: And I’m Atasi Das. We’re here to talk all things science and math and their relationship to-
AD: And so much more.
[ ♫ Music fade out.]
LS: And welcome back to our second episode. We are super excited to be here.
AD: Yes, yes we are. So, LaToya, what are we talking about today?
LS: We are gonna be talking about the history of abolition.
AD: Why the history?
LS: Well first, we wanna honor those that came before us. The people’s whose shoulders we are standing on, but we also want to ground where our idea evolved from. So we wanna give the historical context that enabled us to shape this idea of Abolition Science. But, we are not going it alone.
AD: That’s true, we are not alone in this and in this episode, we will hear from a researcher and historian of education, Robert P. Robinson.
LS: Why Robert P. Robinson?
AD: Well he’s been thinking and writing about histories of education, specifically Black education and his work really centers the Black Radical Tradition and Black liberation movements. And abolition really has been central to both of those.
LS: Alright, sounds great, so boom, let’s get started.
LS: Heyyy San Diego! (RPR: [Laugh], AD: Woo!) Um, Robert is a former high school English teacher of over ten years, um, current Doctoral Student at the CUNY Grad Center in the program in Urban Education. Robert is focusing on the history of education.
AD: So, Robert, Welcome!
Robert P. Robinson [RPR]: Thank you, thank you.
LS: We’re happy to have you here.
AD: So happy.
LS: Side note, Robert’s one of our really good friends.
AD: And a super dope scholar.
LS: Super dope.
RPR: Stop, guys.
AD: So before we dive into things, what are you listening to? What is on your playlist?
RPR: Gotchu. So, I actually pulled it up on my iTunes because I was preparing for this question. So, last week I was at, um, another one of our friend’s house, Sakina’s, and she was playing some jazz stuff and they were talking about like ‘What was your theme song?’ And she played it. And it was this one song by this one dude named Jean-Luc Ponty, or whatever. But I guess he’s like a jazz musician, [LS: Mhmm] a white jazz musician, cause I, I wasn’t even ready [LS: Mm…] for it. Um, uh, playing some 80s stuff. And then, the thing I downloaded right before then was the Sufferers. The most recent album which isn’t all the way out yet. The Sufferers are this dope group from Houston. Um, who does like, almost like afro-Ska, kind of.
LS: I like- you- you and Makeba introduced them to me. I like the Sufferers.
AD: That’s pretty cool.
LS: We have to have another conversation about white jazz musicians, but we’ll do that not today. Not today y’all.
RPR: Oh, that’s a whole ‘nother - I felt guilty, I felt guilty downloading the track but I was like hey, this shit is lowkey like, ha ha ha, hot. [Laugh] [AD & LS : Ha ha ha]
AD: Cool. Awesome. So, I think our first question that we wanted to ask is, we’re talking about this word abolition and, where does it come from historically? So, if you could tell us a little bit more about that.
RPR: Gotchu. Abolition, um, often, if we look through history in general I think, is like told through the eyes of like, well meaning white folks from the North, who were, um, supposed to free the um, enslaved Black people. And I think that narrative is told often. And then what folks strategically do, a lot of Black scholars, who deal with pre-war, or, like often known as Antebellum kind of, um, history, is resurrect Black voices to talk about how Black folks were already constructing their own abolition, uh movements. Anyway. But, um, abolition in it’s like liberal form, is like removal, the demolishing, tearing down of something and so, I think that’s the main thing I think about abolition. And then, is that it? Or did..?
AD: I think so..
AD: Well, it’s interesting because you asked um, you said that there is a notion of abolition that’s talked about that, historically, is like, given to, how white folks have talked about abolition, and then, I thought it was really interesting that you re-situated, well abolition is actually how people, who have been affected by enslavement, by other various forces, so Black voices, construct their own idea of abolition, so, I like the teasing out of abolition that’s talked about and abolition that is, like, broader, and deeper.
LS: Yeah, I also that point stuck out to me too is like the, the well-known narrative that was told and I think, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with science, like here’s what we’re taught and told about science versus - especially when we think about the history of science - versus what were people actually doing and continuing to do against this dominant notion of what science is, what it’s for, who it serves. So, my introduction to abolition as not a movement by white people was through W.E. Du Bois and his - I fucked his name all up - W.E.B. Du Bois [All: Ha ha ha] um, and Black Reconstruction in America when he brought up this term ‘abolition democracy.’ And it’s not to say that other folks weren’t doing work around that term but in this book, Du Bois has coined it and goes on to define it. Can you talk to us about ‘abolition democracy’ as Du Bois lays it out? Because this is—all these abolition movement that we see today, I think, derive from that.
RPR: Yeah, can I backtrack at the beginning of the book?
RPR: Alright, quick conversation about the book itself. Du Bois, he talks about this a little bit in, is like… he was involved in a lot of like, on the ground stuff that was like going to high school classrooms. He actually used to teach, like upcoming teachers, and used to teach in high schools. So, he had a lot of like, what we would consider k-12 experience at this time that he’s writing this, it’s in the 1930s, and over the course of Du Bois’s career, once he like, kind of, moves away from his initial structuring of the talented tenth, [LS: Mhmm] um, he, uh, starts playing around with some Marxist thought. And so, this is written in the 1930s, when Du Bois is starting to, kind of, I don’t know...do I have to censor myself? [LS: No, you don’t.] Is playing around with, is fucking with, some, some Marxist anti-capitalist, um, thinking. And so, he reads this text as often like a labor text. And so, in the earlier part of this book, he’s doing a lot of the work to kind of unpack, what liberation looks like through the lens of like, exploring capitalism. And he starts off with like, the different stages before the war. And then by chapter 7, when he actually brings in the term, ‘abolition democracy’, he’s building on the work that he’s already done prior to that work. So, chapter seven is like, looking forward, so this is, right like, when we get to the close of the Civil War and Black Reconstruction starts in the United States. And so, when he was teaching in classes, he recognized that everyone was basically saying Black Reconstruction is the worst part in American history. And he says, ‘No. Au contraire, fuck no.’ Like, Black Reconstruction is the space where Black people had the opportunity to tease at what we call democracy in the United States. And so, um, the ‘abolition democracy’ term that comes up in chapter 7 is the beginning of this discussion about how Black people are reshaping what we call the American democracy. And so, I’d like to read a quick portion of how he starts the section.
AD & LS: Yes, please, yeah.
RPR: So, so at the beginning of Looking Forward, he goes: [Reading Du Bois from Chapter 7 of Black Reconstruction, p. 183.] “How two theories of the future of America clashed and blended just after the Civil War: the one was abolition democracy based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men. The other was an industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power. The uncomprehending resistance of the South and the pressure of Black folk made these two thoughts uneasy and temporary allies.” So, he’s saying that ‘abolition democracy’ itself was initially based on a moral imperative. Um, he talks about this on, like, two pages later, and then he says, it quickly was co-opted by white capitalists to become a part of an economic imperative. On the next page, on p. 184, I’ll just read this really quickly, he says: “The abolition democracy was the liberal movement among both laborers and small capitalists who united in the American assumption but saw the danger of slavery to both capital and labor.” And so that’s where he’s talking about these two different, um, ideas coming together. It began as a moral fight against slavery in the 30s and 40s, and gradually transformed by economic elements concluding it during the war. Uh so, and he goes on to talk about like, a little bit more about the main purpose of ‘abolition democracy’ was to abolish slavery. But then those two conflicting ideas comes back to the very way that I opened this. I didn’t do that on purpose, but to talk about like, the grander narrative, of abolition was well meaning white folks who are going to save the Black man. Um, that narrative actually is, now confronted with the idea of capitalists trying to make sure that they maintain their money. Hahaha.
LS: So, we’re talking about ‘abolition democracy’, so we abolish slavery and so Du Bois is talking about essentially at that time, there were two paths that could have been taken. So, it’d be the narrative that we get versus the narrative that Black folks themselves wanted.
LS: Or were trying to implement. So from the perspective of the Black folks doing the work at that time. [RPR: Yeah] It’s in, we’re abolishing slavery, but that’s not enough. So, we’re abolishing slavery and then what? What does it look like post? Like, after slavery’s abolished, what takes its place?
RPR: So, what takes its place initially is the idea that we create full citizenship for Black people. That’s the—and so the tension that they have now is, white folks trying to argue about like, whether or not this becomes a new dictatorship [LS: Mhmm] under this new freedom from, um, slavery. Or, to what extent do we negotiate power and control? And so, Black folks for themselves, during um, Reconstruction, now that they have full citizenship rights are essentially, creating conventions. So they’re conventions to talk about, what do we do now to re-envision our realities? And so, in that, there’s like, federal related um, safeguards for Black folks. The concept of land, like 40 acres and a mule, and, compensating Black folks for their labor. [LS: Mhmm] And so um, Du Bois goes on to talk about this later but he says essentially, the people who stand to lose the most were the plantation owners. Cause the industrial capitalists who were behind abolition, they got—they got all of their money and industrialization became the primary mode of operation in the United States. [LS: Right.] So, folks in the North got what they wanted through abolition, I’m doing scare quotes if y’all can see them, or air quotes, um. [AD: Laugh] We had this whole conversation. But they got what they wanted. Black folks got what they wanted to a degree. And then white agrarians didn’t get anything. And that’s part of the reason why Black Reconstruction ends. And then- I wouldn’t say they didn’t get anything, they can say that. Um. [Laugh]
LS: [Laugh] I made a little like stank face at Robert. [Laugh]
RPR: [Laugh] So, it’s not that they didn’t get anything, but they, basically had to compensate for the things—they were supposed to compensate for the things that they received during slavery. Um, and so then, this aristocracy that once existed among white planters, now means that there’s a collapse of what they saw as their aristocracy and so now, white folks’ class status gets compromised as a result of slavery. And which is why they push back so heavily when Black folks are in power. So, in places like, Du Bois gives us this whole thing about Louisiana having like, primarily Black folks, Mississippi having districts that are primarily Black folks, and so if you have primarily Black folks in those positions, then you’re electing Black folks into positions of power. And so, even in us getting our power, we extend the right of public education. Which is one of the best things that comes from Reconstruction. That like, one of the best legacies that they didn’t get rid of. Um, it’s the only legacy from Black Reconstruction that they didn’t completely obliterate was public education. But that’s because Black people, even in the midst of us having like uh, these sharp reprisals. One of our first claims was one, we wanted like universal education, so that we wouldn’t have to return to the plantation as a form of maintaining our own livelihood.
AD: You [RPR: Laugh] just gave us so much rich information. I’m like furiously thinking through and taking notes, because one, it’s this incredible juncture of race and class. Race and capital, right, relations that you’re talking about. But what really strikes me is this is not 1930s, this is also now, you know. This like, really, that intensity, and so, exploring kind of how Du Bois situates that notion and what people did and what people are doing now is, so fascinating to me, like to think of those parallels of the concept of like, universal education. Right, that, right now, I feel like, is like a major battle, right? Or, what does full citizenship mean? Right? Right now we have kids being taken away from their families, you know, and like, on the basis of statehood. On the basis of citizenship, so yeah. You just made me think about a lot of different [Laughs] things at this moment.
LS: Yeah, lots of things. I think we want to move on to how, what abolition looks like in your work, or how you take it up, or how it influences your work? But, before we get there if we can maybe just recap for our listeners. Abolition democracy, which I guess is the foundation for all these other abolitionist movements. If you could just sort of summarize again [RPR: Yeah, so] what that is for folks.
RPR: I think um, it’s difficult. The way I would interpret it that Du Bois is saying is that, like, the best way I can say it is, the move to abolish a state sponsored infrastructure [LS: Mhmm] that limits the rights, the freedoms, and liberties of one group of people. And in this case, Black folks. Ha ha, yeah. And this, the strategic case that he’s using it, yeah. So, I think that’s the argument. But, I think the second part of the argument is the conversation about interest convergence. So even if, you’re getting rid of the state sponsored institution, whose interests are being served? And how does that change the next iteration that comes after?
AD: And how is that negotiated maybe?
AD: Like, that is the power struggle you were talking about, so it’s like in process. That’s how I took it.
LS: Yeah. And so, there’s another part to it. It’s like abolishing but building. What’s coming next?
RPR: Yeah, yeah exactly.
AD: Which is hopefully what we will try to engage in, in this whole series so, yeah, not just removing and demolishing but also thinking about the possibilities, the possibilities. Yeah, could you tell us a little bit about what are you working on, your… and does abolition influence it and in what ways?
RPR: Gotchu. My project right now is looking at the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) Oakland Community School. And um, looking at it through the lens of Black educational history. So I have to look at, um, Black Reconstruction, because public education makes a huge leap in society during this time. So, one of the cases that I make is, I haven’t even had this published yet but now that it’s here, this is like publicly published, so this is good. But um, so I take up the cause of the conversation of ‘Stealin’ the Meetin’ ‘. Which is shortened version of stealing the meeting. Which is, when, Black free folks taught Black enslaved folks literacy, or taught them how to read. And so, it’s creating literacy practices for the purposes of liberation in a space where they don’t have it. So, I think that is the legacy of Black education in the United States. And so, I read the Oakland Community School as, a space where Black folks are creating educational opportunities where they’re getting reprisals from the state government, or the federal government. So, in my work, I see abolition kinda through this, the exact same lens, like in an ideal space, it would require us, like we talk about reform in education all the time. And like, education is itself like a reproduction of society and so, Angela Davis when she talks about, she talks about this in her book Abolition Democracy but she also talks about this, are prisons obsolete? She argues that prisons are a manifestation of this exact same thing and we, the only way that we can envision a new way to redo justice, is to shut down that whole system. In my work, I don’t know what it’s like to dream radically about what it looks like to tear everything down and to rebuild. [LS: Mhmm.] And so, I look at this school as kind of like a model of what could happen, after it’s torn down. So, um. [Laugh]
AD: So, like the afterlife, or the continued resistance?
LS: The building part.
RPR: The building part.
LS: We’ve gotten. We’ve torn it down, so this is the building part.
RPR: Yeah, cause I don’t know if this school could exist within the current constraints that we have now.
LS: I’m sure most folks are familiar with the Black Panther Party, however, could you, could we back up and maybe could you speak more specifically about what the Oakland Community School was?
RPR: Yeah, so, the Oakland Community- so the Black Panther Party had a number of liberation schools which kind of operate like, like what we call, like, ah, I’ll say vacation Bible schools. So like [LS: Ha ha ha, you did not. Ha ha ha] I did, I know. So, it’s not the same thing, but they’re like, the political version so. They ran during the summer of 1969, they ran repeatedly across the country and so, it was basically like, they taught kids about the politics of the Black Panther Party. And then, in 1970, Huey P. Newton is still in prison, but he’s like, we need to have a full time day school and that’s when the, they create the Children’s House, which then becomes the Intercommunal Youth Institute and then the Oakland Community School. But it was completely community contained. So it started off with, the school housing a place for Black Panther children so that they wouldn’t face the day to day social, mental, psychic, assault from teachers. And so, they were actually being targeted by their teachers. [LS: Hm.] So they pulled them out and created a full time day house which was the Children’s House. And then they were like, we need to turn this into an established school, so they dropped the plans January of 1971, it becomes the Intercommunal Youth Institute. And eventually, they open it up to people who are not Panther children. And, it’s people in the community which is why it becomes the Oakland Community School. So, they taught everything, all subjects, and they also had, like, politically engaged conversation in different iterations of the school.
AD: And just to clarify, the age range was from?
RPR: From, as early- cause they had like, two different blocks. So as early as like two years old [LS: Oh, wow.] to fifth grade. [AD: Yeah.] So, uh, almost middle school.
LS: Would you consider Oakland Community School to be an abolitionist project?
RPR: Good question. I think, yes. Yeah, now I’m starting to think like Du Bois, like ahhh - depends on whose interests are being served cause I feel like, towards the end because they were getting state funding, they also were taking standardized tests. [LS: Mmm..] So, under that realm, it would be a reformist project. [LS: Mhmm.] Um, but I think, at the core of its initiation, it was an abolitionist project.
AD: Mhmm, yeah. It’s a, it’s really interesting how, the conditions, that, both can, like allow for these schools to like, become necessary. And then like people take that initiative to like, form it and make it. And at the same time, those same conditions can then crush it. Like, the state’s role and influence in both funding and then also changing the nature of the school, so. [RPR: Yeah.] It makes me think of the education system in which we’re living in and the state’s role, and so what would abolition mean in this current hyper-testing, hyper-STEM, um, really militarized, um, place that we’re in. [RPR: Yeah.] Um, yeah.
LS: Yeah. It’s also, you talked about, I think when you op- not I think, you did, when you opened talked about, the white co-optation. Is that the word? White Co-optation? The white co-opting of the abolitionist movement and how the state, or capitalism, or capital finds a way to keep itself alive. Or to keep itself going. And so, so much was, of the community school was co-opted. Which essentially made it—I don’t wanna say null and void, but—what am I trying to say? Like the free school program that we have today comes from Oakland Community School [RPR: Yeah] and so the way that the state co-opted the movement that they were trying to do in order to sort of make it obsolete.
RPR: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, part of the reason why it also had to leave, is cause, they, they couldn’t even raise money on their own anymore. The party itself had to collapse which made the—but I think new iterations of the school haven’t existed because the state. Yeah, I agree, the state has co-opted those aims. Kind of like, the way we talk about social justice education, I feel like also, kinda waters down the same conversation. Cause that, then it becomes like social justice ed gets written into the standards. [LS: Right.] Um, and you would think that would be a good thing because that means that everybody’s learning the same way to critique the system. But if the system is controlling the way that we critique the system, is it really [AD: Is it really critiquing it?] a dismantling project? Yeah.
AD: Right, so what does is actually look like? Does it happen in one fell swoop? [RPR: Ha ha ha] Does it happen in different ways? I think that is something that I always think about too of like, well, what is the change that we want to do? What do I wanna do in education? What do I envision and how do we do it together? But like, [RPR: Mhmm] learning from this history, and, it’s not even just history, like there are people who are from those schools that you’ve talked to, that are, today, that have like, memories, right. And so, how do these iterations or these ways to enact abolition, like, they’re not dead, right, they’re not done, they’re not over. There’s like still these reverberations still there, I guess, you know? [RPR: Yeah, yeah.] So it makes me think about how do we envision, and also at the same time, like, be, thinking of like, this is a long game.
AD: Yeah. So…
AD: Lot of thoughts
LS: Lots of thoughts.
AD: A lot of- yeah.
RPR: Ha ha ha.
LS: Is there, does anything throughout the conversation, Robert, that is on your mind, some pieces that you just wanna, here’s a thought, here’s one more thing?
RPR: Yeah. Just a quick one. When you were talking about like, what does it mean- it’s a long game. I think about the Panther’s project of survival programs. And so they, recognize that the revolution wasn’t something that could happen overnight and so. Instead of calling them revolutionary programs, they called them survival pending revolution programs. That’s why they were called Survival Programs. [LS: Mmm] And so, the Oakland Community School was the last standing Survival Program. [AD: Mmm] And so, I think about, like, them recognizing that revolution is the long haul. But, I also wonder like, in that fight, that’s supposed to sustain over time, what dangers do we have? Or, what, of compromising our original vision?
AD: That’s complex.
LS: Very complex. When we talk about change, there’s like systemic change, but if you’re also not making the change on the personal/interpersonal -it like has to be this like, both. [AD: Both.] [RPR: Agreed.] Both, and. Um, and I’m just throwing this question at you and I’m sorry, but I feel like you’re gonna have a good answer anyway. [RPR: I’m scared.] What would like a daily abolitionist practice look like for an individual? Just, like, one thing. It’s a big question, I’m sorry, it’s a really big question. [RPR: Yeah.] Um but, if there’s one thing where you could be like, this. And every individual person could start to do this and then figure out what that- how is that connected systemically.
AD: Abolition pending liberation.
AD & LS: Abolition pending …., yeah yeah.
RPR: Um, I was thinking about Patrisse- is it Patrisse Cullors? [AD & LS: Mhmm, yes] Uh, hashtag BLM. She spoke at the Graduate Center last month—I’m paraphrasing, but she was like, ‘I look in the mirror and say ‘What are you doing to change the material conditions for Black people today?’ And so, I think about that question as being super important cause that, that can like automatically kinda, get you in the mode of abolition. But even before I can start there, I’m like, ‘Bitch, who are you? [LS: Ha ha ha ha] What are you doing to save you today?’ [LS: Right] Um, so that you can, you can contribute to, like, the liberation for yourself, and then the liberation of oppressed peoples. So, I’m- I’m constantly asking myself that question. Like, what am I doing today to free my mind?
LS: [Singing] Free your mind. And the rest will follow. ♫
RPR: [Laugh] I can’t, I can’t. I’m done.
All: Ha ha ha ha.
LS: Ok, thank you Robert!
AD: Thank you so much Robert.
RPR: Y’all got me thinking a lot.
AD: Thank you for getting us thinking too.
[♫ Music: The Sufferers – I Think I Love You ]
AD: You just heard a clip from The Sufferers. Their title being “I Think I Love You” from their album Everything Here which was released in 2018. LaToya, when you hear that song what’d you think? What came up for you?
LS: That song and just The Sufferers overall, I really love their music, I think it’s definitely music that you could just vibe to. They refer to their music as Gulf Coast Soul which is sort of this mixture of soul, country, R&B, rock and roll, and all of these other genres as well. And so it makes me think of Clyde Woods and his, his like theorization of the blues epistemology which is like the blues being a critique, resistance, representing community and memory for Black folks in the South. And so he’s really talking about plantation, power, culture, as it bumps up against political economy and like, those things must be looked at together. The Sufferers are a multiracial group and I think you can see the roots of that music that came out of the South from Black people. So, country, rock and roll, I think these genres that we associate as white music, which is false, it has it’s roots in Black culture. Um, really coalesce in like the history of those genres with the present of those genres coalescing in this group. Uh, what did you think about the sufferers?
AD: Well, I hadn’t heard of them prior to Robert’s recommendation. But as I listen to them, I, oh this is like a really cool, upbeat sound. It was really smooth. I really enjoy their sound and particularly this song and the horns just, I love the horns. They really kinda strike, strike me as like telling a story and then going into the background. So kinda like connecting to your, your thoughts around how this group has to like, play collectively and create this momentum together. So I, yeah, it really made me wanna move and um, which connects kinda to what I hope this podcast series and creating this abolition science project will make us want to do. To do something, to move, uh, to change this world, so, yeah. I mean I liked, you should definitely check them out if you get a chance.
LS: Yes. Put them on your playlist. They’re now on our playlist. Atasi, guess what?!
LS: We just finished another episode!
AD: Oh, yeah we finished! [♫ Music starts] Hey thanks for listening everyone and check us out in two weeks when our new episode drops.
[♫ Musical outro.]