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Simone Browne

Oct 6, 2020

6 min read

Abolition for the People

The Feds Are Watching: A History of Resisting Anti-Black Surveillance

More than a century of countersurveillance methods emphasizes the importance of abolition

The Negro Motorist Green-Book, 1940. Image: New York Public Library

The Negro Motorist Green Book, and others like it, charted automobile routes so that Black travelers could navigate roadways and secure accommodation within the system of segregation, sundown towns, and service stations that refused their patronage.

In another example, Harriet Ann Jacobs meticulously shared the specifics of her cunning ability to outwit her captor, Dr. Flint (a pseudonym) and eventually escape his predatory sexual harassment and enslavement in her 1861 narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Her self-emancipation began in North Carolina in 1835, when she ran off and took harbor in the homes of others, concealed herself in a swamp, and then eventually hid in a garret above her grandmother’s house for almost seven years. This hiding space, where the darkness was nearly total and the air was stifling, “was only nine feet long, and seven wide” and at its most high only three feet. She later bore a hole in one of the walls, about an inch in diameter, through which she could catch some air, peep outside, watch her children, and listen to conversations not meant for her to hear, like that of “slave-hunters planning how to catch some poor fugitive.” While still confined in the garret, Jacobs would frequently out-maneuver Flint and his hired slave catchers by writing letters addressed to him and to her grandmother and then sending those letters with a trusted friend who would mail them back to North Carolina but postmarked from places like New York, Boston, and Canada. Jacobs ultimately fled her cramped cell and made her way to freedom in Philadelphia and then on to New York and Boston.

CB radios on sale, 1977. Photo: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images