We’re All Living in a Future Created by Slavery
For centuries, we’ve had our freedoms ripped from us. But like our ancestors, we resist.
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, composed of 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
When I was 19 years old, I was arrested.
Instead of a dungeon, I was held in an overcrowded holding cell. Instead of being shackled and transported across the ocean on a floating prison, I was handcuffed, sitting shoulder to shoulder with another young Black male being hauled across the county on a prison bus.
During intake, I was stripped of my clothes, forced to stand naked as officers stripped me of both my pride and my dignity. I tried to cover my genitals. It was my last grasp at holding onto my humanity. I was commanded by officers to remove my hands. They had guns. I had nothing. I complied. The officer barked, “Lift up your nut sack.” I had no choice. I was ordered to “squat down and cough.” When I was finally handed a pair of state-issued boxer shorts, I was so desperate to have on anything to cover my exposed body that I did not give a damn that the underwear had been passed down, circulated among others who had been stripped naked before me.
Author and scholar Saidiya Hartman once wrote, “I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it. It is the ongoing crisis of citizenship.” I echo her pain as I think about — and live through — the ongoing crisis of carcerality and those affected most by its existence.
I think about the African diaspora. I think about my family. I think about myself.
In the summer of 2017, I visited the continent of Africa. While there, I basked in the beauty of the lively Ramadan nights in Morocco. I stood in the searing sun of Egypt. I took pictures with the great pyramids as my backdrop, mimicking Malcolm X during his visit in 1964. When I made it to Ghana, I visited the final resting place of Kwame Nkrumah. While standing at his tomb, I thought about Nkrumah writing, “All people of African descent whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean or in any other part of the world are Africans and belong to the African Nation.” I stood there thinking about the divide between being identified as African and being of African descent. I was in the homeland of my ancestors, and yet I knew none of their names or faces.
But I did know why they were forced to leave. I had reached a point where I could not return home to the United States without experiencing the carceral castles on Ghana’s Gold Coast.
My feet were firmly planted, affixed to the weather-beaten ground of the Castle of St. George in Elmina. I stood in front of a cell, designated for incarcerated Ashanti, Mandinka, Hausa, Wolof, Fula, and Susu from various kingdoms who had been deemed as deserving of death because they fought to live in freedom. I stood there in front of a thick black wooden door hauntingly marked by a human skull and a set of crossbones carved into stone.
Behind that door was a darkness I never experienced.
In the 7x10 prison cell, there was a total absence of light. There was also an abject emotional darkness that came with knowing folks, wrapped in the same skin that I’m in, were left there to starve and rot in death.
The captives imprisoned at the Castle of St. George were a part of what I call the carceral class. I am a member of this class.
The carceral class is made up of persons of African descent who are systematically stigmatized as unfit for freedom and deserving of the dehumanization that comes with being incarcerated. It is essential to the idea of Black people being framed as the locus of crime and Blackness as being synonymous with criminality. As a classification, the carceral class denotes that, at any given time, your freedom can be ripped from underneath your feet. That you can be torn away from the people you love and the places you love to be.
Although he didn’t name it, Malcolm X knew about the carceral class too.
The carceral class is made up of persons of African descent. It denotes that, at any given time, your freedom can be systemically ripped from underneath your feet. That you can be torn away from the people you love and the places you love to be.
In Malcolm X’s blistering 1963 speech, “Message to the Grassroots,” he spoke of the systemic condemnation of Black folks in the United States. He lasered in on the uncomfortable common bond of being Black in America. Malcolm made it plain and uncompromising. “We are all Black people, so-called Negroes, second-class citizens, ex-slaves,” he said. “You are nothing but a ex-slave. You don’t like to be told that. But what else are you? You are ex-slaves. You didn’t come here on the Mayflower. You came here on a slave ship — in chains, like a horse, or a cow, or a chicken.”
I wrestle with what Brother Malcolm said. Not because I disagree with the troublesome truths that he spoke, but because I feel his analysis can be built upon.
His words still ring in my mind on a loop.
“You are nothing but a ex-slave.”
You are nothing but a slave.
You are nothing.
You are a thing.
Malcom’s speech takes me back to Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony. In it, Mbembe lays bare his views on what it means to be branded, burned with the mark of being a slave. He viewed slave as the “forename” one must “give to a man or woman whose body can be degraded, whose life can be mutilated, and whose work and resources can be squandered — with impunity.”
I think about a time before enslavement. Before Africans were ensnared in the wretchedness of having both their labor and their lives exploited from can’t see in the morning to can’t see in the evening, they were prisoners of a particular kind.
Those who were captured and eventually enslaved were regular folks: commoners, farmers, wage workers, domestic servants, and artisans who worked with their hands. Two-thirds of those held captive were young African men. As Marcus Rediker recounts in The Slave Ship: A Human History, slave raiders targeted “‘the roughest and most hardy,’ and avoided the privileged ‘smooth negroes.’” The class-based vulnerability of the common folks figured centrally in their capture and confinement. Rediker continues:
Second to war as a source of slaves were the judicial processes in and through which African societies convicted people of crimes ranging from murder to theft, adultery, witchcraft, and debt; condemned them to slavery; and sold them to African traders or directly to the slave-ship captains… Many Africans and (abolitionist) Europeans felt that judicial processes in West Africa had been corrupted and that thousands had been falsely accused and convicted in order to produce as many tradeworthy bodies as possible.
A judicial system of injustice had waged war on African commoners, criminalizing them into a world of carcerality.
Malcolm’s raspy tone echoes again in my mind. I hear him saying, “You didn’t come here on the Mayflower. You came here on a slave ship — in chains, like a horse, or a cow, or a chicken.”
And again, Brother Malcolm was correct.
We did not willingly travel to the Americas on the Mayflower. We were forced here on the White Lion and the Clotilda. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the slave ship was an aquatic prison. Its European captain was the warden. Its European crew were the prison guards. And in handcuffs and leg shackles were the formerly free Africans, eaten alive, buried in the belly of vessels of mass incarceration.
The largest wave of forced African diasporic movement was anchored to punishment and carcerality. Everywhere the descendants of the Middle Passage were forced to find footing, carceral-class status and the struggle for liberation followed.
Malcolm knew the global connectedness of Black folks’ oppression. He knew that in the West, the African diaspora’s carceral-class status is still branded to our being.
Forty percent of the 10 million incarcerated Africans brought to the Americas and sold into chattel slavery ended up in Brazil. Today, it is estimated that 75% of Brazil’s prison population are Brazilians of African descent. In the country’s capital Brasília, Afro-Brazilians make up 82% of those incarcerated. Although only 11% of the country’s total population is between eight and 24 years of age, this age group represents approximately one-third of those imprisoned.
In the United States, Black adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than white adults. As of 2001, one out of every three Black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime. While 14% of all youth under 18 in the United States are Black, 42% of boys and 35% of girls in juvenile detention facilities are Black. Among Black trans folks, 47% have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.
The criminalization of Black folks in the United States is both a pathologizing and totalizing practice. No group is spared. No group is left unvictimized. These are progeny of the commoners, prisoners of war, and freedom fighters who made up the original carceral class.
Malcolm also knew that as a Muslim, “There is nothing in our book, the Quran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully.”
On Christmas Day in 1522, 20 enslaved Muslims, wielding machetes, attacked their Christian masters on the island of Hispaniola. It was the first recorded enslaved African revolt in the Western Hemisphere.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that the slave ship was an aquatic prison. Its European captain was the warden. Its European crew were the prison guards. And in handcuffs and leg shackles were the formerly free Africans, eaten alive, buried in the belly of vessels of mass incarceration.
Four years later, enslaved African Muslims rebelled against the Spanish on the coast of present-day South Carolina. It was the first rebellion by enslaved folks in the history of North America.
In 1729, Granny Nanny, a self-liberated African Muslim leader and warrior, led her army of Maroons in Jamaica into the battle with the British — and crushed them in combat. On August 14, 1791, an enslaved African Muslim named Dutty Boukman led other enslaved folks in an uprising against the French. This rebellion and the death of Boukman are marked as being one of the sparks that lead to the Haitian Revolution. On the 27th night of Ramadan in January 1835, a group of enslaved African Muslims in Salvador of Bahía, Brazil, organized one of the largest slave rebellions in the history of the Americas. After being forced aboard on June 28, 1839, Sengbe Pieh, an enslaved African Muslim, led the aquatic revolt on the Amistad.
For members of the carceral class, resistance is in our blood. Resistance is a binding component of our collective experience. Resistance is in our history. This is the history of Black folks like Safiya Bukhari, Iya Fulani Sunni-Ali, Kamau Sadiki, Jamil Al-Amin, Mutulu Shakur, and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz.
This is why we resist to this day.
In the end, I return to where I started, thinking about Saidiya Hartman’s words. We live in a time created by the original mass incarceration — the transatlantic slave trade. The “peculiar institution” that is rooted in carcerality. Malcolm X knew this. Political prisoners in the United States today, who need to be freed, know this. I, too, know this. There has not been a point in my life where I have not been intimately impacted by the carceral state. We know this because we have all been subject to and subjugated by the carceral state. It is this experience of knowing that informs my fight to abolish the carceral state.