Mayaki Kimba | Inherited Struggles, Unabating Discourses, and the Promise of the Second Founding

By Mayaki Kimba

In her foreword to the 133rd volume of the Harvard Law Review, Dorothy Roberts writes that “today’s prison abolitionists are the heirs to a freedom movement that antislavery activists began.”[1] Embracing this idea, Abolition 13/13 began with a reflection on Black Reconstruction by W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois famously referred to the freedom movement of antislavery activists as “abolition-democracy.” This abolition democracy, according to Du Bois, came to understand that the abolition of slavery would only be accomplished if “the emancipated Negroes became free citizens and voters,” as well as beneficiaries of schools and land.[2]  Yet such demands, aiming for the full incorporation of Black people into society as equal members, remained unachieved. The southern white worker—socialized through shifts on slave patrols and filled with fantasies of becoming a planter—clung to a “doctrine of race” that precluded any contribution to abolition democracy.[3] Meanwhile, Northern industry deserted its original support of abolition democracy by spearheading a system of exploitation “built on much the same sort of slavery it helped to overthrow in 1863.” In doing so, Northern industry “murdered democracy in the United States so completely that the world does not recognize its corpse.”[4] Du Bois accordingly found that “democracy died save in the hearts of black folk.” He rejected any understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment as ending slavery once and for all. Instead, “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”[5] This sobering observation tells us that the struggle for abolition is far from over. Moreover, if the failure to realize abolition democracy constituted a victory of plutocracy over democracy, then we cannot understand anti-democratic and exploitative systems today without taking into account the history of slavery and its incomplete abolition.

The readings for Abolition 4/13 concern this history, and this blog post focuses on what they illuminate for present-day heirs of the fight for abolition-democracy. Specifically, while many scholars and activists look to the struggle against slavery for a vision of what abolition democracy should build, I suggest that the history of abolitionist struggle also reveals what discourses legitimated and normalized both slavery and its reincarnations. As such, I discuss The History of Mary Prince—an abolitionist slave narrative published in 1831—and the work of Dennis Childs in Slaves of the State to identify discourses of dependency and amelioration that past defenders of chattel slavery and present-day defenders of penal slavery deploy. The discourse of dependency captures both nineteenth-century accusations that Black people are inherently idle and more contemporary tales of “welfare queens” and welfare dependency. The discourse of amelioration rested on the idea that reforms could create harmonious slave societies. It resonates with present-day self-presentations of prisons as non-repressive spaces of rehabilitation. Public enjoyment of repression and state violence, while contradicting the idea that prisons could be non-repressive and non-violent, exist side-by-side ameliorationist narratives, providing a further justification of the prison-industrial complex and racialized state terror. After discussing these justifications of both chattel and penal slavery, I briefly review The Second Founding by Eric Foner and consider whether the history and content of the Reconstruction Amendments provide a way to defeat such justifications that keep oppressive systems in place and leave the promise of Reconstruction unfulfilled.

The History of Mary Prince, narrated by a formerly enslaved woman residing in England, demonstrates how slavery abolitionists fought both discourses of dependency and amelioration. To begin with the former discourse, it is striking how consistently the slave narrative stressed that Black people are not inherently idle. For instance, Prince narrates how she “did not sit idling during the absence of [her] owners; for [she] wanted, by all honest means, to earn money to buy [her] freedom.”[6] What is curious about this passage is that it presents the effort of Prince to pay for her own manumission as not merely stemming from her desire to be free, but also from her refusal to be idle. Prince reiterates this rejection of idleness when she describes the period after she departed her slaveholders in England. She had gone into service with a lady, but when this lady left London, she was without work and saw her savings run out. She narrated her response to this situation as follows:

… I was forced to go back to the Anti-Slavery office to ask a supply, till I could get another situation. I did not like to go back—I did not like to be idle. They were very good to give me a supply, but I felt shame at being obliged to apply for relief whilst I had strength to work.[7]

There is a profound resonance between the narration that Prince provides of her shame in asking for relief and present-day discourses that castigate “welfare dependency.” Such discourses of welfare dependency are both gendered and racialized, as evinced by the rhetoric of politicians like Ronald Reagan who deployed “welfare queen” as “a not-so-subtle code for ‘lazy, greedy, black ghetto mother.’”[8] This racist and misogynist discourse fueled attacks on the welfare state whose disestablishment, as Angela Davis explains in Abolition Democracy, is part of the reason why “women still constitute the fastest growing sector of the imprisoned population.”[9] Enslavement, attacks on the welfare state, and mass incarceration are thus all at least in part justified by the same discourse, which both slavery abolitionists in the nineteenth century and prison abolitionists today are forced to contest.

One might counter that mid-nineteenth century discourses on idleness cannot be compared to present-day discourses on welfare dependency. Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon have shown, however, that the two are linked.[10] Discourse on welfare dependency equates wage labor with both work and independence, allowing welfare skeptics to claim that the caregiving labor of mothers does not constitute “work” and that wage labor, rather than welfare payments, will make mothers independent.[11] This equation of wage labor with independence emerged, Fraser and Gordon argue, in the industrial age, with slaves serving as one of the icons of dependency.[12] Slaves, with “colonial natives,” personified political subjection, one justified by the idea that Black people were dependent by nature and by their very psychology. The History of Mary Prince, written in the industrial era, must therefore be understood as challenging this discourse of dependency by underscoring that Prince was as eager as any white worker to be independent and earn wages. To be sure, the critique of Prince left the equation of wage labor with independence intact. As a result, her critique of dependency discourse is insufficiently effective for present-day abolitionists. Abolishing police and prisons implies building a society that does not need policing or incarceration to address human needs. Addressing such needs, under most accounts, “requires radically overhauling the U.S. capitalist economy and replacing it with a socialist or communist system.”[13] Seeing the hostility of dependency discourse toward even moderate redistributive measures, we should expect its weaponization against any socialist or communist revolution. The History of Mary Prince therefore does not provide a blueprint that abolitionists today can use to put dependency discourse to an end, but it does remind us that the discourse is not new, enabling a historical understanding of dependency discourse and strengthening the tie between abolitionists in the past and the present.

The History of Mary Prince challenges not just accounts of inherent Black idleness, but also depictions of slave society as harmonious. Such depictions came not just in the form of rhetoric, but also in the form of art. Agostino Brunias, for instance, was an Italian painter and patron of William Young, who owned plantations and served as a colonial governor in the British West Indies. In his work for Young, Brunias portrayed West Indian slave society as naturally harmonious and left signs of “white authority or surveillance,” let alone signs of subaltern servitude, out of the picture.[14] This befitted the contemporary pro-slavery discourse of “amelioration.” This discourse, as Sarah Thomas argues in Witnessing Slavery, suggested that the right reforms could “meliorate” slave conditions and thereby enable a future for slavery.[15] In this future, slaves would live “happily and procreate among themselves,” allowing planters to “breed” rather than buy their labor supply. The amelioration discourse also implied that the material conditions of enslaved people were similar or superior to those of wage laborers in England.[16] Such comparisons appeared everywhere by the 1830s, precisely when The History of Mary Prince was published.[17] Having performed both slave and wage labor, Prince could personally attest that they constituted fundamentally different experiences. Her repeated descriptions of the brutal, endemic, and gratuitous violence inflicted upon her as an enslaved woman served to undermine any ameliorationist claim that slave societies could exist in natural harmony.  “All slaves want to be free—to be free is very sweet,” Prince insisted. Indeed, “the man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery—that they don’t want to be free—that man is either ignorant or a lying person. I never heard a slave say so.”[18] Underscoring this universal desire for freedom, Prince disconfirmed any contention that slavery could persist without violence. Slave societies could never be naturally harmonious and “happy slaves” were non-existent.

A discourse both resembling and diverging from the pro-slavery amelioration discourse appears in the analysis that Dennis Childs provides of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, unofficially known as the Angola plantation or “the Farm.”[19] Angola has its own museum, and Childs writes that when walking through it, “one is asked to bear witness to the veracity of the state’s claims to progressive modernization, to the death of ‘old Angola,’ and the prison’s conversion into an arena of ‘well-managed’ human cargoing.” Rather than the “putatively embalmed practice of repressive punishment,” Angola now maintains an “ostensibly humane, rehabilitative, and recreational brand of modern imprisonment.” [20] This self-presentation of “the Farm” resembles amelioration discourse insofar as it presents progressive reforms as absolving the need for violent coercion in the maintenance of (penal) slavery.

At the same time, the prison-industrial complex deploys legitimation strategies that depart from amelioration discourse in quite substantial ways. Indeed, while the Angola museum boasts of progressive prison reforms that ostensibly alleviate the need for repression, the prison also hosts annual rodeos that it labels “the wildest show in the South” and that forces untrained prisoners to suffer the “broken bones, deep lacerations, and concussions” in which their performances routinely result. As such, at the same time as Angola furthers its self-congratulatory tale of prison reform, it stages these “scenes of perverse amusement, performative dehumanization, and spectatorial punishment.” [21] The public enjoyment of such racialized state terror reflects the observation of Alex Vitale that the US “criminal justice system has become a gigantic revenge factory.”[22] And given this public penchant for revenge, the state can subject the “always already criminalized ‘free’ black body” to the terrors and exploitation of the prison-industrial complex, justifying the violence with greater ease than even certain pro-slavery discourses would have allowed.[23] As such, while successors of amelioration discourse still exist—especially in liberal calls for prison reform that leave the prison-industrial complex intact—they coexist with public pleasures that relish rather than reject violence.

What I have tried to suggest in the preceding paragraphs is that the present-day heirs of the abolitionist struggle face not just the continued power and presence of white supremacy and racial capitalism, but also the discourses that then and now serve to maintain oppressive systems. In conclusion, I want to reflect on whether the Reconstruction Amendments contain any potential to defeat these discourses and the systems they uphold. The Second Founding by Eric Foner strongly suggests that this potential is indeed there. Next to positing the Reconstruction Amendments as a transformation of the Constitution and the foundation of a new society, Foner identifies Reconstruction itself as a process that transformed the local and hierarchical legal culture of the United States “into one committed, at least ostensibly, to the equality of all Americans, protected by the national government.”[24] Foner goes on to demonstrate this by narrating the history of the three Reconstruction Amendments individually. In chapter 1 (“What is Freedom?”), he shows how the Thirteenth Amendment redefined federalism for the first time by making “freedom of the person … a matter of national concern” and thus expanding, rather than restraining, the power of the federal government.[25] Chapter 2 (“Toward Equality”) documents how the Fourteenth Amendment marked the elevation of “equality to a constitutional right of all Americans,” while chapter 3 (“the Right to Vote”) establishes the Fifteenth Amendment as the completion of the second founding and as a radical change that made voting rights a matter for the federal government, as opposed to one for the states.[26] To be sure, The Second Founding is not an uncritical celebration of the Reconstruction Amendments. Foner spends ample time discussing, for instance, the use of the Thirteenth Amendment to justify Chinese exclusion and prison labor, the use of the Fourteenth Amendment to defend corporate interests and claims of reverse racism, and the way “biased voter registration and criminal justice systems” easily circumvent the purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment.[27] Moreover, chapter 4 (“Justice and Jurisprudence”) chronicles the nineteenth-century Supreme Court decisions whose “narrow and artificial reading” of the Amendments enabled the transition away from Reconstruction during the 1880s and the establishment of Jim Crow during the 1890s.[28] Yet this white supremacist jurisprudence, Foner insists, “was a choice, not something predetermined by public opinion or historical context.”[29] And since retrogression, as Foner reminds us, need not be linear or permanent, the very ambiguity of the Reconstruction Amendments can pave “the way for future struggles, while giving different groups grounds on which to conduct them.”[30] And even though Du Bois (in my view, correctly) derided the “fetich-worship of the Constitution,” Foner points out that it is this very veneration that grants the Amendments such a powerful claim on both the US legal system and the public imagination.[31] As such, the Amendments may very well contain the powers to finally defeat the discourses of dependency and amelioration—as well as the public enjoyment of revenge and retribution—that hampered both slavery abolitionists in the past and police and prison abolitionists in the present.

None of this is to suggest that the Reconstruction Amendments will be the solution to all our problems. Foner himself writes that “the constitutional amendments that emerged from the Civil War cannot address all the legacies for slavery.”[32] And Foner nowhere suggests that the constitutional amendments can forge a path toward radical aims of police and prison abolition. Yet others have. Indeed, in the same foreword with which I began this blog post, Dorothy Roberts argues for an abolition constitutionalism that can serve the goals of prison abolition. This abolition constitutionalism, Roberts emphasizes, does not mean ignoring “the relentless antiblack violence of constitutional doctrine.” Rather, it means a dynamic engagement with the tension between white supremacist jurisprudence on the one hand and the potential of the Reconstruction Constitution on the other hand. This engagement, Roberts argues, enables abolition constitutionalism to both reject existing jurisprudence and to make “constitutional claims strategically to help dismantle carceral systems.”[33] Such strategic use of the Constitution recognizes the observation of Angela Davis that law has “strategic significance in the struggle for progress and radical transformation.” At the same time, Davis also insisted that “it would be a mistake to consider law as the ultimate arbiter of social problems.”[34] As such, while law alone will not bring about abolition democracy, its potential contribution to the cause has not yet been realized. To quote James Wilson, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 succeeded in turning “the arsenal of slavery upon itself.”[35] An abolition constitutionalism might achieve the same.


[1] Dorothy E Roberts, “Foreword: Abolition Constitutionalism,” Harvard Law Review 133, no. 1 (November 2019): 48,

[2] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Free Press, 1998), 184, 327.

[3] Du Bois, 27–28.

[4] Du Bois, 187.

[5] Du Bois, 30.

[6] Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince (London: F. Westley and A. H. Davis, 1831), 16.

[7] Prince, 22.

[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev. ed. (New York: New Press, 2012), 49. See also Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, “The Original ‘Welfare Queen,’” June 5, 2019, in Code Switch, produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez, podcast, 31:57,

[9] Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 38.

[10] See Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, “A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State,” in Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition, by Nancy Fraser (New York: Routledge, 1997), 121–49.

[11] Fraser and Gordon, 140.

[12] Fraser and Gordon, 128–29.

[13] Roberts, “Abolition Constitutionalism,” 46.

[14] Sarah Thomas, Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2019), 68. To view images of Brunias’s paintings, see “Agostino Brunias,” Google Arts & Culture, n.d.,

[15] Thomas, 81, 84.

[16] Thomas, 89.

[17] Thomas, 94.

[18] Prince, History of Mary Prince, 23.

[19] Childs, Slaves of the State, 95.

[20] Childs, 101.

[21] Childs, 98–99.

[22] Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing (London: Verso, 2017), 28.

[23] Childs, Slaves of the State, 62.

[24] Foner, Second Founding, 8.

[25] Foner, 31–32. This argument disconfirms common views that it was the Fourteenth, rather than the Thirteenth Amendment, that first expanded the power of the federal government.

[26] Foner, 77, 109.

[27] Foner, 56, 109, 129, 174.

[28] Foner, 126, 131, 169.

[29] Foner, 131.

[30] Foner, xxvi, xxix.

[31] Foner, 19; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 336.

[32] Foner, Second Founding, xxix.

[33] Roberts, “Abolition Constitutionalism,” 9–10, 122.

[34] Davis, Abolition Democracy, 110–11.

[35] Quoted in Foner, Second Founding, 67.

Fonda Shen