Abolitionist Futures: Black Cultural Imagination at the End of the World

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My dissertation, Abolitionist Futures: Black Cultural Imagination at the End of the World, examines abolitionist imagination in the cultural production of black American writers, creatives, activists, and thinkers. From its inception in the nineteenth century, abolitionism has evolved from a social movement to abolish the institution of chattel slavery to a political tradition. Presently, abolition is as a critical method of understanding the genealogy of contemporary practices of racialized social management as an extension of racial subjugation that originated during the era of plantation slavery in the United States. Because the concept of abolition fundamentally grapples with the question of radical social transformation, it also raises a set of questions about the dual tension between hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, fugitivity and enclosure. At its core, abolition is about sustaining the capacity to imagine an otherwise, despite and in spite of violence, captivity, and coercion. With this in mind, this dissertation asks: what is the role of radical imagination in not only envisioning the destruction of existing social structures but in conjuring up and bringing forth abolitionist futures?

In the growing body of academic literature on the subject, abolition is most often considered from the perspective of political theory. In media, contemporary abolitionists are often portrayed as radical militants, who desire violence and destruction. These accounts of abolition do not sufficiently consider the creative impulse that is inherent to abolitionist thought. Black creative imagination, I argue, is fundamental to abolitionism as in itself a form of social critique that draws on speculative imagination to deconstruct reality. In this project, I turn to creative imagination expressed in the twentieth- and twenty-first century black-authored literary and artistic texts that envision the abolition of the social world by imagining alternative futures and speculating about new ways of being in the world. By engaging a range of aesthetic forms across several genres and mediums, I trace abolitionist thinking in black speculative fiction, contemporary multi-media art, and digital activist culture precisely in order to suggest the importance of taking seriously the imaginative potential of abolitionism.

The examples of imaginative cultural criticism, as it pertains to abolitionist thought, can be located in the science fiction of W. E. B. Du Bois and in the horror fiction of Jewelle Gomez, in the contemporary mixed-media art of Titus Kaphar and Harmonia Rosales, as well as in digital art produced by digital users on social media platforms. These creative works uncover the ways in which abolitionist imaginary makes an appearance in black cultural and intellectual production that is not immediately considered to be ‘political,’ let alone abolitionist. Nevertheless, as I suggest, it is precisely these obscure creative works of abolitionist imagination that can help understand the many contingencies of abolitionist thought in the present day and, more precisely, help answer the question of what it means to locate and engage in the practice of radical hope in the face of insurmountable violence in slavery’s afterlife.






Kārkliņa, Anastasia (2021). Abolitionist Futures: Black Cultural Imagination at the End of the World. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23803.


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