Handout from Session #1: Abolitionist Resistance & Theories of Change

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Abolitionist Resistance History & Theories of Social Change


In order to evaluate theories of social change and develop our own, we need to understand power. What is it? How does it work?

Monolithic models.
a. Marxist theory: power is ownership of the means of production; it’s in the economy

What is the corresponding social change theory? Workers seize the means of production through revolution.
b. Liberal social contract theory (Locke, Rousseau, Hume): power is in the people, who give it to the sovereign state while retaining certain rights; power as a fungible commodity. It was developed in opposition to monarchical/divine right of kings.

What is the corresponding social change theory? Increasing rights to counter-balance the state.

Post-structural: feminist theories, critical race theories.
 Power is productive and creates categories, such as race, class, citizenship.
            -Categories that are produced by legal and social regimes, and gain content from its opposite

à Citizenship: a) from 1790 until mid-1950s, one had to be “white” to naturalize; b) until 1907, women who married non-citizens lost their citizenship (argument against women’s suffrage: they will just reproduce their husband’s vote)

à Race is not a thing, but an ongoing process of construction that involves representations: a) “women are X, men are Y” (power helps constitute these categories); b) “white working class men are white, not working class, hence economic woes are caused by immigrants or people of color on welfare & not corporations”

Power is diffuse and pervades all society, not just those institutions normally thought of as “political.”

-Feminist theory shows how power saturates private and personal life. Foucault showed how power is exercised through modes of knowledge and disciplinary complexes, (e.g. the “school to prison pipeline”). Gramsci's showed how power is hegemonic, i.e. power works through culture (what we like, what we think is beautiful, what feels comfortable), so that we consent to our own domination and see it as natural or inevitable.

What is the corresponding social change theory? Build radical counter-culture and eroding pillars of support. Making invisible power visible, through critique of the status quo.


What type of evidence indicates progress?  Which strategies are most likely to achieve desired results?  Again, there is nothing as practical as good theory.


Other terms: pathway of change, engine of change, blueprint, logic model and theory of action.


Big picture ideas that help us understand how the world works and how we might go about changing it.

1. Every community needs a roadmap for change.  Instead of bridges, avenues and freeways, this map would illustrate destinations of progress and the routes to travel on the way to achieving progress.  The map would also provide commentary about assumptions, such as the final destination, the context for the map, the processes to engage in during the journey and the belief system that underlies the importance of traveling in a particular way.  This type of map is called a "theory of change."

2.  Like any good planning and evaluation method for social change, it requires participants to be clear on long-term goals, identify measurable indicators of success, and formulate actions to achieve goals.

As Alice observed in Wonderland, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."  In other words, without a theory of change, a community is vulnerable to wandering aimlessly.

Select Quotes on Change:

“Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects that must be saved from a burning building.” -Paulo Freire-

Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape. ” -William S. Burroughs-

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” -Richard Buckminster Fuller-

The best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing.” -Theodore Roosevelt-

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela-

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” -Mother Teresa-

In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” -Warren Buffett




A. Numeric Estimates
1. Conservative: 9.6-11 million brought from Africa to the Americas with a 30-50% mortality rate.  Approximately 5% (480,000) brought to U.S.
2. Radical: 30-60 million, 50% mortality rate

B. Time Frame
1. 400 years, from 1400’s-1800’s
2. Apex between 1700 and 1810, when approximately 80% were imported

            -Regions and percentages to U.S. (see PowerPoint)-

1. Senegambia: 14.5 %
            Vast trading empires of Ghana (300- 1000 a.d.) Mali (1000-1400 a.d.) and Songhay (1400- 1591) explain trade gold for salt, archeological evidence dating back to 1000 BCE
2. Sierra Leone: 15.8 %
                   Mande culture, rice cultivation
3. Gold Coast: 13.1%
            a. So named because it was main source of gold in the trans-sahara trade
            b. Akan cultures of Ashanti and Fanti: majority of slaves brought to Jamaica, Kente cloth
4. Bight of Benin: 4.3 %
            a. Yoruba, Dahomey, old kingdom of Benin.
            b. Yoruba origin of the syncretic religions of Santaria (Cuba) and Condomble (Brazil). Worship the Orishas,
            c. Dahmomy origin of Vodoo, practised primarily La and Haiti. Dervide from Dahomy religion: Vodoun.
            d. Although small % to U.S. The Fon were heavily concentrated in La. Profound impact in the formation of Creole culture. Majority women’s research being done if because of women’s army.

5. Bight of Biafra: 24.4 %
            a. Primarily Ibo. Originated @ Niger-benue confluence, direct descendants of the Nok culture, who were using iron since 500 BCE.
            b. Stateless society: not centralized authority, no kings, no central military (explains large percentage of captives)
6. West Central Africa: 26.1% Congo and Angola


It started out as a trickle, and then became a flood.  By the 1800s Western Africa had reached a point of demographic exhaustion, which left it open to subsequent European colonization.

1.      Who were the Traders? The slave trade could not have been initiated without the cooperation and consent of African rulers.  However, by the peak of the trade, by 1700, Europeans no longer needed the consent of rulers. African states had to trade or be traded.

2.      Internal “slavery” distinguished: the institution of un-free labor in Africa (war captives, criminals, pawns, etc). Many of those un-free people were channeled into the Atlantic trade.

3.      Plantation economies in the “New” world pre-figure accumulation of capital, leading to industrialization—economic basis for paradigm shift from slave trade to African colonization

4.      Regulating and managing the trade:

a.  Direct Action: boycotts, vigilance committees, organized abolition movements across race, gender, class

b. Legislative strategies: amelioration (circle back to revolts lead to amelioration, atrocities, eg The Zong and slave trade insurance)
c. Slave Ship revolts
d. West African strategies (see below)
e. Conflict among slave traders: “The Dark Bargain,” U.S. constitution and international vs. domestic slave trade
f. Economic changes: industrialization. From plantation to colonization—shift to “free labor” resource extraction and monoculture. Impact on the ground, Walter Rodney’s under-development thesis (slave trade destroyed Africa’s demographic – not in a position to resist colonialism; also impacted economic under-development)


1. Slave Ship Revolts: impact

            a. Insurrection of cargo: legal deformation and pressure, and more abolitionist legislation
            b. Increased carrying costs
2. West African strategies:
            a. Cut offs (attacking ships and freeing slaves from the coasts of Africa), defensive and protective strategies
3. Abolitionists:
            a. Public Education: Case Study Wedgewood.