Follow the Drinking Gourd – Abolition and the Gospel, Part 3
July 4, 2020 – David R. Weiss
NOTE: In this series of posts (beginning here and here) I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how police abolition would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I’m presenting a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.
“Follow the drinking gourd.” When Black people escaped from slavery and began their flight to freedom, this phrase served as their all-natural GPS system. Traveling by night to avoid capture-beating-and-return or summary execution by the police,* they looked to the night sky and “followed the drinking gourd” (the Big Dipper, used to locate the North Star) as a heavenly compass to ensure their northward movement.
*Yes, police were called “slave patrols” at the time but they later became the police, and until we see—and feel—the weight of that deadly and unbroken legacy between Black people and armed patrols, we haven’t yet even begun a conversation that acknowledges their history … which is our history from the other side.
Perhaps this phrase—“follow the drinking gourd”—can help us white people understand the twinned meaning of phrases like Defund the Police and Abolish the Police. They strike us as impracticably, indeed foolishly immediate and as well as frightfully absolute. They’re neither … and both … and, well, it’s complicated. No seasoned abolitionist (the movement for abolition has been around for decades, so, yes, there are seasoned scholar-activists of abolition) expects total defunding and abolition will happen overnight.
Still, unlike some of the memes initially circulating on Facebook and some of the comments appearing in news articles, for those who identify as abolitionist, this call to abolish is absolute (and they would say it’s the delay that remains frightful), even if they recognize it won’t be immediate. And only if we can also hold in mind this paradox of ‘absolute-though-not-yet’ can we begin to really reckon the challenge that abolition poses to our world today.
So let’s return to that drinking gourd. The end goal of following it was uncompromisingly absolute: freedom in the North (the Northern states or Canada). Nobody followed the drinking gourd with a goal less than that. However the practical meaning of following the drinking gourd could be quite different from one context to another. Does it mean cross an open field or hug the edge? Follow a riverbank or fjord the stream? Skirt a mountain or wind one’s way to the top and over? Bide your time—or run like hell? “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” It’s one phrase with a singular admonition—an uncompromisingly absolute end goal—and yet a multitude of ways to put into practice.
So, too, with defunding and abolishing the police. Given our present political and social realities, abolition won’t happen next week or next year. But before we place too much weight on the reality of those social conditions (which I’ll address in another essay), it’s important to be clear: some large portion of the challenging social conditions that have seemed to make police so necessary are the direct result of our having decided as a nation (ruled largely by white Christian men) that we would rather invest in police than in societal justice. We made that choice and built the brokenness of our world around that decision. But that’s another essay.
As with following the drinking gourd, the pursuit of police abolition will happen step-by-step—year-by-year—and will follow different paths in different places. And yet, just as for those who followed the drinking gourd, the end goal is also uncompromisingly absolute: abolition, a community without prisons and without police.
Here, too, I’ll ask you to bracket for the moment whether such a community is truly possible or purely utopian. I’ll argue in a later essay that the best reason for believing it’s possible is that if it isn’t, we all die. The only path forward toward a livable future is a path that involves the renunciation of capitalism and its exploitation of both people and planet. That path is obviously fraught with complication. But, besides being abolitionist, it is also PROFOUNDLY CHRISTIAN and if we cannot imagine it as truly possible and worthy of our best imagination and most concerted energy then we have already betrayed our children and grandchildren to a future wracked by both human and natural violence the scale of which humanity has never known. But that’s another essay, too.
Bottom line in this essay: despite their resounding call, the movement to Abolish the Police is not about simply trying to erase police forces from our communities tomorrow—except that, of course, it is. And only as we acknowledge that paradoxical character can we fathom the true nature of this call.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, at 70 one of the Black matriarchs of abolition, has been working on prison abolition, (close kin to police abolition) for over thirty years. She is unflinching in her commitment to close every prison, yet readily acknowledges, “No abolitionist thinks the system will disappear overnight.” For her, abolition is both a long-term goal and a short-term angle of strategic vision. That is, abolitionists ‘test’ the ‘legitimacy’ of any proposed short-term police reforms by whether they work to lessen the footprint of policing or simply further entrench it in our communities.
“We have to act with the urgency of the moment and the patience of a thousand years,” says Mariame Kaba (about 50), another one of the Black women visionaries whose work (both in theory and in practice) on abolition is measured not in years but in decades. “This will take generations, and I’m not going to be alive to see the changes,” she admits—although that admission has not dimmed the fire in her soul one bit. She could just as easily be commenting on the Sermon on the Mount. We Christians are heirs to a gospel vision no less demanding; we’ve simply managed to negotiate with God for terms of justice that strike us as more … ‘practical.’
William Morris, a ‘proto-abolitionist’ (he was a Marxist-socialist artist-writer noteworthy for writing News From Nowhere, an 1890 futurist novel in which prisons have been eliminated) wrote in 1885, “Every age has had its hopes, hopes that look to something beyond the life of the age itself, hopes that try to pierce the future.” The vision of contemporary abolitionists holds such hope and is determined to pierce the future.
Would that we, rather than negotiating downward the claim of the gospel on our lives, chose to embrace it with the same passion as these abolitionists embrace their work. If and when we do, we might join them in rewriting the next chapter of our shared history, piercing the future with the gospel and abolition.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
 It’s unclear just how historical the now famous song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is. But, whether the song, with its detailed “map” of verses, traces back to the Underground Railroad or was a later creation that honored the many northward journeys made, there seems to be no doubt about “the drinking gourd” as a reference to the Big Dipper to maintain a northerly route. www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/Collection_Story.htm; www.casanders.net/music-history/the-true-story-of-follow-the-drinking-gourd; www.freedomcenter.org/enabling-freedom/history.
 I’m following the Columbia Journalism Review in choosing to capitalize Black but not white as a racial designation. www.cjr.org/analysis/capital-b-black-styleguide.php
 I’ve read pretty widely on abolition now, but the ideas and quotes below (including the quote by William Morris) come from these sources: www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html; www.truthout.org/articles/minneapolis-organizers-are-already-building-the-tools-for-safety-without-police/; and regarding how an abolitionist viewpoint assess the merits of specific reform measures: www.truthout.org/articles/police-reforms-you-should-always-oppose/