Not Your Guru

Theorist Joy James on the failures of academic radicalism and new zones of struggle

By Cheryl Rivera

Joy James wearing a green sweater looking to her right, smiling

For someone who says, more than once, that she is not a “guru,” Joy James has the sort of warmth and good sense that make one want to seek her counsel. The political theorist, who is a professor of the humanities at Williams College, has just entered popular awareness with two new books, and some surprising attention. Lady Gaga recently Instagram’d her copy of In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities, a provocative essay collection by James that criticizes the strategies of today’s police and prison abolition movement.

James, who was trained as a theologian, once said “I don’t trust dreams that don’t allow the possibilities of nightmares.” She describes herself as an advocate for “unpopular abolition,” or an abolitionist praxis that roots itself in the struggles of the incarcerated, who in her words are at the “hypocenter” of the United States carceral machine. She’s skeptical of a newfound enthusiasm for abolition in the academy. Over two hours, she and I discussed care work, violence, and what abolitionist struggle means when its language has entered the mainstream, but its subjects remain locked away.

* * *

CHERYL RIVERA  I really like your concept of the captive maternal which describes a caretaking function that is co-opted by, and then rebels against, the state. It reminds me right now of the people in New York who are providing necessary resources to migrants who are living basically on the street, which then allows the city to abdicate their responsibility to some degree. Frustration with this situation has given rise to militant politics for some people. You describe stage one as the conflicted caretaker who compromises with the state, stage two as protest, stage three as organized movement, stage four as autonomous “maroon camps” and stage five as war resistance — the final move against the state that captive maternals can make.

We’re doing work like mutual aid because we love each other and need it to survive; I’m thinking of 2020 and all the work we did during the pandemic that felt really powerful. But what did it produce? We gained more skills and built some power and I hope that we prepared ourselves to fight again in the future. But I also wonder if we just stabilized the system. 

JOY JAMES  You did more than that. I mean, literally, you saved people’s lives.

In New York City they were using one of the islands [Hart Island] to do mass graves, and they were hiring the incarcerated [to dig graves]. People’s bodies were stored in refrigerated mobile units. It was abandonment by the state.

There’s a way in which saving a life and offering care and devotion makes everything more bearable. I can’t define what a victory is — the co-optation [of our movements] is 24/7, it’s a machine. But still we do things they never would dare to do because they don’t have an emotional register that includes love. Whatever you did and gave [in 2020], it was a form of birthing life and nobody can ever complain or dismiss that.

The idea of the captive maternal, which is a non-binary non-gendered idea, is definitely anchored in the experience of people of African descent. But it’s not an identity, it’s a function.

CR  You wrote in In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love that “to build the new world I’m willing to die to end this current one.” So I’m perceiving this concept of revolutionary love as the idea that to love each other, we have to accept the possibility — and even the likelihood — of death.

JJ  You’re right, but I think the person who says that most clearly is Da’Shaun Harrison, who wrote the foreword of Revolutionary Love, and whose incredible book [Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness] won the LAMBDA Award. They’re organizing right now around and against Cop City. Their contributions to LGTBQ+ thought are significant. But then they make that call on death [when they write, “Dying for the revolution is a necessary part of struggle, in one way or another”]. 

When I first read that foreword, I was a little startled. When they put death on the table, I had to grapple with that. I wrote the intro about Oshun, the deity of beauty and water, the rivers and streams, who flies to Olodumare to try to get waters to come back when they’ve been turned to wastelands because of ego-focused, lesser deities who want to do a coup. Oshun approaches death [to do this]: their peacock feathers get singed because they’re flying towards the sun.

Every moment of care is a risk of something from the caregiver. You risk your time, your sleep, your funds, your nervous system. You risk the possibility of depression when you feel you haven’t done a good job. 

When I finished [writing] New Bones Abolition, the Captive Maternal, Agency and Afterlife of Erica Garner, I saw that there are also parasitic munchers on the captive maternal. They just chew you up. I always see a swing [in popular culture] between something like Hattie McDaniel getting the Oscar in 1939 for playing the Mammy [in Gone with the Wind]. Just taking care of Scarlet and way too many white people. And then the character Mo’Nique plays in Precious who is this anti-Madonna. There’s this swing between that.

We’re not disciplined to receive care or to provide it.

CR  Yeah, I’m seeing a big issue in organizing groups right now, mine included, is that there’s always more needed than what you have to give.

JJ  Yes, especially when you are pushed to the point of exhaustion and then you feel like you can’t take a break.

The idea of the captive maternal, which is a non-binary non-gendered idea, is definitely anchored in the experience of people of African descent. But it’s not an identity, it’s a function. What does it mean? It’s like in Vincent Woodard’s book, The Delectable Negro. [Woodard’s book explores claims by enslaved Africans of slaveholder cannibalism as an entry point into the literal and figurative consumption of Black people in America; the book won a 2015 LAMBDA award.] He was a queer theorist in American Studies at UT Austin who passed a number of years ago. This consumption of us! People are not going to burn anything down because we — the captive maternals — are going to give enough care to stabilize the state.

And the state is like, good! Because you [the left] are going to be busy doing that and we’re going to still ratchet up the concentration of wealth. We’re gonna increase the militarization of policing across the globe. We’re going to increase the disposability of poor and working class people and you’re going to be Hattie McDaniel.

This is why I see the first stage of the captive maternal as the caretaker who’s conflicted. The next stage is protest, the third is movement building, the fourth is marronage [radical Black autonomy]. For me, marronage is sanctuary. Maybe your maroon crew isn’t the one you organize with, maybe it’s another group of people, but you need sanctuary to reconstitute your psyche and nervous system.

CR  I relate to the need for sanctuary, because I’m in an organizing space that is very open. People show up wanting a lot of different things from it. It’s not always just political change, but also a desire for emotional support. I’ve struggled with learning that my organizing space can’t always be my sanctuary.

JJ  After 40 years of organizing in a lot of different zones, I don’t romanticize anybody. I don’t romanticize the multi-millionaire leadership [of the mainstream movement] and I don’t romanticize the folks who are unhoused. If you can provide resources [to other people within a movement], it’s probably because you’re in some job you don’t want. There are complications, contradictions, and continued dishonor.

Everybody is needy to some degree. And you have to recognize that to some degree, you can’t meet all the needs. You can’t even meet your needs. And you have to recognize that if you lose balance, the state will come in like a vacuum cleaner and their cures are like the social worker or foster care agency.

CR  So many people are very needy for this new world, they’re hungry to already be there. A lot of conversations I’m having in the magazine and my organizing spaces are about what to do to get to a new world, often framed as utopian world building, which I like. I got into abolition first through this sort of framework of building something new. But I want to acknowledge that there’s a need for destroying some stuff too, which can be violent.

JJ  Some of the women I was with in seminary decades ago, they went on to organize and create non-profits in this city around intimate partner violence or family violence. Their position was that self-defense is not violence. And I don’t use the term violence, unless I’m talking about the state or someone who’s predatory. To me, to defend yourself is an act of love and that goes from the individual to the familial, to the social.

There’s this way in which we’re punished by the language of morality — especially Black people. We were violated on a mass register, but we have to prove that we’re not violent, always. Think of Tyre Nichols. Why did they even stop him? Or Tortuguita — meditating, eyes closed, hands up, 57 shots. What is it that we have to prove? Self-defense is not violence.

And we were no more inherently violent than anybody else. We’re just the most violated. And while we’re doing all the things that we’re supposed to be doing, who’s watching the state? They’re not scaling down violence, they’re amping it up. It went from ‘if you get an abortion, you’ll go to prison’ to ‘you’ll get life in prison with a homicide charge’ and then maybe later it’s ‘well, let’s just kill her.’

CR  Yes, I’ve felt that tension around morality and safety, and how it can box us in. This happens even within groups of Black people. In 2020 we were outside the police station in New York and some people wanted to jump, and the cops looked afraid. But some people said ‘if you jump, you’re going to make the rest of us unsafe, and then the rest of us will need to say oh we’re not violent animals,’ so don’t do it. The need for safety can feel very disciplining.

JJ  A lot of the evolution [in abolitionist politics] that we’re talking about now is driven by academia and it is disciplined for hierarchy and bureaucracy and not crossing the line.

I’ve been disciplined in a lot of different ways. My beautiful madrina used to tell me, ‘don’t let people spit on you and tell you it’s rain.’ You can’t control the streets, streets don’t even control themselves. If people jump off, they jump off. Nothing you read that I ever wrote made you jump off. It was somebody murdering somebody’s baby that made you jump off.

It would be like telling the Black Panthers in East Harlem not to do their job. Their job was not only to offer care, such as sickle cell testing or feeding the kids — that’s all important. But their job was also security. So my problem with contemporary politics is y’all disappeared the security aspect and now you’re just doing the social worker aspect. Definitely get the food to the kids, but remember: The cops also broke in and burnt cereal and jacked up people who are doing legal stuff and they murdered Fred Hampton.

I trained [for protest] decades ago and we never had anything on us, but if the police cruisers were driving too close to the crowd — you do stuff like this in your 20s — we would bang on the hoods. It was an all female crew too and we were like, ‘I dare you to run me over.’ We understood that you had to draw a security perimeter. You can’t let people drive into your community and put people in the hospital.

People are sitting in very safe spaces, heavily funded, then issuing mandates which seem very bourgeois. I’ve realized you can’t really do anything from the sidelines. We would have to agree to enter into the fray. I’m not recommending how you do it or saying you can’t retreat or transition to another level.

But the Black bourgeoisie are not the ones disproportionately being incarcerated and dying and being murdered on the streets, it’s the working class and the poor. Not just the streets but in the prisons. They don’t really share the politics of the political prisoners. I don’t see how we can give marching instructions.

CR  One of the threads running through In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love is how the abolitionist movement must stop centering itself inside academia and center incarcerated thinkers instead. I’m wondering how you position yourself, as an academic, in relation to the movement, especially at this time when you’re having a bit of a moment — Lady Gaga even posted your book on Instagram.

JJ  You know, I’m not a celebrity. I’m also not a punching bag. I’ve worked with impacted mothers and I’ve seen some really principled stuff and I’ve seen some stuff that’s not. I’ve worked with LGBTQ people. We’re all flawed. There’s no category that delivers freedom based on an identity marker, and that includes the whole ‘it’s going to be all Black’ thing. It was never all Black. If we have public discussions about our fear [around taking political action], I would feel that is a more useful and honest contribution coming out of the academy. We don’t talk about fear.

CR  Is our mandate as people on the outside of the carceral system to hear as much as possible from people on the inside?

JJ  It’s a good question, which I cannot answer. But I would say, we’re trying to build bridges of organizing across distinct zones.

There’s no way you can conflate a maximum security prison with an Ivy university or UC Berkeley or whatever, right? They’re completely different zones. Even if you’re using the same language, it means different things in different zones. What you’d have to do is tunnel under to the zone of incarceration.

I talk about this in New Bones Abolition. I talk about the epicenter and the hypocenter. So, the epicenter exists on the surface, like when you experience an earthquake. The hypocenter is deep underground, like when the military does their atomic testing.

So you feel the intensity of the quake most when you’re underground. And as the tremors go up some people are just like, did you feel that? Or maybe you see a crack in the sidewalk. There’s tremors all the time but what we feel on the surface is really superficial. I think there’s an analogy there for politics.

[We need] a link between the epicenter and the hypocenter. If the incarcerated people say, ‘we’re going on strike,’ then everybody should stop what they’re doing and say — or put on Facebook, Twitter, in whatever article you write — ‘They’re on strike. And what are you doing to help?’

We would have to agree to the leadership of the incarcerated without romanticizing them and thinking they’re like Moses. They’re not. They make mistakes, and they’ve been in so long, you know, the ones I meet when they’re out, their perception is sometimes in a time warp.

It’s tricky because you just have to be organized and open to criticism. And then you have to not consolidate a brand. What I’m seeing is, people have built brands and they have to protect brands to sell them. Then the material reality becomes secondary, tertiary, when everybody’s like, ‘I’m an anti-capitalist, an anti-Imperialist.’ Everybody’s got the right words but what’s going on is in the hypocenter. And some people are like, ‘we don’t go down there.’ But that’s where the struggle is.

The Black bourgeoisie are not the ones disproportionately being incarcerated and dying and being murdered on the streets, it’s the working class and the poor. Not just the streets but in the prisons.

CR  I feel the difficulty in staying connected to the hypocenter here in NYC, especially because I’m not from New York — I’m from Alabama. I came here through university and that means something about my positionality. I grapple with doing the work and taking ownership of it without overstepping and positioning myself as The Leader. You’ve been in abolitionist spaces for decades, both inside and outside of academia. I’m wondering how you keep moving forward.

JJ  I’ll be candid. I’m not the leader of anything, like that whole notion is foreign to me. This is what I’m calling branding I guess. You started our conversation by talking about care to save lives and wondering if that’s enough. That is enough.

The only people that I really trust are the ones that I see on a regular basis take the hits. I’ve met the people who don’t have gigs, they don’t have employment sectors that are steady. They don’t get the honor and recognition. But there’s devotion. That’s what keeps me going.

I will deal with my grief knowing that I’m not an immortal. I can’t save everybody.

I was supposed to give a 9 a.m, keynote at Berea about bell hooks, and at 2 a.m. I had a dream that my mother, who had transitioned, was knocking on the front door and then I opened the door, and after she came in there was just this flood of Black people from over the years that I had helped or assisted. Always, I get hustled every fucking time. People were like ‘you shouldn’t have opened the door’ and I’m like, it’s my mom!

But the caretaking for the dead and the living can wipe you out. I will tolerate people throwing certain garments in my yard up to a point. But I will not abandon myself because of the desperation of others. There can be a strategic plan if we work on it, and even if it’s only six feet out of 600, we can move from the epicenter toward the hypocenter.

Cheryl Rivera is an editor at Lux, and a founder of the Crown Heights CARE Collective in Brooklyn.