Forget everything you think you know about power and control. On this episode of Black History Year, abolitionist scholar Dr. Joy James explores one specific condition required for Black liberation to occur: a shift in the balance of power to we the people. BHY is produced by PushBlack, the nation's largest non-profit Black media company - hit us up at BlackHistoryYear.com and share this with your people!
Forget everything you think you know about power and control. On this episode of Black Hisory Year, abolitionist scholar Dr. Joy James explores one specific condition required for Black liberation to occur: a shift in the balance of power to we the people. BHY is produced by PushBlack, the nation's largest non-profit Black media company - hit us up at BlackHistoryYear.com and share this with your people!
PushBlack exists because we saw we had to take this into our own hands. You make PushBlack happen with your contributions at https://BlackHistoryYear.com. Most people do 5 or 10 bucks a month, but everything makes a difference. Thanks for supporting the work.
The Black History Year production team includes Tareq Alani, Patrick Sanders, William Anderson, Jareyah Bradley, Brooke Brown, Shonda Buchanan, Eskedar Getahun, Leslie Taylor-Grover, Abeni Jones, Akua Tay, Darren Wallace and our producer, Cydney Smith. For Limina House, our producers are Jessica Rugh Frantz and Sasha Kai Parker, who also edits the podcast. Black History Year’s Executive Producers are Julian Walker for PushBlack and Mikel Ellcessor for Limina House.
"Resisting State Violence" by Dr. Joy James
"Seeking the Beloved Community: A Feminist Race Reader" by Dr. Joy James
"Angela Y. Davis Reader" edited by Dr. Joy James
"The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Narratives" edited by Dr. Joy James
"The Ballot or the Bullet" speech by Malcolm X
Shifting the Balance of Power with Dr. Joy James
HOST: Frederick Douglass had it exactly right, and we must never forget. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did. And it never will.
Welcome to PushBlack’s Black History Year. I'm Jay. Thanks for giving us some time today.
As we think about what's needed to achieve Black liberation, we always have to remember that changing the balance of power in our society is crucial. Freedom and autonomy cannot be separated. And we can have neither without shifting the balance of power, in economics, in policing, in politics, in the labor force in schools, in every system that influences our lives.
Much of season two has been about wrestling with these big themes of power and control. So we could think of no one better than renowned abolitionist and scholar, Dr. Joy James to help us begin to understand these ideas as they relate to what she calls “revolutionary struggle.”
She's the Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Humanities at Williams College. She's authored “Resisting State Violence” and “Seeking the Beloved Community” and edited anthologies on incarceration and politics, including the “Angela Y. Davis Reader” and “The New Abolitionists.” Oh, yeah. Dr. James knows a lot about subverting power systems. Get ready, folks, this conversation is one for the books.
JAY: Dr. James, welcome to Black History Year. Happy to have you here. So we start out all our episodes, just asking folks, what does Black liberation look like to you?
Dr. Joy James: Wow, it's complicated. And it may continually evolve. But I think of it as a zone of freedom in which we're allowed to love without fear and we’re allowed to struggle without being put into cages or disappeared. I was talking to an old friend of mine, who was a former member of the Harlem Black Panther Party earlier this week on the phone. And he was saying that there's a difference between revolutionary struggle and liberation. And I was like real, because I never thought of a distinction between the two. They said the revolutionary struggle was something that would have to address with the entire state, you know, the U.S’s, it’s origins in genocide, indigenous people, our genocide, our bones and our spirits are in the Atlantic Ocean, right. But that liberation was something we could carve out in our lifetimes and smaller spaces within this land which is built on conquest and enslavement, so we could liberate our communities, we could have freedom schools, we could worship our spirits, our God with dignity. And so that what is tangible in this moment is to struggle for liberation but what would preserve that liberation, so that we don't have to do it every 50 years, or every generation, like our kids, now our grandkids, are gonna have to struggle after we just spent our entire lifetime struggling, would have to be some kind of revolutionary struggle could that could change the structure so that it could nourish people rather than prey upon them.
JAY: So could you dive a bit more into your perspective on abolitionism? And really, let's start with defining concretely what abolition is because I think for a lot of our listeners this may be a new concept. And so I'd like to give folks information, just lay it out for us from the base level and let's go from there.
JJ: So if we think about chattel slavery, right, abolitionism essentially became emancipation. And even though they were free Blacks, they were not protected by law. But here's the thing that we have to be clear about: the foundational abuse of enslavement never concretely stopped, it continuously was reinvented. You have the Civil War where Lincoln is hesitant about Black men and women serving. He's not sure as the President that he wants Blacks to have access to weapons. And at some point, when it looks like the North is going to lose, W.E.B. DuBois will write in “Black Reconstruction,” over 200,000 people of African descent served in the Civil War. So abolitionism at that point meant being a soldier, meant being a spy. So it's a compromise. It's a deal. Then you hope after the war, tangible gains will be made. That happened until you had the end of reconstruction. So the South is defeated. Northern troops come South to protect the gains that are accumulating rapidly among the newly freed Black populace. They start schools, they start businesses, they run for office. So the Black belt of the South is starting to look like a freedom zone or liberation zone. But then you have the Hayes Rutherford Compromise, where the newly elected President is going to cut a deal with the southerners. If I can be President I will make sure that the protections for the newly emancipated Blacks will be stripped away in terms of federal troops. And you can start rewriting the laws, poll tax all kinds of laws to disenfranchise them from the vote. And that is the compromise between the north in the south or the northern and southern whites when you get the 13th Amendment, which is supposed to be emancipatory, unless you're duly convicted of a crime. So what happens when the protections start to leave? The law becomes more predatory, right, without Black assembly men, without Black legislators who have either run out of town or their murdered, they're lynched. Your land is taken back, your house is taken back, they burned down what you built. So you end up after slavery with a convict prison lease system, where we die at faster rates than we had on plantations. Why? Because now we belong to the state and corporations. So we went from enslavement where tragically, we lived longer to being slaves to freedom, where we die faster as a joint property of the state and corporation. So the slave codes become Black codes, become Jim Crow. We go from the southern civil rights movement to the Black Power movement, we go from the Black Power movement to 1970s affirmative action integrationist, we go to cultural movements and cultural studies, we have these uprisings, and then we're here today. But we never achieved power in any of those iterations or phases of trying to be a free people. We never achieved sufficient power to make demands that we could enforce and to raise children that would not be traumatized or terrorized in this country.
JAY: Today, there is conversations about criminal justice reform. How does that differ from abolitionism?
JJ: So if you would, think of the first step act with the POTUS. Some people would call that reforms and the First Step Act which President Trump and his advisors, son in law, Jared Kushner, and others cobbled together, including with the news commentator, Van Jones, the first step act was supposed to tell tangible reforms that meant we were on the road to progress towards a more just criminal incarceration system. It's not a justice system, it's an incarceration matrix. I'm not denying that some people got out, that's important. It's a federal bill because that's the only thing that you know, the president really controls is the feds, doesn't control the States. The majority of incarcerated people, over 2 million in the U.S., are in state prisons and jails. They're not in the federal prison. But for the First Step Act, the self congratulatory moment, we become props in our own story. So like Alice Johnson is brought out and like, is so grateful, and I'm sure she is like, that's a draconian sense, right? But these reforms are not about people's power. And I don't believe you can really reform a predatory carceral system, and less people can can troll the power of their lives and communities. That means control over the police, not having white male DAs be the vast majority of district attorneys in the country, not having the judges remain predominantly white, not having the Supreme Court have a six conservative to three liberal. I mean, we don't control, as a people, any of these apparatuses, right? And so the abolitionism that we're struggling for, within this structure is always going to be reformist. And in some ways, it feels like part of it comes from the streets when we have an uprising or rebellion, out of love of our communities and for our sanity, because people shouldn't be dying the way they're dying. But also part of it comes because it's a tool of manipulation to show that you care.
JAY: So how do we get to the point where we control the systems that we're discussing?
JJ: You know, I have one word for that. Or maybe it's two. Revolutionary struggle.
JJ: The point is like, how are we going to define it? So I understand like the pacifists and I'm all on board with that. And then there's some people that are not pacifists. I grew up in a military family, I was in ROTC. I can understand that wing too. But I think we're back to the aspiration and then this is my critique on part of abolitionism. People keep talking about freedom dreams. And I'm asking what's in your freedom dream? And when they describe this space, it reminds me of when I went to Sunday school because it reminds me of heaven. And then I'm like, so how do we get there? What is the elevator, escalator, stairway, whatever? And it seems that absent from the dream is the reality of the violence that we face. It's baked into the structure itself. So you're dreaming within a cage. And for some of us, it's gilded, you know, because we still have health insurance and we have nice retirement plans and their investment portfolios, right. Our houses aren't going to be repossessed. The question is, how much can we cope with in terms of our disappointment, disillusions, betrayals? How much can we cope with, in order to stabilize ourselves so we can look at the violence and all of its manifestations? You know, Obama was the big dream. Well, that didn't really work out. And you can say, don't blame it on Obama and I’ll say, fine, I'm not blaming it on Obama. But look, Obama was the first Black Imperial president. Be careful what you wish for. So you get Africa, you get the drone strikes, you know, because he has compassion where Trump does not, you have him weeping in the Emanuel church, right, the AME church after Dylan Roof wants to start a race war with, like, praying Black people who invite him into a prayer circle. And you have amazing grace. We have everything in our culture. But you don't have an articulation from Obama as President or any President of the United States about what the white supremacist underground means in terms of our survival as a people with families, we can take care of it, our families, right? What it means when it's underground, what it means when it comes above ground, what it means when it infiltrates the NYPD or probably is the backbone of the NYPD, when it's part of the police union rhetoric. You don't have a struggle against that, you have an ostrich approach as my Madrina godmother used to say, like, you just sort of put your head in the sand and leave the rest of yourself exposed. And we've been exposed by almost every political leader who worked within state structure, because I believe the code of staying in state structure is not to speak honestly about the depth and the breadth of violence arrayed against Black people who are seen as expendable, or as edible commodities.
JAY: You brought up police and I'm interested, there has been recent calls to defund the police. Are you able to provide some clarity because it seems to be some confusion in the media around what this means and why this is an alternative to putting more money into the police for training and things like that.
JJ: So the police as we know them should not exist. Their origins on the East Coast come from the 1790s when they were slave raiders, when their job was to track us down when we tried to be free to become human, to the extent that you can pull that off in the U.S., right? They've mutated over the years. Since these wars, they've gotten the high grade military equipment. Because we've been at war, the so-called “war on terror” for over a decade. That surplus material, what do you do with it? You use it at home against civilian population. I would use a different term than defund because I don't think it's precise. I think it's like the term abolitionism. It's a huge umbrella concept that people put different things in it. You will need a police apparatus and this is where I'm different than most of abolitionists. I don't care what phrase you use, but the most important phrase is not about money to the police. It's about control of them. You can, you can like take some money from them and these private corporations will give them some more money back. There are police unions that will raise money, they have corporate sponsors. If you can't control them, then you're not in the game. I mean, the entire game is to control violence. So we're geared into like party platforms. The community issue is a people's issue. And that is where power is, if you can control the police, you have power, because then you control the level of violence. If you control some line item budget, you don't really have power. You're doing an accounting scheme.
JAY: So Dr. James, one final question, how can everyday folks get involved in revolutionary struggle?
JJ: Ah, great question. I always like the last question, when it's a great question. First thing that comes to mind is expand and practice our capacity to love, not, you know, just in modeling ways which can be cute, or sentimental ways, or just around the family, or the love of bling and commodities, or being a celebrity or whatever it is, that kind of helps you ease the pain of what it means to live in a nation that every day wants to remind you that it hates you and seems to hate itself enough to destroy the planet. And so revolutionary love has been spoken about and all of our struggles. I mean, listen to Malcolm, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” It sounds like a scary title, right? But you listen to Malcolm and his voice, I hear the love. And actually like he didn't want to leave early. And I think he left four daughters behind, right? And Betty Shabazz. But you hear the love for our people and a love for justice. When you listen to Martin, you know, not just that ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but that that last one, ‘I may not get there with you but I promise that we as a people…’ You hear the love, like they never abandon us. And I would say even people who are really scary for most people like George Jackson, older brother Jonathan Jackson. So, you know, Blood in my Eye, Soledad Brother, brilliant theorist. He fought so fiercely, I would argue because he loved so fiercely. And he actually wrote that to his mother, Georgia, to Angela, to his brother John, that he would his enemies, their enemies would be his enemies, and he would act accordingly. So I think from the framework of love, love that we are taught in our religion, love in the way we like pick up our two year old, love in the way we try to get our 12 year old to do their homework. From the perspective of love, we're more than what anybody says we are, we have capacity that we've never dreamed of. And we can manage our fear so that we stop allowing ourselves to crowd into containers that are really just kettles orchestrated by some cop that needs to embellish themselves by dominating us.
JAY: Very powerful. Dr. James, thank you so much for your time. This has been a great conversation.
JJ: Thank you for all the work that y'all do. Take care.
JAY: All right. All right. So just like that we're at the end of this episode of Black history Year. This podcast is produced by PushBlack, the nation's largest nonprofit Black media company. You know at PushBlack we agree with Marcus Garvey when he said, “a people without knowledge of the past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” I'm guessing you probably feel like that's important, too. I mean, you're here at the end of a podcast about Black history. You matter. Your choice to be here matters. It lets us know that you value the work. PushBlack exists because we saw we had to take matters into our own hands. You make PushBlack happen with your contributions at BlackHistoryYear.com. Most people do about five or 10 bucks a month but everything makes a difference. Thanks for supporting the work.
Special thanks to Detroit Motor City Woman Studio and Andrea Daniel.
The Black History Year production team includes Tareq Alani, Patrick Sanders, William Anderson, Jareyah Bradley, Brooke Brown, Shonda Buchanan, Eskedar Getahun, Leslie Taylor-Grover, Abeni Jones, Akua Tay, Darren Wallace and our producer, Cydney Smith. For Limina House, our producers are Jessica Rugh Frantz and Sasha Kai Parker, who also edits the podcast.
Black History Year’s Executive Producers are Julian Walker for PushBlack and Mikel Ellcessor for Limina House.
I'm Jay for PushBlack. Thanks for checking us out. Peace.