The poster for James’ lecture.

Joy James is a professor at Williams College. Her research considers the role of mass incarceration in the class and race struggles of the 1970s, and considers incarceration as a form of state violence while also exploring how people of colour resist it through organizing and care for each other. She is the author of Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics (1999), Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals (1997), and Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender and Race in U.S. Culture (1996). At the time of her talk, James was completing a book on the prosecution of 20th-century interracial rape cases, tentatively titled Memory, Shame & Rage. She has contributed articles and book chapters to journals and anthologies addressing feminist and critical race theory, democracy, and social justice.

In her talk, James explored the abolitionist ideas of George Jackson, Angela Davis, and Michel Foucault and how they have shaped the popularization of prison/police abolitionism in the 21st century. She focused on what she called the Revolutionary Era between 1967 and 1972, which encompasses movements including the Poor People’s Campaign, Black and Red Liberation Armies, anti-Vietnam war activism, and Women’s and Gay Liberation. Despite this, by the end of the period, James argue that a practical blueprint for a democratic, egalitarian future had largely disappeared. She saw the history of the Black Panthers in contrast to this, for they never expected material gains within their lifetimes. James highlighted George Jackson, a Black Panther who was imprisoned for most of his adult life, as a key figure for modern abolitionism. Jackson found in prison the pieces for revolutionary struggle. From prison, he saw a site to leverage his oppressors. While most prisoners’ strikes in the 1970s after Attica didn’t invoke Jackson, he was an architect of the prisoner right’s movement and so his presence is imprinted on abolitionism. Jackson had been misunderstood after his death in 1971, James argued, as colleagues edited his prison letters to make them seem less violent, casting him as a reformer rather than a revolutionary philosopher. She discussed, too, his relationship with Angela Davis, and the contributions of Michel Foucault to understandings of mass incarceration.

Listen to James’ lecture below.

Listen to Joy James deliver the 2019 Dunning Trust lecture.