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Political Profiteering off the Trauma of Black Women

November 18, 2019

In state and national elections, Democratic politicians court the power of Black women's votes. But are the issues that shape and impact the lives of Black women really respected by, and reflected in, the policies of the political class that courts them so heavily?

In state and national elections, Democratic politicians court the power of Black women's votes. But are the issues that shape and impact the lives of Black women really respected by, and reflected in, the policies of the political class that courts them so heavily?


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Story Transcript

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacquelin Luqman with The Real News Network.

There is a lot of discussion about the importance of Black Women to the success or failure of the Democratic Party and not just at the national level. In recent state and local elections, the engagement and turnout of Black Women has been analyzed, criticized, celebrated, and strategized.

But aside from the power of the vote of the Black Woman, are the issues that shape and impact life for Black Women really respected by and reflected in the engagement of the political class with those Black Women? Is the full range of Black feminist thought and expression considered in these political strategies to get out the Black Woman vote or are some Black Women left out of these discussions and plans all together? Do politicians even really understand this demographic that they so desperately court, especially in regard to Black Women whose lives are touched and shaped by the indignities, traumas and oppressions at the intersection of race and class in America?

Here to talk about the unique voice of Black Women and Black feminists in politics, and the particular voice and influence of the captive maternal, is Professor Joy James. Joy is the Ebeneezer Fitch Professor of Humanities at Williams College. She is a political philosopher, is author of Resisting State Violence and Seeking the Beloved Community as well as the editor of the New Abolitionists, Imprisoned Intellectuals, Warfare and the American Homeland and Angela Y. Davis Reader.

James’s writings appear in the Boston Review, Black Scholar and The New York Times. Her online articles on the captive maternal include The Womb of Western Theory and Killmonger’s Captive Maternal is M.I.A. That is my personal favorite. She currently works with the Abolition Collective and campaigns to release political prisoners. Professor Joy James, thank you so very much for spending the time to talk with me today.

JOY JAMES: Thanks for the invitation to join you in conversation and also for all the fine journalistic and investigative reporting that you all do.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Thank you. Thank you so much. Let’s start with the role of Black Women in politics today and the idea of Black feminism in that role. I get the feeling that most politicians view Black feminism as a way to tap into the power of the Black Woman vote for their political advancement, but they don’t always tap into the full spectrum of what it means to be a Black feminist. That Black feminism is more than about voting for a woman candidate, or voting for a Black Woman candidate, or voting for a candidate even who understands women’s issues. It’s a very specific and narrow thing to Black, to politicians, Black feminism is. What are your thoughts on my suspicions?

JOY JAMES: Yeah, Jacqueline, I agree with your analysis. I think often, especially in times of presidential elections when every four years cycles where we’re diverted from other organizing that we’re doing at times and we’re focused so much on this singular individual or two, right, the president and the vice president who’s going to provide this leadership that will stabilize your safe democracy.

We underestimate or overlook how instrumental Black Women have been in shaping the very notion of democracy, particularly in contesting its exploitation, the predatory structures built within it, the racial capitalism, the misogyny the attempts to control women’s wombs and lives, particularly the lives of indigenous and Black Women. I think this struck me particularly when Barack Obama was running for president, or in the primary when the contest was between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and it was always the first, the first Black man who’s running, right, in a major party, the first woman who’s running for president in a major party. I kept thinking of Shirley Chisholm.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Right.

JOY JAMES: That both of them were standing on her legacy and were also standing on her ideologies of progressivism and battling some of the most egregious assaults on human rights that we’re facing today in terms of the resurgence of racism, entrenched poverty, militarism and sexism and exploitation, as well as the rise again of homophobia, transphobic narratives and violence.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So, what it seems we end up having are politicians who speak mostly to one type of Black Woman and one set of Black Women’s issues, the more liberal or middle-class focused, and they don’t really reach back to what you mentioned, even the political legacy of Black Women that exist in politics already that they stand on the shoulders of. But they narrow the engagement and the involvement of Black Women in politics down to Black Women should vote for a first this or another. But do we see much recognition of issues that Black Women outside of that very narrow paradigm of, you should vote for the first this or the first woman, which oftentimes translates into a very middle-class kind of feminist narrative. Do we see any recognition of Black Women’s issues outside of that paradigm, especially like the radical and the revolutionary expressions of Black feminism in any political discourse?

JOY JAMES: Right. Well see, with this two party system, and I’m glad you brought up the radical aspects and even the revolutionary aspects of stabilizing a democracy that’s always been dysfunctional and that’s its predatory nature since what? This is the 400th anniversary, right, since 1619 and from a colony to this democracy, but it’s always wedded to the exploitation of labor, the expropriation of labor and land, and also structural violence, genocidal violence against populations. So a radical or revolutionary vision would contest that, but that’s often swept to the side in terms of electoral politics in a two party system. So as you’ve rightly pointed out, the role of Black Women then become these stalwart warriors who show up, who are there to like throw the lever and cast a vote for the least odious or the least damaging of the two parties rather than a visionary or a theoretician who could re-conceptualize or reshape the party itself. I remember in the special election in Alabama for the Senate when Sessions went to join the Trump Administration as attorney general, that it was Black Women and men–but disproportionately Black Women–who allowed a Democrat to be elected and to take the seat.

And so Black Women are celebrated almost as sort of the 911 call you make for the Democratic Party that when you’re in crisis, you call us, you show up, we vote for you. But, in terms of the people who are at the table planning, right, conceptualizing, dreaming what a stable democracy would look like, in which viral racial capitalism is not the norm, child poverty is not the norm, these wars that we will never win are not normative, right, that’s what we’re missing. So from the most recent, and I have not lost a child in the way that some women have lost their children to gun violence, police violence and so forth, but in the way in which our suffering is galvanized for electoral campaigns, but our ability to think and re-conceptualize democracy is not, then we’re facing a schism. And what we’re finding is that even when we’re participating, at times we can still be left out.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I think that comment just brings us to the particular issue of the captive maternal, because you write at length and quite eloquently and powerfully about this in your work. And it’s a concept that most people are not familiar with, but it is an incredibly important concept to understand in terms of the relationship that Black Women have in politics and with politics. So, would you please explain what the captive maternal is and why that concept is so important in the way Black Women’s politics and Black feminist politics are shaped or misrepresented in electoral politics?

JOY JAMES: Right. So, the whole concept of the captive maternal came about from watching people, predominantly women, but it’s not just women. I call it an and un-gendered function, right. It’s not an identity, so it’s not a biological mother per se, but it’s a function of care taking and nurturing of reconstituting or stabilizing your community. I argue that the democracy itself for centuries has stolen our generative powers, our ability to reproduce social fabric, spirituality, emotional intelligence and used it to create an exploited worker, a docile political participant. I learned or I was able to look more closely at the captive maternal when I began organizing in New York City when I returned from being in the South after a number of years. I just was working with mostly mothers, single mothers, but there were fathers too, trying to get a decent education for their children in New York City, which is one of the most segregated school systems in the nation…

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Right.

JOY JAMES: …trying to navigate housing, trying to teach them about the police. That’s when I would be at my apartment window and hear the marches, or see the marches, or go downstairs and participate that were being led around the police murder of Eric Garner, right. The way in which his daughter, who is not his biological mother, but his daughter took on the functions of the captive maternal, of nurturing the family after his [inaudible 00:11:41] of bringing attention to the police murder, of demanding justice. When I’ve traveled outside of the country to Brazil and other places, I find Black captive maternals there as well in indigenousness captive maternals. Predominantly they’re women, but they also could be children. When women start organizing, particularly after a child has been slain, right, they’re out of the household often. So, the oldest child then takes over the care taking functions of making sure people get breakfast, they get to school, they do their homework, and that we produces this society, the social order, so we’re caught.

The captive maternal is in a bind. We stabilize, but we don’t rebel. We stabilize, but we need a rebellion. How can you be a visionary and also be a functionary at the same time? I think that’s our challenge, not just in our lives and our communities, that’s our challenge in local, state and national politics. That we want to stabilize what is the most progressive. But what the most progressive is, is often flawed and does not meet our needs. So, we have to engage in some kind of radical or revolutionary struggle to transform the worlds we inhabit because the worlds we inhabit are increasingly–as Greta Thunberg and other climate activists note–the worlds we inhabit are currently burning.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So it sounds like what you’re saying is, in recreating a stable society the captive maternal, whoever is in that role brings a sense of calm and regularity and normalcy in a time of trauma, but also recognizes the need for some type of a struggle to improve the situation so that that calm and normal doesn’t become the norm all of the time, because then the trauma becomes the norm. But in politics, what is harvested out of that relationship, out of that community is that calm and that making normal this situation in trauma, so that there is nothing really done about the trauma that needs to change. Is that what I’m kind of hearing?

JOY JAMES: Yes. We’re caught in a bind. We have to get our kids to school, but they’re not always good schools. We still tell them to listen and to follow instructions even when their principals and their teachers may be indifferent, or racist, or classist, or homophobic. We are this loyal cadre on every aspect and the same when we go to the polls. We’re told to vote for the lesser of the two evils. This election cycle, yes, Sanders is very interesting. And Warren is interesting from the take of accountability capitalism; Sanders is more interesting from the perspective of we need a social revolution, right?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Right.

JOY JAMES: That addresses the needs of all people. But our ability to sit at the table and to be co-architects of a new world is not the first thing that people come to us for. The first thing they tended to come to us for, I used to call it we’re the domestic workers; or Zora Neale Hurston would say, “the mules of the world.” It’s a specific type of labor that reproduces the stable. And so, then our pragmatic aspects as workers, laborers, I’m from the nannies on the street to the new leadership levels in a capitalist society, we’re seen as someone who can keep systems going, but that includes systems that should be abolished and disappear.

I think when I listen to Nina Turner when she did advocate for Sanders, I see the kind of leadership where she distinguishes between what she calls faux feminism and a kind of feminism that she says is grounded in humanism. I see these kinds of leadership that trend for the radical. I saw that in Erica Garner, in the ad that she did for Bernie Sanders which was not his idea. That was Garner’s idea. She contacted Sanders. She was the architect. She was the theorist behind what became one of the most moving political ads that we’ve seen in decades and directly took on police violence and police violence protects structure and structure follows capital. So it’s that level of our engagement that we have to see more of.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: That sounds so familiar, not just in the examples that you cited, but also, as you said earlier, in the campaigns of Hillary Clinton where there were lots of photo opportunities with Black Woman advocates, Black Women supporters, but not a lot of Black Women who are living these stories, who are living these lives who are directly impacted by this system that is crushing them who are not given an opportunity to shape the response to that system. That I think was true in 2016, but we see this even with Joe Biden to an extent today and Kamala Harris. So, what are your thoughts on Biden’s role in this relationship with Black Women voters, and even Kamala Harris, I think who is an even more interesting study in this issue?

JOY JAMES: Right. So we as Black Women, we have an ideological, I don’t know if it’s a divide, or we’re on the continuum, on a spectrum, so we can go from conservative to liberal, radical to revolutionary. The Black Women as feminists that I find to be most inspirational are the ones who have a vision of the world that’s not the reproduction of the norm, a vision of the world where poor women, where the needs of working class women, or the needs of trans women… And I’m not just saying the lip service of inclusivity and choose a kind of the elite structure, but really a radical change and redefinition of what our rights are and the rights of all living entities, including the rights of other species besides just human. I think those Black Women are going to be the most marginalized because radical politics and revolutionary politics are the most marginalized, right?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yes.

JOY JAMES: And so the point, which I think is essential that we have to continuously make is that there is no monolithic Black feminism. There is diversity in Black feminism, and so you’re going to have to get specific. I might necessarily or might not necessarily call other forms of Black feminism faux feminism, but I would say that intersectionality–if it’s race, gender, class–is not sufficient in itself to build movements because the category of ideology is missing. So I really want to know, if you’re a Black Woman, where do you stand in terms of democratic socialism? I’m really interested in the forms of Black feminism, right, and other forms of feminism, indigenous feminisms that I can learn from, that will deal with ideologies straight on. That will not attempt to turn all kinds of feminisms into some forms of capitalism. So, when Nixon is attempting to redefine Black power in the heyday, the height of our movements, as Black capitalism, the problem becomes if that becomes, is the norm, then everything is about climbing the existing ladder even though the ladder is built upon the oppressions, right, of multiple peoples over centuries.

So Black feminism can also define Black feminist power as an imitation or access to the ill-gotten gains of capitalism and though people would be horrified by this, but also white supremacy because the capitalism we have is racial capitalism. So, this is the way I would see it if I were to trace our historical lineage, right, not quite the 400 year span. Sally Hemings as the slave concubine, also the half-sister of Martha Jespersen. But Sally Hemings who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson reproduced his political capital for him, because every time she has a child with a three fifth clause of the Constitution, she’s building his bank in the electoral college, right. So even though we cannot vote, even though we are held captive, even though we’re ensnared in various forms of being disenfranchised through the centuries, right, we still allow elites to gain political capital off of our existence and our labor.

The kind of feminism we need would be one that could rethink and then attempt to undo that entire structure–which is more than about abolishing the electoral college, even though I think that’s a great idea–getting rid also of Citizens United and unlimited spending in elections. But we would have to rethink this labor that we engage in because we’re forced and that we’re fearful to stop. That we see ourselves as the protectors of our community, so we labored to the point of our own exhaustion. We vote when we’re not inspired. I again think there is some inspiring possibilities in this election, and I think it’s necessary that everybody votes. But, I also think that one of our jobs is to push the doors open as much as possible, not just to access, but to restructuring the world we’ve inhabited and try to the best extent that we can to diminish the corruption and the predatory behavior of the world’s premier democracy.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So just to close this conversation out… I wish we had more time to continue to go into each aspect specifically of how we challenge this repeatedly perpetuating narrative for Black Women; but how do we do that? How do we break from this cycle of perpetuating this self, this repeating self-perpetuating power dynamic that we continue to support and we’re almost pigeonholed into continuing to support it, but we don’t benefit from it? How do we break free from it?

JOY JAMES: I would think on every level, we would enter into the political arena, especially the levels that people do not anticipate. But not just as a function of the laborer who brings in the votes, or who produces more votes for a particular party, but that we reshaped the platform. So the thing about the bill for reparations, which is HR House Resolution 40, right?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yes.

JOY JAMES: You look at it, it seems so clear cut, but also so open-ended, so there are multiple debates about it. But in this case, I’m working with captive maternals who are working with literally encaged or imprisoned people to talk about how HR 40 can include reparations for COINTELPRO, and it could include reparations for mass incarceration, which is not just getting the franchise back, but also reparations for political imprisonment.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Right.

JOY JAMES: I mean, we’ve seen way too many losses and I think that makes us very cautious, right. This series, as I say often in talks that James Baldwin loved three men that he saw rapidly in quick succession assassinated, 1963 Medgar Evers, 1965 Malcolm X, 1968 Martin Luther King and in their way, they were captive maternals too. But, this kind of collective trauma that we’ve suffered that makes us much more cautious and hesitant about how we dream and vision and how we make demands. We are theorists. Our theory comes from our experience. We are cadres of thinkers. So, on every level of crafting bills, defining bills, running candidates, demanding that it’s beyond the notion of make sure you have the diversity like a smorgasbord or some kind of menu list, right, but that the vision is a radical one that’s transformative, right. That we deal with people who are differently able.

That we understand how is it that we’ve accepted our deaths in small doses, right, from Botham Jean eating ice cream in his own apartment and watching television to Atatiana Jefferson babysitting literally and trying to protect the life of her eight year old nephew? If we allow this to continue to be our normative construct, then we will stabilize within a regime that treats us as prey. So, on every level that we advise these campaigns across the ideological spectrum, we should dig down deeper about how we undo this form of captivity where our very ability to create stability becomes the opportunity for theft from a predatory democracy. That it takes our generative powers to soothe and heal our communities and it uses what we stabilize and direct them to conventional politics, which are not designed to meet our needs. So there are candidates out there. Pursue, support the candidate of your choice, but the ones who are the most visionary are the ones who can understand the possibilities of a breech baby, right.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Wow.

JOY JAMES: Of something being born from this democracy that was built on our enslavement that nobody thought possible and that becomes the legacy for our children.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: There is so much in what you just said, and I so appreciate your vision and your direction for how we get away from this self-perpetuating non-supporting system that we are in that doesn’t serve Black Women in particular. Professor Joy James, I thank you so much for coming and speaking with me today about this issue.

JOY JAMES: Thank you again for all the work that you guys do and I’m learning and benefiting and bless you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.