The political philosopher offers a rich and poetic view of oppressive structures and those who resist them.
Author: Matthew Cook
Photo of Joy James

Black trans theorist Da’Shaun Harrison used to sign their emails with “Revolutionary Love.” It was a play on “Black Love,” which they understood to convey a commitment to freeing the Black community from oppressive societal conditions and structures. So, this sign-off subtly signaled, “I’m with you.” But Harrison stopped doing this because Revolutionary Love started to mean something deeper, something closer to sacrifice and death. Political philosophers like Joy James, the Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Humanities at Williams College, fed this thinking.

Harrison explains the evolution of their thought in the foreword of James’s book In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities (IPORL). They cite James’s work as a crucible for their understanding of Revolutionary Love and the action it inspires and requires. “It is not about Black Love or any romantic, familial, or platonic love at all,” they say. “It is about sustained movements, political will, and laboring for the sake of revolution to kill the very things designed to kill us.”

Revolutionary Love at Rochester

IPORL’s foreword amounts to one person’s meditation on Revolutionary Love. In the introduction, James notes that she and the book’s contributors “cannot fully define Revolutionary Love; yet, we pursue it.” On November 30, anyone who wishes to seek its meaning can do so with James at the University of Rochester.

James is the second speaker in the 2023–24 season of the Neilly Author Series. This season of the Neilly Series is dedicated to the creation of the Department of Black Studies. In celebration of the department’s inaugural year, this season’s Neilly talks will feature Black authors and a variety of perspectives on racism, freedom, and the Black experience.

Get details and register to attend

Using IPORL as a jumping-off point, James’s talk will touch on feminism, abolition, and genocide, which she will expand on through another recent book, New Bones Abolition: Captive Maternal Agency and the (After)Life of Erica Garner.

A collective endeavor based on podcasts and interviews, IPORL is an analysis and meditation on society’s intellectual, political, and ethical capacities to confront structural violence, domination, and alienation. Like Harrison, those who read it find their definitions of Revolutionary Love enriched. French-Algerian political activist Houria Bouteldja said, “To take the path of Revolutionary Love is to take a risk. It means walking the razor’s edge. This is not a politics of the heart, not a politics of charity. No need for self-love or self-pity―it’s enough to know where you stand, to embody that moment ‘just before hate’ and, with the energy of despair, to ward off the worst.”

James has authored several other books, including Resisting State Violence; Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics; Transcending the Talented Tenth; and Seeking the Beloved Community. She is also the editor of The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings; Imprisoned Intellectuals; Warfare in the American Homeland; The Angela Y. David Reader; and coeditor of the Black Feminist Reader.

Creator of the digital Harriet Tubman Literary Circle at the University of Texas at Austin, James has published numerous articles on political theory, police, prison and slavery abolition, radicalizing feminisms, and diasporic anti-Black racism and U.S. politics. ∎

All Neilly Author Series talks are free and open to the public, made possible by the Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Endowed Fund. For more information on Julius Fleming’s talk, contact Kim Osur, development manager at the River Campus Libraries.

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