Joy James’s New Bones Abolition

New Bones Abolition: Captive Maternal Agency and the (after)life of Erica Garner is an urgent and cogent addition to the literature about protest and movement generally and Black mobilizing and resistance specifically.  Joy James harnesses the tragic story of Erica Garner’s death from a broken heart – a heart that could not withstand the unequal access to healthcare for Black and Brown mothers postpartum in the United States of America, but also a heart made weak by the relics of colonial logics that give rise to anti-Black racism and Black death. Although James uses the geographical space, United States of America because it was Erica Garner’s containment, she signals from very early in the introductory chapter that her work is transnational. James signals that whether it is families responding to death and separation as a historical plantation experience, current Indigenous families gathering the pieces after residential schools or the female relatives who preserve memory of and fight for justice on behalf of slain relatives, dehumanization is debilitating and requires extra emotional labour. The book can be applied across societies because racism is a global scourge affecting populations dehumanized by colonial experiences.

An important way that the book under review departs from available literature is that it focusses not only on the products of resistance but on the care and support of war resisters, or captive maternals. James asserts that community action is critical to safeguard against early death as Erica Garner succumbed to. James uses the introductory chapter to proffer an alternative approach to caring and resisting – agape – which she defines as “love as political will” (4).  For James, the usefulness of agape becomes a sinew of hope for communities constantly fractured by death and loss. In her guiding notes about her foundational concept – captive maternal James explains that the importance of the role is functional and unmarked by gender. James’s work repositions caring beyond a female marked activity and makes useful space for male and gender expansiveness in resistance and caring. Discussions about resistance in marginalized communities have evoked ‘consciousness’ as an important tool for organizing. James has built on that by clearly delineating in her terms, concentric circles of consciousness (7). While James is charting new ground for approaches to resistance, she is also anchoring modern struggles to those early ancestors who became Maroons in their deflection from proto-capitalist planation societies. James is resuscitating revolution and revolutionary impulses as desirable and legitimate.

Another significant contribution of New Bones is its frankness in addressing the complexities of funding resistance. James underlines the importance of disconnecting resistance movements from United Nations (UN) neoliberalism and “corporate and non-profit buyouts” (10). James works her way from current problematic systems, approaches and theories of liberation such as feminism(s), academia, monetization of Black death and the legal/judicial system to refining her ideas about the captive maternal and their stages of engagement using Erica Garner’s tactics as exemplars. James frames individual acts of police violence as a conceptual problem for Black feminism. Women’s rights and liberty are halted by acts of violence that leave them grieving and fighting for justice. Black women are continually cleaning up the mess of police violence and fighting for safety and well-being. Additionally, James’ reading of various engagements with Black feminism challenges the concept ‘big tent’ feminism.  James reads differing approaches to feminism with those of bell hooks and Assata Shakur representing a healthy feminism contrasted with state feminism used in harmful ways by compradors (the idea of compradors emerges later in the book in relation to funding and various organizing tactics in the wider Black community).

Comprador approaches result in antagonism for Erica Garner and captive maternal, who dare not to temper their revolution – received generally as unruliness. The problem with sanitizing Black liberation struggles is that power is powerful. No one with power is inclined to just give power away. Power requires new ways to construct freedom. Freedom must be personal first – we cannot save people before we save ourselves. In a way, this lesson is one of the most important of the afterlife of Erica Garner’s death.  As James argues, the captive maternal, “trains [us] to develop defenses against predatory aggressions as a form of self-worth and self-love” (202).  Chapter two problematizes the involvement of (white, Western) academies in Black liberation. James concludes that academies continue to create and generate largesse on the backs of Black suffering while silencing the first-person embodiment of captive maternal like herself and Erica Garner.

James ‘airs out’ the contentious and troubling issue of funding and organizing in Black liberation work in Chapter three. Every family that loses a relative is not driven by a common goal that facilitates organizing and money complicates already complicated community relations. Where families are deprived of housing and resources, payouts can compromise struggle. Additionally, the lure of opportunities for ‘black leaders’ often results in cooptation and betrayal of Black movements. Chapters four through seven document Erica Garner’s activism as it advances through the concentric stages of captive maternal power with agape as the driving force in memorializing her father, Eric Garner. The legal system failed Erica Garner and many of the other families seeking to memorialize Black death and suffering beyond monetization. Policing, carceral control and the legal system are themselves a series of concentric circles that enfold Black life and distances it from freedom. As James notes the only way to break free of unfreedom is through a mix of love and as importantly, discipline (37).

James’ New Bones provides important reflections for activists, students of politics, gender justice, and sociology.  It can also be a useful guide for researchers engaged in decolonial and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) work. Notwithstanding, there is perhaps one important shortcoming in James’ argument which should be highlighted. As James expands her argument into international spaces, she reads a difference between “police forces” and “police services” in a way that obfuscates the connection between policing, carcerality and colonial logics. From its inception, the prison system has been manipulated by colonial logic and practice. In almost every region where large Black populations gained legal freedom after the abolition of slavery, prisons were established immediately to thwart and curtail Black, Brown and Indigenous movement and survival. The logics of violence and abuse that had enabled plantation became and remain the modus of policing. Therefore, there is no real differentiation to be made between a “police force” and a “police service”, as James suggests (198-199). The prison industrial complex as we know it is a recycled version of the plantations that existed during legal slavery. It should be noted that the 13th Amendment was reworked by the predatory state to uphold their control over Indigenous, Black and Brown bodies in the United States. Since the control of Black and Brown bodies could no longer be legally facilitated through slavery and plantations, the 13th Amendment facilitated the same punishment being used against convicted bodies. Unsurprisingly, this system allowed police forces to exist primarily in Black and Brown communities. Highly policed areas directly correlate to the density of Black and Brown populations, therefore permitting the mass incarceration of these communities.

This logic is repeated across geographical space as James argues throughout the book.  It manifests as residential schools in Canada and Reformatory Schools in the Caribbean as examples.  James highlights a “predatory state” throughout the work as the main oppressor of Black and Brown communities. This is the crucial takeaway of the book.  James follows the predation of the state through other mechanisms of white benevolence such as the UN. These mechanisms of state do not assist the fight for justice because they are not built on agape. An important contribution of Erica Garner is her fierce callout because “the state is unethical so it will not dismantle or derail predatory policing” (126). The state is upheld by white benevolent mechanisms, and both are complicit with Indigenous, Black and Brown unsafety. Garner’s agape embraced revolution, rudeness and discipline as important crucibles for change.


  • Marsha Hinds Myrie

    Marsha Hinds Myrie is Activist in Residence, University of Guelph. She is activist working on gender based and sexual violence in Barbados and its Canadian Diaspora.

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  • Lex Dulong

    Lex Dulong (they/them), is a recent graduate of the International Development program at the University of Guelph. Their research interests lie within community perceptions of gender and sexual identity. They will pursue a Masters in Gender and Social Justice at McMaster University in the fall.

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  • Jillian Uniacke

    Jillian Uniacke is a Bachelor of Arts student at University of Guelph. She is passionate about women’s rights, diversity, and inclusivity and studies these areas through the lived experiences and perspectives of others.

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Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

By Amal Jamal: A Humanist Perspective on the Causes, Reasonings and Consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian War

By Menachem Klein: A New Judaism?*

By Melvyn Dubofsky: Has Labor Reawakened?

By Loren T. Cannon: The Backlash Continues: How Two Recent SCOTUS Rulings Pose a Threat to LGBTQ+ and Especially Trans and Gender Non-Binary Persons

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By Allen Wood: Kant After Three Centuries

By Joy James: Marcuse’s Most Famous Student: Angela Davis on Critical Theory and German Idealism*

By Frank M. Kirkland: Africa, We the Underdeveloped: Wynter’s Discontent in the Light of Hegel’s Conception of Development

By Mark Epstein: Pasolini’s Aesthetics

By Rainer Funk: Erich Fromm’s Contribution to Critical Theory

By Marsha Hinds Myrie , Lex Dulong , Jillian Uniacke: Joy James’s New Bones Abolition

By Peter Hudis: Determinism and Freedom: A Review of Michael Löwy’s Rosa Luxemburg: The Incendiary Spark

By Brian Robert Hischier: Fred Camper’s Seeking Brakhage

By Marybeth Tamborra: Chelsea Schields’s Offshore Attachments