Story at a glance
- Angela Davis is a scholar and activist known for her involvement in the civil rights movement.
- She is controversial to many due to her critiques of capitalism and endorsement of communism.
- A Black, lesbian woman, Davis identifies strongly with the current movements for equality.
Standing in court with her afro and fist raised, clenched, in the air, Angela Davis became an icon to many, a villain to others. She was prosecuted for three capital charges after guns belonging to her were used in an armed takeover of a courtroom in California in 1970 that resulted in four deaths. She was acquitted and went on to have a long career as a professor, activist and author.
Now 76, the scholar and activist identifies as a “little c communist,” she told the New York Times in a recent interview in a recent interview. Decades after being listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List as a terrorist, Davis is a leader and an inspiration to many Americans, but remains controversial to many others.
Davis spoke to the New York Times for its October series, “The Greats,” which celebrates five masters of their crafts, including Dawoud Bey, Barbara Kruger, FKA Twigs and Sigourney Weaver. Here’s what she had to say.
On her legacy:
“For a long time, I felt somewhat intimidated. I felt that there was no way that I, as an individual, could actually live up to the expectations incorporated in that image. There came a point when I realized I didn’t have to. The image does not reflect who I am as an individual, it reflects the work of the movement.”
Davis told the New York Times it all came into perspective when she met a young woman in a foster-care program wearing the activist’s face on her shirt. “She didn’t know a great deal about me at all, but she said, ‘Whenever I wear this, I feel like I can accomplish anything. It makes me feel empowered.’ From that moment, I realized it really was not about me as an individual. It was about the fact that my image was a stand-in for the work that masses are able to do in terms of changing the world.”
“That book represents a number of positions of people who had a broader, more — the term we use now is ‘intersectional’ — analysis of what it means to struggle for gender equality,” she says. “At the time that I wrote it, I was interested in pointing out that gender did not have to be seen in competition with race. That women’s issues did not belong to middle-class white women. In many ways, that research was about uncovering the contributions of women who were completely marginalized by histories of the women’s movement, especially Black women, but also Latino women and working-class women.”
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In the mid-1970s, Davis advocated on behalf of Delbert Tibbs, a Black man falsely accused of rape and murder in Florida. “He was facing the death penalty,” she told the New York Times. “We were appealing to these white feminists to support him as well as Little, and there was reluctance. Some white feminists did, but by and large that appeal fell flat. So how is it possible to develop the kinds of arguments that will allow people to recognize that one cannot effectively struggle for gender equality without racial equality?”
On the LGBTQ+ community:
“We didn’t include gender issues in [earlier] struggles. There would have been no way to imagine that trans movements would effectively demonstrate to people that it is possible to effectively challenge what counts as normal in so many different areas of our lives,” Davis told the New York Times. “A part of me is glad that we didn’t win the revolution we were fighting for back then, because there would still be male supremacy. There would still be hetero-patriarchy. There would be all of these things that we had not yet come to consciousness about.”
On abolishing the police:
“The abolitionist imagination delinks us from that which is,” Davis told the New York Times. “It allows us to imagine other ways of addressing issues of safety and security. Most of us have assumed in the past that when it comes to public safety, the police are the ones who are in charge. When it comes to issues of harm in the community, prisons are the answer. But what if we imagined different modes of addressing harm, different modes of addressing security and safety?”
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“What if we ask ourselves, ‘Why is it that whenever an issue arises in the community that involves, say, a person who is intellectually disabled or mentally challenged, the first impulse is to call an officer with a gun?’ Why do we assume that the police are the ones who will be able to recreate order and safety for us? In those instances, there have been so many cases of people being killed by the police simply because of their mental health. This is especially the case with Black people.”
On the coronavirus pandemic:
“As we looked at the damage that the pandemic was doing, people began to realize the extent to which Black communities, brown communities and Indigenous communities were sustaining the effect of a pandemic in ways that pointed to the existence of structural racism. Then there was the fact that we were all sheltered in place; in a sense, we were compelled to be the witnesses of police lynching. That allowed people to make connections with the whole history of policing and the history of lynching and the extent to which slavery is still very much a part of the influences in our society today.”
On the role of black women in history:
“Inevitably, when one asks who is the leader of this movement, one imagines a charismatic male figure: the Martin Luther Kings, the Malcolm Xs, the Marcus Garveys. All of these men have made absolutely important contributions, but we can also work with other models of leadership that are rooted in our struggles of the past.”
“[The boycott] took place because Black women — domestic workers — had the collective imagination to believe that it was possible to change the world, and they were the ones who refused to ride the bus,” Davis told the New York Times. “The collective leadership we see today dates back to the unacknowledged work of Rosa Parks and Ella Baker and many others, who did so much to create the basis for radical movements against racism.”
“The elephant in the room is always capitalism. Even when we fail to have an explicit conversation about capitalism, it is the driving force of so much when we talk about racism. Capitalism has always been racial capitalism.”
“When we do this work of organizing against racism, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism — organizing to change the world — there are no guarantees, to use Stuart Hall’s phrase, that our work will have an immediate effect,” Davis told the New York Times. “But we have to do it as if it were possible.”
On today’s Black Lives Matter movement:
“‘Structural racism,’ ‘white supremacy,’ all of these terms that have been used for decades in the ranks of our movements have now become a part of popular discourse,” she told the New York Times.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that our work as activists is always to prepare the next generation,” she says. “To create new terrains so that those who come after us will have a better opportunity to get up and engage in even more radical struggles. And I think we’re seeing this now.” She plans to be around to see it through.
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