Angela Y. Davis is a scholar, teacher, activist, and organizer. She has published books on race, class, and gender, including Women, Race, and Class (1981); Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1998); and Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003). She helped to popularize the notion of a “prison-industrial complex.”
In 1969 she came to national attention after being removed from her teaching position in the Philosophy Department at UCLA as a result of her social activism and her membership in the Communist Party, USA. In 1970 she was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List on false charges. During her 16-month incarceration, a massive international “Free Angela Davis” campaign was organized, leading to her acquittal in 1972.
When Davis retired from University of California Santa Cruz in 2008, she was named Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies. She has continued her work for prison abolition, women’s rights, and racial justice.
This conversation appears in Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought, out now from Verso Books.
Verso Books: As you’ve written about in your autobiography, your political and intellectual formation begins in the midst of racial apartheid of Birmingham, Alabama. It was forged through a radical high school education in New York, and then studies in French and philosophy at Brandeis University and in Paris. Your graduate studies in Frankfurt and then with Herbert Marcuse at University of California, San Diego, and travels to Cuba, North Africa and elsewhere, were also central to your intellectual and political formation.
You have created a distinctive feminist theory and praxis that incorporates Third World internationalism, Black radical traditions, Marxism and critical theory as developed by the Frankfurt school. Can you tell us what the most transformative dimensions of these different moments of study have been?
Angela Davis: At the time I was in elementary and high school, I was not unhappy with the education I received in Birmingham, as racially segregated as it may have been. In fact, it was in large part my experiences in school that taught me early on that the regime of racial segregation, grounded in assumptions of Black inferiority, was not absolute. Our teachers taught us that counternarratives were possible. Thus, I learned about important Black historical figures; we frequently sang the Negro National Anthem; and I witnessed my teachers courageously speaking back to white authorities.
Learning that resistance was indeed possible was an invaluable dimension of my education, and I later realized that no matter how much may have been lacking in the curriculum, I was extremely fortunate to have experienced education as resistance to the established order during the very earliest period of my formal schooling.
By the time I realized that there were major lacunae in my education and that I would have to leave Birmingham to address them, I had already developed a political sensibility and—thanks to my teachers (and my mother, who was also a teacher)—a desire to pursue education as a force for radical transformation. Thus, being exposed to such figures as Marx and Freud in the New York high school I attended—and acquiring deeper understandings of history, both of the United States and the world, that were radically different from the content of our racially biased textbooks in Birmingham—was precisely what I needed at that point in my life.“What has been a consistent theme in my life has been the convergence of academic knowledge and knowledge generated in the course of actively struggling for radical change.”
Though learning French, which later led to an abiding interest in French literature, philosophy and culture, was serendipitous (the two years of intensive study of French in high school were required as a result of my lack of foreign language study in Alabama), it made me realize that I was more interested in the humanities than the sciences.
Studying French literature as an undergraduate, I discovered that I was drawn to literary figures whose work also focused on philosophical ideas—Sartre and Camus, for example—and eventually, with the invaluable assistance of Professor Herbert Marcuse, I embarked on the study of philosophy. This meant that early on my philosophical orientation was grounded in critical theory, and that I never seriously considered philosophy except in relation to its potential role in in social transformation.
But in all this, there was an almost total absence of an engagement with race as a legitimate category of study. Transformative moments with respect to race and racism included reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and hearing him speak during my first year in college; hearing Malcolm X; early encounters with the Algerian Revolution, and thus reading Frantz Fanon; and educational sessions within the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party, including discussions in 1968 of class, race and gender in Claudia Jones’s “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!”
But what has been a consistent theme in my life has been the convergence of academic knowledge and knowledge generated in the course of actively struggling for radical change in the world.
VB: There has been a resurgence in the past decade on “the idea of communism,” and in 2017, a slew of texts examining the history and legacies of the Russian Revolution. Other celebrations marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Capital, volume 1. Few of these conferences and texts seemed to engage specifically with the Third World Marxist anti-colonial and anti-racist traditions. What are your thoughts on these recent developments and the growth of interest in Marx and Marxism?
AD: In my mind, as long as capitalism persists in determining the future of this planet, Marxism will continue to be relevant—as critiques of existing political economies; as approaches to the philosophy of history that emphasize the impermanence of history, even as proponents of capitalism insist on representing it as the inalterable backdrop of the future; and especially as a reminder of human agency and the possibility of revolutionary transformation.
Regardless of the disintegration of the USSR, and of the many problems that have been repeatedly rehearsed, I believe that the Russian Revolution will always retain its status as a monumental historical moment. But this does not mean that we fail to take account of the particular historical context both of the Marx’s analysis of capital and of the 1917 revolution. Those who value the Marxist tradition—and I certainly count myself among those who do—will also value critical engagements with Marxist theory based on new insights regarding the forces of history.
Although the term “racial capitalism” as first used by political scientist Cedric Robinson was originally proposed as a critique of the Marxist tradition grounded in what he called the Black radical tradition, it can also be a generative concept for new ways of holding these two overlapping intellectual and activist traditions in productive tension. If we set out to examine the many ways in which capitalism and racism have been intertwined, from the eras of colonialism and slavery to the present (and of course, Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery emphasized this in the mid-20th century), I think that we are not so much “stretching Marxism” as we are continuing to build upon and critically engage with its insights.
Dedicated adherents to a particular way of thinking often assume that to challenge any of the associated ideas is a disavowal. In both his works of philosophy and political economy, Marx always emphasized critique—and, of course, this became the primary approach of the Frankfurt school: critical theory.
What I find especially inspiring about the Marxist tradition is its emphasis on interdisciplinarity. Even as Capital is categorized as a work within the discipline of political economy—despite the fact that Marx considered it a critique of political economy—if one reads it, one discovers philosophy, literature, sociology (which was not yet an institutionalized discipline), cultural critique, and so on. What I have always appreciated is the openness of Marx’s work, its implicit invitation to push it in new directions.“I think it is extremely important to expose students to Marxist ideas, and especially to Marxist-inflected, anti-racist feminist approaches.”
Unfortunately, reductionist tendencies of some contemporary Marxist literatures create an inhospitable climate for the continuation of the tradition of critique through serious engagement with new theoretical approaches associated with Black and women of color feminisms. But new developments in global capitalism, including the increasing importance of women’s labor—in manufacturing as well as in reproductive and care labor, and especially in the global South—have pushed us to develop different categories and different methodological approaches.
At a time when there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with capitalism, I think it is extremely important to expose students (either in institutionalized academic settings or in the context of movement-building education) to Marxist ideas, and especially to Marxist-inflected, anti-racist feminist approaches. Carole Boyce Davies’s important study of Black woman communist Claudia Jones has inspired new research on Black women Marxists.
VB: Activists involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States have made alliances and expressed solidarity with Palestinians struggling against the Israeli occupation, and vice versa. This solidarity speaks to a longer history of internationalism that informed Third World Marxism and the Black Power movement. Can you reflect on the connections between and changes in these forms of solidarity over the last decades? Is there an intergenerational element present in these alliances?
AD: I do not believe we can create viable and potent movements if we neglect the global context within which we work. Earlier communist expressions of internationalism always reminded us to be critical of the nation-state and nationalism and, of course, the refrain of “The Internationale”—sung by socialists and communists throughout the world—contains the words “The international working class / Shall be the human race.”
Personally, I cannot imagine who I would be and how I would be thinking and acting had I not been exposed to the potential of international solidarity at a very young age. Early on in my life, I realized that the movement to free the Scottsboro Nine (led by Black communists, and the context for my own mother’s politicization) was produced through this solidarity. As I mentioned in an earlier question, I learned how to express solidarity with the Algerian Revolution while still a teenager.
And, of course, my own trial on charges that initially carried the death penalty ended in victory largely due to the vast international campaign that touched people in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. The Black Panther Party and many of the other organizations promoting Black liberation in the 1960s and 70s were inspired by and created links with revolutionary struggles in the Third World.
During the 1980s in the United States, the call for solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa was heeded by virtually every progressive organization in the country. This solidarity not only helped to raise the international profile of the anti-apartheid campaign, but also greatly strengthened our anti-racist movements at home. Many young Black activists associated with the larger Black Lives Matter movement began to embrace Palestine as the new South Africa, recognizing that generating support for justice for Palestine would add an important internationalist dimension to the many struggles identifying with the new slogan.
When Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the protests marked a major turning point in the movement. Importantly, activists in occupied Palestine were the first to offer solidarity and, as we know, advice regarding how to deal with the tear gas being thrown at them. The Palestinian activists had noticed, in images circulating on social media, that the Ferguson police were using the same tear gas that the Israeli military used in Palestine. The struggle that served as a catalyst for a new political turn among Black youth in the United States was also a moment defined by international solidarity, and a recognition that the militarism of US police was linked to Israel.
Over the last period, after decades of influence of the Israel lobby and after much confusion within progressive movements regarding the occupation, there is increasing recognition—including in Jewish communities—that Israel has been immune to criticism for far too long. In my own case, when I learned in January 2019 that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was rescinding its decision to offer me a human rights award because of my Palestine activism, I assumed that, like the firing of public intellectual Marc Lamont Hill by CNN the year before, and the attacks on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, this would simply be one more example of the power of the supporters of Israel.“International outreach is linked to an understanding of the intersectionality of struggles that insists on the leadership of those who have been previously marginalized.”
However, Birmingham’s Black community—including the mayor—publicly reprimanded the institute, followed by statements from individuals and organizations, many of them Jewish, throughout the country and the world. As a consequence, the top officers of the board of the institute resigned, and they announced that they wanted to offer me the prize as originally planned. I mention this example because it seems to me that it reveals an entirely new moment in our efforts to call for justice for Palestine.
Of course, this does not mean that we have emerged from this period of dangerous provincialism, which reflects the continual emphasis in public discourse on US exceptionalism. Unfortunately, many previous ties with struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere in the Middle East have fallen into decline. At this moment, given the dangerous symmetry in the political circumstances of the United States and Brazil, there should be a greater awareness of racism, police violence, attacks on the environment, and so on in Brazil.
While it is true that in activist, Black feminist circles, there were protests when Rio De Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco was assassinated in 2018 for her anti-racist, anti-violence, pro-LGBTQ work, people in the United States—especially those who identify with the role that the Women’s Marches have played in resisting the current political situation—should have taken to the streets in support of the struggles in Brazil.
Of course, there are other examples as well. I have been deeply impressed for a very long time by the role of the Kurdish women’s movement in fighting for democracy and simultaneously defending women’s right to lead. These new Black movements, overwhelmingly led by women, a significant number of whom are queer, would greatly benefit from connections with the Kurdish women’s movement.
Although most of these new movements have, understandably, emerged among youth, intergenerationality has always been an important dimension of sustainable radical movements. But the involvement of older people works, as these movements have emphasized, only if the elders refrain from assuming that they are in possession of the most relevant organizing knowledge.
Moreover, international outreach is linked to an understanding of the intersectionality of struggles that insists on the leadership of those who have been previously marginalized. In many instances, this means that new organizations are led by young, Black, queer women who are intentionally challenging old leadership forms that accentuate individualism and charisma, and who are introducing new forms of collective leadership.