Q&A: Angela Davis on activism, optimism and the future of organizing

A woman giving a speech gestures with her palm faced upwards questioningly.
TSL sat down with Angela Davis between her engagements this week to learn more about what was on her mind as she assumed the Ena H. Thompson Distinguished Lectureship. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

Activist, philosopher and scholar Angela Davis spent this week at Pomona College, visiting classes and delivering insight as the history department’s 2021 Ena H. Thompson Distinguished Lecturer. 

An icon in the struggles for abolition and Black liberation, Davis’ path first crossed the Claremont Colleges in 1975 when her engagement to lead a class at what was then the Claremont Black Studies Center caused an eruption of outrage and ultimately forced her to teach exclusively on weekends “to minimize Miss Davis’s appearance on campus,” one administrator said at the time.

In between her engagements and two Bridges Auditorium lectures — “A Revolutionary Life” and “Radical Agendas and Possible Futures” — TSL sat down with Davis to learn more about her life in activism and what’s on her mind today.

TSL: We can start with your relationship with academia. Between UCLA and the Claremont Colleges, academic institutions haven’t always been particularly receptive to your politics. What do you find valuable about academia that inspires you to keep working in those spaces despite the way they’ve treated you in the past?

Angela Davis: As it turns out, I have spent the majority of my life in academia whether as a student or as a professor. I taught here on this campus in 1975, I believe it was, after UCLA. The philosophy department at UCLA had offered me a position. And in response to that, the then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan made the announcement that I would never teach in a University of California institution again. 

So you’re right that it hasn’t been a habitable space for me in one sense and in another sense it has been. I look at academia as an arena of struggle that is similar to other arenas of struggle. Colleges and universities are the spaces where one encounters generations of young people who are seeking to expand their knowledge about the world. And I was initially inspired to do what I’m doing now by my time in college and as a graduate student. Because after all, I think that ultimately we are struggling for a better world for everyone, which includes a world where people are able to explore their ideas, as well as to satisfy their material needs. 

TSL: So, you see direct action organizing and work in academia as things that can work concurrently?

Davis: Absolutely. I think that, regardless of whether people are professional academics, that intellectual level is absolutely essential to the movement. And I think sometimes there’s anti-intellectualism in the movement, but as a matter of fact, there are many really phenomenal intellectuals who never had the kind of official preparation that the university offers. In general, I think that knowledge is important, as well as the suffering I often always insist on, which is something that anthropologists call the epistemology of praxis. So whether the intellectual is trained at a university or trained through practice, that is absolutely an essential aspect of struggling for freedom.

TSL: You spoke of your time as a college student and how it was an influential source of inspiration for your life’s work. Where did you look as a college student that inspired you to take the path you’ve taken? And how can students do that today? 

AD: I’ve come to believe that people should follow their own passion. And they should try to figure out how what they’re passionate about can further collective goals. The college, the university, is a place where one gets to reflect, to read broadly. Hopefully, if there is an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, on the humanities especially. Hopefully, students discover what they are most passionate about. And I discovered when I was in college that I was very passionate about ideas, about literature, history, philosophy, and eventually I came to focus on philosophy. 

Philosophy as an engagement with the world, philosophy as critical theory, philosophy as raising the kinds of questions that can help us to transform the world. So I found that, and I’m very fortunate that I discovered that at a rather young age. And I still try to follow my passions. But I also try to make them relevant to social change and to the radical understandings of the world.

TSL: Definitely. So, in terms of students working right now — you said in a recent New York Times interview that you’re ultimately optimistic about the future of activism in the U.S. Could you talk a bit about what you see today that inspires that for you?

AD: Well, I’ve actually been optimistic for a very long time. Optimistic, not in the sense of assuming that there’s pie in the sky, you know, not ungrounded optimism, but a kind of hope that is generated by people coming together, standing together and struggling. And I think that I’ve had that hope since I was a child growing up in the most segregated city in the country, as I always point out. And it took me a long time to recognize that to a very great extent I owe it to my mother for encouraging us all, my siblings and myself, to imagine different futures. 

Growing up under those circumstances, there was so much that was barred to us. And I’m so thankful that she always knew to say that this is not right, things are not organized in the way they should be, and that one day things will be different. So I learned as a really young child to try to imagine a world that was different, even as I inhabited that world of racial segregation and the Ku Klux Klan and police violence, and so forth. So I think it’s a kind of hope that, as Mariame Kaba points out, it’s a kind of hope that’s really a discipline. It’s hope that is crafted and nurtured. And it’s that hope that is passed down to the next generation. And so when you think about it, we’re the recipient of generations of activists who have refused to give up and always held hope for the future.

TSL: So, to the point of students finding their place in activism, what could educators and academic institutions be doing to create those spaces for students and sustain that sort of environment?

AD: The challenge, I think, is to guarantee that students acquire the capacity to raise questions. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the very heart of education, not only teaching students how to conduct research and acquire information, but what we do with it. So it seems to me that the most crucial aspect of education is teaching and encouraging students how to constantly engage in that process of questioning. And that involves also questioning those things we take for granted.  

I always point out the gifts that the trans movement has offered the larger struggle for social justice. What does it mean to question that which seems to absolutely constitute the very foundation of our knowledge? Gender has served that purpose. And to question that, means that we can also question other foundational but oftentimes absolutely unrecognized aspects of our lives.

TSL: Let’s pivot to 2020, and the sort of collective awakening that happened following the murder of George Floyd. Could you speak to what it was like for you, both in your work and personally, to see that surge of activist sentiment after having worked for these goals for your entire career?

AD: As far as I’m concerned, this period has been the most interesting era, this conjuncture, if I put it that way, the coming together of the pandemic and recognition regarding structural racism, especially with respect to Black and indigenous people. And the lynching of George Floyd, precisely because of that conjunction, compelled people to recognize the structural and systemic character of racism in the police department, in prisons, in the university, in health institutions.

And the fact that some of us have been calling for this for decades and decades and decades, the fact that this kind of collective coming-to-awareness occurred is proof of the importance of doing the kind of organizing that we’ve done, and the need to have a long view. You may not see the consequences of that work within five years or 10 or 20 or 30 years. It may take half of a century before it really begins to make sense, before the message begins to circulate in the way that it has. And, like many of my comrades and people with whom I’ve worked over the years around the issue of abolition, it never occurred to any of us that abolition would enter the mainstream in our lifetime. I mean, we — I think we always thought it would. But we could not imagine a moment like this, that so suddenly it would begin to make sense. 

And I can remember in the 1970s or 1980s, the almost universal response was, “You must be out of your mind.” So it’s been exciting. And I think that it’s also important to look at what is happening now, that you don’t see millions of people in the streets, because this is the time when change gets incorporated into institutional structures. There was a German student activist named Rudi Dutschke. When he touched on this, he added, back in the ’60s when he was a student leader in German — I did my graduate work in Germany — he talked about the long march through institutions. It seems to me that the value of that long march through institutions is being revealed in what has happened over the past year.

TSL: You’ve talked about this spike in activism that we’ve seen recently. Looking at history it can feel like these surges come in waves, but activists and organizers aren’t stopping their work in between those events. How can organizers be sure that their work remains elevated as that energy subsides? How can they sustain that collective consciousness?

AD: We were talking about before, one never knows when these moments are going to emerge. That conjuncture in 2020 could never have been predicted, no one could have predicted it. But if people had not been consistently organizing, consistently doing the work on campuses and workplaces, in our community, all of those millions of people who were driven out into the streets would never have encountered those ideas. They would not even be familiar with them.

So one does the work precisely to be able to seize the time when it arrives. The change often happens in less glamorous ways. So I think what is important is to continue to do that wherever you are, whether you’re on a campus, whether you are a healthcare institution, whether you are in a union. Continue to push for more radical agendas. And eventually there may come a moment when everything clicks and it comes together. If you don’t do the work, if that moment arrives, you will not be able to take advantage of it.

TSL: To that point how reception to those ideas isn’t always glamorous: A lot of young organizers face the criticism that language like “abolish the police” and “abolish prisons” is incendiary, and will alienate people from the cause. I’m curious as to your thoughts on reconciling the need to work through institutions while not diluting the potency of your message to get there.

AD: I guess it’s a kind of balancing act. When I use the term radical, I’m referring to the etymological meaning, which is to get to the root. Sometimes, many times, ideas emerge before they are ready to be digested by the mainstream. And if one does not continue to insist upon them there will never come a time.

Even though sometimes it can feel lonely, I think it’s really important not to dilute one’s ideas to the point where their radical edge is gone. But this is not to say that one screams in people’s faces. I think it’s important to be able to engage in the kinds of conversations that will encourage people to think more deeply. But the other thing is that this has not only been an era of rising consciousness regarding racism, but also gender issues. And having just finished a collaborative book called “Abolition. Feminism. Now.,” I think that’s an important part of the picture and an important reason why we’re seeing these radical exhibitions of social consciousness. It has to do with the fact that there’s a global consciousness of heteropatriarchy, and we’ve seen the rise of women.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

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