Angela Davis on racism, feminism and Beyoncé

Angela Davis. Pic: Stanley Leung

Angela Davis. Pic: Stanley Leung

Leading radical academic and feminist Professor Angela Davis, visited Goldsmiths, from which she holds an honorary degree, last week for the renaming of a building in honour of the late Stuart Hall. She talked to Alice Harrold and Olivia Blair. 

Angela Davis has had a long journey from a childhood in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, through a period on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted, to becoming an icon of the civil rights movement and a much-respected academic and author.

She was once described by former US President Richard Nixon as a “dangerous terrorist” and banned from ever teaching again in the University of California system by Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California. However, Davis is now a Professor Emerita in the Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and has been honoured as part of University of California, Los Angeles’ “We the Optimists” campaign.

Davis entered political activism in the 1960s, following the 1963 white supremacist church bombing which killed four young girls in her hometown. She initiated interracial study groups and began to work with the Black Panthers. In 1970 Davis was the subject of an intense police search after the Marin County courtroom shooting, for which she was imprisoned for 16 months. She was acquitted in 1972 by an all-white jury.

Free Angela Davis. Pic: Nick Dewolf

Free Angela Davis protest. Pic: Nick Dewolf

ELL met Davis during the Professor Stuart Hall conference, during which she gave a keynote speech. Thoroughly enjoying the day, she was eager not to miss the next panel discussion but managed to find a break in the schedule to sit down with ELL and talk race, youth politics, the Occupy movement and Beyoncé.

Following the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson over his shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and subsequent clashes between demonstrators and the police, Davis was asked about her opinion on the current state of race relations in the US.

"Hands Up Don't Shoot" Howard University show solidarity with Ferguson demonstrators. Pic: Debra Sweet

“Hands Up Don’t Shoot” Howard University show solidarity with Ferguson demonstrators. Pic: Debra Sweet

“That is a difficult question to answer. Primarily because there has never been, in the entire history of the US, dating back to the aftermath of slavery, a serious, sustained conversation on how to purge the country of the multiple influences of racism. I don’t even know whether we can talk about race relations because it’s not so much about relations between races, it’s about the deeply entrenched racism that inhabits all of the social structures in the US.”

“Prison is the most dramatic example, but one can also look at the healthcare system, housing and education and one sees that even though the legal prescriptions that allowed racist discrimination are no longer at work there is this structural racism and a very deep reservoir of personal racism.”

Davis’ activism continues today. She is a supporter of the Occupy movement and has given speeches at their rallies saying that the movement was “reinventing our political universe”.

“Many people were disturbed by the fact that Occupy did not have a material result, that there was no manifesto, that there were no demands, there was no agenda, but as Stuart Hall once said: ‘impact is different from outcome’.”

“What I found so interesting about Occupy was that for a certain period of time, people representing so many different racial and class groups, sexual orientations, genders – learnt how to live with each other, learnt how to cohabit a space where they had to reimagine what living in society was all about, how to address issues without calling the police, how to deal with issues like sexual assault without automatically assuming that law enforcement and the legal system and the prison system had to be involved. And that doesn’t go away, that experience doesn’t go away. I think now that is a part of our history.”

Davis has often linked the fight for civil rights with the fight for women’s rights and is as well known as a feminist as she is for her other works. Today’s feminist icons include many figures from popular culture such as Lena Dunham, Emma Watson and Beyoncé. Davis says that she “appreciates” Beyoncé.

“Of course, when one talks about the corporate industry of mass culture and the commodification of bodies and music – of course all of that is there, but I did really appreciate the fact that Beyoncé brought in one of the most interesting novelists of our time I think, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and sampled her speech on feminism.”

“I’m certain that many young women and hopefully young men or young people who don’t necessarily identify as men or women were moved by that to at least begin to think about what feminism might mean. It means they might be headed on a journey that will allow them to embrace a more capacious notion of what feminism means, feminist methodologies, feminist approaches to activism as well as to research. Hopefully she touched some people with it.”

Before heading back to catch the rest of the conference, Davis responded to ELL’s question about how young people who feel out of touch with politics can actively push for the changes they believe in.

“In many ways this has to be decided by young people themselves. It’s not for one generation to dictate to another generation as to the best mode of political activism.”

On apathy, which is prominent among UK youth (in 2010 voter turnout for ages 18-24 was 44 per cent) Davis said: “Every generation talks about apathy. When I was young we talked about how apathetic everyone was and this was during the sixties! But we talked about how difficult it was to persuade people to get involved. And often times, the charge of apathy absolves us of the responsibility of doing the work that brings people into political movements. It never happens naturally; it never happens as a matter of course; it’s always as a result of serious and very hard work. I always like to emphasise the work of the organiser – work that usually doesn’t get acknowledged, work that’s usually not seen.”

Davis says she is “excited” about the prospects of today’s generations of young people: “There is probably more hope in the younger generation now than at any time that I can remember in my lifetime.”

Fact file: Angela Davis

Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Davis was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s. She played a leading role in and was twice candidate for Vice President of the Communist Party USA. She also had close ties with the Black Panther Party, a black nationalist and socialist organisation.

In 1969 Davis was removed from her position in the Philosophy Department at UCLA as a result of her political activism and Communist Party membership.

In 1970 Davis was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and was the subject of an intense police search. She was tried and later acquitted of conspiracy, kidnapping and homicide in the armed take-over of a Marin County courtroom, an event which led to four deaths.

While awaiting these charges she was imprisoned for 16 months, during which time the “Free Angela Davis” campaign was organised, leading to her acquittal in 1972.

Davis was a founder of Critical Resistance, a national organisation dedicated to the dismantling of the prison industrial complex, a term she helped to make popular.

She is the author of nine books, including “Angela Davis: An Autobiography; Women, Race, and Class”, “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism”, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” and “The Meaning of Freedom”.

Davis is currently a Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


By Alice Harrold and Olivia Blair

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