Angela Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, when the politics of racial segregation were still volatile (and constitutional). Her family emphasized the importance of education, which she took to heart, eventually becoming one of the most recognizable figures in the history of American activism. Davis has built her life’s work around issues of race, community and the criminal justice system. Her involvement with the Soledad Brothers case in 1970 landed her name on the FBI’s most wanted list, and once imprisoned, a national campaign broke out for her release. She recently retired from the position of professor and Presidential Chair of the History of Consciousness Department at University of California, Santa Cruz. This month, with a slew of black heroes — from fearless artist Kara Walker to empire-maker Tyler Perry — Davis is interviewed in the second installment of the groundbreaking HBO documentary The Black List.
What do you hope audiences will take away from The Black List: Volume Two? After having seen the first documentary, I was quite impressed by the diversity of lives represented, and the different ways of telling stories about the black experience in the United States. One of the major effects of racism over the years has been to flatten out distinctions between people and among groups, and I was absolutely impressed by the variety and the difference. I assume that the next program will represent the same kind of diversity.
How do today’s black role models compare to those you grew up admiring? I don’t know whether or not there were better role models in my youth but there were certainly fewer. One might argue that certain aspects of the black experience were emphasized–such as education. As a matter of fact I think education was, in my youth, the most important aspect of our experience, and having grown up with two educators for parents, I learned very early about the relationship between education and liberation. Today we have a much greater variety of role models, I suppose you might say. In education of course, in health care, and also in culture — black culture. I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of black popular culture and the role it has played over the years in representing black liberation. Even though it may not represent the most radical dimension of the black tradition, certainly it has been one of the most important channels for the representation of black struggle for freedom. We assume that sports and entertainment are the most widespread role models and both of those are extremely important. I don’t know whether it would make sense to emphasize one kind of role model over the other.
Have your convictions ever wavered? To tell the truth, I’ve never seen the trajectory of my life reflected in a particular choice that I made. I grew up in a family of activists, I learned about the impact of racism growing up in the most segregated city in the South, which also opened up the possibility of challenging racism. I simply learned how to live my life in a way that allowed me to imagine what might be a better future. Of course, the future rarely arrives as expected. But yes, I’ve experienced many difficult and trying moments: going to jail, going to prison, facing the death penalty and so forth. But what’s helped me in those moments was the fact that I thought of myself not as an individual but as a member of a community of resistance and a community of struggle. My strength still comes from that community.
How did it feel to have so many people standing behind you when you were arrested? Well I can’t say that I didn’t feel fear, because I certainly did. But I was quite moved by the fact that so many people, so quickly, so immediately answered the call to organize a campaign for my freedom. And yes, it did make me feel much more powerful than I would have felt had I simply been an individual with no community to support me. Certainly I saw many women in jail who were alone, who had no support. You might say that the work that I continue to do today around issues of imprisonment — prisoners, political prisoners, prisoner’s rights — is very much related to my sense when I was in jail that everyone deserves the kind of support that I was receiving.
Did that experience start your dialogue on the prison system? I had actually been doing work around prison issues; as a matter of fact I went to jail as a result of being involved in the struggle for the freedom of political prisoners and specifically the Soledad brothers. But my time in jail really deepened and made more complex my understanding of the role that the prison system plays, particularly with respect to racism.
The image of you as a black revolutionary, in handcuffs, has become iconic. Do you think that it has contributed to your legacy? I did, at one point, find it very amusing that people linked me with the afro because of course during that period almost everyone in the movement wore afros. I was one of many, many women. So I was rather amused by the fact that my image came to represent that particular moment. Now I think I see it as perhaps important in a different way. A few years ago, I saw a young black woman wearing a t-shirt with my picture on it and it made me feel a little embarrassed, I suppose, but I asked her why she wore it and the answer she gave me made me recognize that it wasn’t really about me. She said that wearing that t-shirt made her feel powerful, it made her feel as if she could accomplish what she needed to accomplish. I realize that, that image can play an important political role, but it refers not so much to me as an individual as it refers to the collective power generated by movements during that period, and very specifically the power generated by the movement for my freedom.
What was different about Obama’s political tactics that led him to success? The campaign that was organized around and by Barrack Obama was unprecedented in the way it reached vast numbers of people in this country. What was really different about it was the fact that it stirred so many young people throughout the country into political action. And of course, the grassroots approach which used the internet, was capable of reaching hundreds of thousands and millions of young people was unprecedented. What I like to do is to shift attention from the individual, although the individual does matter, and Barrack Obama is an extraordinary individual, but there are many extraordinary individuals. What was truly extraordinary was the movement around the campaign that he organized. Personally, I would say what impressed me, and what probably impressed many people in the country — many progressive radicals in this country — was the fact that he very explicitly identified with the black struggle for liberation with what I would call the black radical tradition. That is what is exciting about the new president to me.
Do you revisit Birmingham? Yes I do. As a matter of fact I am going to Birmingham in a couple of weeks. My mother’s college, Miles College, which is located in Birmingham is establishing a scholarship in her name.
How has Birmingham changed for you? Many things about Birmingham have changed. And of course for me, as a person who left Birmingham when I was 15 to attend high school in New York, my memories are of an absolutely segregated city. The city is, of course, no longer segregated in the same way, but there are problems in Birmingham that have emerged that are as important as racial segregation was and those are the economic problems. I remember the vibrancy of the steel industry. I remember my friends fathers worked in the mines or they worked in the mills and as the result of de-industrialization, as the result of global capitalism there are no more steel mills in Birmingham. The only steel mill that is left is a museum. So, there is a great deal more poverty than there was, a larger proportion of people are in prison than when I was a child, and a larger proportion of black people are behind bars.