Date: Sun, 11 Oct 98 10:28:38 CDT
From: Michael Eisenscher <email@example.com>
Subject: FRONTLINE: Interview with Angela Y. Davis
Interview with Angela Davis
By PBS and WGBH,
Frontline program, 11 October 1998
FRONTLINE's interview with Angela Davis, professor at the University
of California, Santa Cruz and a leftist activist on social and human
INTERVIEWER: Your mentor, Herbert Marcuse once back in '58, as I
recall, said that one of the things that would happen as blacks made
gains in the civil rights movement was that there would be the
creation of a black bourgeoisie and that's certainly been one of the
things that's happened as we look back from the vantage point of 1997.
How do you see the role of the black bourgeoisie in the continuing
DAVIS: Actually we've had a black bourgeoisie or the makings of a
black bourgeoisie for many more decades.... if we look at one of our
great leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois, he was associated with a very minuscule
black bourgeoisie in the 19th century so this is not something that is
substantively new although the numbers of black people who now count
themselves among the black bourgeoisie certainly does make an enormous
In a sense the quest for the emancipation of black people in the US
has always been a quest for economic liberation which means to a
certain extent that the rise of black middle class would be
inevitable. What I think is different today is the lack of political
connection between the black middle class and the increasing numbers
of black people who are more impoverished than ever before.
INTERVIEWER: Isn't that inevitable though? Hasn't every immigrant
group, as it becomes part of the American mainstream, left behind its
roots in a certain way?
DAVIS: That's true but I think the contemporary problem that we are
facing increasing numbers of black people and other people of color
being thrown into a status that involves work in alternative economies
and increasing numbers of people who are incarcerated. This is new.
This is not the typical path toward freedom that immigrants have
traditionally discovered in the US.
And I guess what I would say is that we can't think narrowly about
movements for black liberation and we can't necessarily see this class
division as simply a product or a certain strategy that black
movements have developed for liberation. But rather we have to look at
the structural changes that have also accompanied the gains of the
civil rights movement. We have to look at for example the increasing
globalization of capital, the whole system of transitional capitalism
now which has had an impact on black populations -- that has for
example eradicated large numbers of jobs that black people
traditionally have been able to count upon and created communities
where the tax base is lost now as a result of corporations moving to
the third world in order to discover cheap labor. I would suggest is
that in the latter 1990s it is extremely important to look at the
predicament of black people within the context of the globalization of
INTERVIEWER: One of the things that struck me as I've gone back and
revisited this history --is that Martin Luther King starts this
movement for economic justice just before he's assassinated. The Black
Panther party is just getting off the ground here in California and in
a way there seems like there was a march towards merging these issues
of class and race in the late 60s that somehow got derailed.
DAVIS: Yes, I think it's really important to acknowledge that Dr.
King, precisely at the moment of his assassination, was
re-conceptualizing the civil rights movement and moving toward a sort
of coalitional relationship with the trade union movement. It's I
think quite significant that he was in Memphis to participate in a
demonstration by sanitation workers who had gone out on strike. Now,
if we look at the way in which the labor movement itself has evolved
over the last couple of decades, we see increasing numbers of black
people who are in the leadership of the labor movement and this is
INTERVIEWER: We also see an increasingly weaker labor movement.
DAVIS: Well, we see an increasingly weaker labor movement as a result
of the overall assault on the labor movement and as a result of the
globalization of capital. So yeah, you're absolutely right, but I'm
thinking about some developments say in the 80s when the
anti-apartheid movement began to claim more support and strength
within the US. Black trade unionists played a really important role in
developing this US anti-apartheid movement. For example, right here in
the Bay Area one of the first major activist moments was the refusal
on the part of the longshoremen's union to unload ships that were
coming in from South Africa and the ILWU then took the leadership here
in the Bay Area, particularly as a result of the black caucus within
the ILWU, they took the leadership in creating an anti-apartheid
movement that spread to all of the campuses, UC Berkeley, Stanford.
INTERVIEWER: At least from my vantage point, back then it seemed we
were attacking structures and institutions and after a certain point
it began to feel like it wasn't possible. Our leaders were
assassinated, one of the things I was reading today was -- 28 Panthers
were killed by the police but 300 Black Panthers were killed by other
Panthers just within -- internecine warfare. It just began to seem
like we were in an impossible task given what we were facing. How do
we reawaken that sense that one person can really make that difference
again now? And kids these days are kind of going back to Tupac and
Snoop Doggy Dogg as examples of people that stand for something.
DAVIS: It's true that it's within the realm of cultural politics that
young people tend to work through political issues, which I think is
good, although it's not going to solve the problems. I guess I would
say first of all that we tend to go back to the 60s and we tend to see
these struggles and these goals in a relatively static way. The fact
is important gains were made and those gains are still visible today.
For example, the number of African-American studies programs that are
on college campuses today. Those institutional changes are
inconceivable outside of that development within -- related to the
Black Panther party and other organizations. Young people began to
take those struggles onto the campuses
INTERVIEWER: The last line in the essay Skip Gates has in The Future
of the Race is-- "only sometimes do I feel guilty that I was one of
the lucky ones. Only sometimes do I ask myself why." I wonder whether
you ever feel guilty for having been one of those who have survived?
DAVIS: Well, I think about it. But I don't know whether I feel guilty.
I think that has to do with my awareness that in a sense we all have a
certain measure of responsibility to those who have made it possible
for us to take advantage of the opportunities. The door is opened only
so far. If some of us can squeeze through the crack of that door, then
we owe it to those who have made those demands that the door be opened
to use the knowledge or the skills that we acquire not only for
ourselves but in the service of the community as well. This is
something that I guess I decided a long time ago.
INTERVIEWER: But still there were those who were arrested around the
same time you are were still in prison? You got out -- you got off in
some ways because you had become such a cause celebre that there were
others who didn't have.
DAVIS: I mean that's true but I am actually addressing your question
about guilt, and I'm trying to suggest that maybe there are other ways
to deal with it than with guilt. So rather than feeling guilty is what
I have done is to continue the work. As soon as I got out of jail, as
soon as my trial was over, first of all, during the time I was in
jail, there was an organization called the National United Committee
to Free Angela Davis, and I insisted that it be called National United
Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners.
As soon as my trial was over, we tried to use the energy that had
developed around my case to create another organization, which we
called the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression.
And, what? in June it will have been 25 years since my trial was over.
I'm still working for the freedom of political prisoners, Mumia Abu
Jamal, the Puerto Rican political prisoners, such as Dinci Pargan, for
example, Leonard Pelletier. I'm involved in the work around prison
rights in general. I think the importance of doing activist work is
precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself
not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a
part of an ongoing historical movement. Then I don't think it's
necessary to feel guilty. Because I know that I'm still doing the work
that is going to help more sisters and brothers to challenge the whole
criminal justice system, and I'm trying to use whatever knowledge I
was able to acquire to continue to do the work in our communities that
will move us forward.
INTERVIEWER: One of the problems, as we came into the 70s is it seemed
as though we were fighting institutions and structures that were so
big that there just seemed to be nothing that one person could do
about them... How do we recapture that sense of a kind of power of
being bold enough to take on those structures again?
DAVIS: I don't know whether the movement crashed as a result of the
overwhelming character of the institutions we set out to change. I
think repression had a lot to do with the dismantling of the movement
and also the winning of certain victories had something to do with the
inability of the movement to take those victories as the launching
point for new goals and developing new strategies.
But I do think it's extremely important to acknowledge the gains that
were made by the civil rights movement, the black power movement. I
don't think we do that enough.. Institutional transformations happened
directly as a result of the movements that people, unnamed people,
organized and gave their lives to.
INTERVIEWER: Such as?
DAVIS: I'm thinking about the desegregation of the south, for example,
and the fact that some black women decided to boycott the bus system
and this was actually done and eventually those laws were transformed
INTERVIEWER: The other thing that happened of course is that the
struggle isn't so much taking place on college campuses any more, it's
taking place in corporate board rooms or within the corporate
structure and those of us who are there are both -- it's a weird thing
happening. On one hand we're more reticent about taking on the racist
things that we see happening within that environment, but the other
thing that's happening is we're becoming more Afrocentric at the same
time. It's almost like, we kind of feel like if we show up wearing our
kente cloth that that's it, we've done our struggle. What is that
about? Where does that come from?
DAVIS: I think it arises out of a tendency often to conflate cultural
blackness with anti-racism. I think this is another case where there
are lessons to be learned during the period of the 60s when
organizations like the Black Panther Party were coming into being,
there were other cultural nationalist organizations such as US
Organization, such as the organization that Amiri Baraka developed and
of course Amiri OK, there was the black arts movement which was
extremely important, but there was also Baraka's political
organization in Newark that took a cultural nationalist position that
assumed that if we were able to connect with the culture of our
African ancestors that somehow or another these vast problems
surrounding us, racism in education, in the school, racism in the
economy, in health care, etc would disappear. They were very
interesting conflicts and debates between groups like the Black
Panther party and the cultural nationalist groups in the 60s.
INTERVIEWER: What were those debates? What was the nature of that
debate between the Black Panther and say a group like US?
DAVIS: The debate often focused on what young black people wanting to
associate themselves with a movement for liberation should do, whether
they should become active in campaigns against police violence, for
example, or whether they should focus their energy on wearing African
clothes and changing their name and developing rituals. One of the
names members of the Black Panther Party used to call those who
focused on Africa and African rituals was sort of pork chop
nationalists. There were some of us who argued that yes, we need to
develop a cultural consciousness of our connection with Africa
particularly since racist structures had relied upon the sort of
cultural genocide going back to the period of slavery so that many of
us were arguing that we could affirm our connection with our African
ancestors in political ways as well, following for example Dr. Du
Bois' vision of pan-Africanism which was an anti-imperialist notion of
pan-Africanism rather than the pan-Africanism that projected a very
idealized, romantic image of Africa, a fictional notion of Africa and
assumed that all we needed to do was to become African, so to speak,
rather than become involved in organized anti-imperialist struggles.
So I think that the debate around pan-Africanism at the beginning, in
the aftermath of world war I, for example, that Dr. Du Bois
participated in, took on a different character but recapitulated some
of the very same kinds of concepts and issues in the 1960s.
INTERVIEWER: So what does it say to you that here we are in 1997 and
the pan-Africanist/cultural nationalist agenda is the one that the
commercial side, that Wall Street has fastened onto--that side seems
to have been triumphant and that the anti-imperialist movement is, not
in retreat, but certainly not being heard from as much.
DAVIS: It doesn't surprise me that aspect of the black nationalist
movement, the cultural side, has triumphed because that is the aspect
of the movement that was most commodifiable and when we look at the
commodification of blackness we're looking at a phenomenon that's very
profitable and it's connection with the rise of a black middle class I
think is very obvious. As far as the tradition of struggle and
tradition of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist struggle I think that
is one that has to be fought for and recrafted continuously. It's not
going to happen on its own, it's not going to be taken up by the
capitalist corporations and presented as something that is both
profitable and something that is pleasurable to masses of people.
INTERVIEWER: In a way I find it interesting that Kwanzaa -- you know
Karenga's ideas which apparently seem to have been financed by the
FBI, at least in part, are the ones that now most black folks would
say they would hold to and not the ideals of the Panther Party which
were about survival, at least in some part an economic survival.
DAVIS: To a certain extent I think both traditions have survived. The
cultural nationalist tradition has been commodified and therefore it
has been worked into the whole institution of capitalism in a way that
the traditions of struggling against police violence have not, but
those traditions are still very much alive. As a matter of fact I
think that the response to the OJ Simpson trial was based on a kind of
sensibility that emerged out of the many campaigns to defend black
communities against police violence. It just so happened that a figure
like OJ Simpson was the one who benefited from those sensibilities,
but I think it's important to affirm the fact that sensibility
continues to exist and a kind of desire for black movements continues
to exist even, I think, among middle class black people.
This accounts, I think, for the success of the Million Man March
because black people tend to think of themselves as a people in
struggle. This has been our history within this country and there's a
kind of nostalgia for those moments where the struggle becomes
dramatic and visible and powerful, although the Million Man March
wasn't such a moment, I would argue, because there were no political
demands that addressed the major problems that black communities are
confronting yet there were the images of struggle, there were the
images of masses of people that I think affected and brought pleasure
to and moved so many black people. Now perhaps we can use that.
Perhaps we can rely on that as we try to build movements that will
address the impoverishment of masses of black people, the
prison/industrial complex. I have to maintain some hope that that's
possible. But at the same time I think it is important to acknowledge
the extent to which the black middle class tends to rely on a kind of
imagined struggle that gets projected into commodities like kente
cloth for example on the one hand and images like the Million Man
INTERVIEWER: You were critical of the Million Man March before? What
was the substance of your criticism?
DAVIS: We developed this criticism on a number of accounts. First of
all, the failure to integrate gender into the vision of what the black
community needed, the exclusion of women from the march itself
although finally I think someone said it's OK for black women to come,
they don't have to stay at home with the babies as they were urged to
before. But my criticism was also based on the conservative politics
of the Million Man March, the conservative politics, the tendency to
rely on voluntarism, the way in which the politics of the march
coexisted quite harmoniously with the politics of a Newt Gingrich, for
example the focus on family values that again linked the march to some
of the most conservative developments in US society today, the assault
on women's reproductive rights, etc. If this march of a million black
men had raised issues such as the assault on the welfare system, the
assault on women's reproductive rights, if there had been a sense of
how to address this vast issue of violence against women, rather than
assuming that a patriarchal family structure in which black men would --
DAVIS: Atone but also assume their role as the patriarchs in the
family, cause that's what the atonement was all about. The black men
were not really being the fathers that they needed to be, not really
taking on the burden of the family in the way they needed to do it. I
found that extremely problematic because I think it's important for us
to recognize that although historically black communities have been
very progressive with respect to issues of race and with respect to
struggles for racial equality, that does not necessarily translate
into progressive positions on gender issues, progressive positions on
issues of sexuality and in the latter 1990s we have to recognize the
intersectionality, the interconnectedness of all of these institutions
INTERVIEWER: Now that the Million Man March is over, do you still feel
it was not a correct thing to have done?
DAVIS: Those of us who criticized the Million Man March -- were not
arguing that it shouldn't happen. We were arguing that debates around
the issues taken up by the march needed to be allowed particularly
within black communities. I guess what I would criticize today is the
tendency to conflate that dramatic moment with a movement.
The nostalgia within black communities for this mass movement which
involves vast numbers of black people coming together is something
that can often lead us in unproductive directions. Because in the past
the demonstrations that we think about -- the 1963 march on
Washington, for example, that march wasn't this moment that was
organized against the backdrop of nothing else. It was a demonstrating
of the organizing that had been going on for years and years and to
assume that one can call a march on Washington and have that be a
movement in the 1990s is I think a tremendous mistake. I would say
perhaps the importance of the Million Man March was that it stimulated
a great deal of discussion. Perhaps it brought to people's attention
the fact that we need to begin to regenerate an approach towards
grassroots organizing that will help us in the direction of a mass
There was a tendency of the middle class men who I think participated
in that march to passionately identify with the brother on the street
without taking up the kinds of political issues that are required to
move black people who are in poverty in a progressive direction.
INTERVIEWER: Of course the brothers on the street are identifying with
the gangster rappers or at least the younger brothers on the street
are, which is a whole other level of symbolic identity.
DAVIS: And not only the brothers on the street but the middle class
brothers are also identifying with the gangster rappers because of the
extent to which this music circulates. It becomes possible for the --
not only the young middle class men, but it becomes possible for young
middle class white men and young men of other racial communities to
identify with the misogyny of gangster rap.
INTERVIEWER: Well, it's not just misogyny. Now it's kind of moved just
a straight crass materialism. The latest ones are just -- they just
name off name brands. That's the progression of it. How have we
reached a point where in 1997 that the ethic of being black means that
you don't go to school to learn. That learning is equated with
whiteness and that somehow that is bad?
DAVIS: Well, whether it's the approach that all young black kids are
encouraged to take or decide to take. Because you do have this rising
middle class and you do have the young brothers and sisters who are
moving toward the corporate arena and who are encouraged to do this
arena from the time that they are very young. I think this is one of
those moments where we also have to talk about the deterioration of
I can't really blame a lot of young sisters and brothers who believe
that education has anything to offer them. Because as a matter of
fact, it has nothing to offer them. Suppose they do get a high school
diploma that is meaningful. What kind of job is awaiting them. The
jobs that used to be available to working class people are not there
as a result of the de-industrialization of this economy.
Therefore, often young black people are looking towards the
alternative economies. They are looking towards the drug economy....
the economies that are going to -- that apparently will produce some
kind of material gain for them. You can't criticize people for wanting
to have a decent life or wanting to live decently. While I think that
it is true that there is a great deal to be done with respect to the
ideas that circulate among young people within arenas such as hip hop.
At the same time, we can't forget about the deterioration of the
institutions and the structural influence on young people.
INTERVIEWER: Bring us back to globalization of capital. How do you
mobilize around an issue like globalization of capital?
DAVIS: Well, you mobilize around globalization of capital in local
ways. Obviously there are some organizations that go out on the street
and say we want an end to the capitalist system. But obviously that is
not going to happen as a result of just assuming that stance. I think
in black communities today we need to encourage a lot more cross
racial organizing. For example, we look at the assault on immigrants.
Both legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants. Where does the
black community stand with respect to that issue?
I think it is important to recognize that there is a connection
between the predicament of poor black people and the predicament of
immigrants who come to this country in search of a better life. The de
industrialization of the US. economy based on the migration of
corporations into third world areas where labor is very cheap and thus
more profitable for these companies creates on the one hand conditions
in those countries that encourage people to emigrate to the US. in
search of a better life. On the other hand, it creates conditions here
that send more black people into the alternative economies, the drug
economies, women into economies in sexual services, and sends them
into the prison industrial complex.
So we have to figure out how to formulate issues that are going to
bring those of us together who are affected in one way or another by
the globalization of capital...When we consider how much a young black
person wants to, or is willing to pay for a pair of Nike's, right? --
and then think about the conditions under which tose shoes are made in
Indonesia or wherever, uh, at the same time that that young sister or
brother will be treated on the labor market here as indispensible and
perhaps as someone to be cast away into the prison system. So there
are reasons for coming together if we can figure out some specific
kinds of strategies and tactics that will allow it. I think this is
the real challenge for this era, which means we have to get away from
a narrow conception of blackness. We can't talk about the black
community. It's no longer a homogeneous community; it was never a
homogeneous community. At one point, it did make sense to talk about
the black community because we were struggling against the profound
impact of racism on people's lives in various ways. We still have to
struggle against the impact of racism, but it doesn't happen in the
same way. I think it is much more complicated today than it ever was.
INTERVIEWER: Does the fact that black folks are now a heterogeneous
community absolve us from the obligation to keep reaching back --
everybody to reach back, each one -- reach one?
DAVIS: I think we need to insist on a certain responsibility, which
people have -- particularly those who have made it into the ranks of
the middle class because as Dr. King said many years ago in a sense
they have climbed out of the masses on the shoulders of their sisters
and brothers and therefore, they do have some responsibility.
But whether people would be willing to assume that responsibility or
not is something that is up to them. We cannot assume that people by
virtue of the fact that they are black are going to associate
themselves with progressive political struggles. We need to divest
ourselves the kinds of strategies that assume that black unity --
black political unity is possible.
INTERVIEWER: What's the coalition?
DAVIS: Political coalition. Politically based coalitions. I think we
have to really focus on the issues much more than we may have in the
past. I think we have to, as I said before, seek to create coalitional
strategies that go beyond racial lines. We need to bring black
communities, Chicano communities, Puerto Rican communities, Asian
American communities together.
In 1969, Davis made headlines when she was dismissed from UCLA by
Governor Ronald Reagan and the Board of Regents because of her
Communist Party membership. She made the FBI's Ten-Most-Wanted list
the following year after guns registered in her name were used in a
courthouse takeover which left four dead. She eventually was acquitted
of all charges. Interview conducted Spring 1997.
(c) 1998 PBS and WGBH/Frontline