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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Dr. Davis, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. We’re glad to have you.
DAVIS: Thank you so much for inviting me.
BOND: No, it’s our pleasure. Let me begin with the Brown decision. Do you remember much about it meaning anything to you when you heard about it first? You were quite young.
DAVIS: I was about ten years old, I believe, but, of course, intensely conscious of the system of segregation under which we lived. And I remember thinking that this probably is going to be the beginning of a new era. And I say that because my mother constantly told us that the conditions under which we were living, with which we were living, weren’t supposed to be that way and now, of course, I see myself as an activist, as having been shaped by the fact that as young as — when I was as young as maybe three or four, she emphasized that this is not the way things are supposed to be. It’s true that you can’t go to this museum today, but one day you will be able to go. This is not the way things are supposed to be. So I remember in my house and in our community there was a major celebration.
BOND: And because your parents were school teachers, do you think they placed special emphasis on this?
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely, absolutely, because the schools we attended, the elementary schools we attended, were not only segregated black schools/white schools, but, of course, we were aware as pupils that we got the textbooks that were cast off by the white students. We were aware that this was a hierarchical situation. We were definitely aware of the relations of power there and so each time there was a victory — 1954, 1955, it was a cause for great celebration in our household and in our communities and in our church.
BOND: That everyone was talking about it and what it might mean. There was a lot of community discussion about this?
DAVIS: Absolutely, yes. I remember all kinds of little resistances and I can remember teachers, my teachers being called by their first name by the white representatives of the Board of Education and some of them feeling very embarrassed and some of them speaking back and some of them coming under attack because they dared to challenge the right of a white representative of the Board of Education to call them by their first name. And I’ve said this many times, but I can remember as a very young child, games we used to play that actually challenged the system of segregation. We lived in a neighborhood that was right — the border of the white neighborhood and so theoretically — or legally, we weren’t allowed to cross the street unless we were working or whatever, and so as children, we used to play games where we dared each other to run across the street to the white neighborhood and sometimes those who would not only run across the street but run up on someone’s porch and ring their bell and run back and get to safety in time so, I mean, that was a normal game that we played.
BOND: So you were a protestor and an agitator from the very first?
DAVIS: Oh, you know — then, it was fun, but I recognize that we were. Those were little daily resistances that we were producing.
BOND: Now, when the Brown decision occurred, even though you’re ten years old, do you recall thinking, well, in X number of years or in some period of time, these things will change? I know your mother — your parents told you this would not always be the status quo, but do you remember predicting to yourself or others that over some period of time, things will get better?
DAVIS: I don’t think I had a specific timeline in my mind, but I do know that I thought about a different moment, a different time. I was able to imagine what it might be like not having to be confined to segregated schools.
BOND: Now, looking back from today’s perspective, how has this turned out? What’s your feeling or your opinion about how the Brown victory in ’54 and the subsequent victories have played out in America?
DAVIS: That’s a very complicated question because, indeed, the Brown v. Board of Education victory was one of the most important legal victories in our recent history. And the desegregation of the schools however it has played out, has been important, but there’s a piece missing, and I think we tend to assume that civil rights or legal rights will accomplish all that needs to be accomplished in the quest for freedom. We don’t always think about the political, the economic, the larger social dimension there, and now, of course, we inhabit a society where schools are more segregated than ever before, particularly outside of the South, and we inhabit a society where schools for young, poor people of color, particularly poor black kids, are basically prep schools for prison. And so I think, you know — what I’d have to say is that each victory that we win, whether it be a legal victory or whether it be a victory, a political victory or a victory in the area of ideology, creates a new terrain for us to rethink the possibilities of the future. And so I see the Brown v. Board of Education victory as reconfiguring the terrain of our quest for freedom.
BOND: And, in fact, the army of justice regroups and chooses another fight. Would you characterize it that way? Or knows another fight is yet ahead?
DAVIS: Absolutely, absolutely. And sometimes we cannot even imagine the possible struggle until we’ve achieved victory in one area and then rather than resting which many people assume we do — because, of course, you win and it’s over — rather than what resting, we need to ask ourselves how does this change the possibilities of the future and what do we now know that we did not know then and what can we now imagine and struggle for.
BOND: But that’s not always immediately apparent, though. I think I can remember when Brown was decided, the discussion in my family and the assumption that over time — and we didn’t know what period of time — over time, these things would be swept away and we’d live in a different and better world and, of course — well, let me ask you another question. How has Brown, in retrospect, looking back over your life, how has it affected you? What’s different about for you because of Brown in ’54?
DAVIS: Well I would say that there’s differences that are both positive and negative, and not that I want to emphasize the negative, but I will begin by saying that in the process of desegregating the schools in Birmingham, Alabama, great damage was done to the existing structures of education. That is to say, there was a tendency, and I know this from my mother who complained a great deal about the reconfiguration of the schools, that the best black teachers were sent to the white schools and the worst white teachers were sent to the black schools, and so — the predominantly black schools, of course — and so in the final analysis, it was very difficult to recoup in that respect. Now, as an individual, I think I benefited greatly from this decision, although I’m not sure it was meant to benefit individuals per se —
DAVIS: — but rather to lift up communities.
DAVIS: I had the opportunity to attend a predominantly white high school in New York. And I don’t know whether I would’ve considered that possibility. I don’t know whether the program which allowed me to live in New York with a white progressive family and attend a private high school there, I don’t think that program would’ve been set in place during the pre-Brown era. It was a program established by the American Friends Service Committee and I’m sure that organization was motivated to create a program that brought black students from the South to study in the North by all of the developments that surrounded Brown.
BOND: In your autobiography, you write that you felt restless and exceedingly limited in Birmingham and at age fourteen, you’re the recipient of this program sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and you find yourself in New York going to a progressive school in New York, a predominantly white school. Was this an adventure to you?
DAVIS: Of course it was an adventure. Well, I should also point out that I had been admitted in the early entrance program to Fisk University at the same time, so my choice was to go to Fisk or to go to high school in New York and that was a difficult decision.
BOND: Oh, I bet.
DAVIS: Because I was inclined to want to go to Fisk. At that point, I wanted to be a doctor and I had my life all plotted out that I would graduate from Fisk when I was nineteen or eighteen, and then I would go to Meharry across the street and so forth, but it was my father who actually persuaded me that I wasn’t ready, that I wasn’t socially mature enough.
BOND: It turned out, do you think, well?
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
BOND: Any regrets about not being a doctor?
DAVIS: No, not really. I just wonder sometimes where I would be today had I chosen that trajectory, but I had been to New York several times. My mother attended graduate school at NYU during the summers, so I had been to New York, I think, three or four times and I had friends there, so it wasn’t an entirely new experience. But, yes, once I arrived at Elisabeth Irwin High School, I was the black girl, the Negro girl from the South, right? So, I had a hard time trying to figure out, you know, how to understand all of the attention that was focused on me and students asking me to come to dinner and to come to their country houses and so forth and some of them had black servants and would feel compelled to bring the servant to the table and, you know, it was —
BOND: And introduce you.
DAVIS: Exactly. Exactly. Because we didn’t have the conceptual apparatus at that time to understand the extent to which, you know, racism — so, yes.
BOND: And it was evident to you at that age that the new school you’re in is so superior in many ways to the school you’d left behind, I’m guessing?
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. Although I should say that I learned a lot in segregated schools in Birmingham. I learned things I would have never learned.
BOND: Like what?
DAVIS: Black history. I can remember from the time I was very young, first grade, celebrating black history, Negro History Week.
BOND: Negro History Week, that's right.
DAVIS: And using that time to think about the extent to which, you know, black people had made major contributions so that I think I would never have received.
BOND: And you wouldn’t have got that at Elisabeth Irwin?
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely not. Every time we sang the American National Anthem, right, we also sang the Negro National Anthem.
BOND: “Lift Every Voice.”
DAVIS: Exactly, so I think that my teachers in elementary school and high school gave us all a sense of pride and gave us the tools with which to resist the imposition of racial inferiority.
BOND: Let me switch a bit and talk about the people who’ve been significant in helping you develop your talents and who you are, and begin with your parents. What role did your parents play in shaping you? You’ve talked earlier about your mother explaining to you that things will not always be this way, but what else do you recall?
DAVIS: Well, it’s taken me a long time to recognize the extent to which I walked down a path that was carved out for me by my mother, because I always saw myself resisting my parents, as children often do, but my mother was an activist. She was a member of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. She was actually an officer of the Southern Negro Youth Congress. She was involved in the NAACP. She was involved in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Nine. And as a child, I had the opportunity to spend time with black communists who had come to Birmingham to help organize there, to help organize the Southern Negro Youth Congress, so I — you know, I often tell people that later when I joined the Communist Party, it was a difficult decision because I always considered the Communist Party to be so conservative. It was my parents’ friends, you know, I wanted to do something more interesting and more radical, but I do think that both in terms of my career as an educator and in terms of my life as an activist, I’m following in my mother’s footsteps.
BOND: I wonder if your mother’s political activity engaged you in some sort of way — stuffing envelopes, the mechanics of organizing campaigns like that. Did that happen?
DAVIS: Well, yes. You know, I — a lot of things I don’t necessarily remember but I hear — I remember the stories that got told about [Eugene] Bull Connor and my parents’ friends being run out of town. This is pre-civil rights, but I don’t think I got a sense of the work that was done during that period because now I think that organizations like the Southern Negro Youth Congress really paved for the way for civil rights movement. It really created that terrain. You know, I often talk to students today about the film The Great Debaters and the character that Denzel Washington plays. A friend of my mother’s who still very much alive and very lucid, asked me after she saw that film, she said, “Angela, do you know what organization that was?” And I said, “No,” and she said, “Well, Melvin Tolson was in the Southern Negro Youth Congress.” They had these sort of mysterious scenes in which you see them organizing black and white tenant farmers, so I don’t think I got that sense early on, because — perhaps because of the anti-communism, because of the extent to which people were forced to go underground and when I was six years old, I remember being followed by the FBI. I do have those memories, because they were looking for someone. My parents knew who was a member of the Communist Party and who was underground so I remember this, I remember this kind of fear of the FBI and I also remember being — learning that you never talked to the FBI. When I was six years old, if they asked you any questions, you know, don’t answer at all.
BOND: Were there particular people — teachers, particularly — who had an influence on you who shaped you in some way or the other?
DAVIS: Well, I suppose during my career as a student, the teacher who most influenced me was Herbert Marcuse.
BOND: What about earlier, when you’re still in Birmingham?
DAVIS: Oh, when I was — ? Oh, absolutely, yes. I had a whole number of teachers. As a matter of fact, I had a teacher whose name was Mrs. [Maggie G.] Hrabowski, the mother of Freeman Hrabowski, who is the president of the University of Maryland, yeah.
BOND: We’ve done him in the series.
DAVIS: Oh, okay. I remember that she and other teachers pushed us. I mean, what I remember most about my time in Birmingham and elementary school and the first few years of high school was how exciting it was to learn and our teachers gave us a passion for learning, not just the mechanics of reading and writing, but they gave all of us and, of course, my mother’s a teacher so I have to count my mother as a part of that influence in terms of education, but they taught us how to love the whole process of acquiring knowledge and that I will be forever grateful for.
BOND: What about other figures in the community, neighbors, ministers, people you knew as political activists? What about them?
DAVIS: Yeah, the minister in the congregational church which is now of course United Church of Christ. I can remember Reverend Harold Long who was a young minister and encouraged us to be involved in interracial discussion groups, for example. I was part of a relatively short-lived integrated discussion group for young people that took place at the church.
BOND: And who were the white children in this?
DAVIS: The white children — you know, I don’t remember their names, but I assume that they came from homes — I assume that they came from Jewish homes, for one, because from my memory, it was Jewish people in Birmingham who first expressed solidarity with the quest for black equality and I know my mother had a number of white friends which was — up until a certain point, it was a very — they were clandestine relationships. They were relationships that weren’t supposed to exist, but occasionally, there would be white people in our home and I can remember once even— this was a person who, I think, who came to New York, a friend of — from New York, a friend of my mother’s. My mother had to have her lie down in the back seat of the car while she drove because you’re not supposed to have a black person driving a white person unless you are a chauffeur. So I can remember those moments.
BOND: Talk about your father for a minute. You wrote that you’d never seen your father afraid even when a white policeman pulled him over in Tennessee in the middle of the night, so he must’ve held a standard of behavior for you.
DAVIS: I think so, I think so. Yes. My father was quiet and I liked to think that I inherited that sense of calm and sense of quiet even though, of course, I’ve had to speak out in ways I never imagined I would have, but my father was a figure who spoke rarely but when he did speak, it was important and you listened and this incident in which — I was convinced that we were going to be killed. I was convinced that we were going to be one of those stories in the newspaper of, you know, black people disappearing in the Deep South and as I recount the story in my autobiography, my father — my father liked to drink I think it’s Canadian whiskey or something like that.
BOND: Canadian Club?
DAVIS: Something like that, yeah, but you couldn’t buy it in Birmingham. And so he had bought a case of it somewhere along the route from New York to Alabama and we were nearing Alabama when we went through this dry county and were stopped by the sheriff who said that when he saw the whiskey, he said, “You know, this is illegal and the judge is out of town so I don’t have any choice but to put you in jail until the judge comes back and I have no idea when the judge is coming back.” And so finally he said, “I tell you what. I’ll treat you like I treat my boys.” And he said, “Follow me.” And my father followed him to this old warehouse in an area of town that we were absolutely unfamiliar with and he got out and asked my father to come into the warehouse and so my mother and I were sitting in the car. They were driving me back from Brandeis. My mother and I were sitting in the car trembling and, oh, my God, what is going, what are they going to do to him? And then finally he came out laughing and he said, “All he wants is the whiskey and a hundred dollars.” Yeah, but that was a very frightening moment and I appreciated how my father dealt with that situation.
BOND: Tell us about the — your sister and you pretending that you’re from Martinique and going into a downtown shoe store in Birmingham.
DAVIS: Yeah. Well, you know, we were so used to this segregated character of the city. You know, you go into a shoe store and immediately, if you’re black, you know you have to go to the back and hope somebody will wait on you. They might not even wait on you, so both my sister and I had learned French by this time. I had been away for a while and so we decided to walk into the store speaking — pretending that I could not speak English at all. My sister spoke some English, but she would have to translate for me and so the people were so impressed that they asked us to take a seat in the front of the store and brought out all the shoes we wanted and, of course, at the end, we revealed that it was a big joke. We started —
BOND: What was the reaction of the people in the store when you revealed who you were?
DAVIS: Oh, they were so angry. They were — I mean, they realized that they had been had had. But we ran out of the store. We knew that once we did that —
BOND: The jig was up.
DAVIS: — we were definitely not going to go to the back of the store.
BOND: You mentioned Herbert Marcuse again and you meet him at Brandeis. And what effect did he have on you? How did he help shape you?
DAVIS: Well, he had a profound effect on my life and my work. I attended his lecture course when I was a first-year student, a freshman, and I always was drawn by the way he was able to put history and philosophy together in a context that allowed us to think about the future as history. And so — I watched him from afar for a while. I can actually remember him speaking during the Cuban Missile Crisis. James Baldwin was also on the campus. Then my second year he spent in Europe teaching. My third year I spent in Europe at the Sorbonne, and then when I came back for my fourth year, I was ready to move from French literature to philosophy. Which had — French literature was my major. And I went to him and told him that I was really interested in studying philosophy but I didn’t know where to begin and I hadn’t had any formal training. I had read [Jean-Paul] Sartre and [Albert] Camus and I had read a lot of the French philosophers in connection with my French studies and so — I mean, he didn’t know me from whoever, but he said, "Okay, well, let’s spend the first semester doing independent study which will be an intensive engagement with the history of western philosophy." So we started with the pre-Socratics and I met with him a couple of times a week and, you know, managed to get a sense of the history of western philosophy in one semester. And then at the end of that semester, he told me that I had to take his graduate course on [Immanuel] Kant, on the critique of pure reason, and then he had me give the first paper in this graduate —
First of all, I was an undergraduate and he was teaching graduate students who had a great deal of preparation and training and so by the time I finished that, I was — I was hooked. It was because of his influence that I decided to go to Germany and study with former colleagues of his, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and I kept in touch with him during the period I was studying in Germany and eventually he was fired from his position at Brandeis because he was considered to be too radical. It’s a little more complicated than that, but in any event, he was offered a position at the University of California-San Diego, and I spent two years in Germany and then I returned to this country and studied with him in San Diego.
And I would say what influenced me most was the way in which he negotiated his very close engagement with philosophical texts. He was an incredible reader of texts and the way he engaged with those texts and made a connection between possibilities in the real social world and so I saw him — you know, I took many seminars with him, but I also saw him speak at rallies. I also saw him speak out against the war. I also saw him support the black struggle. I also saw him support the student movement and so in that way, it was an inspiration for me. Watching him made it apparent to me that there didn’t have to be a contradiction between academic research and social activism.
BOND: So you saw an example of someone who was both, who could be a serious, serious scholar and also a political activist.
BOND: A person out in the world more than just in the classroom.
BOND: Why did you choose Brandeis? You’re one of two black students at this overwhelmingly Jewish school. Why Brandeis?
DAVIS: Well, I think there were two black students in my class. There were a few more. But there was only a handful on the entire campus. Well, I went to Elisabeth Irwin High School. The majority of the students there were Jewish and everybody wanted to go to Brandeis, right? But I was the one who got a full scholarship at Brandeis and I knew I wanted to go to college in the east and I had thought about Western Reserve. I thought about Mount Holyoke and other places, but Brandeis seemed to be the best fit for me after visiting these schools and it seemed to be the right choice.
BOND: Let me back up a bit in time and ask you about two people who you mentioned, one of them at least. Margaret Burnham and Bettina Aptheker, who became friends then and remain friends today. What has the relationship done to you?
DAVIS: Well, Margaret Burnham I've known all my life. I like to say we first met each other when we were in our mother's wombs because our mothers were pregnant together, right. And we have pictures of each other at birthday parties. There's a wonderful picture at Margaret's first birthday party so — and I should say that they are the — Margaret's family, the Burnhams — were literally chased out of Birmingham by Bull Connor because of the work they were doing. And later when my mother went to NYU to graduate school, she took all of her children each summer and we stayed with the Burnhams, so this really boggles my mind, how my mother was able to get all of that work done in a house in which there were six children at first and then eight children by the time she was finishing, so we've had this kind of — we've had this life. We were paired up in terms of kids because the Burnhams had four children and we were all about the same age, so we each had our counterpart in the other family. And then, of course, Margaret was the first person to show up at the jail in New York when I was arrested. She was the first attorney to — she wasn't able to get in because they didn't believe she was an attorney. She looked too young. But she followed my case from the beginning to the end. She was the only attorney who remained with me from the moment of my arrest until the moment of my acquittal. And then Margaret and I've done a lot of political work together in various organizations. We spend our vacations together.
BOND: So this is a lifetime friendship?
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely.
BOND: That's connected through family but the family connected in turn, I'm guessing, through political activities?
DAVIS: Yes. Yes. That's a good way to put it.
BOND: What about Bettina Aptheker?
DAVIS: Well, Bettina — I think I met Bettina when I was quite young, probably about six or so. But I remember Bettina most from my high school years when I joined Advance which was the Communist Party’s Youth Organization and Bettina was the head of this youth organization. So my relationship with Bettina has been more of a political relationship. We marched together.
BOND: How did you meet her when you were six?
DAVIS: Oh, because of the Burnhams, because I went to New York.
BOND: I see. And the Burnhams and the Aptheker family—
DAVIS: The Burnhams and the Apthekers and the Du Boises and there was a circle there, although I don’t remember very much of that. I remember her most from a later era when I was in high school and — so, yes, with Bettina and Margaret and others, we picketed Woolworth’s every Saturday because of the policies of segregation in the South — Woolworth’s on 42nd Street in New York. And we marched across the George Washington Bridge. It was all quite fun, too.
BOND: I bet, I bet.
DAVIS: Well, I should perhaps say now that strangely enough Bettina and I teach on the same campus of the University of California and as a matter of fact, are affiliated with the same department, the Feminist Studies Department, so it’s very interesting how people’s lives intersect.
BOND: Indeed so.
BOND: Indeed so. Do you remember particular events, historical or personal, that you view as critical to your understanding of American society, things that happened in the larger world that had an impact on you that made you understand what your place was in the society or what your place was expected to be in the society? Do you remember such things?
DAVIS: Well, I — I remember the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. That had — of course, many people talk about the impact of that.
BOND: Did you know any of those girls?
DAVIS: Yeah, I did. I knew three of them. One of them, Cynthia Wesley, lived practically next door, and Carole Robertson was the younger sister of one of my very good friends and my sister's — one of my sister’s friends. My mother was very close with Alpha Robertson who was Carole’s mother and as a matter of fact, my mother drove Alpha who was Carole’s mother to the church to pick her up after having heard about the bombing, so I was studying in France at that time and I — I mean, I can remember, and I don’t have a lot of really vivid memories from the era, but I remember the telephone booth in which I placed a long distance call, transcontinental call, or whatever you call it, to my parents to find out, you know, what really happened and I can remember feeling so totally alone in Paris because this was not an event that was widely reported. It happened not too long before the assassination of Kennedy and so those two events are kind of wedded in my mind.
BOND: Yes, I’m surprised this was not more of an event in France. I don’t know why. I guess I’ve stereotypes about the French and would’ve thought this would’ve been a bigger thing for them.
DAVIS: Well, I mean, it was reported, I believe, maybe in Le Monde but there was no sense in the streets that this had touched people. And so — yeah, I think that that made it impossible for me not to lead a life that would be dedicated to social justice. I’m not saying that is what put me on that path, but — because I’d always been there — but that reinforced the importance of building communities of struggle. Because I knew I needed to feel — I needed some place to feel at home with people who had the same kind of emotional response that I did and I hand't — you know, I couldn’t find anyone. I think I was the only black student in this program Junior Year Abroad. So, yeah, that was a pretty devastating moment. That was a really devastating moment in my life.
BOND: And you write about James Baldwin speaking at Brandeis and his speech being cut short by the announcement of the Cuban Missile Crisis and your own feeling that people were reacting to this in a bad way, that they seemed to say, "The end of the world was coming so I better go out and have a good time rather than seeing what I can do about the end of the world." Do you recall that?
DAVIS: Yes, yes, I do. I mean, I do. I remember people taking off driving to Canada and, you know, my response was, you know, “What is that going to do? How are you going to be any safer in Canada than you are here?” It was this panic, this collective panic that prevented us from talking about what was really going on.
BOND: And during your college years, you also hear Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael? What did —
DAVIS: Not Stokely. Well, Stokely was later, but I did hear Malcolm X speak at Brandeis and — and yes, that was an evening when I felt so proud to be black because there weren’t that many moments, particularly attending a school that was overwhelmingly white, but in that period, we hadn’t developed what we might now call a race consciousness, so I can’t describe it in those terms. Malcolm X was an incredible speaker and he held the whole audience — it was spellbound and I just remember being so — feeling so good.
BOND: You were talking about the effect of the assassination of President Kennedy. What about the almost connected in time Robert Kennedy/Martin Luther King assassinations? What effect did they have on you?
DAVIS: Okay, in my life, these assassinations came much later even though they were only a few years, because by that time, I had finished — I had graduated from Brandeis, I had spent two years in Germany being extremely active with the socialist student group there, and I had decided to return to the U.S. to study with Herbert Marcuse. So I was a graduate student but I was also almost a full-time activist by that time. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, I was living in Los Angeles and as a matter of fact, some of my comrades were directly investigated because Sirhan Sirhan’s car was once outside of a meeting where that was called by communists or something like that, so it was a very strange connection. When Dr. King was assassinated, I was working with an organization which we called Los Angeles SNCC, of course, and we immediately — I mean, I can remember exactly where I was, I was mimeographing leaflets for another —
BOND: I’ll have to tell my students what a mimeograph machine is.
DAVIS: I know, exactly. You see, I'm doing this [gestures] — And we realized, being in L.A., that if we did not move quickly, that the Los Angeles Police Department would use that as an occasion for a massacre. And we knew that because immediately after the assassination, they set up machine guns on top of the roof of the downtown police station —
BOND: The Parker Center.
DAVIS: The Parker Center, absolutely, and so we decided that what we would do was we would organize a campaign to ask all of the merchants in South Central to close in deference to the memory of Dr. King and then we put up picket lines at all of the stores that didn’t, including some of the large stores at the malls like the May Company. And the — we were actually trying to prevent a riot, prevent the outbreak of violence, but the Los Angeles Police Department obviously wanted violence. We didn’t know then, but we learned later that they had developed new technologies and they had new weapons and they wanted probably to try them out and so they actually dropped off a young black man whom they had severely beaten, in front of our offices and, you know, we had to get him to the hospital and so forth, but we realized that it was provocative. They wanted us to riot and we were doing everything we could to involve people in an organized, non-violent protest.
BOND: So by the time these events happened, you’re fully engaged in — I hate to say a political career. That’s not what you’ve done and that’s not who you are, but you’re fully involved in activity outside the scope of just being a university teacher and a student.
DAVIS: Absolutely, yes, yes.
BOND: Speaking of that, how did you decide that the academy was where you wanted to be? What made you think that this is what I want to do?
DAVIS: Well, you know, I never really thought about in that way and now when I talk to, you know, graduate students who are trying to professionalize themselves and have the entire trajectory of their career mapped out, when they’re going to get tenure and all of that and I say that, you know, for a lot of us during that period, at least for many of the politically conscious students with whom I studied philosophy, we were studying not so much because we wanted to subordinate that to a career, but because it allowed us to understand the world and we didn’t necessarily think about the professional side of it. I was invited to apply for a position at UCLA. I didn’t go out in search of a job. As a matter of fact, I often say that I had known that by accepting this job at UCLA I would be the focus of so much media attention because of my membership in the Communist Party I probably would’ve said, thanks but no thanks, because that is not what I was looking for. So, yes, I think that my career as a teacher has occurred because that is the way in which I can most affect and influence people and I’m not trying to say that I use the classroom to dictate how people or what people think, but I try to use it to encourage people to develop independent and critical modes of thinking that might lead them to the conclusion that they need to do something to make a difference in the social world.
BOND: And I’m guessing that your parents’ profession and their circle of friends who were also teachers and the interactions you’ve had with teachers over time, both in the lower grades and at Brandeis and then with Marcuse at Brandeis and Marcuse later, that this set up a model for you of what a teacher, a professor, could be and should be.
DAVIS: I think so. I think so. I think so. But I must admit that when I began to study philosophy, I did not necessarily imagine myself as a philosophy professor. I studied philosophy for what it was able to give me in terms of tools and conceptual approaches and methodologies that would allow me to better understand the world. That is what I was looking for.
BOND: And the UCLA application or request was just fortuitous?
DAVIS: It was fortuitous. It just came to me. I mean, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have had to find a job afterwards, but that wasn’t the foremost issue in my mind.
BOND: And the natural job for you would’ve been in the academy.
DAVIS: Yeah, I think so.
BOND: Having achieved this education, this professional certification just naturally, the next step.
DAVIS: Well, yes, but I must say that I was very reluctant for many years to become so wedded to the academy that it would have an impact on my ability to teach elsewhere because I see teaching as something that happens not only in the institutionalized process, but it happens, you know, also in the community. It happens in movements. And so for a long time I resisted becoming so involved that I would have to do administrative work and so forth and so on.
BOND: Now, you may dispute this characterization but what do you think in your both life experiences and your educational experiences prepared you for assuming a leadership role?
DAVIS: Well, I like to think of leadership not as a series of qualities that prepares one to lead or to give leadership to people in the world, but I like to think of the best kind of leadership as emerging from social movements as reflecting collective ideas and collective aspirations. I had no individual aspirations to be a leader and to a certain extent, I still don’t, and I think that what I have learned how to do over the years is to accept responsibility for the vast campaign that developed around my case. People probably never would’ve known my name had I not been fired from my job at UCLA because of my membership in the Communist Party; arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy; and it happened that at that particular historical conjunction —
BOND: But even prior to that, even before people know the name Angela Davis, the person Angela Davis is assuming leadership roles in a variety of ways in campaigns for the sailor who’s having trouble with the Navy, in Los Angeles SNCC, and in a variety of ways, you’re assuming leadership roles before anybody outside of your friends and colleagues know who you are.
DAVIS: But it’s also within a collective context.
BOND: Yes, of course, of course.
DAVIS: And I — it was perhaps the kind of quiet leadership, not an upfront leadership and, you see, even those examples that you mentioned, happened in the aftermath of my situation at UCLA, so I was a kind of minor celebrity because Ronald Reagan decided that I shouldn’t be teaching.
BOND: So we have him to thank.
DAVIS: Exactly. I think I imagined my role as being that of a teacher and so when I worked with SNCC, I was the head of the Liberation School Project. When I worked with the Black Panther Party, I was working with the Political Education Project. I always did work that involved teaching and I think that that would’ve been the role that I imagined for myself.
BOND: Well, in a way, a teacher is a leader. He or she leads their students toward knowledge. He or she controls, to a degree, the classroom and so forth and so on, so I don’t know if I’m stretching too far here, but the fact that you’ve become a teacher speaks to some level of acceptance of a leadership role.
DAVIS: Well, yes and no.
DAVIS: I think that the best teachers, the best quality a teacher can have is the ability to assist someone to discover his or her own passion.
DAVIS: And rather than concentrate on guaranteeing that this person knows this and that and whatever, I like to teach my students how to formulate the kinds of questions, particularly questions about that which they tend to take for granted, that will lead to real change in the world.
BOND: What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? Can you describe the interaction of these three for you — vision, philosophy, style? How do these, if they do, interact for you?
DAVIS: Well, yes, I think they do. My vision has always been that of a better, more just, more egalitarian world and, of course, I spent many years as an activist in the Communist Party. I’m no longer in the Communist Party but I still imagine the possibility of moving beyond capitalism to some kind of democratic socialist arrangement. I don’t know if I can succinctly describe what my philosophical approach is, but I will say that it is — if I were to try to succinctly describe it, I would talk about a critical posture towards everything. Learning how to raise questions, even about that which one assumes is unquestionable and that this is what I’ve learned from my philosophical studies, from critical theory, that we have to be willing to test even that which— even those categories we use to try to understand the world.
And style — that’s the one I’m having problems with. I don’t know whether it’s possible to cultivate a style, I can — and I’ll tell you a short story. I can remember getting out of jail and people having these ideas about me from the photographs they had seen. I was supposed to be this militant revolutionary ranting and raving and so forth. And so some people were disappointed when they heard me speak and they said, "What did they do to you when you were in — ?" And I said, "Well, this is the way I’ve always been. This is the way I’ve always spoken." And I had to finally recognize that if I was not true to myself, if I did not have the kind of style that most reflected my upbringing and my character, my training, then I definitely would not be able to make a difference in the world so no matter how much people wanted me to rant and rave, I opted for my own, you know, sort of more quiet style.
BOND: . . . What did jail do to you? You said people thought jail had done something to you, made you something that didn’t fit their stereotype of who you were. What did it do to you?
DAVIS: Well, fortunately, I think I was able to use the time I spent in jail productively and I say this because even though I was behind bars for some 16 months, there was an enormous movement on the outside. I had family. I had friends. I had colleagues and comrades all over the world who were concerned about my predicament so I did not feel alone even though I was in solitary confinement practically the entire time I was behind bars. I found ways of dealing with that. One of the things I remember thinking was that being a graduate student was really good preparation [laughter] for this because one spends a lot of time alone studying and that is what I did when I was in jail. I learned how to do yoga. I practiced in my little cell karate, so I made a life for myself and I can imagine that had I been in jail longer than that it would’ve been a much greater challenge so I’m not comparing my situation to anyone else’s situation, but I do remember being very withdrawn when I got out. Over a year of solitary life can leave one in a state like that.
And I do know that I was profoundly affected emotionally and psychologically by that experience. I was able to work through it. I can remember getting out and not wanting to go into places where there were large numbers of people and going to a dance or something and, of course, there was all this attention on me and I would want to relax and party but everyone there assumed that they had to have a deep political conversation with me, so I spent a time not going out to social events because it was just too difficult to negotiate but eventually I learned that I had to talk about or think about that period in my life as representing something that was far more important than me as an individual and I had to be willing to accept people’s excitement and awe, recognizing that it wasn’t about me, but rather that it was about this vast movement that developed all over the country and all over the world and that managed to effectively challenge Ronald Reagan, the governor of California; Richard Nixon, the president of the U.S., and so now I see it that way and I don’t have any problems with the kind of awe with which people approached me.
BOND: But don’t you think in all honesty that it’s both about the movement created around your predicament and you, that it’s about both these things?
DAVIS: Yes, but primarily about the movement. After all, I was in jail—
BOND: I’ll give you that.
DAVIS: I was in jail. I mean, you know that. [laughter] And as a matter of fact, you assisted in the elaboration of this movement and I totally appreciate the work that you did for us in our first book, If They Come in the Morning.
BOND: I left that book at home. I wanted you to sign it.
DAVIS: I’ll do it again. I’ve come to think of that moment as a kind of collective empowering that demonstrated to us that we had hope and that we could make change in the world, so I have to be the beneficiary of that and I continue to see myself as the beneficiary of this amazing movement.
BOND: I just read a story, an article, rather, about people who are put in solitary confinement and the devastating effect it has on them, just awful awful effect, and you’re comparatively speaking, yours is relatively short, but still, one thing described in this story was the person’s inability to fit into a large space and that once released in a room this large, for example, they’d go to the corner and did anything like happen to you?
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. I remember that my body had its habits that I had to try to undo. Getting into cars with my hands cuffed behind me. It took a while for me to realize, for my body to realize, that I could use my hands to get into a car or being in large spaces with large numbers of people, yeah, absolutely. And I don’t think that we acknowledge the degree to which confinement and imprisonment creates mental disorders.
BOND: Is it fair to say that this experience for you was a tremendous motivator for your current-day interest in incarceration? I understand that the interest preceded this, but did this heighten and intensify your interest?
DAVIS: I suppose so. I guess the overwhelming majority of my life has been devoted to work around issues of prison and imprisonment and, of course, when I went to jail, it was around the campaign to free the Soledad Brothers so I was already doing work around political prisoners and around prison in general, but I don’t think I would’ve imagined then that this would’ve been my calling, that I would devote my life to this work, but then I think of my mother working on the Scottsboro Nine and I think that this is a way in which to challenge injustice at its core.
BOND: People characterize making of leaders in three ways: either A, great people cause great events; B, movements make leaders; or C, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the time. Do you fit one of these three paths.
DAVIS: I think B and C. I think you probably already know I would say B and C. Yeah, exactly. I think that movements give rise to the most effective spokespersons for those movements and I like to talk about Dr. King and what an incredible leader he was precisely because he was able to give expression to collective aspirations and that — that he didn’t simply appear one day and the movement arose in response to his presence. Oftentimes, we focus so much on him as an individual that we erase the groundwork, the day-to-day, unglamorous organizing work that was done by so many people, especially women.
BOND: Yes. You know, Ella Baker said, "The movement made Martin more than Martin made the movement."
DAVIS: Absolutely, absolutely.
BOND: But did the movement, in effect, make Angela Davis as much as Angela Davis made the movement and continues now to make the movement?
DAVIS: Well, yes, I think that I was a creation of the movement in many respects, you know, both in terms of who I am and my own passion for justice but also a creation of the movement that developed around the demand to free me in terms of the iconography that that movement created and that doesn’t have very much to do with me. You know, I see young people today wearing t-shirts with my image on it and it used to really bother me at first. It used to embarrass me and it bothered me and finally I asked a young woman why she wore that shirt and she said, “It makes me feel strong, it makes me feel powerful, it makes me feel like I can do anything I want to do,” and so my response was, “Right on," you know, "if it does that for you.”
BOND: And it must make you feel good about that.
DAVIS: Well, it does. It does, but again, I see that as the strength of that movement.
BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of the movement, or are these the same thing?
DAVIS: Well, actually, increasingly I see whatever leadership capacity I have being expressed in the process of encouraging people to find their own way. And this means encouraging people, again, to ask the kinds of questions that will lead them in progressive and radical directions. I don’t like the idea of simply persuading someone who will get involved for a moment, until they burn out, and then they’ll go back to doing what they were doing in the first place, but I like the idea of life trajectories. You know, how do you change people’s lives? How do you encourage people to think about future possibilities that they never would have imagined themselves and how do you — how do you encourage people to do this work no matter where they are? And so I don’t demand that people join a particular organization or go to a particular place. I say that you can be, as Dr. King said, a drum major for justice wherever you are regardless of what path you choose.
BOND: But I wonder if you don’t think at the same time if you could convince a hundred people that the issues you care about are important and therefore they should dedicate time to them, knowing as you’ll know that a portion of them will do it only for a short time. Doesn’t that have its own worthwhile — isn’t that worthwhile in and of itself, even if it’s not the hoped-for engagement, doing it full-time?
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And I spend a lot of my time during this current era trying to encourage people to think seriously about prison abolition
DAVIS: And I’ve discovered, interestingly enough, that this moment, 2009, the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama has created a kind of receptivity to thinking about these issues that did not exist before so it’s very exciting, but I do know that there has to be a particular historical conjuncture, a particular historical confluence of events and in order to encourage masses of people to begin to think seriously about an issue such as the abolition of prisons.
BOND: At a dinner party last night, I got into — I listened to a debate by two people, two psychologists, who have studied whether or not there’s an Obama effect. And the Obama effect, if there was such a thing, would be a diminution of racial prejudice — not a disappearance — diminution. And one of them said, "Of course there is and I can measure it and so forth and we’ve taken surveys and I can demonstrate it’s true," and the other one said, "Of course, there’s not, I’ve measured it and there’s no such effect." There’s only the slightest bit of difference among people who harbor racist feelings and so I wonder, are you suggesting that one of the confluences that’s occurred is the Obama election and therefore that opens the possibility for people thinking, because these two people, one of them thought, "Yes, there is a chance now to do things we couldn’t do before," and the other said, "No, we’re the same people that we were before."
DAVIS: Well, I would actually agree with both of them. We are the same people we were before. The problem still exists but there is a different kind of hope, the emergence of new possibilities. My evaluation of the Obama election is that it tells us more about who we are as a nation than it tells us about Obama, so the fact that it was possible at this moment to elect not simply an African American president but someone who identifies with the radical — black radical tradition of struggle, that to me is what is most important and I do think this has generated a sense of hope that did not exist during the Bush administration. The fact that young people played such an important role using the new technologies of communication in this campaign tells us something else. I don’t think we should get into the situation where we say either everything has been achieved by this election or nothing has been achieved. It seems like the two psychologists were having that kind of a debate.
BOND: Yes, they were.
DAVIS: But rather, let us think about it as announcing new possibilities and creating new terrain which we can use if we are able to do the work that is required to build movements for change.
BOND: At the same time, it’s distressing to me that after eight years of just an awful president, an awful administration, that it took this extraordinary person — and I think Obama is an extraordinary person — it took this extraordinary person to turn the tide. And extraordinary people don’t come along that often, in my experience, and so I wonder about the future, if we’ll slip back into our old ways.
DAVIS: Well —
BOND: I mean, I’m willing to do everything I can to make sure we don’t, but I’m fearful we might.
DAVIS: But, you see, my position is this. Yes, Barack Obama is extraordinary. It’s absolutely amazing, but he has a lot of problems and I’m very critical of him —
BOND: I'm sure.
DAVIS: — around a number of issues as well, but we would never have gotten to know this extraordinary person had not it been for the work that was done in organizing the campaign, so that is where I see the hope for the future. I think that in this country we have a tendency to alienate our own power. We like to give it up. You know, we like messiahs. We like leaders in that sense of the word and we fail to take responsibility to finish what we start and so my argument would be this is precisely the moment when we have to build another, you know, vast movement for change. This is precisely the moment to begin to talk about prison abolition. It’s the moment — it’s an auspicious moment to begin to talk about the crisis of imprisonment which has not really been on the Obama agenda in very visible ways, at least not during the last period.
BOND: Well, let me shift gears again. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or of society or both? Is there a distinction in your mind between these?
DAVIS: Well, I don’t think we can talk about U.S. society without talking about race. Race is in our history. It has affected all of us regardless of what racial ethnic backgrounds we come from and I am very sad that we haven’t found a language to talk about that. And it’s not about black people. It’s not about white people. It’s about understanding what made us all who we are and I’m very interested nowadays in the ways race or racism is congealed in the structures of institutions, so that it is unhooked from any individual racist perpetrator or motivations of racism that exist in educational institutions. It exists in the prison system. And I think we all have to learn how to talk about that so this is — my relationship to issues of race is somewhat different from what is usually meant.
Unfortunately, in this country, the media assumes that race, the very mention of race, opens up a Pandora’s box and there’s always attempts to close it down. "Let’s not let this chaos overwhelm us" — and it will become more and more chaotic until we can find a language to talk about the degree to which race has influenced our histories and our psychic histories, as well.
BOND: Why do you think we have such a resistance to talking about these things?
DAVIS: I think it’s because the assumption is that it’s about racial superiority and it’s conceptualized in terms of individuals and so people feel — feel attacked when we talk about affirmative action, for example, white people often feel assaulted without being able to see that something like an affirmative action strategy will make us all better, will make us a better community, because it’s not about advancing one individual as opposed to another individual. It’s about advancing an entire community that has been so devastated by the consequences of slavery. And I think that there’s such a reluctance to talk about this because people don’t necessarily want to learn how we continue to inhabit a history that is structured by slavery, which affects all of us, regardless of what racial or ethnic background we come from.
BOND: Speaking of ethnic backgrounds, do you have a different leadership style when you’re talking to groups or you’re dealing with groups that are all black or mixed or all white? Are you different before these groups?
DAVIS: No. My message is the same. My message is absolutely the same. No, I don’t — I haven’t developed a style that is going to be different in a black audience. I just recently spoke at — for Emory at Ebenezer Baptist Church and, of course, the audience — there were 3,000 people there, the place was packed and the audience was largely black, but I talked about the same issues in the same way and the response was really incredible.
BOND: In Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen, and he writes about the danger in continually thinking in terms of race or gender. “Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we’re going to continue to harm this country.” Is there a danger of divisiveness when you focus on the concept of black leadership as we do here?
DAVIS: Well, I think the most effective black leadership will be leadership not simply for black people but leadership for all people and I’m convinced that engagement with issues of race, of gender, which is a lot more complicated today than it was because we not only have to talk about people who identify as men or women but transgender expression and issues of sexuality. What has been so fulfilling, I think, in terms of my own history has been the awareness that we’ve developed ever-more capacious visions of what it means to be free, and so in the beginning, if we thought about race as the barrier to freedom or racism as the barrier to freedom, we had to learn that racism doesn’t exist on its own, that it’s connected with and crosshatched with sexism and gender discrimination. And then we have to learn that it’s more complicated than that — that there’s class there, and then we learn that gender is not binary, you know, that there’s much more there than we ever thought and then we learned about sexuality. So it means that our sense of freedom becomes vaster and more interesting. And rather than go backwards and talk in terms that excluded people of color, that excluded women, that excluded transgender people, that excluded LGBT communities, then I think we have to find a language that is all embracing.
BOND: Do you think black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans or is there some point when that obligation, if it exists, ends and you can pursue your own ambitions, your own hopes and dreams?
DAVIS: Well, I think black leaders have an obligation to help everyone who is down, not just black people and it has — I suppose the election of Obama as President helps us to understand the extent to which what we might call the black radical freedom tradition has had an impact on everyone. It’s not just about black people but it’s helped to shape movements that lead to greater advances toward freedom and so I don’t think narrowly in terms of black people. As a matter of fact, I think it can be very dangerous to think narrowly in terms of only blacks. There’re a lot of black people around who don’t identify with collective community quests for freedom, so I like to think about communities that are shaped using political standards and not simply racial standards. I don’t count every black person simply because she or he is black as a member of my community. And, you know, I often point out people responded to the Barack Obama election by saying, "I never thought that an African American would be elected president in my lifetime," but I don’t think that is what they meant because, had Clarence Thomas been elected President, I don’t think people would’ve gone around saying, "I never thought that — " You see what I’m saying?
BOND: Yes, I see what I’m saying, but I think they might’ve said the same thing were that to happen.
DAVIS: But I don’t think that there would have been black people —
BOND: No —
DAVIS: — who were just so emotionally awed by this —
BOND: But, of course, you know there was a segment of the black population that when Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court that rallied to him because of his race —
DAVIS: I know. I know.
BOND: — and assumed that his race meant that he was with them on issues.
DAVIS: I absolutely remember that.
BOND: It was so distressing.
DAVIS: But I remember some people realized their mistake afterwards, particularly —
BOND: Yes, after they foisted him on us, it was too late.
DAVIS: Yes, exactly.
BOND: Is it part of the historical obligation that because we ourselves have come out of such intolerable conditions and achieved a modicum of change that we therefore have a responsibility to help others who are like us do the same?
DAVIS: I think that black Americans do have a very deep historical responsibility to assist others who are subjugated or oppressed. I don’t think this happens automatically. I don’t think that there’s a causal relationship between the quest for African American freedom and solidarity with, for example, immigrant struggles. I think that this has to be a point that our movements emphasize that justice is, after all, indivisible. June Jordan once said that, and I never fail to repeat that — justice is indivisible, and so, for example, today, the civil rights struggle involves civil rights for immigrants, civil rights for prisoners, civil rights for GLBT communities, and I think that this one of the major challenges of the moment to persuade such leaders as ministers, black ministers, to recognize this and to communicate this message to their congregations.
BOND: Yes, it’s a — a frustrating part of the struggle. What do you see as your greatest contributions as an African American leader?
DAVIS: Well, I think that my greatest contribution probably was not my contribution. I mentioned before that the campaign that was organized in 1970 in the aftermath of my arrest that reached people all over the world is — stands as a remarkable testament to what is possible today. The more I think about that campaign, the more extraordinary it appears to me, even much more so than at the time I was in the — you know, right in the middle of it. So that, I would say, is my greatest contribution, my involvement in the production of a massive transnational global campaign that demonstrated that collective empowerment can work.
Then I would say that — well, I was listening to someone introduce me as I spoke at a class. And this professor said something that had never occurred to me, that every decade that I’ve actually managed to raise some new issues, issues of the relationship between gender and race and I can’t remember what — you’ll have to ask her. This was Claudrena Harold, exactly how she — she had a very neat way of talking about that and I suppose I would summarize that by saying that I feel most vital when I am most present and when I don’t depend on laurels of the past, when I am listening to and engaging with young people in the moment and attempting to contemporize my ideas and my quest and my aspirations.
BOND: What kind of leaders does contemporary society demand? How [do] future problems demand different leadership styles or will they?
DAVIS: Well, yes, I think there will be different leadership styles. My response to the campaign that led to the election of Barack Obama that was largely an Internet campaign that involved email and Facebook and MySpace and I don’t know whether Twittering had really started then, but texting —
BOND: I don’t know.
DAVIS: And my response is this: if in the ’60s and ’70s, we had had those technologies of communication, we could’ve made a revolution, you know, because I think about how difficult it was to be in touch with people in other parts of the country and in the cities where we worked and organized, so I’m really excited about the possibilities of the future and I think that leadership is going to have to listen to youth, to the imagination and the creativity and the vision of young people who take for granted that which we had to struggle for and I know that oftentimes older people are very distressed by the fact that young people just — they just don’t know what it meant to struggle to get this far and in a sense, it’s good they don’t know, because it’s good that they take for granted — they can take for granted what we had to fight for, because that way their vision can be much more far reaching. They stand on our shoulders and they can reach much higher and I think leadership, no matter how crazy young people might sometimes sound, leadership — leadership has to learn to listen to the voices of the youth.
BOND: You mentioned what others have said, that younger people don’t know the history of the struggles that brought them to where they are. Do they have to know? Do they need to know and if they do, how can we make sure they know?
DAVIS: Well, I think there has to be a sense of history. We live in a country that encourages historical amnesia. There has to be a sense of that history, but young people cannot know it in the same way that we who experienced it know it. And oftentimes, we demand a relationship to that history on the part of young people that reflects our relationship as people who experienced it. And so my sense is that I am very happy oftentimes when I hear people not questioning what we had to struggle for, not — you know, perhaps they know that there was a time when it would not have been possible for a black person to be at an institution like this, but they can’t spend so much time reflecting on that that they forget about what they need to do now that they’re here. So this is where they are. This is where they begin. This is what we offer them from the past and they have to take us somewhere else.
BOND: How can we foster the most effective leaders for the future?
DAVIS: I think we can foster effective leaders by encouraging people to think independently, to think critically, to learn how to follow their own passions, to develop languages that allow us to talk about the continued need for justice, whether it be racial justice or gender justice or economic justice. I think — I think the question of developing new vocabularies is so important. We’re often stuck with old concepts, old categories, that reflect a particular historical moment and we see that we’re now at another historical conjuncture where that no longer works but then we throw the baby out with the bath water. I mean, I think this is one of the issues that we’re confronting with the failure to develop a conversation around race. This is why I think Eric Holder said that we’re a nation of cowards and, of course, Obama didn’t exactly like the fact that he said that. And I think effective leaders have to encourage that kind of bold, imaginative creative engagement with the present and the future.
BOND: There was a time when the Communist Party helped you to define your own ideas and to develop your vision of the world and how it was and how it could be. Why are you no longer connected to the Party?
DAVIS: Well, I left the Communist Party not because I felt differently about criticizing capitalism and socialist futures, but because at the time there were constraints against the further democratization of the internal structure of the organization, so much so that a number of us who signed a petition, who circulated a petition, about the need for democratization of the structures of governance of the Party were not allowed to run for office, national office, and so in a sense, we were invited to leave. And many of us became involved in another organization called Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, but now, of course, a lot of time has passed. There’re been some revelations about the past leadership of the Communist Party, and I’m still close to people who are in the Party. I still work with members of the Party. I have no bad feelings and I certainly hope that we can encourage a vibrant conversation, particularly during this moment, about the nature of capitalism and about possible socialist futures.
BOND: You know, I’ve thought and I’ve also read other scholars talk about how the exclusion of suspected Communists and actual Communists, this red-baiting era that the civil rights movement went through, resulted in creating a movement that looked to the Sermon on the Mount and Gandhi instead of Marx for a critique of American society and that we’ve suffered tremendously because of that because the absence of this critique or the absence of the prevalence of this critique just created a different kind of movement which had different kinds of aims and goals.
DAVIS: I think you’re right, that although despite the red-baiting, despite the anti-communism, I think that some of those ideas that involve the importance of looking at the economic structures continued to influence people. Of course, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, he was working with the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, so this is an indication of a move from a sense of civil rights being the final answer and more substantive questions of economic freedom. But I absolutely agree with you, and I think it’s just such a disgrace that so many of the people who have given so much to movements for justice and equality in this country have been completely eradicated from the historical record. Of course, now, we’re just beginning to see interest in Paul Robeson and for a long time, nobody who knew W.E.B. Du Bois was, precisely because of the fact that these were two people who did maintain that Marx did offer us something productive for thinking about change, whether it be radical change in the area of race or class — so, yeah. But this is where we have to start playing catch-up, I think.
BOND: Well, Dr. Davis, thanks for being with us.
DAVIS: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.
BOND: Our pleasure.