Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Brandeis University: Herbert Marcuse

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.

DAVIS: Absolutely.

BOND: A person out in the world more than just in the classroom.

DAVIS: Absolutely.

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.