Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Activism Within Academic Career

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.