Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leaders as Teachers

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.

BOND: Okay.

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.

BOND: Indeed.

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.