At 76, and after a lifetime of activism and academic research, Angela Davis has one or two things to say about the persistence of structural racism.
The protests that followed George Floyd’s death, and which have become an international movement in rejection of the white supremacist status quo, have brought back to the stage the struggle that Davis experienced first-hand, both in the second wave of feminism and in the ranks of the Black Panther Party.
Born to an African-American family in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944, Davis studied French at Brandeis University and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in West Germany.
With the help of brilliant minds like Herbert Marcuse, Davis was introduced to the philosophy and politics of the extreme left, and once she returned to the United States she joined the Communist Party and began to identify herself as a Marxist feminist, actively participating in protests for gender equality, against capitalism, and in opposition to the Vietnam War.
Davis lost jobs and was placed under arrest for firearms registered in her name during violent protests, and from the early 1980s she engaged in academic activism, research, and publication of proposals to abolish the prison industrial complex.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Davis left the Communist Party, joined the Correspondence Committees for Democracy and Socialism, has devoted herself to feminist studies, and remains active in activist movements such as the Occupy and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
Images, phrases, and videos of her youth in the 1970s have gone viral on social media in recent weeks, as her message remains as relevant as ever.
At a live streaming last Sunday, Davis spoke from her office in California about the possibility of substantial change from the new wave of protests.
“Well, of course, it could be different,” she said. “But that’s not guaranteed.”
However, change is persisting on the streets.
“We’ve never witnessed sustained demonstrations of this size that are so diverse,” she added. “So I think that is what is giving people a great deal of hope. Many people previously, in response to the slogan Black Lives Matter, asked: ‘But shouldn’t we really be saying all lives matter?’ They’re now finally getting it. That as long as black people continue to be treated in this way, as long as the violence of racism remains what it is, then no one is safe.”
Her conclusion rings true, especially when it comes to the intersection of race and gender, which has put women at a double disadvantage, particularly in the United States.
As The Guardian explained, one of the key principles of Davis’s post-prison life has been to ensure that “women’s contribution to the civil-rights struggle is not ignored.”
Breonna Taylor’s death is just the latest example of a terrible circumstance that seems not to mutate over time.
“This masculinization of history goes back many decades and centuries,” says Davis. “Discussions about lynching, for example, often fail to acknowledge not only that many of the lynching victims were black women, but also that those who struggled against lynching were black women, such as Ida B. Wells.”
“I think it’s important to understand why this tendency towards masculine representations of struggle happen, and why we fail to recognize that women have forever been at the center of these struggles, whether as victims or organizers.”