Angela Davis. (Photo by Julia Rendleman)

Angela Davis visits VCU, reflects on 50 years of activism, calls for a more inclusive, intersectional feminism

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Angela Davis, a leading activist on behalf of women’s rights, racial justice, prisoners’ rights and more since the 1960s, spoke before a sold-out crowd in University Student Commons on Friday, reflecting on her 50 years of activism, calling for a more intersectional, anti-racist form of feminism, and striking an optimistic note for the future of the country.

Davis, whose visit was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and the Afrikana Independent Film Festival, spoke as part of a month-long series of events at Virginia Commonwealth University celebrating Black History Month. 

Last fall marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. Davis said she recently has been thinking about how the party’s 10-point program — which called for, among other goals, full employment for black people, decent housing, and an end to police brutality — remains as relevant today as it did half a century ago.

“The agenda for struggle 50 years ago is not that different from the agenda for the larger struggle for democracy today,” she said. “ … Think about the intervening 50 years. The span of history made me feel as if, in a sense that we’re addressing the same injustices. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

At the same time, Davis said, much progress has been made, and the unfolding of black history over the past 50 years has pushed the nation in a progressive direction generally.

“A lot of times people ask me if I feel that I’d made all these sacrifices for naught. They say, ‘Things are still the same that they were 50 years ago. How do you continue?’” she said. “And my response is that, yes, they are the same, but at the same time, they are not the same. A great deal has changed.”

The Black Panther Party

Davis told the crowd how she was inspired to join the Black Panther Party while studying philosophy in Europe and when she saw TV footage of Black Panther Party members carrying guns and policing their communities. She returned home to join, taking part as a member of the Black Panthers and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and joining other women that were the backbone of the organizations, she said.

If you ask who does the fundamental work of building movements, you will discover almost always that it’s women.

“If you ask who does the fundamental work of building movements, you will discover almost always that it’s women,” Davis said. “There we were in SNCC … doing most of the work for the organization. And I should tell you if you look at the Black Panther Party, the majority of the members were women. They were the ones who were doing the work. However, when it came to being leaders and spokespeople and so forth, the men assumed it was their prerogative. Not all of the men. I’m not indicting men as men. I’m indicting the system of gender superiority to which some men did not assent.”

SNCC ultimately fell apart, she said, because “some of the guys just couldn’t deal with the fact that women were insisting on assuming leadership.”

“I always point out that this was not a struggle between women and men. It was not a gender struggle — gender in the way that we conceptualized it in that time, in its binary structure. But it was a struggle over the meaning of gender,” she said. “Because there were some women who felt we should be in the background. We were supposed to do the teaching … One of the leaders of the organization said we should wear long African dresses and convince rich men to donate. You’re hearing some of the aspects of the movement from that period that you probably don’t want to hear because you want to think that it was all so revolutionary and exciting. But it was difficult. It was very difficult.”

Black Lives Matter

Davis discussed how although the Black Panther Party in the civil rights era and Black Lives Matter today share the goal of confronting police violence against people of color, the strategies are different. While Black Panther Party members were armed and sought to “police the police,” Black Lives Matter does not.

“Audre Lorde said something like the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. And so I started thinking about the approach that we took then and that the Black Panther Party took toward police violence using guns to combat the violent, racist occupation of the black community,” she said. “It may have been dramatic at the moment, but it did not succeed in eradicating police violence. Because we’re still experiencing every day basically the same kinds of violent, racist assaults in communities of color, poor communities of color.”

Black Lives Matter, she said, instead has sought to demilitarize the police.

“What was the strategy that was used by the Black Lives Matter movement? Do you remember seeing those images of police confronting the protesters in Ferguson? Do you remember the military vehicles, the tanks? Do you remember the military garb? And so, immediately instead of simply saying that what we need to do is fight the police with the same weapons that they have — and, I’m sorry, but we don’t have any tanks — [Black Lives Matter] … takes a very different approach.”

“And so one of the first demands that emerged out of that struggle was the demilitarization of the police,” she continued. “And the recognition of the fact that racist police violence directed against young black people — young black men, women and trans people — young people of color, especially trans people of color, especially trans women who are unable to pass, who are the target of the most consistent violence in this country — both institutional violence, state violence and violence enacted by individuals. And so we began to understand … it’s not just about bringing the perpetrator of police violence to justice. We could arrest every single police officer who has engaged in that violence and the problem would still be with us.”

When critics of Black Lives Matter respond with “all lives matter,” Davis said, they are using the “logic of racism” that has resulted from the 50 years of struggle for equality.

“The logic of racism that conflates the individual and the generic, you might say,” she said. “When you say ‘black lives matter,’ then you’re actually talking about individual black people’s lives mattering. But of course historically we know that the way in which the universal has been deployed has resulted in the complete erasure of black lives and the lives of people of color.”

Democracy in the United States, she said, has historically served only the elite, primarily affluent white men.

[“Democracy is] grounded in a very specific, very particular population — white, male, rich population. This is really what ‘Make America Great Again’ means. It’s when rich, male supremacy prevailed,” she said. “Then on the other hand, if you say that ‘black lives matter,’ if you’re looking at those who are the most subjugated, who are the most consistently being marginalized, when you recognize when those lives start to matter, that will mean that ‘all lives matter.’”

Photo by Julia Rendleman.
Photo by Julia Rendleman.


Feminism, Davis said, should be embraced by everyone who believes in creating a better, more just world. The feminism she advocated, however, is not the feminism that she says is often described in popular discourse today.

“I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton feminism,” she said. “I’m not talking about a penetrate-the-glass-ceiling feminism. Metaphors really matter. And we often don’t take the time to engage critically with the metaphors that we use. And it seems to me that someone like Hillary Clinton should have recognized that when she talked about penetrating the glass ceiling, she was representing herself as already on the very top. She had to be on the top in order to already reach the ceiling. What about all those beneath her?”

Davis called for the embrace of a feminism that is anti-racist, anti-capitalist, internationalist and intersectional.

“I’m suggesting that this is the feminism we need during this period,” she said. “This feminism is not defined by gender identity. It’s not feminism that somehow gets attached to human beings who have bodies that are constructed as females. It’s a feminism that is a powerful methodology. It teaches us how to work with contradictions. How, as Audre Lorde said, to make contradictions productive. Not to run away because we’re asked to choose one thing or another. But how do we inhabit that contradiction and live there and make something wonderful and great?”

A more inclusive feminism, she said, would lay the groundwork for a better world, even if it only occurs generations from now.

I want us to commit to doing the work that will allow our labors, our imaginations to be spiritually present 100 years from now.

“It’s a feminism that urges us to think of ourselves as members of communities whose span takes us to the past and to the future,” she said. “And I know that slaves who were struggling for their freedom in the 18th century and the 19th century imagined a future something like the present that we’re living today. They may not have gotten all the specifics, but they imagined possibilities that we are living today only because of the work that they did 100 years ago, 200 years ago.”

“I want us to commit to doing the work that will allow our labors, our imaginations to be spiritually present 100 years from now,” she added. “I want people who inhabit that future, the future we’re dreaming about, to be able to give thanks to all of us who did what we needed to do in order to guarantee that we could continue the quest for liberation.”

Davis said challenges associated with the Trump presidency will revitalize movements and activists.

“I think that we have one of those moments where the future that appears to be most dreadful compels you to reach deep down and discover reservoirs of strength that you did not know you had,” she said. “The next period is going to be extremely exciting … Be a part of that. Figure out how to build the kinds of movements that will sustain our collective passions and allow us to move toward a more habitable future.”


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