By K. High
Angela Davis is ready to pass the torch, and you’re the recipient.
In the past few months, the social justice leader has visited select college campuses in order to speak with who she believes are some of the most powerful people in our country: young people. On Tuesday, April 2, she visited Syracuse University, where she previously held the title of Distinguished Visiting Professor. But this time, she appeared as the keynote speaker for the Delta Zeta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity’s annual Truth Be Told series, an event held for students in which experts and professionals reveal the truths about their respective industry. Eager to connect with the younger audience in attendance, Davis’s words were exactly what these emerging leaders needed to hear
Davis has dedicated her life to social justice. Growing up during the Civil Rights Era in Birmingham, Alabama, her parents inspired her to think critically about the racism embedded into the world around her — the disproportionate incarceration of Black people in particular. Prison reform became her life’s work, and, after eventually earning a PhD in philosophy, she went on to become a public leader in the fight for change. For decades, she’s been dedicated to her mission of the revealing and organizing around the truths of the Black experience in America.
Now, as a distinguished author, educator, and activist, she still travels the country speaking about the issues of racism, the condition of the prisoners in the United States, and LGBTQ rights. Before she stepped on the stage at Syracuse University, she chatted with MTV News about what younger generations of activists should know about the work ahead of them.
1. Younger Generations Must Lead the Way
“Radical change has always come from young people. And colleges and universities are places where — with all of their defects and all of their problems, and all of their racism, and everything else — there are venues where people are allowed to engage in processes of thinking and imagining. So I think that it is quite natural for students to want to transform the world. And it seems to me that this is the place where you’re supposed to be acquiring knowledge and developing ways of thinking, and knowledge to me is only significant in so far as it makes a difference in the world. So students should be in the forefront of radical struggles. Students have always played major roles in revolution. Those of us who come from a different generation of activists have to recognize that it’s time for the younger generations to take the lead and show us the way.”
2. The Struggle For Freedom Is Ongoing and Evolving
“I don’t know whether one can define the parameters and limits of freedom. Because I see our consciousness of freedom as developing, as we struggle for freedom. Freedom might look like one particular set of conditions at one moment in history, but then later it becomes more complicated.
“I often talk about the fact that when I first became an activist, we were are fighting for freedom for the Black man. And that is how we conceptualize freedom, that was the vocabulary that we used. But even though so many of those who were involved in the struggle were women, we didn’t realize we weren’t even writing ourselves into that narrative of freedom. So then we brought gender into the picture, which creates a whole new set of conditions. And I think that is what we do as we move along.
“Now we recognize issues such as sexuality, and the non-binary structure of gender, all of this is relatively new. And then I think eventually, we’re going to have to look at the capitalist industrial production of food and its impact on animals, and [the environment] is going to be a part of the way we conceptualize freedom. I think that what is exciting about committing oneself to the struggle for freedom, is that as one moves along, and as one wins victories, one learns more about the possibilities that can be contained within the category of freedom.”
3. Security Doesn’t Have to Depend on Violence
“We have to develop new modes of collective security. Unfortunately, when we think about security, we immediately go to the police. I think, this is an important period because we’re beginning to recognize that those ideological impulses are what gets us in trouble so much. Just as we’re calling for a re-conceptualization of what security means in the larger society, so that we don’t have to depend on violence, it seems crazy that we rely on these systems of violence for our security against violence, since that security continually produces and reproduces the violence. Sometimes we get caught up in those contradictions without having ways to navigate them.”
4. Fear Doesn’t Have to Stop Us From Acting
“It’s OK to have a certain kind of fear because we don’t want to just completely neglect the problems and those things that might cause pain and fear. But I like the point that Audre Lorde made, about fear not having to immobilize us. Fear doesn’t have to stop us. We can be afraid, and we can still act.
“What is so amazing about Black history is that even though there has been unspeakable violence, even though there have been insurmountable barriers, Black people have persevered, and have not only persevered, but have learned how to create beauty and pleasure in the midst of experiencing that fear. So I think that when we teach young people about the past, we don’t focus only on all of the violence and pain and suffering, we focus on the beauty that was produced, the art that came out of that. Black people have created art that is the only real contribution this country has made to the world; that’s known all over the place.”
5. Know Your Purpose, And Progress
“To be a revolutionary is also to learn how to experience collective love, and to learn how to remake relations with your comrades so that they foreshadow what it is that we’re trying to strive for. And that means that we have to take care of each other, and develop ways of guaranteeing that we can’t take care of each other. But it doesn’t have to come to the point where the person becomes suicidal.
“I think this is just beginning to be worked on. Those of us who may have important contributions, kind of start to age out. I still feel like I’m a revolutionary, but I also know what I do not know. And I also know that young people know best how to engage with all of these temporary changes, and who have begun to deal with things like new forms of leadership. What was so great about Black Lives Matter, aside from the fact that we’ve found ways to continue the struggle against police violence beyond the individual cases, we know it has something to do with getting rid of the apparatus itself. But the new motions of leadership that women can lead, that queer women can lead, queer black women can lead … and can talk about a leadership that doesn’t rely on masculine paradigms. I love Martin Luther King, [Jr.] and Malcolm [X], but we’re beyond that now. And it’s young people who know best where we’re going.”