Two stories shape our lives: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the master social narrative that defines our relationships and roles within society. A defining moment for people of color and women comes when they recognize they either are not included in the dominant social narrative or are belittled and disempowered by it. When people in marginalized groups offer what’s known as a “counter narrative,” they open up new worlds of possibility for themselves and others in their group. I’ve always been most inspired by those with the courage to bring forth a counter narrative that creates a new social narrative into which I could step. This series of stories features such people. I hope you find them as inspiring as I have. For more on the importance of the stories we tell—and believe—about ourselves, and the power we can claim when we re-author those stories and offer counter narratives, please see The Power of Counter Narrative.
Angela Y. Davis
Activist, Scholar, Feminist
“Talk about blazing courage,” says Chris Cavanaugh-Simmons. “Blazing courage that I had never seen in a woman up to that time! And for her to be a black woman—you knew she was at risk. Terrible risk. It took so much courage and strength for her to bring forth a counter narrative. It is just, like, ‘Wow!’”
Angela Y. Davis announced herself to America, including Chris, in the autumn of 1969 when she began teaching philosophy at UCLA. She was a Communist, an associate of the Black Panther Party, a radical feminist, and a black woman; she naturally drew a lot of media attention. There’s a photo of her entering Royce Hall for her first lecture; the crowd has parted for her, a newsreel camera is capturing the scene, people are smiling. You realize that a big group of college students, of all colors and backgrounds, are about to get their thinking shaken and stirred (which, needless to say, is what college is all about). You realize it’s a day they will never forget. You realize it’s one of the most interesting days in the recent history of U.S. academe.
You also realize Davis knew full well she was on the frontier of bringing a new narrative forward. That’s where the courage came in. She was rising above problematic narratives—related to her political beliefs, her skin color, her gender—and weaving a new story. She knew there’d be resistance, and there was.
Davis got fired from that job, got re-hired, and got fired again, with her radical politics a consistent aspect of the months-long controversy.
Born in 1944, Angela Davis spent her childhood in a war zone—Birmingham, Alabama, where white supremacists firebombed homes owned by black people. The neighborhood where Davis grew up became known as “Dynamite Hill.” Violence, Davis says, was “very much the norm” in her city in the ’50s and early ’60s.
She was politically conscious at a young age. Her parents were both teachers; the issues of the day, and the stark facts of oppression, were topics of regular conversation in the household. “My mother was an activist,” said Davis in a recent interview. “She constantly told her children that the conditions with which we were living weren’t supposed to be that way. Even when I was as young as three or four, she said, ‘You may not be able to go to that museum now, but someday, you’ll be able to.’”
In 1954, when Davis was ten, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 9-0 vote, struck down key aspects of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Davis thought: “This probably is going to be the beginning of a new era.”
The most infamous and horrific Birmingham bombing came in September 1963, with the attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church and the deaths of four girls as they donned choir robes in preparation for a sermon titled “The Love That Forgives.” Davis knew some of the girls. The event shaped an early script of commitment to creating a different and better world.
An honors graduate of Brandeis, she became a student of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who helped her see that she could become an intellectual, activist, and revolutionary, all at once. And so she did, inspiring many people, unsettling others. She was called a “terrorist” by President Richard Nixon and appeared on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. She was tried and acquitted for involvement in a 1970 takeover of a California courtroom in which four people died.
Davis taught at San Francisco State University in the early ’80s, and in the mid-’80s began lecturing at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She was made a professor at Santa Cruz in 1991, teaching African-American Studies, Feminist Studies, and the History of Consciousness, becoming an expert on the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. “Davis has long challenged neoliberal claims that we’ve achieved a color-blind society,” wrote historian Robin D.G. Kelley in 2012.
She spent time in jail as a young revolutionary and was horrified by the conditions. Prison reform (and, in fact, prison abolition) became a lifelong cause. In 1997 she co-founded the grassroots organization Critical Resistance (criticalresistance.org), helping to develop the idea of a “prison industrial complex.” Among her many books: “Are Prisons Obsolete?” (2003) and “The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues” (2012). (She published an early memoir in 1974: “Angela Davis: An Autobiography.”) She left the Communist Party in the early ’90s and came out as a lesbian in the late ’90s.
The events of the 1950s and ’60s, says Davis, must not be consigned to the realm of historical abstraction: “That we find ourselves in jail, beaten on the streets, or killed is not the work of accident or coincidence,” she says. “The vestiges of an era where racist violence was the norm, and was condoned by officials, from local governments to Washington, are still haunting us.”
YouTube has an extraordinary, lengthy interview with Davis conducted in 2009 by the University of Virginia. (“Angela David Interviewed by Julian Bond: Explorations in Black Leadership Series”). You see Davis’ full worth here, clear and true, free of media shadings. You see intelligence, wit, warmth, common sense. You see blazing courage, a questing spirit, and deep maturity.
Toward the end of the conversation, Bond asks her about leadership in the Internet Age. Her reply:
“If in the ’60s and ’70s we had had those technologies of communication (such as the Internet), we could’ve made a revolution, you know, because I think about how difficult it was to be in touch with people in other parts of the country and in the cities where we worked and organized; so I’m really excited about the possibilities of the future. I think that leadership is going to have to listen to youth, to the imagination and the creativity and the vision of young people . . . (Young people) stand on our shoulders and they can reach much higher and I think leadership, no matter how crazy young people might sometimes sound, leadership has to learn to listen to the voices of the youth.”