INTERVIEWER: One of the problems, as we came into the 70s is it seemed as
though we were fighting institutions and structures that were so big that there
just seemed to be nothing that one person could do about them... How do we
recapture that sense of a kind of power of being bold enough to take on those
DAVIS: I don't know whether the movement crashed as a result of the
overwhelming character of the institutions we set out to change. I think
repression had a lot to do with the dismantling of the movement and also the
winning of certain victories had something to do with the inability of the
movement to take those victories as the launching point for new goals and
developing new strategies.
But I do think it's extremely important to acknowledge the gains that were
made by the civil rights movement, the black power movement. I don't think we
do that enough.. Institutional transformations happened directly as a result
of the movements that people, unnamed people, organized and gave their lives
INTERVIEWER: Such as?
DAVIS: I'm thinking about the desegregation of the south, for example,
and the fact that some black women decided to boycott the bus system and this
was actually done and eventually those laws were transformed or changed.
INTERVIEWER: The other thing that happened of course is that the struggle
isn't so much taking place on college campuses any more, it's taking place in
corporate board rooms or within the corporate structure and those of us who are
there are both -- it's a weird thing happening. On one hand we're more
reticent about taking on the racist things that we see happening within that
environment, but the other thing that's happening is we're becoming more
Afrocentric at the same time. It's almost like, we kind of feel like if we
show up wearing our kente cloth that that's it, we've done our struggle. What
is that about? Where does that come from?
DAVIS: I think it arises out of a tendency often to conflate cultural
blackness with anti-racism. I think this is another case where there are
lessons to be learned during the period of the 60s when organizations like the
Black Panther Party were coming into being, there were other cultural
nationalist organizations such as US Organization, such as the organization
that Amiri Baraka developed and of course Amiri OK, there was the black arts
movement which was extremely important, but there was also Baraka's political
organization in Newark that took a cultural nationalist position that assumed
that if we were able to connect with the culture of our African ancestors that
somehow or another these vast problems surrounding us, racism in education, in
the school, racism in the economy, in health care, etc would disappear. They
were very interesting conflicts and debates between groups like the Black
Panther party and the cultural nationalist groups in the 60s.
INTERVIEWER: What were those debates? What was the nature of that debate
between the Black Panther and say a group like US?
DAVIS: The debate often focused on what young black people wanting to
associate themselves with a movement for liberation should do, whether they
should become active in campaigns against police violence, for example, or
whether they should focus their energy on wearing African clothes and changing
their name and developing rituals. One of the names members of the Black
Panther Party used to call those who focused on Africa and African rituals was
sort of pork chop nationalists. There were some of us who argued that yes, we
need to develop a cultural consciousness of our connection with Africa
particularly since racist structures had relied upon the sort of cultural
genocide going back to the period of slavery so that many of us were arguing
that we could affirm our connection with our African ancestors in political
ways as well, following for example Dr. Du Bois' vision of pan-Africanism which
was an anti-imperialist notion of pan-Africanism rather than the pan-Africanism
that projected a very idealized, romantic image of Africa, a fictional notion
of Africa and assumed that all we needed to do was to become African, so to
speak, rather than become involved in organized anti-imperialist struggles. So
I think that the debate around pan-Africanism at the beginning, in the
aftermath of world war I, for example, that Dr. Du Bois participated in, took
on a different character but recapitulated some of the very same kinds of
concepts and issues in the 1960s.
INTERVIEWER: So what does it say to you that here we are in 1997 and the
pan-Africanist/cultural nationalist agenda is the one that the commercial side,
that Wall Street has fastened onto--that side seems to have been triumphant and
that the anti-imperialist movement is, not in retreat, but certainly not being
heard from as much.
DAVIS: It doesn't surprise me that aspect of the black nationalist
movement, the cultural side, has triumphed because that is the aspect of the
movement that was most commodifiable and when we look at the commodification of
blackness we're looking at a phenomenon that's very profitable and it's
connection with the rise of a black middle class I think is very obvious. As
far as the tradition of struggle and tradition of anti-imperialist,
anti-capitalist struggle I think that is one that has to be fought for and
recrafted continuously. It's not going to happen on its own, it's not going to
be taken up by the capitalist corporations and presented as something that is
both profitable and something that is pleasurable to masses of people.
INTERVIEWER: In a way I find it interesting that Kwanzaa -- you know
Karenga's ideas which apparently seem to have been financed by the FBI, at
least in part, are the ones that now most black folks would say they would hold
to and not the ideals of the Panther Party which were about survival, at least
in some part an economic survival.
DAVIS: To a certain extent I think both traditions have survived. The
cultural nationalist tradition has been commodified and therefore it has been
worked into the whole institution of capitalism in a way that the traditions of
struggling against police violence have not, but those traditions are still
very much alive. As a matter of fact I think that the response to the OJ
Simpson trial was based on a kind of sensibility that emerged out of the many
campaigns to defend black communities against police violence. It just so
happened that a figure like OJ Simpson was the one who benefited from those
sensibilities, but I think it's important to affirm the fact that sensibility
continues to exist and a kind of desire for black movements continues to exist
even, I think, among middle class black people.
This accounts, I think, for the success of the Million Man March because
black people tend to think of themselves as a people in struggle. This has
been our history within this country and there's a kind of nostalgia for those
moments where the struggle becomes dramatic and visible and powerful, although
the Million Man March wasn't such a moment, I would argue, because there were
no political demands that addressed the major problems that black communities
are confronting yet there were the images of struggle, there were the images of
masses of people that I think affected and brought pleasure to and moved so
many black people. Now perhaps we can use that. Perhaps we can rely on that
as we try to build movements that will address the impoverishment of masses of
black people, the prison/industrial complex. I have to maintain some hope that
that's possible. But at the same time I think it is important to acknowledge
the extent to which the black middle class tends to rely on a kind of imagined
struggle that gets projected into commodities like kente cloth for example on
the one hand and images like the Million Man March.
INTERVIEWER: You were critical of the Million Man March before? What was
the substance of your criticism?
DAVIS: We developed this criticism on a number of accounts. First of
all, the failure to integrate gender into the vision of what the black
community needed, the exclusion of women from the march itself although finally
I think someone said it's OK for black women to come, they don't have to stay
at home with the babies as they were urged to before. But my criticism was
also based on the conservative politics of the Million Man March, the
conservative politics, the tendency to rely on voluntarism, the way in which
the politics of the march coexisted quite harmoniously with the politics of a
Newt Gingrich, for example the focus on family values that again linked the
march to some of the most conservative developments in US society today, the
assault on women's reproductive rights, etc. If this march of a million black
men had raised issues such as the assault on the welfare system, the assault on
women's reproductive rights, if there had been a sense of how to address this
vast issue of violence against women, rather than assuming that a patriarchal
family structure in which black men would --
DAVIS: Atone but also assume their role as the patriarchs in the family,
cause that's what the atonement was all about. The black men were not really
being the fathers that they needed to be, not really taking on the burden of
the family in the way they needed to do it. I found that extremely problematic
because I think it's important for us to recognize that although historically
black communities have been very progressive with respect to issues of race and
with respect to struggles for racial equality, that does not necessarily
translate into progressive positions on gender issues, progressive positions on
issues of sexuality and in the latter 1990s we have to recognize the
intersectionality, the interconnectedness of all of these institutions and
INTERVIEWER: Now that the Million Man March is over, do you still feel it
was not a correct thing to have done?
DAVIS: Those of us who criticized the Million Man March -- were
not arguing that it shouldn't happen. We were arguing that debates around the
issues taken up by the march needed to be allowed particularly within black
communities. I guess what I would criticize today is the tendency to conflate
that dramatic moment with a movement.
The nostalgia within black communities for this mass movement which
involves vast numbers of black people coming together is something that can
often lead us in unproductive directions. Because in the past the
demonstrations that we think about -- the 1963 march on Washington, for
example, that march wasn't this moment that was organized against the backdrop
of nothing else. It was a demonstrating of the organizing that had been going
on for years and years and to assume that one can call a march on Washington
and have that be a movement in the 1990s is I think a tremendous mistake. I
would say perhaps the importance of the Million Man March was that it
stimulated a great deal of discussion. Perhaps it brought to people's
attention the fact that we need to begin to regenerate an approach towards
grassroots organizing that will help us in the direction of a mass movement.
There was a tendency of the middle class men who I think participated in
that march to passionately identify with the brother on the street without
taking up the kinds of political issues that are required to move black
who are in poverty in a progressive direction.
INTERVIEWER: Of course the brothers on the street are identifying with the
gangster rappers or at least the younger brothers on the street are, which is a
whole other level of symbolic identity.
DAVIS: And not only the brothers on the street but the middle class
brothers are also identifying with the gangster rappers because of the
extent to which this music circulates. It becomes possible for the -- not
only the young middle class men, but it becomes possible for young middle class
white men and young men of other racial communities to identify with the
misogyny of gangster rap.
INTERVIEWER: Well, it's not just misogyny. Now it's kind of moved
just a straight crass materialism. The latest ones are just -- they just name
off name brands. That's the progression of it. How have we reached a point
where in 1997 that the ethic of being black means that you don't go to school
to learn. That learning is equated with whiteness and that somehow that is
DAVIS: Well, whether it's the approach that all young black kids
are encouraged to take or decide to take. Because you do have this rising
middle class and you do have the young brothers and sisters who are moving
toward the corporate arena and who are encouraged to do this arena from the
time that they are very young. I think this is one of those moments where we
also have to talk about the deterioration of the institutions.
I can't really blame a lot of young sisters and brothers who believe
that education has anything to offer them. Because as a matter of fact, it has
nothing to offer them. Suppose they do get a high school diploma that is
meaningful. What kind of job is awaiting them. The jobs that used to be
available to working class people are not there as a result of the
de-industrialization of this economy.
Therefore, often young black people are looking towards the alternative
economies. They are looking towards the drug economy.... the economies that
are going to -- that apparently will produce some kind of material gain for
them. You can't criticize people for wanting to have a decent life or wanting
to live decently. While I think that it is true that there is a great deal to
be done with respect to the ideas that circulate among young people within
arenas such as hip hop. At the same time, we can't forget about the
deterioration of the institutions and the structural influence on young people.
INTERVIEWER: Bring us back to globalization of capital.
How do you mobilize around an issue like globalization of capital?
DAVIS: Well, you mobilize around globalization of capital in local ways.
Obviously there are some organizations that go out on the street and say we
want an end to the capitalist system. But obviously that is not going to
happen as a result of just assuming that stance. I think in black communities
today we need to encourage a lot more cross racial organizing. For example, we
look at the assault on immigrants. Both legal immigrants and undocumented
immigrants. Where does the black community stand with respect to that
I think it is important to recognize that there is a connection between
the predicament of poor black people and the predicament of immigrants who
come to this country in search of a better life. The de industrialization of
the US. economy based on the migration of corporations into third world areas
where labor is very cheap and thus more profitable for these companies creates
on the one hand conditions in those countries that encourage people to emigrate
to the US. in search of a better life. On the other hand, it creates
conditions here that send more black people into the alternative economies, the
drug economies, women into economies in sexual services, and sends them
into the prison industrial complex.
So we have to figure out how to formulate issues that are going to
bring those of us together who are affected in one way or another by the
globalization of capital...When we consider how much a young black person wants
to, or is willing to pay for a pair of Nike's, right? -- and then think about
the conditions under which tose shoes are made in Indonesia or wherever, uh, at
the same time that that young sister or brother will be treated on the labor
market here as indispensible and perhaps as someone to be cast away into the
prison system. So there are reasons for coming together if we can figure out
some specific kinds of strategies and tactics that will allow it. I think this
is the real challenge for this era, which means we have to get away from a
narrow conception of blackness. We can't talk about the black community.
It's no longer a homogeneous community; it was never a homogeneous community.
At one point, it did make sense to talk about the black community because we
were struggling against the profound impact of racism on people's lives in
various ways. We still have to struggle against the impact of racism, but it
doesn't happen in the same way. I think it is much more complicated today than
it ever was.
INTERVIEWER: Does the fact that black folks are now a heterogeneous
community absolve us from the obligation to keep reaching back -- everybody to
reach back, each one -- reach one?
DAVIS: I think we need to insist on a certain responsibility, which
people have -- particularly those who have made it into the ranks of the middle
class because as Dr. King said many years ago in a sense they have climbed out
of the masses on the shoulders of their sisters and brothers and therefore,
they do have some responsibility.
But whether people would be willing to assume that responsibility or not
is something that is up to them. We cannot assume that people by virtue of the
fact that they are black are going to associate themselves with progressive
political struggles. We need to divest ourselves the kinds of strategies that
assume that black unity -- black political unity is possible.
INTERVIEWER: What's the coalition?
DAVIS: Political coalition. Politically based coalitions. I think we
have to really focus on the issues much more than we may have in the past. I
think we have to, as I said before, seek to create coalitional strategies that
go beyond racial lines. We need to bring black communities, Chicano
communities, Puerto Rican communities, Asian American communities together.