• Politics
  • Race

Angela Davis In Conversation With Yara Shahidi: ‘We’re Doing Today What Should Have Started 150 Years Ago’

10 minute read

Actor and activist Yara Shahidi was born in 2000, three decades after Angela Davis began wielding her platform as a UCLA professor for radical activism. But their generational gap hasn’t stopped them from becoming friends or uniting in their efforts to dismantle white supremacy. The pair reconvened on Zoom to discuss the global nature of their struggle and the value of voting, regardless of ideology.

Yara Shahidi: Dr. Davis, I know it’s been almost a year since our last meeting, and so much has come to light in that time. Many people are talking about how unprecedented what we’re going through is, when, in reality, there have been generations of precedent set. What is the importance of opening the conversation to involve many generations?

Angela Davis: It seems like this is the moment we’ve been struggling to reach for many decades. It’s an extraordinary moment—and when conjunctures like this happen, they happen almost serendipitously. But if we have been doing the organizing work over the decades, then we can seize the moment.

But at the same time, I think we’re formulating questions and addressing issues in ways that ought to have happened in the immediate aftermath of slavery. We’re doing today what should have been started 150 years ago. Of course, beginning to eliminate or even minimize the impacts of racism on structures and institutions in our society is going to require a great deal of labor: intellectual labor, activist labor.

The focus has largely been on Black people. I’m glad about this. But we should also acknowledge how essential it is to understand racism against indigenous people, and what you might call the unholy alliance of colonialism and slavery-produced, racist state violence. So that when we examine all the complex ways in which anti-Black racism expresses itself in this country, we also should look at anti-indigenous and anti-Latinx state violence.

YS: It makes me think back to that event at the Underground Museum [when they first met], and how impactful it was for me as a high schooler to have a globalist perspective in regard to connecting our struggles here to our communities globally. Right now is another moment in which we’re witnessing a world visibly in crisis after generations of colonialism and imperialism. I was wondering, when facing what seems like many a problem, how we go about fighting for them all? Is there a perspective we can help cultivate that allows us to simultaneously dismantle systems of white supremacy that have happened globally?

AD: From the time I was very young, from the earliest period of my activism, I became convinced that our work has to be global. This insight came to me when I was in Paris for the first time. I was in college, and I went to France in search of a place without racism: I thought I would find ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité.’ Instead, what I found was the Algerian revolution. I joined demonstrations against the French government in support of their liberation.

In this country, It’s difficult to persuade people to think about what is happening in Brazil, or Africa, or the Middle East, because such a U.S.-centric focus has been encouraged. But I think this crisis of COVID-19 and the fact that almost all of our public interactions are happening virtually allows us to understand how easy it is to be connected to what is going on in other places. I think we can learn a great deal from listening to people who are involved in other struggles.

YS: I go back to the words of James Baldwin, when he talked about how one of the greatest sins of white supremacy was taking away our global language and our ability to communicate with one another, making it harder to actively disassemble these common evils and racisms. I think what you’ve said about being virtual is also something my generation is trying to utilize to the best of its ability. It feels like I and some of my peers have received great benefit from being in direct connection with one another on social media, regardless of where we are. At the same time, social media also has the tendency to allow us to disappear things as trends pop up and then fade. Something I’m trying to figure out is how we maintain consistent touchpoints and sustain conversations.

AD: Social media is very important. Unlike you, my formative years were not spent with these new technologies. My experience as an organizer involves knocking on people’s doors. I’ll never forget when H. Rap Brown was in jail, we raised $100,000 for his bail by going door to door in Los Angeles, largely in South Central, asking people to donate coins! That sounds prehistoric at this point.

But it’s still important to try to encourage that kind of contact. I know how important it was back in 2014, when Ferguson happened, for people involved in the BLM movement to visit Palestine: To witness with their own eyes what was happening in occupied Palestine, after the Palestinians were the first to express solidarity with them.

I think It’s so important to utilize the technology—to use it as opposed to allowing the technology using us. As a friend of mine pointed out many years ago, how many likes you have is not necessarily an indication of the organizing work you’ve done.

YS: I can look at every photo I’ve posted and see how many people have shared it. It then creates a hierarchy of what we think makes an impact rather than what actually does. One question I had tangentially: Being a part of the social media world is often how one develops a political opinion. Do you have guidance for young people developing an opinion now, on how to develop a non-reactionary politic?

AD: As a person involved in education for the vast majority of my life, it’s so important to not to confuse information with knowledge. In this day and age, we all walk around with these cell phones that give us access to a vast amount of information. But that does not mean as a result that we are educated. Education relies precisely on learning the capacity to formulate questions—what we call critical thinking. Learning how to raise questions not only about the most complicated issues, but about the seemingly simplest issues, so important.

This is one of the reasons I find the trans movement so important. When one learns how to question the validity of the binary notion of gender, one is questioning that which has persistently been the most normal context of people’s lives. The work of ideology happens in those seemingly normal spaces.

This is also why the police-abolition campaign has been so important. Prisons and the police state are assumed to have been with us forever. So we begin to ask questions about how we address issues of harm without replicating the violence: how we create safety by not resorting to the same tools of violence that are responsible for us being unsafe.

YS: I love the wording of “questioning the most simple.” This summer, I was going through an African philosophy canon, and what it highlighted for me is these Euro-centric or U.S.-centric norms that have been established. For readers who are submersed in Western media, are there other texts we should be turning to subvert these norms?

AD: I’m reading this book now that’s on my desk: Françoise Vergès’ A Decolonial Feminism. Speaking of which, I know you’re passionate about feminism. I’m interested in how that passion is expressed in the social-justice work you’ve been doing over the last period.

YS: At first, my interest came from, “How do I interrogate my own identity?” I realized for so long that the primary prism through which I viewed most things was through being a brown and Black person in the world. It’s been an ongoing process of being more honest in my experience and the ways my identities layer on top of each other. What does it look like to structure a movement strong enough to hold many of our truths in one, while still actively dismantling the lack of equity that is often tied to presenting as a woman?

How has the hetero-normative tradition influenced the rest of our trajectory? While I do voting work, what does that mean to know that the solutions presented to us on the ballot aren’t perfect? How do I engage with voting while engaging with this larger movement of equity in these spaces?

AD: So, how do you?

YS: The conclusion I’ve come to is that it is by no means the only means of civic engagement. It is actively necessary to engage throughout the year in whatever way -possible—and the months of continued protests have helped nuance this conversation. There can no longer be this binary of whether to vote or not is the difference between having an equitable society and not.

AD: Or to assume there has to be a perfect candidate in order for us to participate in the electoral process. I was severely criticized when I suggested during the last election that we all needed to vote, even though the candidate was not the one we wanted. It was a difference between a candidate that would allow our movements to flourish, which would also include being extremely critical of that candidate once she was elected to office—or be faced with the alternative we have experienced. I’m someone who historically has not been excited at all about the electoral arena. I was excited only to the extent I knew how important achieving the right to vote was, because I myself wasn’t able to register in my home state of Alabama when I first attempted to. I always tended to vote for the other parties: The Communitist Party, the Peace and Freedom Party.

Now, and I hope I haven’t gotten less radical in my framework, but I think that we vote for our own capacity to continue to do the work that will bring about change. Individuals don’t change history or create transformative moments. Every major change in this country has been a consequence of a kind of collective imagination. So we have to ask, Will this candidate enable that kind of arena or shut it down? In a sense, when we vote, we’re either voting for ourselves or against ourselves.

YS: I love the term imagination. One of the strategies of white supremacy is to take away the potential of the Black imaginary. We’re in a moment right now of world building—in which it’s time to build a world not based on precedent, or even in reaction to the systems that have been set up, but truly independent, based on these values of equity.

So I view this election as an opportunity to reclaim our space for imagination. We know the people we vote for will not be perfect, but we will dedicate our time to actively critiquing and moving forward. We know at the very least, that overt white supremacy won’t be sanctioned. Not to say it won’t be allowed. There just may be more space for us.

Moderated by Andrew R. Chow

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com