Marxist History: USA: Black Panther Party
Interviewer: Your mentor, Herbert Marcuse once back in '58, as I recall, said that one of the things that would happen as blacks made gains in the civil rights movement was that there would be the creation of a black bourgeoisie and that's certainly been one of the things that's happened as we look back from the vantage point of 1997. How do you see the role of the black bourgeoisie in the continuing struggle?
Davis: Actually we've had a black bourgeoisie or the makings of a black bourgeoisie for many more decades.... if we look at one of our great leaders, W.E.B. Du Bois, he was associated with a very minuscule black bourgeoisie in the 19th century so this is not something that is substantively new although the numbers of black people who now count themselves among the black bourgeoisie certainly does make an enormous difference.
In a sense the quest for the emancipation of black people in the US has always been a quest for economic liberation which means to a certain extent that the rise of black middle class would be inevitable. What I think is different today is the lack of political connection between the black middle class and the increasing numbers of black people who are more impoverished than ever before.
Interviewer: Isn't that inevitable though? Hasn't every immigrant group, as it becomes part of the American mainstream, left behind its roots in a certain way?
Davis: That's true but I think the contemporary problem that we are facing increasing numbers of black people and other people of color being thrown into a status that involves work in alternative economies and increasing numbers of people who are incarcerated. This is new. This is not the typical path toward freedom that immigrants have traditionally discovered in the US.
And I guess what I would say is that we can't think narrowly about movements for black liberation and we can't necessarily see this class division as simply a product or a certain strategy that black movements have developed for liberation. But rather we have to look at the structural changes that have also accompanied the gains of the civil rights movement. We have to look at for example the increasing globalization of capital, the whole system of transitional capitalism now which has had an impact on black populations — that has for example eradicated large numbers of jobs that black people traditionally have been able to count upon and created communities where the tax base is lost now as a result of corporations moving to the third world in order to discover cheap labor. I would suggest is that in the latter 1990s it is extremely important to look at the predicament of black people within the context of the globalization of capital.
Interviewer: One of the things that struck me as I've gone back and revisited this history —is that Martin Luther King starts this movement for economic justice just before he's assassinated. The Black Panther party is just getting off the ground here in California and in a way there seems like there was a march towards merging these issues of class and race in the late 60s that somehow got derailed.
Davis: Yes, I think it's really important to acknowledge that Dr. King, precisely at the moment of his assassination, was re-conceptualizing the civil rights movement and moving toward a sort of coalitional relationship with the trade union movement. It's I think quite significant that he was in Memphis to participate in a demonstration by sanitation workers who had gone out on strike. Now, if we look at the way in which the labor movement itself has evolved over the last couple of decades, we see increasing numbers of black people who are in the leadership of the labor movement and this is true today.
Interviewer: We also see an increasingly weaker labor movement.
Davis: Well, we see an increasingly weaker labor movement as a result of the overall assault on the labor movement and as a result of the globalization of capital. So yeah, you're absolutely right, but I'm thinking about some developments say in the 80s when the anti-apartheid movement began to claim more support and strength within the US. Black trade unionists played a really important role in developing this US anti-apartheid movement. For example, right here in the Bay Area one of the first major activist moments was the refusal on the part of the longshoremen's union to unload ships that were coming in from South Africa and the ILWU then took the leadership here in the Bay Area, particularly as a result of the black caucus within the ILWU, they took the leadership in creating an anti-apartheid movement that spread to all of the campuses, UC Berkeley, Stanford.
Interviewer: At least from my vantage point, back then it seemed we were attacking structures and institutions and after a certain point it began to feel like it wasn't possible. Our leaders were assassinated, one of the things I was reading today was — 28 Panthers were killed by the police but 300 Black Panthers were killed by other Panthers just within — internecine warfare. It just began to seem like we were in an impossible task given what we were facing. How do we reawaken that sense that one person can really make that difference again now? And kids these days are kind of going back to Tupac and Snoop Doggy Dogg as examples of people that stand for something.
Davis: It's true that it's within the realm of cultural politics that young people tend to work through political issues, which I think is good, although it's not going to solve the problems. I guess I would say first of all that we tend to go back to the 60s and we tend to see these struggles and these goals in a relatively static way. The fact is important gains were made and those gains are still visible today. For example, the number of African-American studies programs that are on college campuses today. Those institutional changes are inconceivable outside of that development within — related to the Black Panther party and other organizations. Young people began to take those struggles onto the campuses
Interviewer: The last line in the essay Skip Gates has in The Future of the Race is— "only sometimes do I feel guilty that I was one of the lucky ones. Only sometimes do I ask myself why." I wonder whether you ever feel guilty for having been one of those who have survived?
Davis: Well, I think about it. But I don't know whether I feel guilty. I think that has to do with my awareness that in a sense we all have a certain measure of responsibility to those who have made it possible for us to take advantage of the opportunities. The door is opened only so far. If some of us can squeeze through the crack of that door, then we owe it to those who have made those demands that the door be opened to use the knowledge or the skills that we acquire not only for ourselves but in the service of the community as well. This is something that I guess I decided a long time ago.
Interviewer: But still there were those who were arrested around the same time you are were still in prison? You got out — you got off in some ways because you had become such a cause celebre that there were others who didn't have.
Davis: I mean that's true but I am actually addressing your question about guilt, and I'm trying to suggest that maybe there are other ways to deal with it than with guilt. So rather than feeling guilty is what I have done is to continue the work. As soon as I got out of jail, as soon as my trial was over, first of all, during the time I was in jail, there was an organization called the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, and I insisted that it be called National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners.
As soon as my trial was over, we tried to use the energy that had developed around my case to create another organization, which we called the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression. And, what? in June it will have been 25 years since my trial was over. I'm still working for the freedom of political prisoners, Mumia Abu Jamal, the Puerto Rican political prisoners, such as Dinci Pargan, for example, Leonard Pelletier. I'm involved in the work around prison rights in general. I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement. Then I don't think it's necessary to feel guilty. Because I know that I'm still doing the work that is going to help more sisters and brothers to challenge the whole criminal justice system, and I'm trying to use whatever knowledge I was able to acquire to continue to do the work in our communities that will move us forward.
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 structures again?
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 to.
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 attitudes.
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 people 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 bad?
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 issue?
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 those shoes are made in Indonesia or wherever, at the same time 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.
Interview: Before February 10, 1998
Source: PBS: Frontline
Transcription/Markup: PBS/Brian Baggins
Online Version: PBS Online 1998; Marxist History Archive (marxists.org) 2001