Angela Davis is a political activist, academic and author from the United States of America, who was born on the 26th January 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. She studied French and Philosophy in Europe, being taught by Herbert Marcuse, a prominent figure in the Marxism movement. During her doctorate studies, both in the US and East Germany, her passion for the far-left grew, joining the Communist Party and other causes including The Black Panther Party and anti-war.
Davis has authored more than ten books on a range of topics including feminism and the prison system in America, as well as being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She heled roles at multiple universities, including the feminist studies department at the University of California. Following her retirement from education, she continued to write and play an active role in many campaigns.
She was also involved in a controversy, being linked to firearms used in an armed takeover of a courtroom that led to four deaths. She was imprisoned but after one year, acquitted of the charges. She regularly travelled to communist states and was a member of the Communist Party USA until 1991.
Praised by many on the left and criticised for her support of political violence, her quotations inspire and cause debate in equal measure.
1. Radical simply means “grasping things at the root.
2. I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.
3. The idea of freedom is inspiring. But what does it mean? If you are free in a political sense but have no food, what’s that? The freedom to starve?
4. [Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and,
increasingly, global capitalism.
5. We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.
6. You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.
7. If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.
8. Sometimes we have to do the work even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible.
9. When Obama was elected president, a prisoner said “one black man in the White House doesn’t make up for one million black men in the Big
10. We know the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.
11. We have inherited a fear of memories of slavery. It is as if to remember and acknowledge slavery would amount to our being consumed by it. As a matter of fact, in the popular black imagination, it is easier for us to construct ourselves as children of Africa, as the sons and daughters of kings and queens, and thereby ignore the Middle Passage and centuries of enforced servitude in the Americas. Although some of us might indeed be the descendants of African royalty, most of us are probably descendants of their subjects, the daughters and sons of African peasants or workers.
12. Pregressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensity social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation
13. In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.
14. I try never to take myself for granted as somebody who should be out there speaking. Rather, I’m doing it only because I feel there’s something important that needs to be conveyed.
15. Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.
16. It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.
17. Everyone is familiar with the slogan “The personal is political” — not only that what we experience on a personal level has profound political implications, but that our interior lives, our emotional lives are very much informed by ideology. We oftentimes do the work of the state in and through our interior lives. What we often assume belongs most intimately to ourselves and to our emotional life has been produced elsewhere and has been recruited to do the work of racism and repression.
18. One of the reasons that so many people of color and poor people are in prison is that the deindustrialization of the economy has led to the creation of new economies and the expansion of some old ones – I have already mentioned the drug trade and the market for sexual services. At the same time, though, there are any number of communities that more than welcome prisons as a source of employment. Communities even compete with one another to be the site where new prisons will be constructed because prisons create a significant number of relatively good jobs for their residents
19. The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs—it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.
20. A woman of color formation might decide to work around immigration issues. This political commitment is not based on the specific histories of racialized communities or its constituent members, but rather constructs an agenda agreed upon by all who are a part of it. In my opinion, the most exciting potential of women of color formations resides in the possibility of politicizing this identity – basing the identity on politics rather than the politics on identity.
21. If we do not know how to meaningfully talk about racism, our actions will move in misleading directions.
22. What can we learn from women like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday that we may not be able to learn from Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell? If we were beginning to appreciate the blasphemies of fictionalized blues women – especially their outrageous politics of sexuality – and the knowledge that might be gleaned from their lives about the possibilities of transforming gender relations within black communities, perhaps we also could benefit from a look at the artistic contributions of the original blues women.
23. I don’t think we have any alternative other than remaining optimistic. Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will, as Gramsci said, and pessimism of the intellect.
24. In many ways you can say that the prison serves as an institution that consolidates the state’s inability and refusal to address the most pressing social problems of this era.
25. I feel that if we don’t take seriously the ways in which racism is embedded in structures of institutions, if we assume that there must be an identifiable racist who is the perpetrator, then we won’t ever succeed in eradicating racism.
26. But there’s a message there for everyone and it is that people can unite, that democracy from below can challenge oligarchy, that imprisoned migrants can be freed, that fascism can be overcome, and that equality is emancipatory. The
27. If Black people had simply accepted a status of economic and political inferiority, the mob murders would probably have subsided. But because vast numbers of ex-slaves refused to discard their dreams of progress, more than ten thousand lynchings occurred during the three decades following the war.
28. Anyway I don’t think we can rely on governments, regardless of who is in power, to do the work that only mass movements can do.
29. The roots of sexism and homophobia are found in the same economic and political institutions that serve as the foundation of racism in this country and, more often than not, the same extremist circles that inflict violence on people of color are responsible for the eruptions of violence inspired by sexist and homophobic biases. Our political activism must clearly manifest our understanding of these connections. We
30. Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around whom you are struggling as equal partners.
31. In seeking to understand this gendered difference in the perception of prisoners, it should be kept in mind that as the prison emerged and evolved as the major form of public punishment, women continued to be routinely subjected to forms of punishment that have not been acknowledged as such. For example, women have been incarcerated in psychiatric institutions in greater proportions than in prisons. 79 Studies indicating that women have been even more likely to end up in mental facilities than men suggest that while jails and prisons have been dominant institutions for the control of men, mental institutions have served a similar purpose for women. That deviant men have been constructed as criminal, while deviant women have been constructed as insane. Regimes that reflect this assumption continue to inform the women’s prison. Psychiatric drugs continue to be distributed far more extensively to imprisoned women than to their male counterparts.
32. Feminism insists on methods of thought and action that urge us to think about things together that appear to be separate, and to disaggregate things that appear to naturally belong together.
33. “Woman” was the test, but not every woman seemed to qualify. Black women, of course, were virtually invisible within the protracted campaign for woman suffrage. As for white working-class women, the suffrage leaders were probably impressed at first by the organizing efforts and militancy of their working-class sisters. But as it turned out, the working women themselves did not enthusiastically embrace the cause of woman suffrage.
34. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle. What
35. The food we eat masks so much cruelty. The fact that we can sit down and eat a piece of chicken without thinking about the horrendous conditions under which chickens are industrially bred in this country is a sign of the dangers of capitalism, how capitalism has colonized our minds. The fact that we look no further than the commodity itself, the fact that we refuse to understand the relationships that underly the commodities that we use on a daily basis. And so food is like that.
36. The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison. There are thus real and often quite complicated connections between the deindustrialization of the economy—a process that reached its peak during the 1980s—and the rise of mass imprisonment, which also began to spiral during the Reagan-Bush era. However, the demand for more prisons was represented to the public in simplistic terms. More prisons were needed because there was more crime. Yet many scholars have demonstrated that by the time the prison construction boom began, official crime statistics were already falling.
37. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison. There are thus real and often quite complicated connections between the deindustrialization of the economy—a process that reached its peak during the 1980s—and the rise of mass imprisonment, which also began to spiral during the Reagan-Bush era.
38. Of course, there’s a grave collective psychic damage that is a consequence of not being acknowledged within the context of one’s ancestry. Those of us of African descent in the US of my age are familiar with that sense of not being able to trace our ancestry beyond, as in my case, one grandmother.
39. Neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators. But how is it possible to solve the massive problem of racist state violence by calling upon individual police officers to bear the burden of that history and to assume that by prosecuting them, by exacting our revenge on them, we would have somehow made progress in eradicating racism?
40. If indeed all lives mattered, we would not need to emphatically proclaim that “Black Lives Matter.” Or, as we discover on the BLM website: Black Women Matter, Black Girls Matter, Black Gay Lives Matter, Black Bi Lives Matter, Black Boys Matter, Black Queer Lives Matter, Black Men Matter, Black Lesbians Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter, Black Immigrants Matter, Black Incarcerated Lives Matter. Black Differently Abled Lives Matter. Yes, Black Lives Matter, Latino/Asian American/Native American/Muslim/Poor and Working-Class White Peoples Lives matter. There are many more specific instances we would have to nane before we can ethically and comfortably claim that All Lives Matter.
41. And I should say parenthetically, when I learned about this in May, I remembered when I was placed on the Ten Most Wanted. I didn’t make the Ten Most Wanted terrorist list, I think they didn’t have one at that time, but I made the Ten Most Wanted criminal list. And I was represented as armed and dangerous. And you know one of the things I remember thinking to myself was, what is this all about? What could I possibly do? And then I realized it wasn’t about me at all; it wasn’t about the individual at all. It was about sending a message to large numbers of people whom they thought they could discourage from involvement in the freedom struggles at that time.
42. Our histories never unfold in isolation. We cannot truly tell what we consider to be our own histories without knowing the other stories. And often we discover that those other stories are actually our own stories.
43. We must begin to create a revolutionary, multiracial women’s movement that seriously addresses the main issues affecting poor and working-class women.
44. What this country needs is more unemployed politicians.
45. An attempt to create a new conceptual terrain for imagining alternatives to imprisonment involves the ideological work of questioning why “criminals” have been constituted as a class and, indeed, a class of human beings undeserving of the civil and human rights accorded to others. Radical criminologists have long pointed out that the category “lawbreakers” is far greater than the category of individuals who are deemed criminals since, many point out, almost all of us have broken the
law at one time or another.
46. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.
47. The colonization of the Southern economy by capitalists from the North gave lynching its most vigorous impulse. If Black people, by means of terror and violence, could remain the most brutally exploited group within the swelling ranks of the working class, the capitalists could enjoy a double advantage. Extra profits would result from the superexploitation of Black labor, and white workers’ hostilities toward their employers would be defused. White workers who assented to lynching necessarily assumed a posture of racial solidarity with the white men who were really their oppressors. This was a critical moment in the popularization of racist ideology.
48. How can we produce a sense of belonging to communities in struggle that is not evaporated by the onslaught of our everyday routines? How do we build movements capable of generating the power to compel governments and corporations to curtail their violence?
49. Judged by the evolving nineteenth-century ideology of femininity, which emphasized women’s roles as nurturing mothers and gentle companions and housekeepers for their husbands, Black women were practically anomalies. Though
50. Deviant men have been constructed as criminal, while deviant women have been constructed as insane.
51. Social realities that may have appeared inalterable, impenetrable, came to be viewed as malleable and transformable; and people learned how to imagine what it might mean to live in a world that was not so exclusively governed by the principle of white supremacy. This collective consciousness emerged within the context of social struggles.
52. I think that this is an era where we have to encourage that sense of community particularly at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms and not in collective terms. It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.
53. There is a difference between outcome and impact. Many people assume that because the encampments are gone and nothing tangible was produced, that there was no outcome. But when we think about the impact of these imaginative and innovative actions and these moments where people learned how to be together without the scaffolding of the state, when they learned to solve problems without succumbing to the impulse of calling the police, that should serve as a true inspiration for the work that we will do in the future to build these transnational solidarities.
54. You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.
55. As a rule, white abolitionists either defended the industrial capitalists or expressed no conscious class loyalty at all. This unquestioning acceptance of the capitalist economic system was evident in the program of the women’s rights movement as well. If most abolitionists viewed slavery as a nasty blemish which needed to be eliminated, most women’s righters viewed male supremacy in a similar manner—as an immoral flaw in their otherwise acceptable society. The leaders of the women’s rights movement did not suspect that the enslavement of Black people in the South, the economic exploitation of Northern workers and the social oppression of women might be systematically related. Within
56. I often like to talk about feminism not as something that adheres to bodies, not as something grounded in gendered bodies, but as an approach- as a way of conceptualizing, as a methodology, as a guide to strategies for struggle. That means feminism doesn’t belong to anyone in particular
57. Communities are always political projects, political projects that can never solely rely on identity.
58. We wear the global sweat of women and girls on our bodies” – Angela Davis, lecture at UC Davis, Sponsored by the Women’s Resources and Research Center
59. Whoever challenged the racial hierarchy was marked a potential victim of the mob. The endless roster of the dead came to include every sort of insurgent—from the owners of successful Black businesses and workers pressing for higher wages to those who refused to be called “boy” and the defiant women who resisted white men’s sexual abuses. Yet public opinion had been captured, and it was taken for granted that lynching was a just response to the barbarous sexual crimes against white womanhood.
60. We know the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.