Angela Davis and the Black Radical Tradition in the Era of Black Lives Matter


Over the past few days, hundreds of people joined Black Studies at the University of Texas for our first international conference, Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism. Along with papers and engaging conversations, those in attendance had the opportunity to hear Lezley McSpadden discuss her son Michael Brown, to see Saul Williams do with language what we might only inadequately describe as poetry, and to sit in awe as Angela Davis effortlessly, compellingly, and beautifully charted a genealogy of the Black Radical Tradition that now, in the wake of Black Lives Matter, is able to pursue something that previous generations could not have envisioned.

I am far too exhausted to write in any kind of detail about the conference. I am only writing now because The Root ran a story on Angela Davis’ talk that painfully misrepresents her remarks about the upcoming Presidential election, and which far too many people have taken as truth.

I offer here neither a full account of Davis’ talk, nor a rebuttal of anyone who, in the wake of that report, has offered some valuable perspectives about voting (or not) in the upcoming election. This is merely to offer more context for thinking about her brilliant talk.

First, The Root only reported on about two minutes of a nearly 45-minute talk; two minutes in which Angela Davis never endorsed Hillary Clinton, nor even said her name—not an insignificant point. That the magazine would so narrowly focus its attention is unfortunate. That so many would believe that Davis offered so simplistic an argument is sad.

Davis spent nearly 43 minutes on the Black Radical Tradition, offering what we might call, in contemporary parlance, a decolonial view of what our political present (BLM and M4BL) makes available for that tradition. While the Black Panther Party (BPP) could take the brilliant approach of policing the Oakland police with guns and law books, Davis pointed out that in doing so, the BPP accepted policing as a legitimate practice for a liberation struggle. Now, we are at a point where we can reject policing altogether, and call for the abolition of police and prisons.

Angela Davis at Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism, September 30, 2016 (Credit Minkah Makalani)
Angela Davis at Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism, September 30, 2016 (Credit: Minkah Makalani)

While The Root article fails to mention any of this, it does recount Davis’ remark that “we should have learned by now [that] the arena of electoral politics militates against the expression of [a] radical militant perspective.” Yet you would not know from this report that she outlined her vision of a new, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-sexist political party that would place the struggles and lives of black, Latinx, and Asian peoples alongside the struggles and lives of indigenous peoples fighting for land rights, the Palestinian struggle against settler colonialism, and the movement to abolish police and prisons. This was the context in which she announced that she would vote against Trump in the upcoming election, and while having serious problems with the other candidate, declared, “I am not so narcissistic to say I cannot bring myself to vote for her.”

In a talk centered on the Black Radical Tradition–how it might continue to formulate and re-formulate radical political valences and projects that reject the present social order–Davis made an observation that I fear we too easily dismiss in the current period.

Ida B. Wells

When an audience member asked Davis what can we do to bring about real change now, she warned against believing there is some magical solution, some secret formula that might bring us to some utopia. She pointed out that her work around prisons began in the 1960s, over forty years ago, and we are only now beginning to see results. She pointed out that Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign would only bear fruit after she was no longer alive to see it.

Whatever reaction one might have to that single sentence, it is troubling that more have not inquired about how this fit into her much longer talk. Contractually, we could not record her talk. But why assume that a news report of about 1,000 words might accurately capture the full spectrum of Angela Davis’ ideas and politics? Why would anyone ever think she could be so simplistic?

I certainly do not know, but what I can say is that she offered key insights on the Black Radical Tradition and contemporary black politics. One thing I took from her talk is that we should not see the inability of electoral politics to foster radical change to therefore mean that the franchise, even if limited and limiting, is not a legitimate political tool in the struggle to build a better world. 140 characters, or even a news report, are valuable political and intellectual tools. They cannot, however, encapsulate the intellectual and political range of so important a thinker.

Minkah Makalani, who co-chaired UT’s Black Matters conference with his colleague Cherise Smith, is associate professor in the department of African & African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Makalani works on intellectual history, black political thought, racial identity, and diaspora in the Caribbean, U.S., and Europe. He is the author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (UNC Press, 2011), and is co-editor (with Davarian Baldwin) of Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minnesota, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @minkmak.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “Angela Davis and the Black Radical Tradition in the Era of Black Lives Matter

  • Avatar

    The fact that they focused on her comments on the presidential election is important if only because a fair number of people on the Left in general or the Black Radical Tradition in particular, are refusing to vote for Clinton, meaning their refusal to vote or voting for a third party candidate will enhance the probability of Trump becoming the next president of the U.S., a prospect which anyone on the Left should be assiduously working against. Like it or not, and understanding its limitations (and thinking carefully about its potential), does not eliminate the fact that electoral politics are integral to any meaningful and modern (or post-modern) conception of a democratic politics, to any legitimate and just model or vision of democratic theory and praxis, radical or otherwise, thus including any erstwhile “radical” politics, of the sort Davis or the black radical tradition in general exemplifies: hence, however “limited and limiting,” we cannot ignore or dismiss the exercise of the franchise, which historically and globally, many lives have been sacrificed to extend in a meaningful way so as to give at least some voice to the voiceless. I doubt anyone “assume[d] that a news report of about 1,000 words might accurately capture the full spectrum of Angela Davis’ ideas and politics.” At least in this reader’s case, I understood this to be a simple snippet of something she said, something likely to surprise some folks…and that’s a good thing. Nobody sincerely or long on the Left entertains illusions or delusions about electoral politics, especially presidential elections. Nonetheless, who wins has enormous consequences for everything else we do by way of an emancipatory struggle self-determination, for liberty, equality, and solidarity. If we are going to be dismissive of electoral politics, then we’ve given up on democracy, at the very least we’ve failed to understand how those who hold electoral office can affect, for better and worse, the myriad conditions and the sustaining ethos of radical politics.

    • Avatar

      I see no need for a long reply to your argument. I agree with it. The exercise of the ballot, at this time in our history, makes far sense than the use of the bullet OR not voting at all.

      • Avatar


        “…makes far more sense….”

  • Avatar

    erratum: “…by way of an emancipatory struggle for self-determination….”

  • Avatar

    Folks who are familiar with the trajectory of Angela Davis know very well that she will always offer a serious, acute analysis of the Black radical tradition and how it speaks to today’s issues–in the U.S. as well as globally. Her recent interviews and her last book evidence this. And needless to say, for most activists, cultural actors, and scholars who are committed to the struggle for racial and social equality, Davis represents one of the most profound and inspiring sources of light–both for her actions and words.

    The frustration and disappointment some folks have felt–myself included–regarding Davis’s choice of words on the presidential election is inevitably connected to the power she represents within U.S. radical political traditions: Black and socialist. Personally, I have no particular qualms with Davis’ argument to get out the vote as part of a broader strategy that acknowledges the limitations of electoral politics (many folks in the left have been articulating this for a while–Adolph Reed for example), although it is not completely clear to me how we can translate the concept of a strategic vote into actual collective action and grassroots activism against the racist, plutocratic status quo, once the elections are over, particularly when we take into consideration the time, energy, and capital that the strategic vote movement signifies.

    In addition, from the current context in the presidential election, folks know very well what candidates Davis alluded to. As the first blog comment points out, Davis was clearly addressing folks on the left, Sanders supporters, BLM folks, and others who have used a similar language: “I cannot bring myself to vote for an imperialist, for a neoliberal, for a white supremacist like Hillary Clinton.” As partial and abstract as they seem, her words read in the end as an endorsement to vote against Trump and thus to vote for HRC.

    Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the force that the word “narcissism” has because of how this type of dismissal has been used—-by liberals, by HRC supporters, by the Clinton campaign, by Obama himself–against folks who have put into question the politics of the strategic vote. One cannot separate the word from how it operates within this discursive community. One could also add that this moralistic rhetoric is not particular to the present. It has been deployed in the past to invalidate and silence the left in the U.S., be it in in its Black nationalist or socialist form, or other political formations (the liberal backlash against Green Party in 2000, for example). Because of the power that such rhetoric holds and the authority that Davis represents within not only the Black radical tradition but the U.S. left in general, in the end I see no problem in focusing on Davis’s references to election politics in the context of the current political spectacle. This is not to suggest that her ideas are “simplistic.” On the contrary, to engage with the contradictions or problems one might find in her trajectory is one of the highest ways to pay respect to one of the most important thinkers in the Americas in the past fifty years, in spirit with her call for a “radical militant perspective.”

  • Avatar


  • Avatar

    The only difference between Hillary and Chump is he is outspoken in his racism!

  • Avatar

    It would be nice if someone could publish a link to Angela’s remarks so that we could read and judge for ourselves (what Angela said or did not say).

    • Keisha N. Blain

      The speech was not recorded. As a result, readers will have to rely on the written accounts from those who were present and heard the talk (or those who listened to the talk via live-stream). Unfortunately, the author of the piece on the did not hear or see the speech. Dr. Makalani did.

      • Avatar

        No Keisha, say it ain’t so!

  • Avatar

    I don’t get it. Why would a public, forty-five-minute conversation or speech from someone as historically important to the quest for justice as Angela Davis not be readily available? Is it something legal, or financial, or issue of copyright, etc.? Anyway, as to the voting thing… Whatever anyone might know or feel for or against Hillary Rodham Clinton or Trump, who has any doubt that one or the other will be elected President in November? And that person will over the next four years APPOINT FOUR US SUPREME COURT JUSTICES and that those four justices will make POLITICAL decisions that will effect me for the rest of my life (I’m 77) and for the majority of the rest of my children’s lives! CLARENCE THOMAS has silently sat for twenty-five years and could sit for twenty more. Forty-five years! Are there those among us who do not see that that is what the next election is all about! The only important question in deciding to vote, or not to vote for whomever is whether you would prefer Hillary’s or Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. Is Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Barney Sanders going to get their followers together after this election to form a political party focused towards justice? Hell NO! In two months after the election, all the present gnashing of teeth by millennials and so-called progressives will go back into hibernation for four years like it always does. Anyone who is interested in staying awake and doing grassroots work contact me.

  • Avatar

    Nothing new here. Comrade Davis is advocating a “Trump-is-so-scary”/ “lesser-of-two-evils” vote for Hillary Clinton. Black people have been arguing the merits of “lesser-of-two-evils” since Reconstruction. There are two basic issues at hand–our slavish support of the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s actual record.

    To the first point, African Americans are the most loyal constituents of the DP. We’ve been backing democrats since the 60s with not much in the form of tangible results–we are still catching hell. Run down the bucket list of quality-of-life indicators from healthcare to wealth, Black people are rock bottom with Native Americans.

    The second point is HRC’s actual record of anti-black and brown policies. As the young folk say “we got receipts.” Stretching as far back as the 1980s (DLC), domestic policies advocated by Hillary Clinton have been disastrous for black and brown people (I witnessed this first hand. My first gig out of college was a “welfare-to-work” program). But I think comrade Davis’s analysis is especially flat on the international front (we can see evidence of this in her recent Biko Lecture in South Africa). Hillary Clinton’s (and Barack Obama’s) foreign policy has had horrific consequences for black and brown people in Libya, in Haiti, in Honduras, in Venezuela.

    So we have Hillary’s actual record of doing really bad things and Trump’s (mostly) rhetorical promise to do really bad things. What is a black radical to do? The same things we’ve always done. Duh. Support and strengthen third party candidates or vote down ticket; “organize, organize, organize” locally and internationally; educate our youth on the black radical tradition; stand in solidarity with oppressed people around the world; agitate, demonstrate, petition, march, boycott.

    Last, refusing to vote for yet another neo-liberal democrat is only “narcissistic” if we refused to vote and then sat on our collective asses. Abstention is a potent political weapon invoked all over the planet when a political system is deemed hopelessly corrupt. Our two-party system is hopelessly corrupt *and imploding*. Black radicals should be working hard to push towards its imminent destruction, not proppin it up. We can’t afford to concede one inch (or four more years). The future of our children’s children’s children is at stake. Another world is possible…

Comments are closed.