Jeff Chang: Good evening. Welcome to City Arts & Lectures. Got a special treat for you tonight. My name is Jeff Chang, and tonight we are honored to bring to you to two towering thinkers of the Black Freedom Movement whose intellectual work has advanced us in the struggle to build a just and equitable multiracial democracy.
The first is a visionary and brilliant young historian whose book “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas” won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction.
It’s a sweeping book that covers four centuries in the intellectual histories of both racist and antiracist thought. And his new book “How to be an Antiracist” is one of the most anticipated books of the year. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.
And the second is not just a local hero to us, but someone who is a hero of the movement for racial and gender injustice all around the world. One whose erudition has only been matched by her brave and committed activism. One who has, for almost 50 years, never failed to tell us something essential about where we need to go as a nation and a world and what we need to do to bring about freedom for all. Please welcome home Dr. Angela Davis.
Oh, I can tell this is going to be a great night already. So it seems like the theme of the night should be focused around the title of your new book, Ibram, “How to be an Antiracist.” I think we all are trying to figure out in this moment how to be an antiracist. It’s a time when we’re all thinking about how to advance racial justice.
We’re living in a moment where there’s resurgent social movements, especially Black Lives Matter and Me Too, led by Black feminists, and there’s a global backlash of white supremacy being reasserted from above and from below. And behind this all is sort of this larger context of what folks called demographic change, but it’s really about cultural change and the possibility of actually decentering and toppling toxic whiteness.
Yeah, so it’s an unprecedented challenge and both of you bring so much history and knowledge and experience. So I think this is what we would want to explore tonight. Does that sound right to you all? Yeah.
So I wanted to start with you Angela if we could. You know one of the things that stands out to all of us about your life and your example is the way that you bring together very deep and rigorous thinking with a commitment to a practice of testing these ideas in organizing and activism. I wanted to ask on a personal level if this began with your experiences growing up in Birmingham, Alabama.
Angela Davis: Well, first of all, Jeff great to see you again. It’s wonderful to meet you Ibram. And I understand that there are high school students in the house, is that right? So welcome.
And thank you for formulating the first question in that way. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. And looking back I am really happy that I had the opportunity to grow up in such a racist place. In many ways it was a gift because I learned so much that I’ve been able to take with me.
When I was an elementary school student, the teachers at our segregated schooled taught us the Black national anthem and whenever we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is a very, you know, bellicose song full of images of bombs and so forth, we also sang “Let Us March on Til Victory is Won.” We also sang the Black national anthem.
And I learned very early on from my teachers that resistance was about, not only about these spectacular moments, but about the way we lived our lives. And I’ll tell one story and then I’ll stop. And I’ve often told this story about being a child in a segregated city, living in an area which was zoned for Black people.
My parents were among the first Black people who moved into this area that had just become recently zoned for Black people to live there. On the other side of the street only white people were allowed. So we were literally not allowed to cross the street. And so as kids we had all kinds of games in which we would dare each other to cross the street.
So, you know, we learned resistance from the time we were very young. I’ve told this story many times, about the game we had that required us to run across the street and then get back before we could be caught. And if you were really bold, you would run across the street, run up the steps of some white person’s house, ring the doorbell, and then try to make it to safety before they answered.
So resistance was a part of our play, our games. And I’ve learned how to take pleasure in doing this work in the way we did as children. And I think that’s an important lesson, that resistances and struggle aren’t always only about sacrifice and the kind of seriousness that everyone assumes. It’s also about joy and also about pleasure. So that’s one of the most important lessons I learned.
Jeff Chang: We definitely have to come back to that, pleasure and joy. Thank you.
Ibram, I had a different question, but this actually makes me want to ask did you–you grew up in Queens, I think yeah. Did you guys do racist ding-dong-ditch there as well?
Ibram X. Kendi: So I actually–there was this white guy who lived alone and who we rarely saw outside and all the kids who would play outside were scared of him, and so occasionally we would play dixie doorbell in the times which we were, of course, the most fearless. But I think we would play games with the NYPD, which of course was probably that dividing line that Professor Davis was talking about, and thinking back of course now, you know playing games with NYPD when you’re 12 years old or 11 years old, and knowing how old Tamir Rice was, and you know, is certainly something that gives me chills. But yeah.
Jeff Chang: Yeah, you start off your book by talking about writing this sweeping history, this 400, 500 year history in the context of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. And it’s interesting, because in some ways the 2016 National Book Award prize–this is the same year that I believe Colson Whitehead won for “Underground Railroad,” that the graphic novel of John Lewis’s story, “March,” won, as well, this is 2016–but I’m interested in sort of the way that you came at this particular project and sort of the idea that you wanted to develop.
You worked with having five sort of individuals through history framing different periods of history. And of course you concluded with Angela’s life as a framing device for us talking about the last 50 years. And so I guess I wanted to ask maybe just to start, what have you seen in terms of the through lines over these five hundred years? You’ve talked about these different types of positions that people have taken up in this debate over racism or these racist debates I should say, in this debate over racial thought. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Ibram X. Kendi: Sure, so I think we’ve been largely taught that the racial debate has been this sort of two-way debate between racist and not racist. So in “Stamped” I argue that there’s really no such thing as not racist, only racist in denial. And what we’ve actually–been happening is there’s been a three-way debate. And if we, let’s say, use Jefferson’s notion of all racial groups are created equal, we can think about that idea as what, in the book, I call assimilationist ideas, which is that, he argued that the racial groups are created equal but Black people became inferior. And so it’s the job of noble and liberal white people to civilize and develop these inferior Black people. And I make the case that that’s a racist idea. And in comparison–.
Jeff Chang: Thank you for laughing.
Ibram X. Kendi: And he was arguing against people who were saying the racial groups are created unequal, right? And so this was this sort of debate about whether Black people are inferior permanently or temporarily. And those who are making the case that Black people are inferior temporarily were imagining themselves as noble and were imagining themselves as the friends of the Negro, while antiracists were like, we’re actually equal right now.
So not that we are created equal, we are equal. And so I sort of show that three-way debate between segregationist ideas, notions that Black people are permanently inferior, to assimilationist ideas stating that Black people are temporarily inferior, culturally or behaviorally, and so therefore they can be civilized and developed, and antiracist ideas making the case that the racial groups are equal from the standpoint of biology, culture, and behavior.
Jeff Chang: Mmm-hmm. Both of you argue that, well, it’s commonly said–. Let me start this a different way. It’s commonly said that racism is born of ignorance. But both of you argue that that’s actually not the case, that racism produces itself and reproduces itself in in a much more sinister kind of a way. Angela, could you talk a little bit about that?
Angela Davis: First of all, I really appreciate your work, Ibram, and especially the point that you make regarding the reproduction of racism. That racism is not a product of some pre-existing ignorance or hate, but rather racism produces these ideas and I think it might be important to talk about the structural character of racism.
You know, why were these debates around racism happening at that time? It had to do with the fact that there was an economy that was based on slave labor and that as a matter of fact the very notion of freedom that existed in this country was based on the fact of slavery. White people literally knew that they were free because they weren’t slaves.
And of course later on we can say that this is actually true of the relationship between people who live in the so-called free world and people who inhabit the many prisons in this country. That we know we are free because we are not in prison. So that kind of, you know, dialectical relationship is based on structures–economic structures, political structures.
And it seems as if it’s taken us centuries to begin to arrive at that insight. Of course W.E.B. Du Bois recognized that and this is why he argued that it wasn’t so much a question of integrating, assimilating former slaves into an existing society, but rather it was about transforming the society. So that it might be possible for the formerly enslaved to be able to claim freedom.
And I think we rarely talk about the necessity for transformation. We assume that it’s about integration or assimilation. And so we have these notions of you know, diversity, everyone talks about diversity. And what else is there? Inclusion isn’t that the, I don’t know–high school students in the house, you recognize those terms, don’t you?
Jeff Chang: Yes.
Angela Davis: But it makes no sense to be included in an institution or society that hasn’t changed. It makes no sense. You know, and I often say it makes no sense for racially marginalized communities to be included in a society that remains as racist as it was before they were included. So I like your paradigm of assimilation as one of the ways in which racist ideas express themselves.
Jeff Chang: One of the standard narratives as well is that we’re always progressing, each generation is progressing. That there’s racial progress in each generation. Ibram and Angela, you’ve both made the point though, that there’s racial progress and you as you call it, there’s racist progress, Ibram. You’ve got this sort of formulation that there’s racial progress and there’s racist progress that are working in conjunction with each other. Could you explain that idea?
Ibram X. Kendi: Sure, so I think, especially in the last sort of 10 to 15 years, this sort of concept of racial progress has sort of exploded in popularity. It really emerged during the Cold War when America was trying to make its case before Black and Brown and Asian decolonizing nations that we’re progressing, so, you know, you can do business with us.
But essentially the argument that I make in my work is that when activists, when social movements have been able to effectively dismantle racist policies and structures, those who benefited from those very structures and policies did not go home and start playing golf in Palm Beach, Florida. Y’all know what I mean?
Like they figured out new and more sophisticated ways to exploit people, to exclude people, to oppress people, and I think our recognition of these new and ever sophisticated voter suppression policies that emerged when there was a recognition that the demographics were turning, and even the ideology of the country were turning against them–these are very sophisticated sort of policies.
And even racist ideas have become more sophisticated over time. Post-racial thought, I would argue, is potentially the most sophisticated form of racist ideas, because what it does to the individual–once you believe we’re in a post-racial society and that racism doesn’t exist, and you look out at all of these racial inequities, all of this poverty from people of color–then you say to yourself, why does this exist? It’s not because of racist policies, it’s not because of these structures, it must be because of the inferiorities of these people. And then you start developing racist ideas to explain the world to yourself so they don’t have to do it anymore.
And so this, and so I just try to show that, you know, we can’t–when we succeed we can’t simply think that the people who benefited from these policies are just going to go home.
Jeff Chang: Angela just to reinforce.
Angela Davis: Before you get to the next question–
Jeff Chang: Yeah, okay.
Angela Davis: Let me just add an idea to this conversation, because I absolutely agree with you, and at the same time I think that it is important for movements to claim victories.
Ibram X. Kendi: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Angela Davis: Changes have happened, you know, not the changes that we–not the vast changes that we had hoped for. You know many people who were young, as I was, in the 1960s, we imagined that within a relatively short period of time we were going to wipe out racism. And capitalism.
It took us a while to understand that we would also have to deal with sexism and misogyny and homophobia and all of that. But for me progress is precisely that movement. The ways in which we have come to understand the meaning of racism, the relationship among all of these, you know, various modes of oppression. And the fact that we can imagine a movement in the 21st century that is so much more sophisticated than what we thought an antiracist movement would be, say in the 1960s.
So I think it’s really important for us to claim progress. So even though we have not necessarily made the progress that we would have wanted in terms of abolishing the structures of racism, we have a great deal more clarity.
And your work is a part of that, and the way we understand where it is we have to go, and what it is we have to do. And I think each generation of activists forges a legacy that the next generation can take, and reshape, and reform. And so yeah, I’m very excited about the possibilities that now exist, possibilities that we could not have necessarily imagined 50 years ago.
Jeff Chang: Angela your work is centered, recently, well not really recently, but your work is really centered on prisons, of late. And you’ve argued that we need a new kind of Abolitionist Movement.
Angela Davis: Well we actually have an Abolitionist Movement.
Jeff Chang: Okay. Let’s start with this question. Why do you think we need to understand prisons and incarceration in order to understand how to truly transform society?
Angela Davis: Well, first of all the most dramatic example of structural racism, not only in the US, but globally, is the institution of the prison. What we have come to call the prison industrial complex, so that we don’t think about prisons as discrete and isolated institutions, but as rather a part of a process that is economic, that is political, that is social, that is cultural. And what we have come to call the prison industrial complex emerges precisely at a moment in the development of global capitalism. When wealth becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. When corporations control the world.
And we should always point out that eight men, and I mean men. Almost all of them white–I think all of them white, except one, who’s Mexican–control more wealth than the poorest half of the planet’s population. And that is obscene. That is absolutely obscene. Suppose they gave up half of what they, you know, what they claim, we could go a long way in terms of addressing joblessness, in terms of addressing poverty, in terms of addressing starvation in the world.
So I think that focusing on prisons allows us to talk about the whole. And brings us to the conclusion, I think, that if one truly looks at the history of the institution of the prisons in this country–and you know, the US is the country that is responsible for the birth of the prison. It’s the gift of this country to the world, along with democracy, as a matter of fact. If we had enough time we could talk about the relationship between the emergence of prisons as punishment and the development of democracy. The two are very much connected.
And so, this is why many of us, huge numbers of people, recognize that what we need to do is stop thinking about reforming the prison. You know, the organization Critical Resistance has done a great deal in this respect. But we need to think about abolition. We need to think not about–this actually is related to your analysis of assimilation. It’s not about trying to fix an institution, about leaving the surrounding conditions the same, but it is about asking the question, what kind of society would we have to live in in order not to have to assume that prisons are necessary?
So that, you know, so that takes us to everything else. It takes us to education. It takes us to healthcare, it takes us to housing, and so forth. It’s about transforming the society, and to me that is the opposite of the assimilationist’s paradigm. And it’s much harder.
Jeff Chang: Ibram I was wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about why you chose Angela’s work and life as a way to frame the last 50 years of the development of racist and antiracist thought.
Angela Davis: Yeah, I would like to know that too.
Ibram X. Kendi: So I think really the book, with Du Bois, who is the fourth character, and it really sort of shows his awakening towards sort of antiracist thought, towards a recognition of what we call racial capitalism now. And so it sort of leads into, from a narrative standpoint, someone who is going to essentially model antiracism for us. And so when I was looking at the last 50 years, and I was looking for someone who could truly serve as a model for antiracist thought, I couldn’t see anyone better than Angela Davis.
And I think what’s critical–and for those of you who haven’t read the book–what’s critical in terms of antiracist thought, is it’s not just thinking about, let’s say, Black people as equal to white people, and not seeing any inferiorities in Black people in general. It’s about defending and recognizing the humanity of the Black poor. It’s about defending and recognizing the humanity of Black women. It’s about defending and recognizing the humanity of Black prisoners, of the Black queer community, and of single Black mothers.
And so when you look at Professor Davis’s work, she typically was at the forefront of defending the most vulnerable Black populations. And whether that was Black prisoners throughout her life, whether that was Bblack single mothers in the 1980s, whether that was Black women throughout her life, I mean whether that was the Black queer community. And so I think by showing her defense of these people throughout her life, I think it really was able to model for us what it means to think and act as an antiracist. And it’s a very difficult thing to do.
I should also add that it’s become quite fashionable now to be an abolitionist, to recognize that mass incarceration, that the prison industrial complex is a problem. But I think when you look at Professor Davis’s working life, she’s been talking about and challenging this system and these structures for the better part of her public life. And so I think showing her consistency over time I think was also critical.
And then finally, I think it was critical, especially in this day and age, to have a Black woman. And to really–because as many of us have seen, really any–I think Black women are leading these movements, and I think are going to lead this nation and this world into a different place.
Jeff Chang: I’m struck too by this notion that you advance in the book called “upliftsuasion,” and I’m wondering if you can talk about that. This is an idea that you think separates assimilationists from true antiracists. And I see it playing out in current social movements, but I’m wondering if you can talk about that a little bit.
Ibram X. Kendi: Sure. One of the striking aspects of the strategy of upliftsuasion is how pervasive it still is. And it’s essentially–.
Jeff Chang: But maybe you should explain what–.
Ibram X. Kendi: Oh yeah, I was about to.
Jeff Chang: Sorry.
Ibram X. Kendi: Even for the high school students of color, this notion that your parents or your teachers or someone tells you that it’s–when you go into these white spaces, it’s critical for you to act in an upstanding manner. Do not reinforce the stereotypes, because if you do then you’re going to reinforce white people’s racist ideas about let’s say Black people. And so essentially when you act negatively they’re going to think negatively of Black people. When you act positively they’re going to think positively of Black people. Anybody know what I’m talking about?
And so this strategy, of course is a very old and pervasive strategy, and it was really taught, or really put forth by white abolitionists. Who in the 1790s were looking at this growing population of free Blacks and were saying, it is on you to show white people that Black people are worthy of freedom. And so if you show white people that you’re worthy of freedom, they will free you. If you reinforce stereotypes of Black servility then they will keep you enslaved.
And what that ultimately says, is that the racist ideas of white people, that Black people are partly responsible for those racist ideas. They think negatively of Black people because we act negatively. And what that ultimately says is that there’s some truth in notions of Black inferiority. And to suggest there’s some notions of truth in Black inferiority is to express racist ideas. And so I show how upliftsuasion, though powerful, though something that was taught to me, is actually based in racist ideas.
And then finally, even when Black people are able to act in this upstanding manner, instead of that persuading away racist ideas, they just call us extraordinary. Exceptional. Right, I mean that’s I mean that’s essential–you’re not like those ordinary, inferior, Black people, right? And so no matter what you do, you’re not going to. And so I argue, and I try to express, that what really we should do is just be our unperfect selves.
Jeff Chang: I’ve been struck–and this is a question for Angela. I’ve been struck, as well, by the fact that these new social movements have been resurging in recent years, but they’ve also been converging in a lot of ways. In that the movement for Black lives formulated an agenda. The Women’s March formulated an agenda. And that these agendas in many ways are not trying to cater to upliftsuasion, not trying to cater to what you know, the younger activists call respectability politics, and that these ideas come out of ideas that that you and a number of other Black feminists pioneered. This idea that was named by Kimberle Crenshaw intersectionality, and I’m wondering if you might be able to kind of unpack that for our audience today.
Angela Davis: The idea of intersectionality?
Jeff Chang: Intersectionality and how it informs the social movements that we’re seeing these days.
Angela Davis: You know, actually it’s an insight that has existed for a very long time. And of course, I appreciate the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, and you know, she’s a friend, but behind that notion that is now called intersectionality is a whole history of attempting to understand social reality in ways that are complex and complicated.
Frances Beal wrote an article in 1970 called “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.” Shortly after that the Third World Women’s Alliance, of which Fran was a member of, created a newspaper and the title of that newspaper was you know, “Triple Jeopardy,” right? And what was Triple Jeopardy? Do you remember?
Jeff Chang: Race, class, gender.
Angela Davis: Yeah, it was racism–on the masthead of the newspaper–racism, sexism, and imperialism, because this was of course the era of the war in Vietnam. And I could actually spend the rest of the time talking about examples of activists who challenged this notion that race was singular or that race was to be gendered male all the time. Or that when one spoke about gender it was to be focused on white women, just as feminism as a movement has such a long and interesting, rich history, and it’s not primarily about white women. Which isn’t to say that white women haven’t done great things, because they have. But for decades, and even well over a century, there have been people who have tried to recognize the fact that reality isn’t simple in that way.
And intersectionality is the term that–what I often say, and this is something that disturbs me a bit, is that for such a long time it seemed like we were groping to find ways of giving expression to this idea. That we have to learn how to think contradictions together. We have to learn how to think different ideas, different concepts together. And then finally we are offered this term, intersectionality, and we stopped that search. You know, and I think intersectionality does really important work, but at the same time it’s not the end. And we should continue to strive to understand, you know, what it means to think oftentimes contradictory processes together.
To me feminism is important precisely because it offers us ways of grasping, of apprehending the complexity of the world. And this is what I think young activists are doing today. This is why Black Lives Matter has been so important. This is why young activists and many communities, and Latinx communities and Asian American communities have done, you know, such amazing work. Because I think they realize what it means to take insights of the past and to try to move forward with them.
Jeff Chang: That was going to be my next question, actually given the situation that we’re in right now, where the logic of the prisons is now embedded literally in this big debate over the wall. Where we are seeing a resurgence of white supremacists’ activity, violence, activity. Where we’re seeing this happening globally. Where we’re seeing in many ways an attempt to try to silence a lot of the new organizing and new activism. How do we gird ourselves now for the fights that are coming ahead, and the fights that we’re dealing with when we wake up again tomorrow morning? And this is for both of you.
Ibram X. Kendi: Well, I think first and foremost, I think speaking from what Professor Davis was saying towards the end, is, I think we have to gain clarity from history. And what I mean by clarity is sort of understanding the strategies that are being used through lessons of history.
And so for instance, in terms of the wall, like I, you know, I recently sort of put out a statement that basically stated that when we look at the history of racist ideas, like if I could sort of narrow it down to three words, they would be humans, animals, and walls. And that people like me are animals. They are the humans. And they essentially need walls to protect themselves from the animals.
And so this, these concepts of walls and animals, you know, are– there’re being redeployed in a different way but, they’ve been calling Black people animals, or people of color, Latinx people, animals for hundreds of years. And so I think the reason why that’s critical is because what I’ve found with some people is they’ve imagined this as new, and then that in a sense creates this level of shock and I think that–or the other side is there’s an awareness of this has been old, so it develops this tremendous amount of cynicism that sort of nothing can be done. That the walls are too high for us to knock down or climb over.
And so I think what I try to sort of make the case for in my work is that yes–and this is going back to what we were talking about earlier–that yes it’s become more sophisticated over time, racism has become more sophisticated over time, but so too have we been able to constantly break down these walls. And so I think you have to fundamentally believe in the possibility of basically smashing this system.
I mean, you have to believe that in order to truly be an activist–and I mean, I’m very, you know the reason why I’m saying, I want to emphasize this, is because I come across people who imagine themselves as activists who are the most cynical people. And what I mean by cynical, is that this idea that nothing has changed and we can’t change anything. But then they imagine themselves as change agents.
And so I’m trying to figure out how that happens, right. And they want to be in those spaces, but they want to be in those spaces and constantly critique every sort of strategy, every sort of social movement, every sort of activist. I’m sorry, let me–.
Jeff Chang: No, please. You’re on a roll.
Ibram X. Kendi: You know what I’m talking about?
Jeff Chang: Absolutely. Angela you’ve got–I think a lot of times we’re focused on the sort of box that we call the United States of America. You’ve got a global perspective on this. How are you seeing these pieces fitting together, in terms of both the expansion of these right wing and sort of white supremacist backlashes, as well as the transformational justice movements that are rising up to meet them?
Angela Davis: Well first I want to say something about walls.
Jeff Chang: Please.
Angela Davis: Well, because as you pointed out there is a connection to the generalized carcerality that is connected to the rise of prisons. The fact that we have more than 2 million people behind bars in this country. The fact that the US has 25% of the planet’s incarcerated population in jails and prisons in the US. That’s 30% of–about a third of all women who are in prison in the world are in US prisons. There’s something deeply wrong about that.
And the connection that I want to make this evening between the conversation about walls and in connection with the issue of immigrants is that the paradigm of the wall is in Israel-Palestine. You know, where did the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, hopefully not for long, you know get the idea that walls are so effective? I’ve seen the wall in Palestine, and it in many ways encapsulates the whole history that Ibram is talking about.
And to assume that we can talk about conditions in the US without referring them to what is happening in the world, what is happening in the Middle East, and what is happening in Brazil, where you have a version of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that is even worse than the one we are experiencing, if you had imagined that that was possible.
So I think that it’s very sad that we now are in possession of the communications technology that allows us to be in touch with people all over the world–this, we didn’t always have this. As a matter of fact, I’ll say parenthetically, and some of you may be aware of the fact that there’s a little controversy going on in Birmingham, Alabama.
And so on the day that the whole thing broke, my sister was in South Africa doing work there, and she wanted to put me in touch with someone in Berkeley–Pastor Mike in Berkeley.
Jeff Chang: Pastor Mike McBride.
Angela Davis: Right?
Jeff Chang: Yeah.
Angela Davis: Who could put us in touch with people on the ground in Birmingham. So within a short period of time I get this call from South Africa, I talked to Pastor Mike, you know, this is possible these days. And, well, maybe we can talk a little bit about Birmingham later, but right now what I want to focus on is our lack of an internationalist consciousness. The fact that when we think about what it is that we would like to see in a just world, we usually only imagine this country. And that’s problematic.
Whoever told us that nations were the best forms of human community, as a matter of fact, we’re witnessing right now the fact that the nation has become so obsolete, you know, given the fact that there are people coming from Central America, people whose lives have been placed in jeopardy, largely as a result of the flow of capital from the US to Central America and other places. And then there are those who assume that somehow people in this country have a right to say that those who have been wronged by US capital cannot seek a better life on the other side of that border. And that’s just absolutely ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
You know, as a matter of fact, we have to begin to imagine different kinds of communities and global citizenship rather than citizenship that’s, you know, based on papers that you are given by a nation. And finally, this is why an abolitionist imagination is important. Not so much because of what we’re able to perhaps achieve at this very moment. But because of the way it allows us to imagine the future. A future that we may not experience ourselves as individuals. But a future that people like us will experience.
And if we don’t expand our imagination and ask questions, like what would it mean to live in a world where we don’t have all of these strictures that are related to the nation-state? You know, what if we all felt responsible for people who suffer in other places and were welcoming and with open arms? We should all go to the border and say welcome. I think it is so important to be able to imagine that possibility and this is why the younger generation of activists and scholars is so important. And you are among the younger generation.
Jeff Chang: So we actually have some time for questions. Emphasis on the questions. We’re in the Bay Area, so I just needed to put that out there. It’s home, right? Emphasis on questions. We have some time. There are two mics going around. And in the meantime, a softball question here.
What are you currently reading or listening to or watching that’s rocking your world? This is a question from Twitter.
Ibram X. Kendi: So, I mean the last, I think I was telling you about this earlier–the last novel that I read. Because last year I was writing a new book, a nonfiction book, but when I write I try to read novels.
Jeff Chang: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me.
Ibram X. Kendi: But the–it was called “Washington Black,” and it was this novel in which–I shouldn’t give it away, but one of the things that I loved about this book is, because it literally is set in almost every continent in the world. And so the the novel travels from a plantation in the Caribbean to Virginia to Canada to Europe to North Africa. That’s all I’ll give you.
Jeff Chang: Nice. Thank you. Angela?
Angela Davis: Well, I like to read all kinds of things. I just finished Michelle Obama’s, “Becoming,” Michelle. And I learned a lot. Although I must say I think I liked the part, the sections before Obama was elected better, than what happens after she goes to the White House. A lot of insights about you know, what it means to be a Black person who’s striving in the world. And I really appreciated her critical perspective on that kind of assumption that one must indeed want to become the kind of lawyer who has many many billable hours, who can do this, and who can do that. And so yeah, I appreciated it.
But I also like to read novels, as well. I was just telling somebody a few minutes ago about a wonderful novel that is by NoViolet Bulawayo.
Jeff Chang: A local writer. Yeah.
Angela Davis: Yeah, “We Need New Names.” Exactly, yeah.
Jeff Chang: Local Bay Area writer. Question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the center of the orchestra.
Audience Member 1: Hi, my name is Zero Vasquez. I’m a student at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts.
Jeff Chang: Hey. Welcome.
Audience Member 1: I’m having some issues right now with my vocal department. Some students in my BSU and I, we forefronted a silent protest to protest the lack of diverse and inclusive repertoire in our vocal department, and as a retaliation my vocal heads decided to start holding students back in their classes, me included. I was not placed in any of the senior classes, instead I was placed in sophomore and freshman classes. And so as a response I decided to pursue a grade change.
Right now we’ve hit a brick wall and there aren’t enough students that are willing to come up and talk about their experiences and the racial situation that’s happening in our department. And our administration can’t do anything about it–one teacher or a few teachers and their decisions to put students in certain classes. And so I feel like I’ve hit a wall with myself, my own education.
Jeff Chang: Do you have a question?
Audience Member 1: My question is if you had any advice on what I should do and, or any words of encouragement or anything like that.
Jeff Chang: Thank you. Ibram, Angela?
Angela Davis: Okay. Well do you have a Black Student Union on the campus? Have you taken this up as a group?
Audience Member 1: Yes, we were the–there was like three students and I that were the ones who forefronted the protest in the beginning.
Angela Davis: Well, what about all of the other students?
Audience Member 1: I don’t know.
Angela Davis: Okay. Well then I think that’s probably where you should begin. In my experience, the first step is always to create community. Build community. Organize the other students. It’s very difficult to achieve something as one individual, or two or three individuals. But if you– how many students attend your school?
Audience Member 1: A lot.
Angela Davis: Okay. If you got a significant number of those students together, you could you know, you could–we used to circulate petitions, but I guess you could do an online petition or do something like that, you know to guarantee that you are not alone. Obviously if you’re alone, you can be singled out and you can be subject to various forms of repression.
But if you have others with you, including teachers who might be opposed to this racist-inspired way of placing students in classes. Does that make sense?
Audience Member 1: Yes, it does.
Angela Davis: You know oftentimes the answer is very simple, but organizing is very hard work and we often want to skip that process of pulling people together and that is how movements are built. That is how change happens in the world. So good luck.
Audience Member 1: Thank you.
Jeff Chang: Thank you. Another question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back of the balcony toward your right.
Audience Member 2: Thank you. First of all, thank you Professor Davis for your longer history of intersectionality, because I think so many times we lose that this is exactly as you’re saying, something that has a long history of people trying to understand the complicated, unequal, violent world around us.
And related to the term intersectionality, so many times we use it as– class, gender, race–as equal groundings in terms of the the experiences that we face. And even as you’re talking, you mentioned that there’s eight men, largely white, one Mexican, who owned half of the world’s wealth, and I’m wondering how do you see that as significant, that there’s eight men, most of them white?
Because to me the question becomes a very important difference between class and race and gender. Because the fact alone that people own half of the wealth and leave the majority of us disenfranchised is a question that I would say is a very different importance between them.
So my question is largely, how do you see the root of racism and sexism as coming from capitalism and coming from the class society that privileges and allows for a minority, a tiny minority of people to own all of the wealth?
Jeff Chang: Thank you. Thank you for your question.
Angela Davis: Well, I’ll say a few words in response to your question and I think Ibram probably will have a contribution as well. I, of course, capitalism. Capitalism is often the elephant in the room that we don’t talk about. And we like to use the term racial capitalism, and Ibram has already used that that term, because if one looks at the history of the emergence and development of capitalism, it is so entangled with slavery and racism that we can’t conceive of capitalism outside of that racialized context.
But I’m weary of those who assume that somehow we can find the one answer. And that answer is capitalism. And all we have to do is get rid of capitalism and all of the problems will have dissipated. Because the notion of intersectionality as we use it entails an understanding of a very kind of complex entanglement. And you can’t separate racism from capitalism. You can’t separate capitalism from misogyny.
And so what it means is that as activists or as scholars, that we do our work recognizing that it is against the backdrop of this understanding of the interconnections and interrelationalities of these phenomena. And I think that we should do–we should work wherever we feel called to work. You know, we should do the activist work that is most exciting to us, recognizing there’s a connection. If I decide that I want to focus primarily on prison issues, I’m not separating those issues from the larger question of capitalism. I’m not separating them from working against racism, working against misogyny. I think that our understanding, our way of apprehending, you know, what it is we want in terms of social justice has to be very much informed by this sense of the interconnections.
And of course, we know that capitalism doesn’t exist by itself. I mean, where are we going to find capitalism separate from all of these other things we’ve been talking about? Where we going to find sexism or misogyny separate from racism?
And you know recently I said, I thought about asking an audience a question about when women got the right to vote. And I said, when did women get the right to vote? When did women get the right to vote? When? 1920? How many of you think women got the right to vote in 1920? You know, there’s an issue here. Some of you are reluctant to raise your hand. So what if we were to say that the majority of Black women didn’t get the vote until 1965?
So I think what I’m suggesting is that we try to think in a deeper way and we try to be aware of entangling a whole history. Our very way of thinking about our histories is informed by the racism, you know by the misogyny that we want to challenge, and if we acquire the habit of being open so that if someone says, well that was racist of you, the response is not but I’m not a racist.
It’s like, yeah, it probably was. Because, you know, how is it possible to live in a country like this and not be influenced by you know, racist ideology? All of us are. And I think that’s one of the points that you make in your work.
Ibram X. Kendi: I mean, it’s equivalent to–I talk about how, if you grow up in a society where it’s sort of constantly raining racist ideas on your head and you don’t have an umbrella, to claim that you have never been wet in your life. I mean, it’s just preposterous, right? And so I think that I’m speaking to what Professor Davis said–one of the first aspects of sort of being an antiracist, which I’m sort of writing about for this next book is confession. Is accepting, is admitting, is, and in order to admit and confess, you have to be self-aware and recognize.
But it’s very difficult for people to do because we want to deny, deny, deny, like Trump, and then criticize Trump, even though we’re just like Trump. And so I think that it’s critical for us, you know, if you’re truly against Trump, you can’t simultaneously do precisely what Trump did, and essentially deny. As he says, just deny, deny, deny, and people will believe me.
And just very quickly to the question, I think that when you look at it historically, historians really sort of look at the emergence of capitalism between the mid-1400s and and the mid-1600s, which we called like the long 15th Century. That that’s also the story–.
Jeff Chang: Historian joke.
Ibram X. Kendi: I know.
Jeff Chang: You heard all the historian nerds in the audience.
Ibram X. Kendi: Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s also the period in which you have the development of what became known as the transatlantic slave trade. And when you talk about the accumulation of capital. And of course, you know–everybody think about a business, you have to work, get money, in order to start a business. When you think of capitalism as a system, you have to accumulate capital.
Well the accumulation of capital was directly the result of the enslavement of African people. And then that enslavement of African people was an exclusive enslavement of African people, which distinguished it from previous forms of enslavement, which–people were enslaving Slavs in Eastern Europe. They were enslaving other people from the Middle East. They were enslaving all types of people, but no, the Portuguese, and then subsequent slave traders, decided no, we’re going to exclusively slave trade in African people. We’re going to create these racist policies. We’re going to justify them by saying these people are beasts. And so literally we have the capacity to enslave them, because they were meant for enslavement. They’re the cursed descendants of Ham.
And so this is really, the development of racism and the development of capitalism both emerge in the same period and they cannot be disconnected. And actually I don’t know what you’ll think about this term, but one of the chapters in “How to be an Antiracist” is on class, and I sort of talk about this relationship between racism and capitalism and identify them as the conjoined twins.
So we can really understand, right? Because you know, you have conjoined twins–the same body with different faces and personalities. Right, and so, you know, I think that’s another way to sort of understand how sort of entangled they are.
But then you can’t also recognize how entangled sexism is. And sexism predated both racism and capitalism, as did homophobia. And capitalists and racists used and reproduced and racialized sort of gendered and you know, bodies for their own gain. I mean, I think you all understand the point, right?
Jeff Chang: Yes. Thank you. We have time for one more question and I’m going to use my moderator’s privilege and reserve it for myself. But first I want to do two things. First is to say that Ibram and Angela will be signing books outside afterwards. The second is to please give it up for the staff, and the crew, and Kate and Holly, the folks who work really hard to be able to make this happen for you today.
So this last question is a question about how one perseveres in the work. There’s so many reasons for us to feel despair. Every single day with the feeds that we’re going through and looking through, you know, the kinds of stuff that’s happening on our social media.
And Ibram, you’ve you’ve named your daughter Faith. Imani, yeah. And Angela you’ve often spoken about the need for us to have joy, pleasure, beauty, spirituality, and sort of a sense of connectedness in our lives. I am wondering what gives you both the faith to be able to continue the work, especially now in this particular moment when things are seeming so dire.
Angela Davis: Well, this is precisely the moment when we need to have hope. And I like what the philosopher Walter Benjamin said, when he pointed out that hope is given to us precisely for the sake of those who would be otherwise hopeless. We have to generate that hope. And young people have to have hope if they want to imagine themselves in the future. So I think that those of us who are older should learn how to share the knowledge of young people. Oftentimes It’s assumed that we who are older are the ones who have all of the wisdom and all the knowledge. But there’s some things that young people can do that older people can’t.
And one of those is to see the world anew and to see different aspects of the world and different possibilities. Who would have imagined, say 10 or 15 years ago, that we would have had a conversation on gender and on gender nonconformity and on trans issues? That came from young people who didn’t believe that it was impossible to achieve what had hitherto been considered not possible. Yes.
And so there’s so many examples of new insights that have emerged. That is what gives me hope. I know that we are not in the same place we were when I was first starting out my career as a scholar-activist. And change is possible.
And I think that the realm of culture perhaps does that and accomplishes that for us much better than the kind of didactic discourses that we assume will allow us where we’re headed. And I think that acknowledging the role of art and culture, we were talking about novels, music, you know, this is your field, Jeff, so you could have asked a lot of questions about that.
But I think that that artists oftentimes are able to express within the context of their particular genres what it is we have not yet learned how to articulate. And so in music we can feel what it is we don’t yet know how to say.
And I think that so much of what can be generated as hope comes precisely from artists who can serve as a beacon for those of us who still believe that it is possible to move forward in the world.
Jeff Chang: That’s beautiful.
Ibram X. Kendi: And I guess for me I would say I gained my faith and hope from first history. 1791 there was this jewel of the French Empire and the most profitable colony in the world, Haiti. And in 1804 the people in Haiti defeated the Spanish, French, and British armies in succession to win their freedom, which, I mean if you would have–the most profitable colony in the world defeated those armies in succession. Did I mention the Spanish too? It is completely improbable right?
I mean we talk, or you talk about the Cuban Revolution. When they arrived on the beaches, and I think there was about, Castro had about 250 people with him, and immediately they were wiped out. Or half of them were wiped out. And so then they had a hundred and twenty-five that ran up into the mountains. And essentially they were going to raise a revolution against a 10,000 man standing army that was backed by the most vicious military power this world has ever known in the US Army. And then they did it. Right, I mean, it’s completely improbable.
Right or philosophically, it’s, as I think I was mentioning earlier, in order to bring about change you have to believe in its possibility. And that’s a basic truism. And then finally, you know, I think now, you know, I can speak from my personal life.
Jeff Chang: Yes.
Ibram X. Kendi: So this time last year I was diagnosed with cancer. I learned that it was stage 4 colon cancer. And only 12% of people survive after five years stage 4 colon cancer. Nine months later doctors couldn’t find any cancer cells in my body.
And so for me, I mean if I can’t believe in the possibilities after what I’ve experienced in the last year than there’s something clearly wrong with me, right? And so I think each of us even when we–.
Angela Davis: So now you’ve become vegan, right?
Ibram X. Kendi: Exactly. And I think each of us when we think of our own lives, there was probably a moment in which we were able to do something, that there was a time which people told us it was impossible, or we even thought ourselves it was impossible. And so I think each of us can draw from our own personal lives to know that change is possible.
Jeff Chang: Please join me in thanking Dr. Ibram Kendi, and Dr. Angela Davis.