As part of Vanity Fair's September issue, Ava DuVernay and Angela Davis discussed changing the world.
Ava DuVernay and Angela Davis are two of the most influential voices of our current moment.
Today, a transcript of a conversation between them was released, and it's as moving and mobilizing as you might expect.
The conversation will be published in the September issue of Vanity Fair, as part of a special issue entitled The Great Fire. The issue features Breonna Taylor on the cover and was guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also wrote the cover story, an interview with Breonna Taylor's mother.
In the interview, DuVernay and Davis expressed their mutual admiration for each other's world-altering work.
DuVernay is one of the most groundbreaking directors of our times. She broke through with her second film, Middle of Nowhere, which told the story of a woman in Compton dealing with her husband's prison sentence and her own internal demons.
Her work on 2014's Selma—about the 1965 Civil Rights marches—made her the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe and Academy Award. She also became the first Black woman to direct a major blockbuster that brought in $100 million at the box office with A Wrinkle in Time. More recently, her Netflix documentary 13th has become required viewing for anyone looking to learn about the history of racism and the prison industrial complex America, and her documentary When They See Us, chronicled the story of the Central Park 5.
Angela Davis needs no introduction, but her career and legacy would take hundreds of pages to summarize. A prominent Black Panther, communist, and activist during the Civil Rights movement, she has become a popular academic and is one of this current moment's most quoted and referenced thinkers.
Davis came to international recognition when she was imprisoned from 1970 to 72 after having been placed on the FBI's list of 10 most wanted criminals. She ran for vice president in 1980 on a Communist Party ticket. A prison abolitionist, her book Are Prisons Obsolete? was a formative text in the study of the prison industrial complex. Today, as a professor at UCLA, Davis's scholarship is fundamentally intersectional, recognizing the interlocking forces of capitalism, gender, race, and global oppression.
Davis spoke to DuVernay about the complexities of this current moment and took a bird's eye view of the slow, painful process of changing the world. Here are six major takeaways:
1. No one is an individual player, and no issue is isolated
Angela Davis Quote
Angela Davis's work has always focused on the intersections between very issues. In the interview, Davis emphasized her belief that no person is isolated in the struggle for change.
When DuVernay asked Davis about her intersectional activism, Davis responded, "I don't think about it as an experience that I'm having as an individual. I think about it as a collective experience, because I would not have made those arguments or engaged in those kinds of activisms if there were not other people doing it."
Davis recognizes that her work builds off others' work and that there are no heroes to be found here—only mass movements shifting the conversation and eventually making change.
2. Activism should not be about personal recognition
"One of the things that some of us said over and over again is that we're doing this work," Davis said. "Don't expect to receive public credit for it. It's not to be acknowledged that we do this work. We do this work because we want to change the world. If we don't do the work continuously and passionately, even as it appears as if no one is listening, if we don't help to create the conditions of possibility for change, then a moment like this will arrive and we can do nothing about it."
Today, ideas like defunding the police and abolishing prisons are gaining widespread traction—but these issues have been in progress for a long, long time. "It was as if all of these decades of work by so many people, who received no credit at all, came to fruition," Davis said of the current moment.
If anything, her points prove that change-makers need to be fighting all the time, not just during moments of mobilization and excitement—because you never know when or why the groundwork laid by your work will catch fire.
3. Capitalism is at the heart of our global problems
Davis has always been a staunch anticapitalist, a position that has long been controversial. But as billionaires continue to gain wealth while most of the country suffers, it's getting harder to argue that there isn't something wrong with capitalism as it currently stands.
Davis articulately connected capitalism to racial violence and exploitation, as well as the flaws in our educational and healthcare systems, whichCOVID-19 has laid bare.
"Capitalism has to be a part of the conversation: global capitalism," Davis said. "I know that's a macro issue, but I think we cannot truly understand what is happening in the family where the parents are essential workers and are compelled to go to work and have no childcare. Not only should there be free education, but there should be free childcare and there should be free health care as well. All of these issues are coming to a head. This is, as you said, a racial reckoning. A reexamination of the role that racism has played in the creation of the United States of America. But I think we have to talk about capitalism. Capitalism has always been racial capitalism. Wherever we see capitalism, we see the influence and the exploitation of racism."
Capitalism, Davis argues, is at the root of many of our greatest social ills. "We should be very explicit about the fact that global capitalism is in large part responsible for mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, as it is responsible for the migrations that are happening around the world," she said. "Immigrants are forced to leave their homelands because the system of global capitalism has made it impossible to live human lives."
As wildfires and hurricanes continue to ravage the globe, harming the poor while the wealthy are free to flee, and as police continue to murder people in the streets despite mass demonstrations, it's clear that there needs to be a shift in the way power is distributed and understood in America. Right now, capitalism determines who has power—something that Davis has always been fighting against.
4. Demonstrations themselves don't bring about actual change
At the start of the interview, Davis expressed that the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement has "offered people an opportunity to join in this collective demand to bring about deep change, radical change." But she also emphasized the fact that demonstrations and protests are the beginning, not the end, of movements.
"When we come together with so many people, we become aware of our capacity to bring about change," she said. "But it's rare that the actual demonstration itself brings about the change. We have to work in other ways."
5. Diversity statements are always performative unless backed up with action
"Are you simply going to ask those who had been previously marginalized -- previously subjugated -- to come inside… https://t.co/tEkwTiAq6W— Fiona Applebum says block Shaun King! (@Fiona Applebum says block Shaun King!) 1598475794.0
Davis criticized the trend of performative activism that's occurring among many corporations and institutions. "Are you simply going to ask those who have been marginalized or subjugated to come inside of the institution and participate in the same process that led precisely to their marginalization?" she asked.
"Diversity and inclusion without substantive change, without radical change, accomplishes nothing," Davis continued. "'Justice' is the key word. How do we begin to transform the institutions themselves? How do we change this society?
6. Change is possible
Davis has been entrenched in the fight for justice for over half a century, and she's seen some things change while others have only grown worse. But she's held fast to her belief that change is possible.
"One way or another I've been involved in movements from the time I was very, very young, and I can remember that my mother never failed to emphasize that as bad as things were in our segregated world, change was possible. That the world would change." Davis said.
"I learned how to live under those circumstances while also inhabiting an imagined world, recognizing that one day things would be different." In other words, in order to make change, one has to believe in the possibility of a better future while facing the reality of the present.