Interview. The American icon Angela Davis spoke with il manifesto about modern racism, refugees and Bernie Sanders.

Angela Davis: The communist Black Panther still draws crowds

Will any of these students, born in the 1990s, know who Angela Davis is? Will they participate in the lecture at Roma Tre University? Will they be curious to know who is this woman, who was already a legend for us in the ‘60s and ‘70s? As I was arriving, I feared that too few people might turn up to listen to her. I was reminded of the polls that tell us no one knows who Enrico Berlinguer (the Italian communist) was and that many people believe the United States and Germany won the Second World War.

I was so wrong. The university’s immense assembly hall was packed on Monday. Dozens stood on their feet or sat on the ground. Important political leaders are one thing, but legends are something else — that’s why they show up printed on T-shirts around the world. Davis is one of them: beautiful, black, intelligent, brave, a fighter for the Black Panther Party, confident and, above all, a communist. She was a victim of the most awful racism. It drove her to jail, accused of murder without any evidence. She was freed after two years thanks to one of the largest mobilizations of 1968. Not many people have songs about them by famous musicians: Davis has “Sweet Black Angel” by the Rolling Stones and “Angela” by John Lennon, to name just a couple.

Today her iconic afro worn as an ensign is graying — she is 73 years old — but she still has moxie. The hundreds of people in the room, among them students and a number of militant feminists, could barely control their emotions. They only wanted to listen to her, and they did not care one bit about what we, the other guests invited to the stage, would say. They didn’t want to waste an opportunity to hear her speak, and this was understandable. So the scheduled program was quickly discarded. It became a question-and-answer session with a long line to the microphone. Only a few succeeded in asking questions, almost all of them black Italians, and an amazing Kurdish girl who was greeted by loud applause.

Naturally, Davis speaks in English, and there is no translation. But to my amazement, I discover that everyone in the audience follows her speech, applauding and laughing at the right moments. She tells us how racism still exists, not only in America, but everywhere. “Here in Europe, only now, with the refugees, you are coming to terms with your colonialism,” she said. She dwelled for a long time on Palestinians affected by the most indecent racism. (“But in our cities,” she said, “those who burn black churches, also burn synagogues.”)

Davis spoke a lot about black feminism and began with a terrible figure: A third of the world’s incarcerated women — even though the U.S. represents only 5 percent — are in U.S. prisons, and most of them are black. “Gender does not stand alone,” she said. “This category is not enough to explain, it is necessary to add class and race.”

“Hillary has not understood that feminism has changed,” she said. “The question of identity is not the most important issue today. Gender policy is. Gender itself is already taken for granted. Today there is a more radical feminism that understands that the issue must be contextualized, seen in relation to the dominant system in which we live. After all,” she continued, “black female workers had stayed away from feminism. Today that’s no longer the case.”

So are gender and race less important than social belonging? “No, they are contradictions that are intertwined and have changed now because a black middle class has emerged, the result of a struggle against segregation. But then, it has meant integration into the ship of capitalism. There is not one feminism, there are many,” she said, to much applause.

The meeting ended in jubilation after her closing words: “Sometimes we have to say what we think is unrealistic. The role of philosophy is this: to look beyond. Right now, we have to start to imagine what might be a different world from the one in which we now live.”

In her words, I hear a strong echo of Herbert Marcuse, who was her teacher in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 1960s, with Adorno and Oskar Negt, and then in the United States. I say Marcuse because I remember what he said: Today, utopia has lost its unrealistic nature. Science and technology would allow us to realize what Marx dreamed of: a life in which there would be free time for making music, preparing good food and decorating our home. But the social relations of production are stopping us.

The German philosopher had found his refuge in San Diego, where Davis then went to teach for a long time. When I went there to spend a weekend with him and to interview him for il manifesto (which he loved very much, despite the fact he was not able to read in Italian) he spoke at length about Davis. Because he was not an isolated intellectual, he felt he was part of the protest movement. It was no coincidence that in those years the movement had as its emblem “the three Ms”: Marx, Mao, Marcuse. “During the ’60s,” Davis said, “thanks to Marcuse, I realized that an intellectual can be, and indeed must be, part of the movement.”

After the event ended, we chatted about this and that at the Biondo Tevere restaurant, located at the bottom of the urban section of the Via Ostiense, where Pasolini used to go and Visconti shot a memorable scene of Bellissima. I asked her why the new movements that have animated the American political scene in recent years have remained either white or black, with little mixing — Occupy Wall Street for example. I reminded her the testimony of a black militant who said she felt uncomfortable because she saw only white people at Zuccotti Park. And the largest mobilization against the string of police murders, beginning with Trayvon Martin in Florida, was the Black Lives Matter movement — but it was almost all blacks.

Even now, in struggles that grow locally, tend to be white or black. The fast food workers campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour is almost all black. But at universities, where student-workers are demanding to be paid better, the movement is almost all white. The whites vote for Bernie Sanders; the blacks vote for Hillary Clinton. What is happening?

“In fact, at Occupy there were many more blacks than what it looked like, although the scene was taken by white militants,” Davis said. “But it is true that there is segregation, caused by culture, habit, place of residence, working conditions. Racism penetrates everything and everyone. We have all been infiltrated in one way or another. Think of the German vote,” she said, referring to the rise of the far right. “Isn’t it an effect of racism?”

“As for Bernie Sanders,” she said, “you have to take into account that traditionally blacks have remained strangers to electoral politics. They have never really been involved. And then, Bernie Sanders is an expression of the northern political culture, of a very special state like Vermont. He does not know how to speak to blacks. He is color blind, has no built-in racial issues, only social ones, but you must understand that his universality is fake. I must say that he is learning. He is already much better than he was at the beginning.”

How does the black president Obama play in this scenario?

“I think we will rue him,” she said. “The Occupy movement itself would not have developed if there had been another president. But, just because he is black, expectations among the blacks were very high, perhaps too high compared to what he could actually do, and so there are many who are disappointed and resentful, to whom the president looks only as the representative of the new black middle class. While they did not expect anything from Clinton, because he was white. And they are grateful. So, now they vote for his wife. Instead of voting for a socialism that feels as an alien culture.”

There were millions of things to discuss. But there was no time: Davis had to catch a train because the University of Bologna was waiting for her.

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