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Making the Improbable Possible in the Struggle for Freedom: Angela Davis’ New Book

In her most recent collection, Angela Y. Davis reorients our relationship to struggle toward one of radical possibilities.

Angela Y. Davis. (Photo: Haymarket Books)

Part of the Series

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, Angela Y. Davis, Haymarket Books, 2016

There is not a lot of joy in our popular associations with struggle. Many of us see struggle as a somber event, inconvenient, ultimately undesirable and yet utterly necessary. In her most recent collection of essays, public talks and interviews, Angela Y. Davis reorients our relationship to struggle — away from a relationship of impasse and contest, toward one of radical possibilities. With words unguarded and unyielding, she breaks popular notions of struggle down, breaks them open and gives us the tools to see the possibilities of struggle anew. From common-sense notions of national security and US investments in its globalization, to our domestic compliance in the exile of Assata Shakur and the symbolic power of the $2 million reward allocated for the Black revolutionary’s capture, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement shuttles through historical time and geographic space, not simply to commemorate or memorialize the struggles of past, but also to give us the words to talk about the cumulative possibilities of their constant unfolding.

“We have to talk about systemic change. We can’t be content with individual actions.”

Throughout her life, Davis has worked to give us the words to talk about the realities of struggle — taught us to stand before the unbearable and give voice to the obstructions to our freedom, even the ones we know we feel but still struggle to name. Her most recent work engages a series of timely questions. How do we talk about race in the United States after Obama? How do we distinguish terrorist acts from freedom fighters after 9/11? How do we talk about violence in the wake of the Charleston massacre and the state-sanctioned killings of Troy Davis, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland? After the grossly disproportionate, unrelenting and largely unacknowledged loss of so many Black and Brown lives to the altar of public safety, how do we find the words to name the racism that lives on in popular notions of the common good, in the universal language of human rights or in the protocols of due process? Can we even imagine the kind of insecurity that accumulates from our collective reliance on unwaged labor, torture, cages, walls and militarized borders to keep us safe?

“Our histories never unfold in isolation,” Davis writes. The master teacher, internationally beloved freedom fighter and esteemed scholar reminds us that “we have to talk about systemic change. We can’t be content with individual actions.”

In her book’s opening interview with human rights activist Frank Barat, the coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, Davis invites us to place our own struggles in context and in conversation with others whose realities of struggle are bound up in our own. In truth, Davis’ whole life has become a testament to the power of collective action. It is not enough to ally with others across lines of difference, however. Our connections “need to be made in the context of the struggles themselves.” She urges us to resist the desire to flatten the differences between various sites of resistance, and rather see all struggles on the same plane; she asks that we “raise parallels and similarities [to] other parts of the world” and to “talk about the structural connections.”

I hear Davis’ voice as I read her words. Even in print her voice carries rolling inflections from the Jim Crow South tinged with the inquisitive tones of a senior specialist in the Socratic method. It bears a distinctly academic mood but remains conversational in its presentation, imploringly matter-of-fact and yet somehow lilting, poetic, almost otherworldly. When I first heard her as a junior in college I could not believe my ears. I’d braved the journey from Providence to Maine in the middle of winter to see her at the insistence of a dear friend of mine from high school. Over the course of her talk on the need for prison abolition in the 20th century, Davis wove together schools of thought that universities typically relegated to entirely separate buildings or restricted from the curriculum altogether.

Davis teaches us to imagine a kind of liberation we do not yet know and cannot yet name.

Though I was not then what you would call political, listening to Davis talk I felt the seemingly disparate fragments of my education fall together in faultless symmetry. I had entered the university looking for answers to questions I did not yet know how to ask. Like many I straddled a number of disciplines, unsure where to turn, with few trusted guides to light the way. Some 15 years later Davis’ words still defy disciplinary protocols that often leave students feeling defeated, too discouraged to dare to bring their off-campus lives to bear on academic arguments and class conversations. As first-generation college students, or the sons and granddaughters of domestic workers, as the descendants of the enslaved, the undocumented and the dispossessed, we are constantly taught to leave our struggles behind when we enter discussions of The Republic, Adam Smith and the French Revolution. Davis, leading by example, gives us permission to bring our whole selves to the table.

Each of the chapters maps a method of thought that reflects the artistry of a feminist-driven analysis of resistance, a practice of learning about freedom from the limits of its practical realization. This practice applies lessons learned at the margins of freedom movements to mainstream political practices. Davis yields to our fascination with her own highly publicized life and throughout the book relays to us the realities of her struggles as a political prisoner in the early 1970s. She returns to the international movement whose commitment to her freedom saved her life to illustrate the transformative power of the abolitionist imagination, a practice of collective liberation that has made the improbable possible time and again. Davis teaches us to imagine a kind of liberation we do not yet know and cannot yet name.

In “Feminism and Abolition: Theories and Practices for the Twenty-First Century,” she charts connections between modes of oppressions and struggles for freedom that may — at first glace — not appear to be interrelated, but when brought together share a common vision of freedom. “We cannot begin,” states Davis, “to think about the abolition of prisons outside of an antiracist context. Anti-prison abolition — must also embrace the abolition of gender policing … the violence that is inherent in the gender binary in the larger society.”

When we stand together, alongside her, and see the ever-expanding web of interconnecting struggles from where Angela Davis stands within them, we can glimpse “the complex ways race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, and ability are intertwined.” But we can’t stop there, she says. We must also “move beyond these categories to understand the interrelationships of ideas and processes that seem to be separate and unrelated.”

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle elegantly dances between multiple genealogical threads of dissent, through dialogue and digression, to give chase to forms of thinking that have historically pervaded and obstructed movements for justice and liberation. The social forces that tether the end of slavery in the United States to the end of apartheid in South Africa, and to the current campaign for the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) of those who seek to defer the realization of a free Palestine, outline cartographies of struggle that implore us to see our histories in concert with one another. More than progress, these connections show us how the revolutionaries of the past live on all around us, in each other’s chants and song, in our style and in our formations. It reminds us that freedom is not a badge, neither the property of victims nor victors. In Davis’ Struggle, freedom is a radical tool of collective transformation. We need not leave joy behind.

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