The Meaning of Freedom by Angela Davis

meaning of freedomBorn in Birmingham, Alabama (referred to as the Johannesburg of the South) in 1944, Angela Davis experienced life on the front lines of the American Civil Rights Movement. A one-time member of the Communist Party and associated with the Black Panther Party (thought never an official member), she has a deep understanding of the United States’ association with the fear of blackness, as well as Communism; in fact she recalls receiving hate mail suggesting she return to both Africa and Russia. She is most known for her ongoing work against all forms of oppression, and is particularly keen on the critique of institutionalized inequality. Much of her current efforts are directed toward the appalling state of the United States justice system. Though to call her an activist is hardly enough; she spent time teaching at UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, and Syracuse University and has delivered lectures across the globe, and continues to do so.

Rather than something that can be granted by law, Davis calls freedom a “collective striving” and uses her historical insight to bring to light the interconnectedness of issues facing social justice movements as a whole. In her collection of speeches, The Meaning of Freedom And Other Difficult Dialogues, published by City Lights in 2012, Davis discusses sexuality, power, racism, immigration, class, and incarceration—demanding a new way of thinking. Alain Badiou once said of the potential state of philosophy,

“We can imagine two cases. First case: a new dawn of creative experiments in matters of science, politics, art or love is on the verge of a new evening for philosophy. Second case: our civilisation is exhausted, and the future that we are capable of imagining is a sombre one, a future of perpetual obscurity.”

from Philosophy For Militants

Like Badiou, Davis too believes in a new dawn of philosophy, but like too few of our planet’s thinkers, she is dedicated to not only the widespread instigation of these important discussions, but also defining the actual steps we need to take as a society to achieve this desired change. In her foreword to The Meaning of Freedom, Robin D.G. Kelley beautifully honors Davis’s accomplishments, ending with the conclusion that

“She still believes in social movements, in the power of the people to transform society, and in a non-capitalist path.”

In acknowledgement of the thousands who have spent the last few months, years, and decades in the streets supporting those who are unable to have a voice due to incarceration, or because they have lost their lives at the hand of an over-militarized aristocracy, please enjoy this excerpt from Angela Davis’s writing.

“I would like us to think deeply this evening about the extent to which we live with, are influenced by, and in large measure accept racism as a fact of social life. And I would like us to think about what questions we might ask about the various ways racism transforms and becomes something quite different from the racism which the civil rights movement struggled. That leads me to ask, where does race live? Where does racism live? Where did it reside in the past? And how do we shrink the spaces haunted by racism in order to begin to send it on its way?”

From Racism: Then and Now


“Social meanings are always socially constructed, but we cannot leave it up to the state to produce these meanings, because we are always encouraged to conceptualize change only as it affects individuals. There is a dangerous individualism that is not unrelated to the possessive individualism of capitalism. And it is bound to transform these collective victories we win. If we imagine these victories as community victories and they are transformed into individual victories, then what happens is that we seek heroic examples, we seek individuals. There is a whole array of people like Gonzales, Thomas, and Rice. And then what happens is that we forget about the structural changes that were actually intended by those struggles.”

from Racism: Then and Now

The Meaning of Freedom is available from City Lights and wherever books are sold, as part of our Open Media Series. Her other book with City Lights is a new edition of the classic autobiography by Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, which was edited by Davis with essays and commentary. Angels Davis’ biography and other work can be found here, and check out an interview she did here.

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