On the spatial and temporal intersectionality of freedom movements: A review of Angela Davis’ “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”
by Eric Ritskes
Angela Y. Davis (2016). Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books. ** 158 pp. **
I want to emphasize the importance of approaching both our theoretical explorations and our movement activism in ways that enlarge and expand and complicate and deepen our theories and practices of freedom. (p. 104)
The title of the newest entry in Angela Davis’ body of work, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, simultaneously evokes both resignation and hope, both critique and inspiration. And, as Davis looks back at her decades of involvement in Black, global freedom movements, as well as at the futures of these movements, these tensions are apparent.
For those who are familiar with and follow Davis’ recent work, this book – drawn from a series of interviews with Frank Barat, and from a few of her recent speeches – provides little new content. Its accessible style and format is wide ranging in topic, especially in the early chapters drawn from the interviews, and at times the conversation feels disjointed; in part, owing to interview questions which jump around, often without transition, from Palestine to prison abolition to Black power to Obama to feminism. Each individual topic unto itself is underdeveloped, limited by space and format.
Yet, taken as a whole, the book offers a clarion call to our various freedom movements; it is a necessarily urgent call for the intersectionality needed to foster and grow organized grassroots movements against global oppression and terror. As Davis emphasizes a number of times throughout the book, this book is a call for “not so much intersectionality of identities, but intersectionality of struggles” (p. 144). In connecting Ferguson and other Black radical struggles to Palestine (primarily), she expansively opens up her book as a discussion on what it will take to end racism and colonialism and patriarchy, what it will take to abolish prisons, value transgender people, and end the death penalty in the United States. As she writes, in regards to these diverse issues: “They [aren’t] separate in our bodies, but also they are not separate in terms of struggle” (p. 19).
Davis’ conceptualization of intersectionality emphasizes the need to both spatially and temporally expand the material and discursive connections of struggle in order to achieve freedom. Expanding freedom struggles spatially means recognizing that our local resistances are also global; they are connected. To do this, she explores the terror of state violence as a central mechanism of linkages across states and borders. From the militarization of police in Ferguson and Palestine to the rise of the prison industrial complex, Davis argues that terror is central to the racism and (settler) colonialism of the state, that “there is a longer and larger history of the violence we witness today” (pp. 81-82). Broadening definitions of terror to center the violence of the state allows connections that expand our analysis and movements beyond individual actions to interrogate the structural violences of racism, colonialism, patriarchy, etc.
Temporally, Davis emphasizes the historical trajectories of Black radical resistance in the US, often happening in conjunction and collaboration with global anticolonial struggles. As other scholars such as Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch (1999) do in “Black Like Mao”, Davis recognizes the long histories of anticolonial resistance that Black power movements in the US saw themselves as part of and how these histories must inform current freedom movements: “behind this concept of intersectionality is a rich history of struggle” (p. 19). In emphasizing this history she also emphasizes a historical expansiveness that refuses to idolize heroes, or even particular moments, of the movement at the expense of the broader mass organizing.
How, then, do we expand our movements temporally and spatially? How do we build and organize across borders and struggles? If our struggles are indeed global, how do we, as Davis states in a recent interview in Ebony, “incorporate this global vision into our on the ground battles”? The central question for Davis is: “how to create windows and doors for people who believe in justice to enter and join in” (p. 21).
“Solidarity,” Davis writes, “always implies a kind of mutuality” (p. 41). In response to a question about what Black struggles in the US can offer Palestinians, she cautions against an American exceptionalism that often sees Americans desiring to offer advice to the rest of the world without the necessary understanding and recognition of mutuality in struggle and learning. This mutuality, she argues, broadens our understandings of intersectionality. In fairness, Black struggles have a long history of learning from and engaging anticolonial movements in other parts of the world, from Ghana to Algeria to Haiti to Cuba to China, and this is undoubtedly what Davis is gesturing to as a model, as she has been part of these exchange and solidarity building trips, including ones to Palestine.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, recognizing the spatial and temporal intersectionality of freedom movements needs creativity, futurity, and imagination. It needs, as Robin D.G. Kelley writes, freedom dreams. Expansive movements for freedom are created when,
social realities that may have appeared inalterable, impenetrable, came to be viewed as malleable and transformable; and people learned how to imagine what it might mean to live in a world that was exclusively governed by the principle of white supremacy. (Davis, p. 67)
These freedom dreams, these decolonial futurities, are the ‘windows and doors’ for people to enter into freedom movements. They welcome people to dream together and to build the relations needed to enact these dreams together. These futures also open up the past in a temporal remixing of sorts; as Davis writes, it is the freedom seekers of the past that are “the people whom we have to thank for imagining a different universe and making it possible for us to inhabit the future” (p. 118). It is this dreaming that reverses the violence of racism and colonialism: “One of the major examples of the violence of racism is consists of the rearing of generations of Black people who have not learned how to imagine the future” (p. 89). We must build the capacity to dream and struggle for freedom together.
Davis’ book is a call to develop a shared vocabulary of struggle, to open up the discursive terrain in ways that allow us to dream freedom dreams together. This is her desire for the future: intersectional movements that struggle together for freedom against the enduring structural violences of our societies. Throughout her life and activism she has sought to embody this intersectionality of movements, and this book is no different. Freedom is a Constant Struggle is about creating a world in which we can all be free and, echoing Frederick Douglass, Davis recognize this freedom only comes through struggle. But, in the end, she finds hope in this collective struggle; as she writes, “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism” (p. 49).
Eric Ritskes is the founder and editor of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education. You can learn more at www.ericritskes.com or follow on Twitter @eritskes.