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Negotiating the Transformations of History

Publié par Clifford Armion le 27/01/2014
This is an extract from Angela Davis's ((The Meaning of Freedom)), a collection of speeches and papers dealing with the author's life-long struggle against oppression, inequality and prejudice.

Sometimes we veteran activists simply yearn for the good old days rather than prepare ourselves to confront courageously a drastically transformed world that presents new, more complicated challenges. We evoke a time when masses of black people, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, along with our white allies, were on the move, determined to change the course of history. But instead of seeing past struggles as a source of inspiration impelling us to craft innovative approaches to contemporary problems, we frequently replace historical consciousness with a desperate nostalgia, allowing the past to become a repository for present political desires. We allow the present to be held captive by the past.

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More than once I have heard people say, “If only a new Black Panther Party could be organized, then we could seriously deal with The Man, you know?” But suppose we were to say: “There is no Man anymore.” There is suffering. There is oppression. There is terrifying racism. But this racism does not come from the mythical “Man.” Moreover, it is laced with sexism and homophobia and unprecedented class exploitation associated with a dangerously globalized capitalism. We need new ideas and new strategies that will take us into the twentyfirst century.

What I am suggesting is that those of us who are elders have to stop functioning as gatekeepers. We cannot establish age and civil rights or black power experience as the main criteria for radical black political leadership today. How old was Dr. Martin Luther King when he became the spokesperson for the Montgomery bus boycott? He was 26 years old. How old was Diane Nash? How old was Huey Newton? Fidel Castro? Nelson Mandela? Amilcar Cabral? Jacqueline Creft? Maurice Bishop? As for myself, I was only 25 years old when I had to confront Ronald Reagan over the issue of my right as a Communist to teach at UCLA. We cannot deny young people their rightful place in this movement today or it will be our downfall. In many instances, young people are able to see far more clearly than we that our lives are shaped by the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality. (...)

We speak today about a crisis in contemporary social movements. This crisis has been produced in part by our failure to develop a meaningful and collective historical consciousness. Such a consciousness would entail a recognition that our victories attained by freedom movements are never etched in stone. What we often perceive under one set of historical conditions as glorious triumphs of mass struggle can later ricochet against us if we do not continually reconfigure the terms and transform the terrain of our struggle. The struggle must go on. (...)

Beware of those leaders and theorists who eloquently rage against white supremacy but identify black gay men and lesbians as evil incarnate. Beware of those leaders who call upon us to protect our young black men but will beat their wives and abuse their children and will not support a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy. Beware of those leaders! And beware of those who call for the salvation of black males but will not support the rights of Caribbean, Central American, and Asian immigrants, or who think that struggles in Chiapas or in Northern Ireland are unrelated to black freedom. Beware of those leaders! Regardless of how effectively (or ineffectively) veteran activists are able to engage with the issues of our times, there is clearly a paucity of young voices associated with black political leadership. The relative invisibility of youth leadership is a crucial example of the crisis in contemporary black social movements.


General comprehension

  1. What problem in contemporary social movements does Angela Davis identify?
  2. Why is it essential that young people should become activists?
  3. What is wrong with the older generation of activists?


Detailed comprehension

Part 1 (paragraphs 1&2)
1) Which 'past struggles' are being alluded to in the first paragraph?

2) Match these words from the text (first column) with their synonyms (second column):

- to yearn - never seen before
- drastically - to be eager for
- to craft - thoroughly
- to impel - to push
- unprecedented - to build up

3) In paragraph 2, the slang phrase 'The Man' refers to:

  • a central power or administration that controls people and oppresses minorities
  • the President of the United States
  • a white supremacy group

4) What has replaced this 'mythical Man' activist struggled against in the 1960's?

Part 2 (paragraph 3)
1) Choose one of the activists mentioned by Angela Davis (Diane Nash, Huey Newton, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Amilcar Cabral, Jacqueline Creft, Maurice Bishop). Use the internet to find out about what he/she stood for and at what age he/she became a national figure.

2) True or false (justify by quoting from the text).

  • a) Radical black movements must rely on experienced leaders
  • b) Martin Luther King was involved in the Montgomery bus boycott
  • c) Ronald Reagan did not want Angela Davis to teach because she was a communist

3) Can modern social movements be based exclusively on race questions? What other issues are related to racial discrimination according to Angela Davis?

Part (paragraphs 4&5)
1) Explain in your own words the meaning of these two metaphorical expressions from paragraph four: "to be etched in stone" and "to ricochet against."

2) Name three contradictions that characterise older leaders of the black movements according to Angela Davis.

3) What does Angela Davis try to prove by drawing a parallel between Northern Ireland and the American Civil Rights movement?

Going further

1) Do you agree with Angela Davis when she writes that social movements lack younger figures? Can you think of young people in the English speaking world who embody social activism?

2) In The Meaning of Freedom, Angela Davis regrets that young black artist, especially in the hip-hop movement, should represent some conceptions of black activism while conveying a sexist and sometimes homophobic discourse. Discuss that statement.


Grammar - GENITIVE

1) Transform the following N of N structures into genitives according to the example:


  • The struggle of black people → Black people's struggle
  • The leaders of the radical movements →
  • The opinion of Angela Davis →
  • The stance of Nelson Mandela →

2) Complete the following chart with the form of the genitive case that should be used for each of the four categories listed bellow («'» or «'s»).

Plural nouns not ending in -s  
Plural nouns ending in -s  
Names ending in -s  
Names not ending in -s  

3) Confirm your answers by reading this page.


Pour citer cette ressource :

"Negotiating the Transformations of History", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2014. Consulté le 17/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/se-former/workbook/angela-davis-becoming-an-icon/negotiating-the-transformations-of-history