Angela Davis and Ava DuVernay Discuss America's 'Racial Reckoning' for Vanity Fair Digital Cover Story

Illustration for article titled Angela Davis and Ava DuVernay Discuss America's 'Racial Reckoning' for Vanity Fair Digital Cover Story
Photo: Deana Lawson (Vanity Fair

Angela Davis has been fighting the good fight for more than 50 years, working as a social justice activist and scholar. Now, she is featured on the cover of Vanity Fair’s September 2020 digital issue, and in a conversation with 13th and When They See Us director Ava DuVernay, she speaks on this year’s “racial reckoning,” performative activism and more. (Remember: Vanity Fair’s physical September 2020 issue features Breonna Taylor on the cover.)


This year, we bore witness to the uglier side of America through social media. Earlier this year, George Floyd’s death at the hands of police was broadcast for the world to see, and just this past weekend, the assault of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin officers made headlines once more. Davis says that this time around—since these incidents are occurring in conjunction with COVID-19—those who are not affected by racism in America are beginning to understand its effects.

“Moments like this do arise,” she tells DuVernay. “They’re totally unpredictable, and we cannot base our organizing on the idea that we can usher in such a moment. What we can do is take advantage of the moment…There was work that should have happened in the immediate aftermath of slavery that could have prevented us from arriving at this moment. But it did not happen. And here we are. And now we have to begin.”

For someone like Davis, who has been discussing the criminalization of non-white people and the uneven playing fields due to class, gender and sexuality for decades, this current moment in history is neither “satisfying” nor “exhausting.” Instead, the National Women’s Hall of Fame Inductee is eager to see if the collective experiences of the American people through this movement continue to enact positive change.

“If it’s true that names are being changed, statues are being removed, it should also be true that the institutions are looking inward and figuring out how to radically transform themselves. That’s the real work,” she explains. “I like the term that John Berger used: Demonstrations are ‘rehearsals for revolution.’ When we come together with so many people, we become aware of our capacity to bring about change. But it’s rare that the actual demonstration itself brings about the change. We have to work in other ways.”

DuVernay also mentions that since the conversation surrounding systemic racism has become increasingly palpable, some statements from corporations, brands and individuals may come off as performative. Davis explains that statements and actions will come off as performative unless the work is put in to actively change something at all times, not just because it’s popular to do so.


“Virtually every institution seized upon that term, ‘diversity.’ And I always ask, ‘Well, where is justice here?’” she explains. “Are you simply going to ask those who have been marginalized or subjugated to come inside of the institution and participate in the same process that led precisely to their marginalization? Diversity and inclusion without substantive change, without radical change, accomplishes nothing.” In order to combat performative activism, Davis says that we should continue to demand justice and accountability from institutions.


Read the entire conversation here.

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Pronounced "Jay-nuh."