Y. Davis is a Professor of History of Consciousness
at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1994, she was appointed
to a UC Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies.
She is author of numerous articles and essays, and five books, including
Women, Race, and Class. Her latest volume, Blues Legacies
and Black Feminism, focuses on emerging feminist consciousness in
the work of early blueswomen. In 1972, she was acquitted on false charges
of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, and emerged as a scholar and
fighter for human rights. In this interview she shares her experience
in prison with sex workers, and her views on feminism and activism among
Siobhan Brooks was a union organizer at the Lusty
Lady Theater, which unionized with SEIU, Local 790. She is a Ph.D. student
and the New School for Social Research studying sociology, and Board
Member of EDA. Her writings have appeared in Z Magazine (January 1997),
Whores and Other Feminists (edited by Jill Nagle. Routledge, 1997) Sex
and the Single Girl (edited by Lee Damsky. Seal Press, 200), and Feminism
and Anti-Racism (co-edited by France Winddance Twine and Kathleen Blee.
NYU Press 2001).
interview with Angela Davis was originally published in the Vol. 10.
no. 1 1999 issue of the Hastings Women's Law Journal, and is from Siobhan's
book-in-progress Dancing Shadows: Interviews with Men and Women Sex
Workers of Color.
was your experience during your incarceration with sex workers? How
did you observe them being treated?
Angela Davis: One of things I recall
very clearly from my incarceration in New York twenty-seven years ago
was that large numbers of sex workers were continually arrested. During
my six weeks at the New York Women's House of Detention, I was struck
by the fact that judges were much more likely to release white prostitutes
on their own recognizance than Black or Puerto Rican prostitutes. Nearly
ninety percent of the prisoners in this jail---some of whom were awaiting
trial like myself and some of whom were serving sentences---were women
of color. The women talked a great deal about the various ways racism
was manifested in the criminal justice system. They talked about the
way race determined who went to jail and who stayed in jail and who
did not. During the short time I was there, I saw a significant number
of white women come in on charges of prostitution. Most of the time
they would be released within a matter of hours.
Because of the problems many women faced in attempting to raise bail,
we decided to work with women in the 'free world' who were organizing
a women's bail fund. The women on the outside set up the structure and
raised the money and we organized women inside. Those who joined the
campaign agreed to continue working with the bail fund on the outside
once their bail was paid by funds raised by the organization. Quite
a number of sex workers became involved in this campaign.
SB: What kind of abuse did you witness
towards sex workers of color?
don't recall that sex workers were singled out, but I witnessed a great
deal of verbal abuse directed toward all of the women prisoners. Prisoners,
particularly women prisoners, were and still are treated as if they
have no rights. They are infantilized---for instance, they are referred
to as "girls." Not only in my personal experience Dancing
as a prisoner, but also in the work I have done as a teacher in the
San Francisco County Jail---where Rhodessa Jones produces collaborative
theater presentations---I have witnessed a great deal of verbal abuse
directed toward women prisoners. Often guards and other jail personnel
are entirely unaware that they are inferiorizing the prisoners.
SB: In one of your essays in Women,
Race, & Class, you mentioned prostitutes trying to form a union
in the early part of the century. I know that you are supportive of
sex workers trying to organize their work environment. I wanted to hear
in your own words what your overall view of the sex industry is?
AD: I can begin by saying that I
think the sex industry should be decriminalized. In countries like the
Netherlands, where the sex industry has been decriminalized, there are,
as a result, fewer pressures on the criminal justice system as far as
women are concerned. The continued criminalization of the sex industry
is in part responsible for the expanding numbers of women entering jails
and prisons. This phenomenon of exponential expansion of incarcerated
populations is a part of the emergent prison industrial complex. Not
only are jail and prison populations increasing at an incredible rate,
capitalist corporations now have a greater stake in the punishment industry.
More prisons are being constructed, more companies are using prison
labor, more prisons are privatized. At the same time more women are
going to prison, more spaces are being created for women and, as a result,
ever-greater numbers of women will be going to prison in the future.
In my opinion, the continued criminalization of prostitution and the
sex industry in general will feed into the further development of this
prison industrial complex. The dismantling of the welfare system under
the so-called welfare reform law will probably lead to a further expansion
of the sex industry as well as the underground drug economy. The criminalization
of the sex industry will therefore help to draw more and more women
into the prison industrial complex. There is a racist dimension to this
process, since a disproportionate number of these women will be women
SB: Do you think in the near future
prostitution will be decriminalized here?
AD: This is something we need to
fight for. In the age of HIV and AIDS, it makes no sense to continue
to construct social circumstances that increasingly put women at risk.
The work that C.O.Y.O.T.E. has done over the years has been extremely
important. In this respect, Margo St. James is a pioneer. I have read
about the work that you have done at the Lusty Lady in organizing with
SEIU, Local 790. Hopefully, the work you are doing will become a statewide
and national trend. Certainly if unions such as yours continue to organize
and if the women's movement and other progressive movements take up
the demand for decriminalilzation, there will be some hope.
SB: Do you recall what kind of discussion
was going on around the time of the feminist movement in the 70s regarding
AD: During the earliest period of
the women's liberation movement, the most dramatic issues were sexual
violence and reproductive rights---in other words rape and abortion.
Issues relating to the sex industry were raised in the context of the
discussions around sexual violence. For example, there was the debate
regarding the Minneapolis statute outlawing pornography, which tended
to divide many feminists into opposing camps for and against pornography.
That polaization was a rather unfortunate development. But at the same
time these debates led to very interesting questions about what counts
as pornography, which opened up new ways of thinking and talking about
sex and erotic practices. The definition of pornography as assaultive,
objectifying and violative of women's autonomy and self-determination
was strategically important, because it allowed for a distinction between
what was exploitative and violative on the one hand, and what was an
expression of agency on the other. These discussions laid the ground-work
for moving feminist discourse on the sex industry outside of the vexed
framework of morality.
SB: How do you think your own feminist
views have changed over the years?
AD: I think they've changed a great
deal. For one, I didn't really consider myself a "feminist"
during the sixties and seventies, even though I was very much involved
in work around women's issues. With the emergence of the women's liberation
movement in during the late sixties, many women of color, myself included,
tended to distance ourselves from white middle-class feminists. Many
of us felt as if we were being asked to choose either race or gender
and we wanted to address both at the same time. We felt marginalized
in our movements for racial equality and likewise marginalized in movements
for gender equality. If white, middle-class feminist movements tended
to be racist, then many anti-racist efforts tended to be masculinist.
I have come to the conclusion that feminism is not a monolithic movement
or way of thinking. There are different feminisms and it is incumbent
on the women and men who call themselves feminists to clarify the politics
of their particular brands of feminism. I choose to define feminism
within a framework of radical, socialist politics that links struggles
against male dominance with anti-racist, anti-homophobic practices.
This means that we can also think about our past in different ways as
When I wrote the book, Women, Race, & Class, I did not consider
myself a feminist. But now I realize that in this book I was attempting
to explore marginalized Black feminist historical traditions. My latest
book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, continues that search
for working-class feminist traditions in the work of Black women blues
singers. When I looked at Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith
and Billie Holiday, I discovered that one of the most important feminist
themes of their work was sexuality. Blues songs---as well as Billie
Holiday's transformation of popular songs using blues and jazz---evoke
sex in very interesting ways and often use graphic sexual metaphors.
Middle-class Black people historically have often disasociated themselves
from the blues precisely because of the way they deal with sex.
In Blues Legacies, I conclude that sexuality was especially important
to Black people who had just emerged from the experience of slavery.
In the aftermath of slavery, emancipated Black people were not really
free. Even though slavery was abolished, there was no economic freedom
and no political freedom. But Black people could exercise agency and
autonomy in sexual matters. They could make their own decisions regarding
their sexual partners. They could decide who to have sex with on the
basis of their own desire---and not according to the slave masters'
need to reproduce the slave population. This was one of the most tangible
expressions of freedom for a people who were still not free. In my book
I read women's blues songs in a way that allows me to link sexuality
SB: That's a great project because
all across the board Black feminism is not acknowledged the way that
it should be. How do you view political activism and feminism among
AD: I do not assume like many people
of my generation that young people today are politically apathetic.
Young people are involved in a great deal of important grassroots activism.
They are involved in serious campaigns against the dismantling of affirmative
action, they are challenging the prison industrial complex, they are
involved in the AIDS movement and they are doing innovative organizing
like your work as a union organizer in the sex industry. The main problem,
I believe, is the lack of visibility of this work and the lack of national
networks. As a result many people assume that the work is not being
I try to warn against comparisons of young people today with their movement
ancestors, so to speak, and against the nostalgia that defines the sixties
as the revolutionary era and the nineties as an era of political passivity.
The circumstances we face today are far more complicated than they were
thirty years ago. I really don't envy young activist who today cannot
focus on one issue in the way sixties activism focused either on race
or on gender or on class. Young people today have to learn how to hold
all these things in tension and to recognize their intersectionalities.
During the sixties, if you became an anti-racist activist, all you had
to do was to figure out how to challenge racism. You knew who the enemy
was. Now, of course, we realize that the enemy is not that clear cut.
Since we have learned to politicize domestic violence, we can say that
the male activist who batters his partner stands simultaneously on both
sides of the battle lines. These are some of the complicated relationships
young people must understand today. I deeply respect the work of young
activist and I try to encourage young people to look among themselves
for models as opposed to assuming that they can find them in the past.
I often say that respect for your elders is good, but you have to combine
the right amount of respect with a few doses of disrespect in order
to extricate yourselves from the historical past. An important part
of the work of creating new forms of struggle resides in challenging
the previous forms. People of my generation challenged the elders---the
Martin Luther Kings for example---in order to carve out new paths. This,
I think, is what needs to happen today.
SB: How did you envision the political
future of the 80s and 90s after you were released from prison?
AD: There was a great deal of repression
in the 70s when I went to jail and when political prisoners from the
Black Panther Party and other organizations abounded in the jails and
prisons. The FBI and local police forces attempted to wipe out organizations
like the BPP. Students were the targets of repression---at Kent State,
for example. The 70s were a period during which the state was determined
to wipe out radical resistance. And they were successful to a certain
extent. But on the other hand, there were those who continued to do
the work. Even during the Reagan era, there were important and massive
displays of political resistance.
Perhaps the present is always the most difficult to understand, but
it seems that this is the most difficult time of all. Now that increasing
numbers of women and people of color are in positions of power, we have
to recognize that we can no longer assume that Black or Latino people
or women of any racial background will be progressive by virtue of their
race or gender. In face many, like Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly
here in California, have become spokespeople for the most politically
backward and conservative positions.
This means that we need to think differently about our political strategies.
We can't strive for the kind of unity upon which people tended to rely
in the past. We have to dispense with old ideas about Black unity or
women's unity. The kind of unity we need, I think, is unity forged around
political projects as opposed to unity based simplistically on race
or gender. My own hope for the future is not an abstract hope but is
grounded in the notion that we have to confront the tasks before us.
If we don't do the work, we will be confronting a future far direr and
far more dangerous than the present.
SB: That's a very frightening future.
I think that what I find interesting about what some people are calling
the sex workers' movement is that it encompasses groups of people from
different races, classes, and genders. I think that's a good blueprint
as to how we can ally ourselves with different activists on the left
and create something broader.
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