Angela Davis and Margaret Mead: At the Crossroads of Two Cultures

April 8, 2016

In 1970 when I was a young professor at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, I preached a sermon in the chapel entitled “Angela Davis and Margaret Mead: At the Crossroads of Two Cultures.” This week I came across a copy in the seminary archives and have prepared a lightly edited version to post online. Although many of the important issues have changed, people around the world are at an even more critical crossroads today. A sequel to the sermon preached forty-five years ago would describe the generational divisions of our time, outline the role of faith traditions in such a time, and suggest ways for all of us to move forward.   


I am the father of three daughters, each of whom has in her time been ten years old and a Girl Scout. That may be the reason I was moved nearly to tears by a picture in a recent news story showing a national celebrity with ribbons in her hair, smiling sweetly in her Girl Scout uniform back when she was ten years old.

She went on from those simple days to study at New York’s Elizabeth Irwin High School, Brandeis University, the Sorbonne, the Institute of Social Research at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfort, and the University of California at San Diego. There she began her doctoral dissertation on the topic of Kant’s analysis of violence in the French Revolution.

She was hired as an instructor in the department of philosophy at UCLA for two reasons: she was Black, and she was well schooled in the Continental European philosophical tradition of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and the existentialists, whereas the other members of that department were under the influence of British empirical philosophy.

Step by step this little Girl Scout and budding philosopher became identified with movements and efforts that were increasingly hostile to the established patterns of American society, especially those that affected Black people and other disinherited Americans. It is a long and complicated story that has led Angela Davis to be on the FBI’s list of the ten most wanted.

Of her, the Newsweek editors wrote recently: “For she has made her home at the crossroads of two cultures, and somehow she managed to inhabit both, declining the rewards that either would have bestowed on her if she had been willing to live within its rules alone” (10/26/70, p. 20).

My purpose in referring to Angela Davis is neither to explore her two worlds nor to praise her, although both tasks are well worth doing. Rather, it is to let the example of her life help us to see more clearly the condition experienced by the whole human family, for all of us are migrating from an old world into a new one.

My advance scout in this migration is Margaret Mead who has just published a slender volume in which she states her understanding of what is taking place. Her title is significant—Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap.

 Most of the time, Mead writes, the human community has depended upon the presence of three generations. Adults who are rearing their own family have at the same time continued to see their own parents who a few years earlier had reared them. In this old pattern of things, children become committed to the values and structures of the past.

There never is any question raised. The steady presence of the generations provides a continuing pathway for commitment. And what is most important: the old always teach the young.

To read more, click Angela Davis and Margaret Mead.