I recently had the good fortune of seeing the legendary civil rights activist, freedom fighter, educator and scholar Angela Davis speak to a packed house at Davidson College in North Carolina, where she gave a broad ranging and inspiring talk about the history of the civil rights struggle for black folks in the United States of America.
But it was really about more than that. A LOT more than that. For the most part, I’m going to let her words speak for themselves.
“When we celebrate Black History Month, it’s not just to celebrate black people breaking down barriers and creating firsts. Rather, we celebrate it because of the centuries old struggle to expand freedom for us all. It’s AMERICAN history! It’s WORLD history!”
“The freedom movement is not just about civil rights. It’s about transforming the country. We speak about it within the small frame of civil rights struggles for blacks, for prisoners, for immigrants, for marriage equality. BUT freedom is more expansive than civil rights. The freedom movement would not have been necessary had slavery been COMPREHENSIVELY abolished in the 19th century by virtue of the emancipation proclamation in 1863 or the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865. And when 2060 rolls around, will we still be dealing with these issues?”
Dr. Davis also mentioned that while it’s important to remember iconic figures like Dr, Martin Luther King, we should also realize that there were many, many others who struggled along with him. People who in a room full of aware, educated people, got only a smattering of applause.
“Joanne Robinson. Does anyone remember her?”–Only one person in the audience did, and it wasn’t this writer. “She wrote a book called “The Montgomery Bus Boycott And The Women Who Started It.”
”You see, it wasn’t just one or two people who created this movement.It was largely WOMEN. BLACK WOMEN. POOR BLACK WOMEN. Maids, washer women, cooks!’ We have to thank them for imagining a different universe and making it possible for us to inhabit that universe in the present.”
“Does anyone know Claudette Colvin?” she asked. Again, only a handful of people did. “She refused to move to the back of the bus too. BEFORE Rosa Parks!”.
” Martin Luther King was a great man. But his greatness resided in how he learned from others in the movement. His work was not solitary.”
“How many of you know about the ‘kissing’ incident of 1958, right here in North Carolina,” she asked. “We ARE in North Carolina, right?” Applause, but not of recognition. “Well, right here in Monroe, North Carolina, a young black boy kissed a white girl. He was arrested on rape charges. It was media attention in EUROPE, NOT the United States, that eventually lead to the freedom of the young boy’.
This theme of all of us being in it together and needing to understand the battles–well known or hardly known at all–is one that runs through all of Dr. Davis’ work. And it seems to be what drives her. “Each time we engage in a struggle, we become familiar with other possible struggles. Growing up in the segregated south taught me that it wasn’t all about me. It’s about the larger community.”
Turning her attention to the 21st century, Dr. Davis says “We have come a long way, but we have also regressed We are still dealing with police racism and violence. We have 2.5 million blacks in jail, more than were ever enslaved,”Think about that one for a minute.
‘There is the LGBT movement and it is often framed within the context of marriage equality. But why must we frame it within a hetero-normative standard? This should stop.”
“There is the fight against Islamophobia and xenophobia. There was the Occupy movement. It’s been pushed to the side by the media, but just because the tents are down, it doesn’t mean that the struggles of the 99% get dismantled. The promise of the movement is visible all over the world. We are still inhabiting a political space created by the Occupy movement.”
“I’m concerned that our relationship to history in the United States is flawed. We live with the ghosts of our past. We live with the ghosts of slavery.”
Turning her attention to the election and re-election of Barack Obama, Angela Davis is both a supporter and a critic of the President.
“In 2008, there was a planetary euphoria when he was elected. People identified with the sustained struggle for freedom. But the second time, everybody who was hoping he was a messiah realized that he was just the President of the United States. President of the racist, imperialist United States. We also learned that people didn’t let voter suppression efforts stop them. You would have thought it was the first election in a free South Africa!”
Her criticisms of the President include the fact that Guantanamo is still open, that the war in Afghanistan should never have happened, and the fact that while focusing on the middle class, he has not done enough to improve the situation for poor people. “When did we all become middle class?” An important question that I had to respond to affirmatively, noting that it is a question not asked often enough by the President or many other politicians, really. Of course, while Dr. Davis was saying this, President Obama was addressing the issue of raising the minimum wage during his State Of The Union Address. I’m not sure if this would impress her, but perhaps she’d say that her words and her influence got to him somehow.
We may still be living with the ghosts of history, but Angela Davis is very much a part of the present. Still kicking ass and taking names.