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NewsJun 27, 2022

Persisting in the fight for justice

Dr. Angela Davis brings her energy and anti-oppression bona fides to the Sonnabend Lecture Series

zoom screenshot of angela davis and professors
Clockwise from top: Interim dean of our Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences Sandra Walker, faculty members Louise Michelle Vital and Nancy Waring, and Sonnabend lecturer Dr. Angela Davis.

The classics never go out of style.

Though some of the terminology has changed since Dr. Angela Davis rose to prominence in the 1960s as an activist and author of academic papers on racism, sexism and classism (yesterday’s male chauvinism is today’s hetero-patriarchy), the struggle remains the same.

Davis, a two-time vice-presidential candidate, displayed the same intelligence and fire that characterized her early decades of fighting systemic oppression as Lesley’s 2022 Sonnabend Lecturer on May 12.

Speaking in a virtual forum—interviewed by Assistant Professor Louise Michelle Vital and in a Q&A moderated by Professor Emerita Nancy Waring—Davis urged students and other would-be activists to marshal their innate gifts to work for change and build communities.

“How do I remake myself into an activist?” Davis asked rhetorically, but then answered that students should “think about their own strengths, their own proclivities, their own desires.”

Writing, as Davis has done throughout her career, is one important tool, but the visual arts can also be used to galvanize fellow activists, opponents, people on the fence and even those who only appear to be going through the motions of anti-oppression.

“When you begin to see these sort of performative people … that’s a sign that you’ve made a lot of progress,” Davis said. “Others who may not have been involved in helping the movement grow” recognize its value, and in the importance of embracing the movement for the appearance of personal legitimacy.

“I learned not to be swayed off course by trends that often emphasize individual or individualistic aggrandizement,” Davis said. “I’ve also learned over the years how to eschew sectarianism. … Difference can be an important instigator. It can actually bring us together.”

Born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama’s “Dynamite Hill” neighborhood (so dubbed because of frequent bombings by the Ku Klux Klan), Davis is the author of nine books and has lectured throughout the United States as well as in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. In recent years, a persistent theme of her work has been the range of social problems associated with incarceration and the generalized criminalization of those communities that are most affected by poverty and racial discrimination.

Davis draws upon her own experiences in the early 1970s as a person who spent 18 months in jail and on trial for several charges, including kidnapping and murder, after being placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. (She was later acquitted of all charges.)

Davis has also conducted extensive research on numerous issues related to race, gender and imprisonment.

‘Prison industrial complex’

Aggressive policing and what she and others call the “prison industrial complex” — which target Blacks and other people of color, as well as poor people — demonstrate the vestiges of slavery. Though outlawed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, people who are incarcerated are often forced to work for low wages, even for free, today.

“When slavery was putatively abolished … new mechanisms for control were developed,” Davis said, adding that the police and prison structure is designed to “control the bodies of formerly enslaved people.”

“Slavery involves so much more than involuntary servitude,” Davis said, alluding to the late human-rights-oriented sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’s question on whether slavery was truly abolished in the 19th century.

“There were so many other aspects of slavery that lived on,” Davis said. “We are still dealing with the resonances of slavery.”

Among them are infringements on abortion rights (which Davis calls “reproductive justice”), food insecurity and economic disparities.

Universities, she indicated, have a large role to play in creating a more just society, provided they think about their “situatedness” in struggling communities. She pointed out that the Ivy League Columbia University is situated in Harlem, but questioned how much the school brings its knowledge and expertise to bear on problems in the community.

“If universities were to imagine themselves as a part of the communities … they would be much more accountable,” Davis said, adding that institutions must also look inward. True diversity, equity and inclusion is more than just adding people of color to the payroll and student body, she said.

“It’s not so much about how you bring people in, without turning the vision inward,” she said, saying that universities and other institutions must be reorganized “rather than simply welcoming people into an unchanged institution.”