We were both lucky enough to attend two events with the revered black communist scholar and activist Professor Angela Davis in March and April. The first was held at the Southbank Centre in London for International Women’s Day as part of the Women of the World festival with the centre’s former Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE and the second in Cambridge in conversation with Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay organised by Decolonise Sociology. Both conversations reflected on Davis’s life and work, her iconic status as a black activist, and the legacies and futures of social activism.
At Southbank, Davis reflected on the activism of the 60s and 70s, emphasising that older activists should take a paternalistic attitude when engaging with younger activists. A lot can be learned from contemporary groups, she noted, citing the work of Black Lives Matter. On the current leadership in America, which she referred to as “the occupation of the White House”, she reminded us that people have been protesting since day one. Davis looks to newly-elected representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib as individuals who are doing the “work” of impacting change from inside the institution. In response to a question about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the UK, Davis stood firm in re-iterating that being critical of Israel should not be conflated with anti-Semitism and this conflation often reinforces embedded anti-Semitism, highlighting the work of resistance movements within Israel. As expected, the discussion was rich and far-reaching, from observations on individualism as “the great problem of our time…We are who we are in relation to others, all over the world, past and present” to touching upon the pedagogical framework of activism; “there is epistemological value in justice work for the knowledge you gain”.
Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, chaired the discussion in Cambridge and opened by highlighting the historic nature of such an event being held at the University; an event with two empowering black women chaired by a black woman. In an institution which, as Dr Figueroa pointed out, has fewer than five black female professors, this conversation epitomises the work of the Decolonise the Curriculum campaign which has swept across various universities and departments across the United Kingdom. It also highlights the pressing need for such a campaign. Jackie Kay started the conversation with a reading from her poem about Angela Davis in which the protagonist reflects on Davis’s imprisonment in 1970 and describes kissing her poster of Angela Davis at night. This was followed by an intimate discussion about multiple selves, ongoing activism, the representation of Angela Davis as a strong black woman with an afro – as a role model for other black women.
Dr Figueroa also reminded the audience that we need be to careful that moves to decolonise curriculums are not hijacked by well-meaning white people and should foreground those who are intimately involved in these campaigns. Davis also noted that work needs to be done both inside and outside the academe. As such, it was heartening to see such a young audience with representatives from various activist groups including Sisters Uncut, Grenfell Silent Walk and Goldsmiths Anti-Racism Occupation group. These representatives asked for advice about collective organising and reminded us of the justice work that is currently being undertaken nationally and locally. Davis, recognising the importance of contextual specificity, did not attempt to propose monolithic approaches to activism and instead encouraged activists, urged creativity and suggested alternative modes of organising. On a number of occasions, Davis also stressed the need to avoid simply assimilating into exploitative capitalist frameworks, but rather demanding alternative systems that exist outside the bonds of racist, patriarchal, heteronormative establishment institutions. She encouraged the audience at Cambridge to view every space we find ourselves in as an “arena for struggle”.
Both events provided audiences with important retrospections and lessons. Davis reminded us that global networks of resistance are possible, maintaining that those who campaigned for her release from prison came together from all over the world in an act of sustained action and protest. Her astute critiques and ability to map intricate global connections between systemic, institutionalised modes of oppression, from capitalism to racism, is astounding. For instance, Davis reminded us to support the Rohingya and the Kurdish Women’s Movement alongside the importance of transforming institutions of learning and challenging the prison-industrial complex. She also emphasised the importance of collective struggle and remaining hopeful, even if we do not see transformative changes in our lifetimes. More than anything, Davis’s commitment to consistent learning and re-learning, and knowledge production came to the fore at both events. Commenting on her influential work on Women, Race and Class (1981), she remarked that reading it back she thought “how stupid I was” although the text still resonates with so many today. This sustained strength and consistent openness to change and evolving strategies of justice work continues to inspire individuals and organisations.
Image: Freedom for Angela Davis poster, ca 1970, via Creative Commons license, photograph credit: rocor.