I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.
Remember the hair like a big, black helmet? Remember the angry, threatening expression? Remember how she became famous as an activist alongside the Black Panthers back in the 60s? Well, Angela Davis is back.
Actually, she never left. As a member of a sold-out audience in The Lensic Theater in Santa Fe on Wednesday, November 2, I learned about her extraordinary life as an academic and a leader in the movement for social justice all over the world. She is now 72 years old; and with a PhD in philosophy, she is a distinguished professor emerita at the University of California in Santa Cruz and has taught at universities all over the country. She is also the author of seven books, including Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, which just came out in February of this year.
It was very interesting to see how her persona today compares with her early image. The early fierceness probably emerges in certain moments, but she seemed good-humored and approachable, a very deep thinker with a professorial manner, whose measured speaking style gave each of us time to ponder what she was saying. And she was likable, chuckling at one point about how her signature hairstyle, which must be hard to maintain, has become a “historic burden.”
Many people freeze on hearing her name, because she has been a member of the Communist Party and was fired from the University of California in 1969 at the insistence of Governor Ronald Reagan. She was eventually rehired and that influence endures, but her perspective cannot be easily defined. She is at the “crone” stage in life as we say, and her commitment to social justice is seated in a wisdom beyond labeling. What she has learned through a very energetic and acclaimed life is newly pertinent. The audience at the Lensic Theater is usually silver-haired, and I was amazed at how young and dynamic many attendees were and how culturally diverse we all were.
I did some research about her history after the lecture, and it was easy to see how she became radicalized. Angela was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and lived in a part of town called “Dynamite Hill,” which was bombed in the 50s when middle class blacks moved into the neighborhood. Her mother became involved in organizing African-American youth, an activity supported by the Communist Party. Angela’s education was segregated until she was able, through a Quaker program, to transfer to an integrated high school in Greenwich Village, New York. In 1963, she was devastated when a Ku Klux Klan member bombed a church in Birmingham and killed four young girls she knew.
And so here we are, the issue of police brutality against blacks high-profile again 50 years after the Black Panthers organized to fight “white oppression.” Much work remains to be done, and that was the primary point of Angela’s talk.
Over the course of two hours, including an interview at the end of her talk, she made some very provocative points. Some made me realize to what degree my own thinking is in the box in accepting so many things as just being “the way things are.” Here are some of her stand-out items:
- Democracy was founded on elitism, and the elite were three things: male, white, and property owners.
- Our democracy remains elitist, and it continues to limit freedom through the power of exclusion.
- The challenge now is to construct the kind of society that should have developed in the aftermath of slavery.
- We need a third political party that encompasses all racial backgrounds; the concerns of environmentalists, animal rights activists, LGBT people, unions, and radicals; and includes anti-capitalist perspectives.
- Capitalism is all about profits at the sacrifice of the environment and the well-being of the community.
- We must end policing and prisons as we know them.
- Prisons can’t address any of the issues that put people there. Gender violence, for example, is perpetuated and reproduced in prison.
- There is a surge in demand for social justice all over the world. All these struggles are interrelated.
- We need to develop a 21st century form of internationalism that will include a global movement toward immigrant rights.
At the conclusion of the evening, Angela seemed to pause and take a deep breath before summarizing: There are so many things we need to consider if we’re going to create a better world, and this is going to be a very, very long haul.
Because we live in a time of exponential change and have become very accustomed to the experience of instant gratification, activists probably expect too much too soon. And as Angela pointed out, many of us know that we won’t live long enough to see any significant goals achieved, so the question becomes, “Why bother?” Desired changes may take 10, 50, 100, even 500 years of dedication.
Nevertheless, the evening ended with a standing ovation for Angela Davis from a crowd that seemed to exit energized rather than intimidated by the magnitude of the challenges before us. There was no suggestion at all of nostalgia for “the good old days” of America. Angela seemed to have inspired us all to think about how to redefine what “great” will mean in the future.