Abolition still relevant 150 years later, says Angela Davis
Davis was invited to mark the opening of the McMaster Centre for Scholarship in the Public Interest. Henry Giroux, the centre's director, emphasized Davis' great commitment to engaged education.
“We invited Angela Davis here tonight because she has struggled greatly and with great dignity for decades to demonstrate that education is a form of political intervention,” said Giroux. “She has worked in difficult and shifting circumstances to remind us of the power of education as a central element of inspired self-government.”
Davis spoke for close to an hour, first sharing her own personal story. She described how she had an early exposure to activism.
She briefly discussed her now infamous early teaching career, which got her fired from UCLA, first because of her support for communism, then later for speaking out on behalf of political prisoners. Davis was later wrongfully jailed for her supposed connections with a murder plot.
She argued that the prison-industrial complex, a notion that was central to both her own personal experience and her talk, was first exemplified in slavery in the U.S.
The talk itself was meant to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. But Davis' aim was less commemorative and more critical of the underlying implications of the purported ‘end to slavery' and its continued relevance.
“The civil rights movement was only necessary because the slave trade had not been fully abolished,” she said. “As a matter of fact, what we call the civil rights movement, we should call the 20th century abolition rights movement. Because it was about abolishing the vestiges of slavery. If slavery had been abolished ... there would be no second-class citizenship.”
Davis argued that slavery was neither abolished nor antiquated. She noted how the actions of the civil rights movement were framed in a narrative that attempts to showcase the U.S. as a model of democracy.
However, she asserted that the civil rights movement has been narrowly defined and restricted to instances like Martin Luther King's “I Have A Dream” speech, while suppressing activities of groups like the Black Panthers. But overall, she proclaimed that the emphasis on a continued need and struggle for freedom was integral.
While Davis spoke knowledgeably about the pre- and post-Civil War period, she especially captured the audience's attention when she drew contemporary connections to slavery and the civil rights movement.
She used examples such as the Freedom from Apartheid Movement in South Africa, the Dalit Panthers in India and the Palestinian Freedom Riders as global movements that were inspired by the black freedom struggle.
Davis acknowledged that the current era is full of struggles that require social critique and discussion, similar to the dialogue that surrounded the civil rights movement. She urged that ideas should be fostered in the academy yet nurtured and used in practice on social issues.
She dismissed the notion that there is a “post-racial society” and the excision of poor people from public and academic consciousness. Davis stressed that critical education was key to questioning, addressing and restructuring oppressive social systems.
“The challenges of scholarship and activism are vast today … what is most important about this era is the consciousness and interconnectedness of various struggles. We can no longer focus on a single issue.”
Julia Empey, a third-year student in English and history with a minor in religious studies, came out of the event appreciating the magnitude of Davis as a speaker. Empey also noted that the gap between scholarship and activism was still present at McMaster.
“There is a desire to see it happen in some pockets of students … but to have that image realized is going to take a lot of work. How do we put these ideas in action? We've been told we've been given practical tools [through our education]. But we haven't been taught how to use them.”
Davis concluded her talk by using part of a lesser-known speech from M.L.K., stating that, “most of what you know about M.L.K. is, he had a dream, right? And I'm actually kind of tired of that dream.”