The first time Angela Davis was fired, race riots were rocking America, Ronald Reagan was governor of California and students at colleges across the country — including Pitt — were forming movements for black liberation.
“I’m proud of the fact that I was fired by Ronald Reagan — but that’s another story,” Davis said, to the laughter of an assembled crowd of about 300 people in an Alumni Hall auditorium Thursday night.
Davis was an acting assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1969, when Reagan fired her for her connections with radical feminist, communist and black power groups. And she didn’t shy away from sharing controversial parts of her life with the audience last night. Her point in doing so was clear — we still live in the world where Davis struggled against institutionalized racism. To canonize her and her story is to avoid confronting those problems ourselves.
Of course, we very much gain something from an understanding of our past as a society. Davis was at the center of vast societal upheavals in the past half century, and she explained Thursday night that her experiences with forces of oppression didn’t end in the 70s or the 80s.
“We have to take seriously the fact that the effects of capitalism and slavery cannot simply be relegated to the past,” Davis said. “We have a hard time uncovering our connection to the past.”
Too often, Americans assume that historical distance from an event renders its social impact null. Those on the political right particularly seem unable to contextualize our lives today with the lives of our ancestors. One such conservative in Virginia’s state legislature, Republican Frank Hargrove, told the state’s black population in 2007 they “should get over” slavery.
It’s obvious to most liberal college students that the fundamental effects of black slavery in our country persist in the present. What’s less obvious is our own place within that framework. After listening to Davis speak, Pitt sophomores Chelsea Coutts and Hanna Smyles said they had both been forced to reconsider their mindset toward problems of prejudice in America.
“It makes white people uncomfortable to consider her ideologies,” Coutts, who is white, said. “She has a really refreshing outlook.”
Davis’ directed her iconoclasm during her speech at Americans’ strong preoccupation with our country’s exceptionalism. People all across the political spectrum, she pointed out, can’t let go of the idea that something about the United States makes it different from every other country. And while I’m personally unconvinced that we aren’t, it’s still vital to keep in mind that this predisposition exists in my mind.
“We presume that people here know more than anywhere else in the world,” Davis said.
But there is a dangerous side to this historicism and contextualism. The great disappointment after former President Barack Obama’s first election in 2008 was one of its side effects. A great historical moment — both for black people and for the country as a whole — led many to believe that the United States had entered a “post-racial” period. This belief, of course, is false: black people continue to constitute, for example, a disproportionately high percent of police shooting victims.
Davis pointed out the importance of last fall’s Republican electoral victory in changing politics from an impersonal, historical phenomenon to a deeply personal one for many on the left.
“When such transitions happen in governments, the focus shifts to movements,” she said. “It’s funny what history does.”
Davis’ speech ended with a question and answer session. Many in the audience who knew her as a hero in their history books or their community’s collective conscience formed a line to ask how she interpreted the problems of prejudice in their own lives. If any were looking for divine guidance, they’d have been disappointed: Davis’ advice stuck with the small, ranging from advice to take humanities courses to directions to stay in touch with community.
But most of all, Davis seemed to want students to treat the institutional problems they faced in the only way they really could: through their own actions from day to day. Direct action and forming our own movements — not simply reenacting those of the past — is the only way we can solve problems that are distinctly ours.
“You really can’t be woke if all you’re doing is walking around saying you’re woke,” Davis reasoned.
Henry is the Opinions Editor at The Pitt News. Write to him at email@example.com.