‘A symbol of activism’: Black Action Society hosts conversation with Angela Davis


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Destiny Mann, left, and Angela Davis at a webinar hosted by Pitt’s Black Action Society on Monday night.

By Alexandra Ross, Senior Staff Writer

Courage does not just come from within, according to Angela Davis.

“I think that individual courage is a myth,” Davis said. “Many people assume that courage is purely internal, but I believe that it comes from connections with other people and building community.”

Davis spoke at a Monday night webinar hosted by Pitt’s Black Action Society. The event consisted of an interview between Davis and BAS President Destiny Mann, as well as an audience Q&A session. Throughout the event, Davis emphasized a need for collective action in fighting for social justice.

“I don’t think we are capable of accomplishing very much unless we come together,” Davis said. “And there’s oftentimes the assumption that when we come together, when we unite, that we have to figure out how to unite across our differences … And we hear this so much that it never occurs to us that maybe we should unite with our differences — that maybe those differences can precisely be what brings us together.”

Davis is a political activist and scholar internationally known for her involvement in the civil rights movement, when she was a member of the Black Panther and Communist parties. She is now a distinguished professor emerita at the University of California Santa Cruz, where she teaches in the history of consciousness and feminist studies departments.

Davis was arrested in 1970 after a gun registered in her name was used in an attempt to free the Soledad Brothers from prison, resulting in the deaths of several people. She was charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, and was later acquitted of the charges. Davis said the movement to free her from prison after her arrest, rather than her own political activism, is what propelled her to international recognition.

“I think I am known primarily because of the campaign that was organized all over the country and all over the world for my freedom, which means that it’s not so much because of what I did, but because of the movement that was generated to defend me,” Davis said. “I will be forever grateful to everyone in every country in the world, who in some way participated in that movement.”

Even though Davis is a well-known political activist and historical figure, Mann said it wasn’t that difficult to land her as a speaker for this event.

“Angela Davis is someone who is very much down for the cause,” Mann said. “She understands that her voice and her knowledge is something that can educate a whole generation and also just inspire them as well … so it was not difficult at all, and we’re very appreciative of how forthcoming she was.”

BAS and 17 other Black student organizations at Pitt released a wide ranging list of demands to the University administration in June 2020, including increasing the Black student and faculty populations, amplifying the Black student voice and making changes to the curriculum. While Mann said progress has been made, she also recently said communication between BAS and the administration needs to improve.

At the event, Mann asked Davis how young Black adults can come together to enact change and become a community in a time when individualism “seems to be the norm.” Davis agreed, calling capitalism-driven individualism “one of the key dilemmas of our time,” and said while she is against individualism, she believes individuality is important in creating community.

“I think people should, especially students, should attempt to discover what their individual passions are,” Davis said. “And in discovering of those passions, they can also figure out how best they are going to participate in collective struggles to make the world better.”

Mann said a major reason why BAS wanted to invite Davis to campus was because she is “a symbol of activism” who could motivate people to continue fighting for social justice, after years of marches and protests throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Burnout is very real right now, and we wanted someone that will inspire others to keep doing what they’re doing and making sure that they’re upholding their standards and continuing to do the good fight,” Mann said.

Davis also spoke about the prison-industrial complex and prison abolition, a cause for which she has advocated for decades. Davis said she and the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, which had first formed when she was incarcerated, decided to use the term to “get away from the assumption that imprisonment is the result of committing a crime.”

“We said we wanted to disarticulate crime and punishment,” Davis said. “You know, punishment happens for a lot of reasons. Racism is one of the primary reasons that punishment happens.”

Davis said the United States is “in an era of activism,” especially considering the increase in protests and collective activism during summer 2020, after the “police lynching” and “police murder” of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, respectively. She said there is a promise embedded in the actions of those who protested racial injustice, and it is important to remember those actions today.

“I think that it is absolutely important to encourage historical memory and to hold on to that moment as a moment of promise that can define how we move towards the future,” Davis said.

According to Mann, Davis serves as an inspiration and symbol of social justice for all, but especially for Black women who were less visible in the civil rights movement.

“Unfortunately, it was mostly men who were, like, the main speakers [in the movement], but behind those great men, there were women writing their speeches with them, planning out these protests, making strategic plans to ensure that the goals that they wanted to see be achieved were done,” Mann said. “So for her to get the praise that she receives is obviously inspiring for all, but specifically for Black women who are often overshadowed or not given the proper recognition for their work.”

During the Q&A session, one audience member asked what a typical day looks like for Davis, “outside of being the outstanding Angela Davis.” Davis responded that — while she wasn’t sure how outstanding she was — she enjoys reading, having conversations such as the one during the Pitt event, practicing yoga and spending time with her dogs.

She said it is important for activists to find enjoyment outside of their work.

“I think it’s important for all of us, if we are involved in these movements, to find things that bring us joy, because that helps us to imagine what it is we’re fighting for,” Davis said. “We’re fighting for a world in which everyone can be fulfilled, and everyone can experience happiness and joy.”