Black Arts Month Keynote Speaker: Dr. Angela Davis

Standing in Awe of Dr. Angela Davis

It’s hard not to be in awe of Dr. Davis. Meeting her outside of Andover’s chapel, I hardly knew what to say myself. After all, some of Dr. Davis’ books stand as some of the most transformative pieces of writings I’ve read. Escorting her to the green room, I laughed at how far out of reach this moment would have been to my younger self. You see I’m from Brooklyn–a child of immigrant parents from Barbados, who grew up with my mom and my three older sisters in Crown Heights until we later moved to east Flatbush. When I went to Wesleyan, a small liberal arts school in the middle of Connecticut, though I was only two hours away from home and a pretty straight shot on the highway, I sometimes felt like I was on another planet. My intentions were to be a government major but after my introductory classes knew that at that time in my life it wasn’t going to satisfy this need I had to blend my intellectual and personal selves. And, so I found a home in AFAM and became an African American studies major. It was there that I first felt seen, heard and taken seriously.

And, it’s where I first discovered Dr. Davis’ work. Sitting in the first pew, two books sat between me and Dr. Davis: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism and The Autobiography of Angela Davis. Two books from one college classes, both still donning the bright yellow used stickers on the side because I couldn’t afford new books back then. And though I usually tried to sell my used books back at the end of the term to gain back some fraction of the cost–not these two because they were pivotal to my own development as a Black woman and to my development as a Black scholar. In Blues Legacies, the visibility given to working class women helped me to see my village—my mom and my aunties—on the page, represented in discourses at the academy—not as sad tropes but as people with strong cultural and human relevance.   It was through her work and her life’s legacy that I developed a vocabulary and a framework for coalition building. That helped me build my own network of women of color who feed my soul and my mind. They are, as the beloved Toni Morrison said, ‘a friend of my mind’. ‘She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind’. It was through Dr. Davis’ work that I discovered there is a space for Black women—that we are master carvers—carving out spaces for our whole selves. It was through her work that I was able to articulate the ever elusive and conditional feeling of freedom in the academy, in my neighborhood, in this world and helped me name the structural and institutional violence’s enacted on my loved ones and my community. And then equipped me with a pedagogy of love to enact change.

Professor Davis’ teaching career has taken her to numerous universities but for the last 15 years she has been at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she is now Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, an interdisciplinary PhD program, and of Feminist Studies.

My story may be unique to me but Dr. Davis’ impact certainly is not. Her storied life has inspired generations of people to join the movement for equality and continues to find it’s resonance as we grapple with the complexities of justice in today’s world. There is an easiness in her delivery but in no one way does it undercut the sheer brilliance of her message. Instead, it’s what allows those who are both new to the work and veterans in the movement to access every bit of what she’s sharing. Informed by her own life, her work aims to instill a collective consciousness in our nation that prioritizes abolitionist praxis as means for thinking about justice. With that lens in mind, she challenged us to think about an interconnected, global response to a range of social ills: climate change, transphobia, homelessness, poverty, food scarcity, school to prison pipeline, structural racism and more. She’s clear that there are no easy answers but if we step outside what we know to imagine a new world, that gets us all a step closer.

Through her activism and scholarship over the last decades, Davis has been deeply involved in our nation’s quest for social justice. Her work as an educator—both at the university level and in the larger public sphere—has always emphasized the importance of building communities of struggle for economic, racial, and gender justice.As the author of nine books, she has lectured throughout the United States as well as in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. In recent years, a persistent theme of her work has been the range of social problems associated with incarceration and the generalized criminalization of those communities that are most affected by poverty and racial discrimination. She draws upon her own experiences in the early seventies as a person who spent 18 months in jail and on trial, after being placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List.” Davis has also conducted extensive research on numerous issues related to race, gender, and imprisonment. Her most recent book is Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement.

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