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Angela Davis and the Struggle for Freedom

February 11, 2010

Last night, author, activist and abolitionist Angela Davis spoke at Fountain Street Church as part of the Grand Rapids Community College’s Diversity Lecture Series. Davis’s talk dealt with the theme of freedom, which is based on her forthcoming book from City Lights Books entitled, The Meaning of Freedom.

Professor Davis began her remarks by acknowledging the land where people gathered to hear her and who this land used to belong to. Davis thinks that it is important to always practice this kind of historical memory, so that we do not forget the genocidal realities of the history of repression against Indigenous peoples.

Davis said that her understanding of Black history month “is a time when we are able to talk about the history of freedom, not just for Black people, but for all people.” She said we also use this time to celebrate the resistance to slavery, to colonialism even the resistance to capitalism, which perpetuated slavery. “We also should remember the slave uprisings around the country and around the world.” Davis then goes on to say that Haiti gave us the best example of a slave uprising, a particularly important point considering what is happening in Haiti right now.

Professor Davis continued with other examples of resistance to slavery, such as the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist Movement. She says that W. E. B. DuBois book on reconstruction has been deeply influential with her understanding of the Civil War and its aftermath. DuBois argued that it was Black soldiers who really won the war. The Civil War really has to do with the economic future of the country. Davis said that DuBois section in the book called “The General Strike” deals with the economic transition from slavery to northern industrialism.

Davis went on to say that the narrative of the Civil War is usually around the Great Emancipator, Lincoln. For Davis, Lincoln was not an emancipator. The author/activist stressed that the real Civil War narrative was primarily about self-emancipation, meaning that Black primarily liberated themselves. She also mentions that these self-emancipators were inspired by the Haitian slave rebellion.

Professor Davis then talked about what she called the Master/Slaver narrative, where the Master is always dependent on the slave, a notion that even influenced the writings of Hegel. Davis asserts that Black people would not be where they are today if it were not for the Haitian rebellion and how interesting it is that there is no discussion of the history of US relations with Haiti from the past two centuries. The news media, Davis said, does not discuss the US military occupations, the support of dictatorships and the collusion of US-based corporations in the exploitation and repression of Haiti.

The author then says that the theme of her talk was around the idea that slavery was never abolished. “What DuBois says was that in abolition democracy, slavery was never ended, which is why people then had to struggle and fight for civil rights.” As a person who came of age during the civil rights era, what she sought to do was not to just achieve civil rights or full citizenship. This is why King was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, because economic freedom was also necessary if people were really going to be liberated.

The Civil Rights Movement, Davis said, was actually called the Freedom Movement, because it was much more than just gaining civil rights. It was a freedom movement that was organized by women and participated in by women. This is the only reason it succeeded is because of the women, the poor black women. “It is hard for us to imagine that we are where we are today because of the work that these Black women/domestic workers did to liberate us all. Even when we talk about the Civil Rights Movements we generally don’t recall these people, we don’t keep them in our historical memory.”

Civil Rights,” Davis said, “is of course still a struggle today in the US. We have not won the civil rights of prisoners and former prisoners, undocumented immigrants, and of course there is the question of gay marriage. So we can see that the struggles that began with the Haitian revolution continues to today with the various civil rights movements. This is why when we talk about freedom and the freedom movement is much broader than people’s individual rights.”

Because our notion of freedom needs to be expanded, Davis thinks we need to talk about how we did not recognize the importance of thinking about gender in the struggle for freedom. “We began to realize if the movement were to look different, with women as leaders that it would mean that the movement would look different. Then we realized that a gendered lens is not enough, with our growing understanding of trans-gendered and non-gendered people. And what do we do as a society with these people in the prison system, which loves to categorize everything? We put them in either male or female cells.”

Our sense of freedom has to be large enough to contain the dreams and aspirations of everyone. Justice is indivisible and freedom is indivisible. We therefore should discuss the ongoing struggle of freedom around the world since our understanding needs to always expand.” Davis even mentions the struggle for the freedom of Palestine, which she acknowledges people are afraid to address for fear of being label anti-Semitic.

Davis also said that this struggle for freedom must also include the disability struggle for freedom and the struggle for how we see our environment and that freedom struggles also apply to non-human species.

Professor Davis then talked about an issue that her last two books have dealt with, the idea of the need to recognize that the current punishment industry is really a perpetuation of slavery. Davis thinks it is important for us to call it the prison industrial complex. She mentions how many states still shackle women during labor in prison and then recounts the story of a woman who was shackled during delivery, who could not open her legs during delivery. “If this does not force us, compel us to think about slavery, I don’t know what will.

Davis concluded her remarks by talking a bit about the significance of the election of Barack Obama. “I know that this time last year there was a state of collective euphoria because they thought that one Black man in the White House would do away with all of the violence. It was probably the only time in the history of this country that people felt so connected. The problem was that we had a Messiah complex. We projected all of our power onto one individual. We did not do what we should have done to prevent him from not sending more troops to Afghanistan.

She also mentioned the incident where Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested trying to get into his own home. Davis felt that it was a very disturbing moment when Obama invited Gates and the cop to talk about racialized state violence. “First, it was a masculinist approach. And then when the media talked about it, it was about the beer. It was designed to shut down the discussion of institutional racism.”

There was a Q&A session in which Professor Davis addressed a variety of topics, from reparations to gang violence, Black identity and the importance of education. One of the most inspiring things she said was, “In the process of struggling together we learn how to glimpse new possibilities, which we never would have thought about had we not come together in our struggle for freedom. So, our job is to continue to narrativize and engage in struggles for a radical democracy, indeed a radical socialist democracy!”

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