Keynote by Angela Davis '65 with Julieanne Richardson '76, H'16
Angela Davis and Julieanna Richardson are seated next to each other on a stage.
Julieanna Richardson: Thank you. Good evening. We've got a wonderful program in store for you and Chad, I can't think you enough for this gathering. Because that first panel was amazing, I wanna say that. And Randall Bailey, your challenge to the university, I support that 1000%. Words can't express how I feel to be standing here in front of all of you. Almost 43 years ago, it's hard to say, I graduated from this august institution with the great states woman, Barbara Jordan, as our commencement speaker. And I thought at that time it couldn't get better than that.
Then three years ago, I was asked, as Chad said, to give Brandeis, it's the 65th commencement for us while receiving an honorary doctorate from my blessed only mother. Surely, it could not get better than that. But tonight, oh no, no, no, tonight is all of us and I can only say that standing here in front of you, it does not get better than this. She's home. She is home.
Thank you Chad, once again, for bringing her here in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brandeis' department of African American studies. And to the Brandeis community and all of you gathered here, she has come home. She child of Brandeis, you brought her here. Oldest daughter of educator, Sallye Bell Davis, and entrepreneur, B. Frank Davis, oldest sibling of brothers, Ben and Reggie, and sister Fania. Protected by the love of family and friends, you have brought her home Brandeis.
At a time when a prestigious award was revoked because of a dangerous lack of tolerance for a difference, and a time and place that our country and our world finds itself in. Who would have thought? I've been thinking recently that black face was in such plentiful practice. Her message has consistently been one of championing the underdog. She is a protest mover believing that change does not come easily and requires consistent and collective action.
She is a critical theorist who's worked both informs us, and requires and challenges us to think and be better. Not ever has she been satisfied with the status quo. For her, oppression is bottom down and change, bottom up. She warns us against individual heroism, racism, classism, xenophobia, the prison industrial complex and all of the racial underpinnings is slavery in another name. She has come home at a time for the nation and the world is struggling with its demons. It is appropriate, very appropriate that we have her here.
She has been, her work has always been historically based. History surrounded her and Birmingham's dynamite hill. She herself is walking history in a simple of a principle of life. It was when she was in prison that she wrote her first article on the role of women in the African slave trade. She has consistently looked at racism through a historical lens. Angela Davis, the A is for always being on the right side of justice even when times are hard.
The N is for never giving up even in the darkest hour. The G is for going forward, never backwards because change does not happen with backward action. The E is for enlightenment. That has been her quest and her calling. L for love because she is true love for humanity. And the second and last A of her name is four ain't, ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around. Keep on walking, keep on talking, gonna build a brand new world.
She has been on this earth three quarters of a century. She has lived in the public eye for 50 years and she has done so with a servant-leader mindset. She has great intellect, grace and class. She has spent her life trying to help us build a brand new world. Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to stand now and give her the respect that she is due because Angela has come home. Okay, thank you. Well, Angela, look at this.
Angela Y. Davis: I've never had an introduction like that.
Julieanna Richardson: Oh, I'm sure. But look at everybody here Angela. You were here, I was looking it up, 24 years ago.
Angela Y. Davis: When I was last here.
Julieanna Richardson: When you were last here was 1995 and it was right here in Levin Ballroom, and there were 700 people like tonight in attendance.
Angela Y. Davis: I think it was organized by Decimal Williams. Am I right? Yeah. Who was teaching here at the time.
Julieanna Richardson: That's right.
Angela Y. Davis: Good afternoon everyone.
Julieanna Richardson: And the thing is, is I was a little sad to think when we were talking earlier that you haven't been back because you were not invited back. And so, we have to really, once again, thanks Chad Williams for doing that.
Angela Y. Davis: Thank you.
Julieanna Richardson: At the time you said that we need to disconnect our vision of 1960s radical Islam. We want to envision a new movement for the 1990s. It was the 1990s at the time. And you also said that each generation has to find its way. What did you mean by that and how does that relate to today?
Angela Y. Davis: Well, that was a long time ago.
Julieanna Richardson: Yep.
Angela Y. Davis: But if I remember accurately, that was a time when we were on the verge of a movement against the prison industrial complex. But at the same time, there was a tendency to look backwards for leadership, that if we were to have a new movement, it would have to replicate the civil rights movement. And the point I think I was making was that influential radical movements are always led by young people. And young people have to learn how to acknowledge the influence of their elders, but at the same time, perhaps, move in a different direction.
I always like to refer to the metaphor of each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous generation. Well, that means that they not only are able to absorb the wisdom and the knowledge of the previous generation, but they're standing on their shoulders so that they can actually see further. They can see new things. I think if I recall, that's the point I was trying to make 25 years ago.
Julieanna Richardson: And at that time also, you had just been given the president's chair and he you under attack. And I thought that particularly … and because you are under attack now, we saw on January 8th in the New York Times, that the award that had been … the Fred Shuttlesworth Award had been revoked. And I mean, and we're standing here at this point in time when it wasn't anything you had done, but I want you to talk about that.
Angela Y. Davis: I don't know what it is. It seems like each time I've been at the center of public attention, it hasn't necessarily been because of something I've done. I was fired from my job at UCLA. I didn't expect to be fired. I didn't expect that kind of controversy to emerge. Well, I could perhaps narrate 50 years of my life's trajectory by saying I did not expect. In the early ‘90s, but I'll just say it was-
Julieanna Richardson: It was 1995.
Angela Y. Davis: 1995, in about 1994, I believe, I was given the presidential University of California presidential chair in African American and feminist studies, I think. Carina, you were at UC Santa Cruz at that time, you remember. Carina Ray who was a member of the AAAS Department here. And I had no idea that there was still regents sitting on the board who came out with these absolutely scandalous assertions about me. Yeah.
And as it turned out, my graduate students at the time had to wage this campaign to defend my right to hold the presidential chair. But it's interesting, I did have a conversation with the president of the University of the entire system at that time. And he said that someone had called the office of the president and had wanted to know why Angela Davis was made the president of the University of California. Humorously he answered, he said, “Well, she's not the president, but we do have a campus named after her.”
Julieanna Richardson: But let's talk for those people who read that article like I did in the New York Times that day. What actually happened?
Angela Y. Davis: Well, I was born and I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. And I was extremely happy to learn of the creation of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I've supported it for the entire duration of the institution. As a matter of fact, my mother was one of the most passionate volunteers there, and it was my Sunday school teacher, Odessa Wolfwalk, who had the idea for such an institute. And we really pushed it to its completion.
When I was told that they wanted to offer me the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, I felt so honored. I knew Fred Shuttlesworth. I went to school with his children. And so I assume that I would go to Birmingham and give a talk, and get the award. But then, a couple of months later after I had been informed that I was getting the award, I get this phone call, and the person informed me that the award had been rescinded. And so I asked why, and I was told that it had to do with public statements that I had made that were a part of the public record.
And I pushed for more substantive answers to my question, but I was never told anything aside from that. And then of course some of you may know that there was a self-critique by the board of directors of a VCR and then there was an announcement that they wanted to rescind their rescission and offer the award. I actually haven't responded to that yet because they think it's about a range of issues that really require public discussion. I am going to Birmingham next week.
Julieanna Richardson: There are a lot of people coming out when you got burned out. It moved to a whole large place.
Angela Y. Davis: Oh, I'm sorry. I am here with a cold, so if I have to cough, is it pos … Oh, you don't even allow me to mute this, do you? I see. This tape, I was expecting I could mute whenever I have to cough.
Julieanna Richardson: But there are 5,000 people who are gonna to be in attendance.
Angela Y. Davis: But what I wanted to tell you was that originally the community event had been scheduled in the Lyric Theater, this historic theater that I had only known as a place where black people had to sit in the balcony. And my sister reminded me that we sat in the balcony and we used to throw popcorn on the white people. There were many forms of resistance. I was really looking forward to going to the Lyric Theater, but it only holds 700 people, and they said it was sold out in less than an hour. They moved it to the largest venue in Birmingham.
Julieanna Richardson: But it's really about your support of Palestine. The issues around that that was really at the center of the controversy. And Michelle Alexander wrote that powerful piece in New York Times talking about that she had even been guilty of standing on the side lines.
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah, I was so happy to see Michelle's piece, her column in The Times. Did you all read it about three weeks or so ago? Yeah. It's interesting. I don't know how they could not have known that I've been active around a whole range of issues surrounding Palestine for many, many, many years. I never tried to hide it. It was bizarre. But I also don't think that the members of the board were aware of what response might be. Birmingham is still somewhat provincial. And in a lot of ways the U.S. is still provincial, not just Birmingham.
But I've often pointed out that I first learned about Palestine when I was a student here at Brandeis. Since I came to this university in ‘61. And that was not very long after the founding of the state of Israel. I learned about what was happening and in the region when I was here, and I also learned about Palestine solidarity. I pointed out that I simultaneously learn about how important it was to challenge antisemitism and to speak courageously against the continued perpetuation of anti-Semitic ideas and practices, and at the same time to speak out for justice for Palestine.
Julieanna Richardson: Angela, I mean, I know you wrote your autobiography, but I like to just in the case of our tradition at this maker. I'd like to take you back to your family and your mother, and your mother who was really, in many ways your activism, may have started with your mother. You can you talk about Sallye?
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah. It took me a long time to recognize that my mother was really the primary influence in my life during my years as a young activist. I saw myself is also rebelling against my parents. And later I recognize that she had carved out the path, in a sense, the whole trajectory that I have followed. She was an activist in the campaign to defend the Scottsboro Nine. She joined the Southern Negro Youth Congress that was a formation that was led by black communists. As a matter of fact, W.E.B Du Bois spoke at one of their most important gatherings.
I was telling Julienna, I think I absorbed all of that by Osmosis. Not realizing that it had come from my mother. But when I myself ended up on the FBI's most wanted list and in jail, and all of that, my mother and other members of my family where my most important advocates. My mother traveled all over the country speaking out on my behalf. As a matter of fact, there are photographs of her holding my sisters, one-year-old or nine-month-old, because my sister is in Europe traveling, urging people to join the campaign for my freedom and my mother's carrying the baby, and has her fist … I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I am walking in my mother's path.”
Julieanna Richardson: And your father also though he ran the gas station there in town. But that gas station, first of all, for black men to be running a gas station, but it was also-
Angela Y. Davis: It was one of the only black gas station in Birmingham. And black people couldn't even buy gas from white people. Yeah. And he had the only parking lot in the downtown area and black people could not park in white people's parking lot. And so, almost all black people in Birmingham knew my father because they had to pass through to go shopping. But my father was also a major influence. He's actually responsible for my decision to finish high school in New York, which then led me to Brandeis.
Because my father … there are a lot of details that you're probably not even that interested in, but I was also accepted on an early admission plan to Fisk University. And so, at one point I imagined myself going to Fisk. I wanted to be a doctor then. I think I was 15 years old. I would graduate by the time I was 19. Then I would go to Meharry across the street, and I would be a doctor by the time I was 23 or something.
Julieanna Richardson: I can't even imagine that.
Angela Y. Davis: That was what I imagined. And my father had actually attended Fisk for a while. He got his BA at another HBCU, Saint Agustin's in North Carolina, in Raleigh. And so he said, he looked at me and he said, “Fisk? I don't think so.” And I see he was absolutely right because I had actually tentatively agreed to go. And then I got a list of all of the clothes that I would have to bring, including the long form walls and the white short form walls, and the this, and the that. I said, “Hmm, I think I'll go to New York.”
Julieanna Richardson: Talk about your experience because she went to a Quaker school in New York.
Angela Y. Davis: No, it wasn't a Quaker school.
Julieanna Richardson: It was Frisk were run by them.
Angela Y. Davis: No, it wasn't. If the program was, the program had just been established by the American Friends Service Committee, and it was an exchange program where black from the south would attend school in the north and would live with white families. And I always wonder why it didn't go the other way. Right? But anyway, so I attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, which is a part of Little Red Schoolhouse. And I lived with a family of an Episcopalian minister. And my father had been an Episcopalian lay minister, so he was happy to hear about that too.
But this was an Episcopalian minister who had had his church taken away from him. And I'm just thinking about it for some reason, I always ended up inside these controversies. He had had his church, he and his father had their church taken away from them because of their work with the Soviet American Friendships Society. Yeah. I never thought about that, yeah.
Julieanna Richardson: But how was that experience? Because it's like you come out of really a black community and in Birmingham, and then you're essentially living with a white family. And I know, I remember even talking to your brother Ben, and he said that it was somewhat lonely and somewhat difficult, but I'm wondering what your experience was.
Angela Y. Davis: Well, it was different. I do have to tell you that I was not unfamiliar with New York. My mother ended up getting her MA at NYU. My mother was a foster child, by the way, and she had to run away from her foster parents to be able to get a high school education, because she grew up in the country, in the deep country in Alabama. And so, when we were young, she traveled each three summers to New York to take courses at NYU.
And we lived with the Burnham family. They were black communist who would originally come down to the south to do organizing and organizing the southern Negro Youth Congress. That's how my mother met them, but they got run out of town by Bull Connor. Yeah, I had already experienced in New York. I knew. I wasn't completely ensconced in the provincialism, in the segregated provincialism of Birmingham.
But what I remember is that, I mean, it was really exciting. I went to a high school where we read the Communist manifesto and where we read Freud in high school, and it was a high school that had been created by a number of teachers who had been black blacklisted in the public school system because of their up politics. It was a largely Jewish high school and everybody wanted to go to Brandeis, but I was one of the few who got there. I was just talking to one of my classmates just the other day and she said, “Yeah, I really wanted to go to her to go to Brandeis.”
Julieanna Richardson: Can you talk about … No, it's true. That is true, but can you talk about the Brandeis that you came to? It's 1961.
Angela Y. Davis: Well, I slipped in to hear the last part of the panel. I was sitting in the back there and it sounds like that was a really exciting time at Brandeis. Brandeis was exciting for me too, but there were hardly any black people here. There was-
Julieanna Richardson: You were one of three, I think it's [inaudible] some way.
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah, maybe two others in my class, just a handful on the entire campus. And I actually became friends with a graduate student whose name was Woody Louis and his wife Gwyn, they were the residents directors at Ridgewood Dormitory. And I can remember a funny story. I hadn't planned to tell these Brandeis stories but. Those were the days of curfews. And one of my good friends and I decided that we would hitchhike to Gloucester, just because it was so beautiful, and we wanted to experience the beauty, and we did. And by the time we made it back, it was after curfew.
We went to Woody and asked if … No, there was a guy in the dorm, men's dorms, right? He left his room so that we could sleep, spend the rest of the night there. And it was discovered and we were brought up before the … what is it called? Yeah. But it was the student disciplinary board. And there were students questioning us about not upholding the values of Brandeis. Yeah. We didn't get kicked out though. But it was worth it because Gloucester was so beautiful, it was really. I'll never forget that trip.
Julieanna Richardson: But yeah, so after your freshman year, you would spend the summer in Europe and then your junior year, you're in France. And you're in scouts at that point in French literature, everything French, right.
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah. I was studying French literature here and I had the opportunity to have as one of my teachers, one of the greatest French poets, Yves Bonnefoy. He taught here for a while and that was an experience I'll never forget. Yeah, when I went to Elizabeth Irwin, the requirement was four years of French. I was in my third year and I had never even heard of French.
Foreign languages weren't taught in high schools in Alabama, at least not the black ones. And so, I had to learn three years of French and one year in order to catch up with my class. That was a prerequisite for graduation. And I think I just became so immersed in the language and culture that I decided that I didn't wanna become a doctor after all. I remember I told you about that, but I liked the humanities. And I have wonderful French teachers here. As a matter of fact, after my first year, I went to France for the summer.
The way I think about it now, I made this journey from the south to the north in search of some kind of freedom. And what I thought I would find in the north wasn't fair. I discovered new forms of racism that I could, not at the articulate as racism. But I can remember in high school, I would always get an invited to people's houses into their summer houses because many of the people were pretty wealthy.
When I was there, oftentimes what happened would be is they would ask the servant to come and join them because they had a black servant there. And so, there were these really awkward moments that I didn't know how to explain, but that was the time. That was before we had developed a vocabulary to talk about the influence of, of racism. I think I began to imagine France as that place, because if you study French literature, French culture, you can't avoid [French language], right?
I think I have this in my mind that if I could only make it to France, I would find freedom. And my first trip to France was at the height of the Algerian Revolution. When I got there, I met these, these women from Martinique who told me that I had to be really careful because the police might think that I was Algerian. And there were police attacks, there were rallies, and that was the summer I first met [inaudible]. I first became familiar with his work in French. Now when I tell the story, I say, “I went to France and in search of [French language]. I found solidarity, [French language].”
Julieanna Richardson: Talk about your relationship with Marcuse, talk about it.
Angela Y. Davis: I'm so happy I came to Brandeis because I think that what I discovered Herbert Marcuse, I discovered what I really wanted to do and I didn't know how to express it before. But I remember sitting in his lectures and I have notes now. They're there at Harvard with my papers, like elaborate detailed notes from his lectures. I could probably rewrite the lectures from my notes. I fell in love with not philosophy per se, but philosophy is critical theory as a way to think about the world, not in terms of what exists, but what can possibly be.
And so, I had heard him speak and attended his lectures, and then I went to him and I said, “Professor Marcuse, I think I'm really interested in philosophy, but the problem is I haven't taken any courses in philosophy.” I had when I was in France for my junior year, I had read French philosophers, [French language], and of course [French language], Nickel Loponte, and Simone de Beauvoir and all of those people.
He said, “Well,” this was at the beginning of my senior year because I was gone my junior year and he was away for my sophomore year. He was teaching in Europe then. The first semester of my junior year, he did an independent study with me and we started with the pre Socratics and trace the history of European philosophy up to Hume. We hadn't yet reached Kant. And that was one of the most exciting intellectual experiences of my life.
And then he was giving a graduate seminar, he was in the Department of history of ideas. He was giving a graduate seminar on Kant's critique of pure reason. And he told me I should take the graduate seminar. I said, “But I've only had a semester of philosophy.” Not only did I have to take the seminar, but he made me give him the very first paper of that graduate seminar, which was on Hume as the predecessor to the development of Kant's critical theory. And I think after that I was totally hooked.
Julieanna Richardson: What did he see in you? [crosstalk] a relationship between a mentor to mentee? That wasn't supposed to be a funny question. But how could you have a special relationship with Marcuse.
Angela Y. Davis: I think he just saw curiosity. I was really deeply interested. And one of the reasons I'm so glad I came to Brandeis, it was because there was really … how would you put it? The intellectual atmosphere here. Do you know those of you who would … and I don't think I had ever experienced anything like that before and it has remained with me. I remember the long conversations we would have. I took an independent study with Professor Bennet, then we read [French language] and then we read [French language] in a semester.
And so, it meant you had to spend hours and hours reading, and thinking, and discussing, and yeah. And that's a great thing. I mean, I tell my students now, I said, “You won't realize until much later that this is the only time when you can devote all of your life to reflection and reading, and thinking.” And so, yeah, Brandeis game that to me and I don't think I was any different from other people. I never thought about that question. Why? And I never asked Herbert why it is he agreed to do that. But yeah, it was a defining moment.
Julieanna Richardson: You even when you went off to the Frankfurt School for two years, which that's the school that he … I mean, that school of thought he was a part of and studied. But then it was, what brought you back was what was happening in the United States?
Angela Y. Davis: Well, the Frankfurt School institute [French language], was established up by German Jewish intellectuals who were compelled to flee during the Hitler era and had gone to various places; Switzerland, some in France, Binyamin unfortunately was killed where you may know his story about trying to cross the border. And he took Sinai because he thought the Nazi had had caught him. Horkheimer and Adorno, and Marcuse came to the U.S., and for a while were at Columbia and then they went to California. I knew those stories and I had begun to read Horkheimer and Adorno, and so I … yes, he suggested that that would be the best place to study. I did spend two years in Frankfurt.
Julieanna Richardson: Angela, when is your radicalization happening, coming? Because when does it start?
Angela Y. Davis: But I think that's rad ... When I've been talking about the intellectual environment, that was the radicalization. Oftentimes people assumed that there is a moment, to use a French term, [French language] and I never experienced it that way. I think that I brought a sense of radicalism with me from the way in which my parents had taught us how to engage in a segregated society.
And I often point out that my mother constantly said to us, when we would ask for explanations as to why black people couldn't do this or go there, why can't we go to the symphony? Why can't we go to the library? Why can't we go to the amusement? And she would say that this is not the way things are supposed to be. And she would always say in one day, they will be different. I've learned from the time I was a very young child to imagine a different future and not to inhabit simultaneously that a segregated world, but also to inhabit in my imagination a very different world.
And in that sense, I think I learned to adopt a stance of critical theory when I was a child. And I think that may be one of the reasons I've felt so drawn to it because of the insistence of critical theory on not accepting what is simply because it is given, to always recognize that things are going to change. And that as a matter of fact, we can be a part of the process that brings about the change.
Julieanna Richardson: You were just talking about UC San Diego, you followed Marcuse there, right? And in 1969, there's a controversy swirling around you and governor, at that time, Governor Ronald Reagan. And we look at this, I mean, this is the same time that Brandeis is erupting with it's called the Takeover Ford Hall. I wanted you to talk about both things in some respects, that you weren't aware necessarily of what was happening at Ford Hall [inaudible].
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah, I was reading about it, it was in the newspapers. I mean, that's how we got our information in those days, we read the newspapers, right? I was definitely aware of what was going on here and felt maybe a little nostalgic that I wasn't here when it happened or it didn't happen when I was here. But yeah, I was fired from my job, my first job before I delivered my first lecture, and that was because of my membership in the Communist Party.
It's really interesting. I have since gone back to UCLA many times and I recently taught there for a semester in the women and gender studies department. And I ended up giving a lecture in the same space, Royce Hall where I gave the first lecture of my class because there was so many people interested in it. The first lecture was in a 2,000 or 3,000 seat hall. The first lecture of my entire academic career. And the current chancellor of spoke and introduced me, and told of a very interesting story which …
Well, he said that the chancellor and the administration tried their best to keep me at UCLA and it was the regions. I didn't quite remember it that way, because I remember the chancellor writing me a letter asking me whether I was a member of the Communist Party. And I remember writing a letter back indicating that while I'd resented his infringements on my political freedom, on my right to make my own independent decisions about my political affiliations. But then I wasn't afraid to say that yes, I was a member of the Communist Party, and that's how the whole thing started.
But anyway, now not too long afterwards, they had a big poster with a picture of me advertising UCLA. I've been reclaimed by UCLA. That's what happens if you stay. Who was it? Was it Simone de Beauvoir or somebody who said, “If you hang around long enough, history will absolve you.” That comes from Fidel Castro, of course.
Julieanna Richardson: You think about that time period. Like by 1970, you're on the FBI's most wanted list. You know what I mean? There's a lot happening. You work with the Black Panther, as you said, political part. Can you hear me? Okay. There's a lot happening at that time. And I wanna go back to your mother's statement about really in many ways the imagining. Because when you look at this and you look at black studies starting at San Francisco State. I mean, people were trying to imagine what it would be. They had even imagined a curriculum and you were doing that work even at … Can you talk about your work, that work there?
Angela Y. Davis: That was such an exciting conjuncture. It's true that the first black studies program was created at San Francisco State as a part of the third world studies department. But all over the country, it was a moment when people were realizing that we needed something new. We needed something different. And I was telling you about the work we did on the campus at UC San Diego where I was a graduate student to try to create a new college.
A third college was in the works then and we demanded that that third college be called Lumumba Zapata College because we wanted the black African revolutionary tradition and the Mexican revolutionary tradition to come together. We looked at the curriculum of the two existing colleges. We were graduate students and undergraduates, and we decided we were gonna do this innovative curriculum for this new college so that it would be relevant to black students, Chicano Latino students and working class white students.
I mean, we had a mechanical demand. We demanded that one third of the students would be black and one third would be a Latino, and one third would be working class white students. But we really tried to imagine what it might mean to teach science as a way of transforming the world, that would make it a more habitable place for all people. We were thinking about empty racist approaches to … and we had no idea what we were doing, of course. But we did all of this meticulous work with creating new courses. But this was in the air.
When I went to UCLA and gave this course, my first philosophy course was, of course, I was the only black person in the philosophy department. And so, I taught a course called Philosophical Themes, Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature. Because I thought it was so important to teach students in a way that would allow them to be cognizant of what was going on, but also how do we think about our history, our cultural history, our literary history. What role does that play in generating transformation?
Julieanna Richardson: And so, that's what we're essentially talking about when we talk about the creation of black studies which has beget women and gender studies, LBGTQ. I mean, all of that came out of those initial movements when you look at that. And that's what I'm struck when I think about your life, that you've been at the center of history. I mean, I came to Brandeis because you had come here. Because my father was like, “That's the school Angela Davis went to.” And so, but I just wonder how you-
Angela Y. Davis: But it's not because of what I did. Let me be really clear about this. It's because of the-
Julieanna Richardson: It's maybe how you handled it.
Angela Y. Davis: And also because I became involved in a movement. Nobody would ever know my name had not it been for these amazing movements that developed. First, around my right to teach at UCLA. And then when I was in jail and at that time facing the death penalty, people all over the world came together and basically said to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover, right? Yeah, that, “No, no, she will not be executed. She will not spend the rest of her life in prison. She will be free.”
And so, it was an indication that when people come together and that kind of United and concerted way, it is possible for the plans of even the most powerful people in the world. And I was the beneficiary of that. I did not produce it. I was the beneficiary. I have to be very clear that I didn't do most of the things people attribute to me.
Julieanna Richardson: But I mean, this is the thing, I think it's also how you've handled it during that time and after it. And I say that because of your family and the other people. And I even remember when you interviewed Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee for us, and how happy they were. But what they talked about in terms of their work on your behalf. I mean, it was really amazing-
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah, they were the head of the fundraising component of the committee. Yeah.
Julieanna Richardson: Yeah. But I think also, you know what Angela, I'm struck also because your work, I mean there've been many, many, many, many issues and movements that you have championed. But I think about your work and the work around the prison industrial complex as someone who had actually been in that environment and have come out for almost 40 years, you have been championing that. And a lot of the things that I, and I was saying this to you earlier when I was listening to you speak, and I said, “Mm-hmm.”
Abolition of prisons, I mean, that sounds like a really radical notion. But at the same time, the way the things that you were talking about and engaging the audience to imagine a world, what that would be if you did not have prisons, and especially when you look at the prison population that's there.
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah, I think we have to cultivate that kind of long range imagination. We wouldn't be here today had not it been the case that in the 1600s and the 1700, there were black people who believed in the possibility of freedom, and we are the beneficiaries of that imagination. It may have taken a long time. Well, we still aren't there really, because we're still living the afterlives of slavery and colonialism. But if people had given up on those dreams, who knows where we would be today?
And so, yeah, I first encountered abolition when I was in jail. As a matter of fact, the Attica brothers in 1971, who rose up and called for a number of things in their demands, but they called eventually for abolitions, the abolition of prisons as the routine form of punishment. And now, I mean, I used to say abolition and people would look at me like I was absolutely out of my mind, absolutely insane. Well, I shouldn't use the word insane neither. But now, I think people are recognizing that prison reform has so frequently lead to stronger and more repressive modes of punishment.
And this is where we are now, even though nowadays everybody knows about mass incarceration and everybody is aware of the fact that there is a crisis in terms of the fact that a 25% of all of the imprisoned people in the world are in jails and prisons in the U.S. And that, as a matter of fact, a third of all the women on the planet are in prison in the U.S. And that's another thing. When I went to jail, I had been doing work on prisons and political prisoner, and it occurred to me that nobody ever talked about the very particular set of conditions surrounding women in prison.
And so, as we develop an approach to the prison industrial complex, we recognize that by centering the experiences of women in prison, even though they constitute a very small number, that aspects of the workings of the apparatus become clear in ways that would not be possible. The connection, for example, between state violence and intimate violence. And the same thing is true about looking at trends prisoners and recognizing the insights that one acquires about the whole apparatus by looking at the particular experiences of trans people in prison. We came to recognize that's the institution itself is a gendering apparatus. It promotes a binary notion of gender. Yeah. I just stop lecturing
Julieanna Richardson: I want to transition a little bit here because I see Chad to my right, and we had said that we were going to allow for questions. And so, I wanna bring Chad up to the stage so we can spend the rest of the time with the line, you and the audience to ask questions of our esteemed guest.
Chad: Again, we have three microphones in the aisles. Please, in the interest of time, ask a question. Don't make a statement. [inaudible].
Angela Y. Davis: Oh, well, Chad, let me really thank you for inviting me.
Julieanna Richardson: Oh, yes, yes.
Chad: I will say, when I became department chair in 2012, the first thing that I said to myself is Angela Davis needs to come back to Brandeis.
Angela Y. Davis: Okay. Thank you.
Chad: Yeah, question please.
Speaker 4: Hello. Thank y'all so much. I'm beyond grateful just to be witnessing this conversation. Hello. My question is about following where you just took us. I'm curious about the production of your article, The Role of African American Women in the Community of Slaves, and what was it about your experience of incarceration, or how did that experience lead to the production of that article? And then how did you think about, or have you thought about the impact that that article had on black feminist theorizing since?
Angela Y. Davis: Well, wow, thank you.
Chad: That's one of our graduates, by the way.
Angela Y. Davis: It's so interesting when I … oh, I have to cough. Excuse me.
Julieanna Richardson: There's some water.
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah. [inaudible]. I wrote that article in Morin County Jail, and I … Well, first of all, I was in solitary confinement and I was also core council in my own case. In California, you either have the right to counsel or the right to defend yourself. I made an argument to the judge that I wanted both the rate to counsel and as a feminist approach, right? The both and rather than the either or. And so, he granted it. And so therefore, I was able to get all of these books because I needed books to prepare my case. And it was with those books, which I actually did use to prepare my case because of very important aspect of the defense during the trial related to gender and race, and U.S. history.
But the immediate catalyst for conceiving this article had to do with the impact of the Moynihan report and the assumption that black women were a part of the problem. Because this was a period during which the movements … there were assumptions and movement leaders were male. I mean, all of the leaders during that period, the so called the leaders, they were leaders. They weren't so called leaders. They were leaders.
And so, I had actually been involved in a series of conversations with George Jackson who was absolutely brilliant and was responsible for us moving from a rather narrow approach to the prisons that focused on political prisoners to thinking about the role that the apparatus itself played in the production and reproduction of racism. But George had undergone the influence of the prevailing sexist and patriarchal ideologies. And so, I had many arguments with him about that, the fact that the women should stand behind their men or.
And so, I did that research because I wanted to dispute these notions that were circulating in movement circles, that as a matter of fact, if one looks at black history, men are always the dominant figures. And so, I wasn't thinking about influencing any feminist theories to come at all. I was just thinking in terms that would help us clarify where we were at that moment. Both in terms of intellectual development, but also in terms of the way in which we imagine movements unfolding up.
And in a sense I think all of the work we do has some resonance, some connection with the present, the past and the future. And I think I was being more explicit, because I think I did a brief preface to the article in which I did acknowledge that the ideas came from conversations with George Jackson about the role of women in what was the contemporary movement in the 1970s.
Pamela Anderson: Hi, I'm Pamela Anderson, class of ‘79. And like Julieanna, I would say that I came here because of you. But after hearing you today, what I will say is that I came here because of all of the great things that you did. I'm just curious, particularly in light of your work, both in feminism and black history, there's some concern after the 2016 election that perhaps those two movements, the women's movement and the black movement, there's been some strain there. And I'm just curious if you have a sense of perspective as to whether or not that's real or not.
Angela Y. Davis: Well, that's only if we assume, it's only if we assume that feminist movements are white movements. I think over the last decades, we've done new genealogies and have made it very clear that the feminists … Well, first of all, there isn't one feminist movement. I think we have to stop thinking in the singular and think in terms of a plurality of the … There's always been feminist movements that have focused more on people of the dominant class. As a matter of fact, I didn't even learn how to identify what I was doing as feminist theory until after I wrote a book called Women Race and Class, and people started calling me a feminist. And I said, “I'm not a feminist. I'm a revolutionary black woman.”
But then, I realized that I was a part of a community of working class white feminists, Latinas feminists, black feminists, native American feminist who were theorizing feminism very differently, as anti-racist, as anticapitalist. And I think that one can see that tradition going all the way back to someone like Anna Julia Cooper. I like to think that the feminisms that had been produced by a women of color and by anti-racist feminists, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, are rapidly becoming the dominant feminisms.
What is the most recognizable concept associated with feminism? Intersectionality, right? And people are familiar with that all over the world. And that tells us precisely that the work that we've done has made a difference and we have to stop assuming that we're always the underdogs in this. And I mean, it's true that there can be these problems with the women's March and people, but there are always people who don't understand the direction of history.
I mean, we're dealing with a person who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right now who does not recognize the extent to which what he is doing and what he has done militates against the movement of history. And I really think that 50 years from now when people look back, those four years are going to be recognized as a deviation, as a minor deviation.
Julieanna Richardson: We hope. You want some water?
Angela Y. Davis: No, I have some.
Charles Alexander: Charles Alexander also class of ‘79. Hey, Pam.
Angela Y. Davis: Wow.
Charles Alexander: People always ask me why I went to Brandeis, there was only one answer, because Angela Davis went there. And that's true.
Angela Y. Davis: I never knew this. Wow.
Charles Alexander: I have to say thank you.
Angela Y. Davis: I really do.
Charles Alexander: Kamala Harris is running for president. She's being dismantled in the press and in social media. And many of the people that are dismantling her are African American. I've got my own views, but I'm curious because she did work in the state of California. What are your opinions about Kamala Harris?
Angela Y. Davis: Okay. First of all, let me say that it is so important that so many women are now in congress, running for office. I'm not too happy about Kamala Harris' history as an attorney general, as a DA and an attorney general in California. Oftentimes, in death penalty struggles and a whole number of campaigns, she was on the other side. But I also have to say that this next election is going to be pivotal and we had the wrong candidate the last time around. We did not have a candidate and I know people, many people would be upset when they hear me say this.
I voted for Hillary Clinton and I urged people to vote for Hillary Clinton, but I don't think she was the right candidate. When it comes to electoral politics, we have to make decisions that aren't always principle decisions. As matter of fact, the last time around, I was trying to encourage people who were saying that they didn't want to have anything to do with electoral politics because they are revolutionaries, and they wanted to change the world. And I was really attacked in social media when I suggested that people should vote for Hillary Clinton.
And I said something like I'm not so narcissistic as to say that I can't bring myself to vote for Hillary Clinton. I mean, that was a practical decision and it had nothing to do with the fact that that she was not the candidate who represented even within the narrow confines of electoral politics, what I would have liked to have seen. I think we have to find the right candidate. And I don't know whether she will be the right candidate or not. I'm very cognizant of her history and I don't know whether she is willing to make some efforts to revise her positioning in some of those.
I mean, that would be good, but politicians are usually opportunistic. That's who they are. Even someone like Obama, so many people deposited all of their dreams in Barack Obama's lap and what did he do? He didn't even really push to dismantle Guantanamo. We all thought that that would be the first thing he would do. I think we have to be really sophisticated participants in the arena of electoral politics this way, this time around. And we have to make sure that everybody votes. And this will be the first time that many former prisoners will be able to vote [inaudible].
Chad: Do we have time for one brief question?
Angela Y. Davis: That's okay.
Michela Coats: Okay. Hi. [inaudible]. Okay. Hi, I'm Michela Coats. I'm from Oakland, California.
Angela Y. Davis: I tell you what, can we just do three and I'll answer them altogether? Just do one, two, three, one after the other, then.
Chad: We can do that.
Michela Coats: Okay.
Michela Coats: Okay. Beer from Oakland, we learned about the Black Panthers, but we only learned about the male leadership. And I was wondering if you can shed light on what if I could be a female leader in the oppression that you dealt with, with being inside of that organization.
Angela Y. Davis: Wow. Okay.
Kayla Jasmine: Hi, I'm Kayla Jasmine from Memphis, Tennessee, a recent graduate from Birmingham Southern College. And I wanted to know more about just really how it felt to get this type of what now might be a proper homecoming from the organizers that's been working on that. But also as a black woman who wants to go back and focus on a lot of the southern roots, how to do that? It's so skeptical meat of now that like New England area of like even how the south is tough.
Angela Y. Davis: She wants to help south.
Chad: Okay. Homecoming.
Brad Bisson: Okay. I'm Brad Bisson. I grew up in a guy grew up in [inaudible], and one of the reasons I went to Brandeis is because you, sister Davis, went here too. But I'm from Oakland too and I wanna say on behalf of the teachers of California and you're a teacher yourself in California. I just came back from L.A., help the teachers in L.A. win their strike. And the teachers of Oakland have voted to strike. And I have a letter from my president, Keith Brown, who was our first African American male president and we wanna invite you to join us in an upcoming rally. I'm gonna give you this letter.
Angela Y. Davis: Thank you.
Chad: Not quite a question, but I'll make sure the letter is delivered.
Angela Y. Davis: Okay.
Rose Spray: The last question. Rose Spray by class of ‘76. I'm proud of you Julie. ‘76 class. I love you all. Look at her. Look at her. Listen, this is my question though. This politics thing, I think we're still thinking in a very binary Democrat, Republican. Does anyone remember Lani Guinier and what she was talking about?
Angela Y. Davis: Yeah, absolutely.
Rose Spray: And do you or do you not see this as an opportunity for that type of intervention? A way up? Start looking like a lecture.
Angela Y. Davis: Okay, great. Okay. Should I answer now?
Angela Y. Davis: Okay. Well, the Black Panther Party, I was a member of the Black Panther Party. I wasn't a leader. And I always get represented as a leader of the Black Panther, but I was a rank and file member. I did political education in the Black Panther Party. And then there was a point in the development of the organization when people were told that if they were members of other parties that they had to choose. I was also a member of the Communist Party. And so, I said, “Okay, I think I choose Communist.” I remained a member of the Communist Party and but I did continue to support the Black Panther party. They weren't any bad feelings.
Now, in terms of the question that you asked, many people are not even aware of the fact that the majority of them membership of the Black Panther Party was women. Yeah. And women were leaders. Ericka Huggins, for example, who's still a very, very close friend of mine, ran the whole school program. Then of course it was Elaine Brown, but then many people, many women whose names are not known who really played critical roles in the Black Panther party.
I was talking about feminism and Marxisms teaching us how to live with contradictions. Not being compelled to choose one side or the other. I would, on the one hand, be very critical of the Black Panther Party, especially from the vantage point of today, contemporary understandings of misogyny and masculine is militarism. Of course, we didn't have that vocabulary and those theoretical frameworks at the time, but we knew something was wrong when we realized that the women had to figure out how to be better men than the men in order to be accepted. Right?
This reminds me of Felicia Langa who was a Israeli Jewish attorney who defended Palestinians for many, many years. I had the opportunity to meet her in the 1970s and she said that at first people didn't believe that she could do the work. It was hard work because she was a woman. But then the word got around that she wasn't a woman, but she was more like eight or nine men. And so, everybody flocked to her. But anyway.
I think on the one hand we have to be critical because we don't want these notions to continue unchallenged and uncriticized. We cannot have that kind of masculism, that kind of patriarchal notion of what it means to fight for. Because at that time, the struggle for black freedom was a struggle for freedom for the black man. And we know that in virtually all black movements, women did more than their share, did more than half … maybe I'll say more than 75% of the work. But I don't know. I might just … but you understand what I'm saying.
We recognize both the amazing contributions that the Black Panther Party made. Even with that criticism, I say that people like Huey and Bobby were brilliant. I mean, to come up with this idea of challenging the police occupation of black communities in the way they did was not only brilliant, but it also meant that they understood the times. Because within a short period of time, they were Black Panther Party organizations all over the country. There was a Black Panther Party in Brazil, in New Zealand, in Israel. There was a Black Panther Party all over the world.
And so, we have to both appreciate that and at the same time, be critical. That's my answer to your question and the next one. Oh, the south. Yeah. Yeah. I think that it's really important. The south, in a lot of ways, the south has more potential, because we know that the south has that history. And oftentimes we fail to recognize that the same history unfolded in different ways in other parts of the country. I mean, this is why when I went to high school, I didn't know how to call the responses to me racism because it was like, oh, everybody has to invite the black girl from the south to dinner because …
I think that places like Birmingham have changed. I still enjoy returning to Birmingham. I still have my friends whom I grew up with from the time we were like two or three years old. And we talk about how we used to play games in the neighborhood. We used to have games that required us to run across the street to the white neighborhood white zone. I often tell this story, but this was one of our childhood games. That we would dare each other to cross Center Street because black people weren't allowed to be on the other side of the street. That was a white neighborhood.
And so, we would also dare each other to run up on the porch without getting caught, and run up on the porch and ring the doorbell before the white person. I mean, that's how we grew up in. And that was a form of resistance too. Yeah. I hope you said you're from Birmingham? You went to Birmingham south right here? Where are you? Where you went to Birmingham Seven, but so do you go back?
Kayla Jasmine: [inaudible].
Angela Y. Davis: Okay. Okay. Well, I'm really looking forward to going back on the 16th, I think it is. And I dunno, maybe you will decide to, but let me … I wanted to tell you about a project that is done by SONG, Southerners On New Ground, and they have an amazing project and it's called … it's an LGBTQ project and it's called something like Doing the Lord's Work. It's about Doing the Lord's Work. And does anybody get it? Doing the Lord's Work. Exactly. Exactly. There's some really Audre Lorde, right? These are a really exciting developments in the south.
And then Oakland teachers, thank you so much. Yeah, we are so excited about the teacher strike. Maybe it can measure up to the Chicago Teacher's strike or surpass it. And then the final question about how we think about this coming election and the electoral sphere more broadly. You evoked Lani Guinier and her idea of … what was it called, her project? Proportional Representation. Absolutely.
I also think we have to organize a new party. Not that a new party is going to be the answer to everything, but this binary political system we have, it doesn't work. And I'm thinking about a party that is based in labor, because we've always talked about a party that's based in labor, that's feminists, that's anti-racist, that's anticapitalist. And I think we've done the groundwork for that but yeah.
I mean, I can remember the coalition of black trade unionists talking about the importance of a new political party that would be founded along the lines of the traditions of labor struggles in this country, and that would be anti-racists, and internationalism. And this is one thing we haven't talked about during our conversation here. Again, the importance of internationalism. I think I pointed to the provincialism of the U.S. But our sense of who we are in this country cannot be founded on the history of the United States of America.
And I think we also have to recognize that at this point, the nation state is very rapidly becoming obsolete. And we see this with this effort to build a wall. And I think that's very clearly an indication that the nation state is not the most appropriate form of human community, especially since it was established for the purpose of doing the work of capitalist. And it only existed for a short period of time. I think it's also time now not only to imagine the evolution of prisons and all of that that would entail, but to think in a more capacious way about how we imagine a future for ourselves and for the world. Thank you very much.
Julieanna Richardson: Thank you. It's Angela Davis. Thank you.