Angela Davis shows she’s still on the cutting edge in San Francisco.
Angela Davis is the face of lifelong activism. She epitomizes the word “radical” — for better or worse, depending on your politics — and is often beset with controversy. (She was fired from UCLA for being a communist; she spent over a year in prison; Richard Nixon called the former Black Panther “a dangerous terrorist.”) Last weekend, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded an award she was to receive in February, claiming she didn’t meet the criteria. Other sources cited “protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies,” suggesting that the decision was connected to her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
The controversy came up only obliquely on Thursday, Jan. 10, at San Francisco’s Sydney Goldstein Theater, where Jeff Chang moderated a sharp, rich City Arts & Lectures conversation between Davis, a UC Santa Cruz professor emerita, and the historian Ibram X. Kendi. Davis spoke on the matter with The Chronicle after the event, but Chang didn’t ask any questions about it, choosing to focus instead on the political convictions she shares with Kendi, who won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction for “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”
Davis called Kendi a member of the younger generation of activists and scholars, but though her trademark afro has gone gray, her words were as up to date as her platform sneakers and ankle tattoo. Their conversation made it clear that
both are true radicals and cutting-edge thinkers. Although there was plenty of applause and laughter, the discussion was bracing at times for the (mostly white) Bay Area progressives who lined up for the event. Responding to Chang’s questions, the two speakers took apart familiar watchwords of liberalism: diversity, inclusion, intersectionality, colorblindness and even those sacred cows: democracy and the nation.
Davis pointed out that “diversity” and “inclusion” were of no use if the society absorbing all the color hasn’t changed. She emphasized the need “to transform society.” Kendi explained that historically, the claim that all races are equal often meant that black people used to be inferior and white people were tasked with civilizing them into equality, an “assimilationist” mindset that persists to this day. Racism is not born of “ignorance,” but is a structure people reproduce with greater sophistication than ever, as we see in renewed efforts at voter suppression. Kendi feels that the liberal tendency toward colorblindness is especially pernicious. If you’re taught that racism doesn’t exist but continue to see evidence of inequality all around you, you assume the worst of the oppressed: “You develop racist ideas to explain the world to yourself.” The first step in “How to Be an Antiracist,” the title of Kendi’s next book, is to acknowledge your own racism.
Asked about “intersectionality,” Davis graciously nodded to the term’s originator, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term in 1989. Then Davis went on to historicize it, citing Francis Beale’s 1970 essay, “Double Jeopardy.” Davis said she feels disturbed that the embrace of the term has forestalled our effort to “find ways to think contradictions together.” Later, Davis gave an example, asserting that the greatest gifts that the United States ever gave to the world were “democracy” and “the prison” — and that the two were related, insofar as American freedom is premised on the enslavement or imprisonment of others.
For a conversation about injustice, the evening was surprisingly full of solutions, however partial. In response to a question from a student staging a protest at her school, Davis advised she “build community” with an online petition. The only other audience question was about whether capitalism was to blame for the fact that, as Davis put it, “eight men — all white but one — control more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population.” Kendi urged us to think of racism and capitalism as “conjoined twins, one body, two different faces.” Davis gave an example of the inseparability of misogyny and racism. “When did women get the vote?” she asked with a professorial sparkle in her eye. “In which country?” one person shouted. “1920!” another exclaimed. “Who thinks it’s 1920?” Davis chuckled, then schooled us: “The majority of black women didn’t get the vote until 1965! We need to acquire the habit of being open.”
Both speakers pointed to the importance of taking pleasure and joy in activist work — “we have to work wherever we feel called to” — and to the vitality of art and culture in the struggle. The most beautiful line of the night came from Davis: “With music, we can feel what we don’t yet know how to say.” Kendi gave a moving account of his recent battle with stage four colon cancer, which has only a 12 percent survival rate: “Nine months later, doctors couldn’t find any cancer cells in my body,” he said. “Each of us can draw from our lives to know that change is possible.”
Davis mentioned the Birmingham Institute controversy only in passing. She was born in Birmingham and joked, “I’m really happy that I had the opportunity to grow up in such a racist place. … It was a gift, I learned so much.”
Connecting the current national conversation about immigrants to the need for an international point of view, she noted that the paradigm for walls is in the IsraeliPalestinian conflict: “How did the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. get the idea that walls are so effective?”
Davis used the rapid relay of news about the award around the world as an example of the speed and reach of communication. “You may have heard I’m in a bit of a controversy,” she said with a smile, prompting laughter. “What I want to focus on is our lack of an internationalist consciousness. When we think about what we would like to see in a just world, we usually only imagine this country. Whoever told us that nations were the best forms of human community?”
In a follow-up after the event, Davis was more direct and personal. She expressed dismay at any characterizations of her position on the Israeli occupation as anti-Semitic: “Being critical of the government of Israel is not the same as expressing hatred of Jewish people.” Davis pointed out that she has a lifelong history of working in solidarity with Jews. As a child growing up in the South, the first white activists she knew were Jews involved in the civil rights movement. She went on to attend Brandeis, a university that was founded by the Jewish community and that historically has had a majority Jewish student body. Throughout her life, she has worked with many progressive Jewish organizations and individuals and has understood challenges to antiSemitism to be integral to the justice movements of which she has been a part.
The most radical claim Davis makes is for what she calls “the indivisibility of justice” in her Facebook post in response to the institute’s decision. As she said onstage, to focus on one set of political goals — like prison abolition or justice for Palestinians — doesn’t preclude fighting for others.
“Our work,” she said, “has to be informed by a sense of interconnection.” Namwali Serpell, an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, has written for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the Believer, among other publications. Her first novel, “The Old Drift,” will be published by Hogarth in March. Email: [email protected]icle.com
Activist Angela Davis speaks at City Arts & Lectures in S.F.
Historian Ibram X. Kendi speaks at City Arts & Lectures in S.F.