Angela Davis shows she’s still on the cut­ting edge in San Francisco.

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Namwali Ser­pell

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

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

Ac­tivist Angela Davis speaks at City Arts & Lec­tures in S.F.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

His­to­rian Ibram X. Kendi speaks at City Arts & Lec­tures in S.F.

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