The activist, author and intersectional feminist Angela Davis led an inspirational discussion at the Southbank Centre recently. FELICITY COLLIER was there
FORMER leader of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), civil rights activist and academic, Angela Davis has dedicated her life to freedom fighting. She has been described as “the most recognisable face of the left in the US.” Over the last five decades, she has been involved in revolutionary movements such as the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. She also co-founded Critical Resistance — an organisation which exists to counter the US’s prison system, and she has set up an alliance of black feminists.
In 1979, Davis was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union. In her autobiography, she described Communism as “a natural, logical way to defend our embattled humanity.”
Ronald Reagan sacked her from her teaching job at the University of California when he was governor of the state beacuse of her involvement in the CPUSA. She was later reinstated. She once wryly described herself as “the big, bad, black Communist enemy.”
Famously, Davis also withstood arrest by the FBI and imprisonment when a gun owned by her turned up as part of a murder case involving prison guards.
The campaign to free her was massive and international, with support from over 60 countries, as well as from cultural figures John Lennon and Yoko Ono. She was acquitted and went on a worldwide speaking tour which took in Cuba. Her visit had such an impact on her that it led her to pronounce: “Only under socialism could the fight against racism be successfully executed.”
Now aged 73, she continues her social activism and work in education, is a prolific political author and gives speeches around the world. Her scholarship focuses on women, workers and people of colour. She currently teaches in History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
She describes herself as an intersectional feminist. She is in favour of the abolition of prisons and the death penalty, favouring education over a system of punishment, and does much campaigning on the issue.
The sense of resounding respect for Angela Davis was palpable in the Royal Festival Hall during the Women of The World Festival earlier this month. There were several standing ovations, rapturous applause, and one activist from the audience — who campaigns on the issue of deaths in prison custody — rushed up onstage to embrace her heroine. The two stood together, each motioning a black power fist in the air.
One of the immediate topics it seems apposite to ask Angela Davis about is the Donald Trump administration, and she tells a packed hall: “It’s created a disaster. But with Hillary Clinton elected, it would not have been a substantially different situation.
“The difference would have been more room to do more of the organising we need to do during this period.
“People often ask me if I feel disturbed or depressed that the same issues come up again and again. It is true. And structurally, racism is more powerful than ever before.”
But, Davis insists, in relation to activism: “If we don’t acknowledge things have changed, it makes no difference at all.
“The difference is that young activists have more profound ideas — and the conceptual tools they have are based on decades and decades of struggle. So we have made progress.”
The difficulty of conversations about racism is broached.
“It is one of the most effective conversations to take place in activism, within the context of trying to change the world,” she states. But, there are contradictions, she says. “Racism has seen the integrating of people of colour with white supremacism.”
It gives her optimism that there are currently powerful movements of resistance, such as the protection of Muslims and undocumented migrants.
“We’re now reaping the fruits of activists’ work. We’re creating terrain for something that may happen 50 years from now.
“Capitalism compels us to measure the world in a small way. We cannot measure the work we do by our lifetimes.
“We are living the world of imaginaries who are long gone,” she says.
“We are inhabiting a new world that’s made possible by the activism of today.”
The complexities of feminism are discussed. Davis considers it a problem that it is assumed that women would want to replace men.
She urges the importance of intersectionality, a term coined by her peer Kimberly Crenshaw. Davis’s concern is that new ways of tackling the “messiness, interconnectedness, crosshatched nature” are not being explored.
“I was often the target of the question: are you black or are you a woman?” she says.
The category of “woman” is internally racilialised, she states. “We have to say: who are we talking to when we talk about women?
“We will finally have made progress when those who have had to struggle become the sign of that category.” She goes on to give the example of a black, trans woman who has experienced struggles against the US prison system.
Privileged people have become the standard, she warns, before urging: “Why can’t those who have struggled become the sign of what we should strive for?”
Angela Davis authored the book Women, Race and Class in 1983. She recalls how, around that time, she realised that she was being called a feminist.
“I’m not a feminist,” she asserts, “I’m a revolutionary black woman.”
Surrounded by cheers from the hall predominantly made up of black women, she adds: “Over the years, women of colour have redefined the project of feminism. So feminism today is intersectional.”
Davis relates her time in prison, which she now considers “a gift,” as she learned so much about her identity through the experience.
She recalls how she explored the assertion of women of colour in the women’s movements of the 1960s that were emerging.
The feminism that Angela Davis identifies with is “abolitionist feminism,” being anti-racist, anti-capitalist and intersectional.
Feminism is not just about gender and women, she urges, emphasising the fact that “marginal issues are most important in giving us a sense of the way the system functions as a whole.”
Our host, the theatre director, producer and the artistic director of the Southbank Centre Jude Kelly, refers to a quote from Angela Davis that urges women to invite men to their struggle, which, with some amusement, she gently refutes having said.
“Men need to take the initiative themselves,” she says, “they don’t need to be invited.”
She states that issues such as domestic violence and sexual violence are “by and large men’s problems.”
Looking back to the anti-violence movements of the 1970s, she recalls that she kept thinking that a wave of men of colour would join the cause.
“But it never caught on,” she reflects, adding: “Movements like Black Lives Matter recognise that feminist ideology is going to allow us to begin to push past questions that have never been pushed past.”
She considers how levels of violence against women “remain the same. So there’s something we’re not doing.”
Prison is not the answer, she urges. “We shouldn’t be relying on punitive measures, throw people in prison and the work is done. These methods are designed to not solve the problems but make us forget that we need to engage this problem.
“Sexual violence is so hard to confront, to even think about. But the more we put men in prison, the more violent they become.”
Feminism is not about taking over the leadership of men, Davis urges, stating that it is in fact necessary to change structures.
“It’s important that we don’t see masculine, individualist, charismatic leaders,” she says, urging for collectivity, stating the need for identities such as black, queer women to be seen.
History ought to remember that at the heart of the work of every mass movement is women; “they have done most of the work!”
She urges that the poor black women, domestic workers, maids, cooks and washerwomen that made the US civil rights movement possible are remembered, as much as Martin Luther King.
When asked about how we can best support women in prison, Davis alerts us to the fact that it’s widely assumed that men constitute most of the prison population, and that it’s a male issue.
“We have to think about what we can learn from women prisoners.
“We can’t assume that all the important knowledge gets produced by universities,” she says, outlining the experiences of women in prison who told her that the system replicated the feelings of gender-based violence.
“The institute as a whole is a gendering institution,” she says, urging the need to recognise that prison “consolidates a gender binarism.”
The rights of transgender prisoners are not addressed, she believes, and in abolishing prisons, gender policing would be abolished also.
Davis met with young activists from Black Lives Matter earlier in the day, and she emphasises the need for older activists to look to younger activists to learn, just as they too can look to the experience and knowledge of those who have been involved in campaigns over the decades.
She reveals that she is proud of her age, proud to have made it this far. “I’m a survivor,” she says.
She recalls her time at Brandeis University, where she said she learned from her Jewish friends the importance of doing Palestine solidarity work.
“It’s the best way to challenge anti-semitism and Islamophobia,” she asserts.
Expressing her belief that black people in the US need to look outwards beyond struggles there, she cites the abolitionist politician and ex-slave Frederick Douglass who in the 1840s travelled to northern Ireland which was experiencing the Great Famine.
On his return journey, funded partly by Irish campaigners, Irish people escaping the famine travelled along with him. Moving away from an individualistic approach, she says, is the way to fight, because “we can continue for aeons and the racist structures of state violence will remain.”
Palestine is an important part of intersectionality, she argues, “Palestine taught us to be anti-violence.”
“We have to stand up to Islamophobia,” she continues.
“It is the most violent expression of racism today, and women are the first targets.
“We must recognise the global connections and the impact of global capitalism.”
Countless women from the audience express their heroine-like admiration for Angela Davis in the hall, but she tells them: “I’m just another person, making whatever contributions I can to the struggle for freedom. That’s all I am.
“But millions of people joined the movement to save my life.
“They demonstrated that if we come together, unite, we can achieve the impossible. That’s the lesson I symbolise.”