Angela Davis, a world-renowned activist, scholar and author spoke at the Emerson Center Sept. 27. The 39th annual Hausser Lecture was titled: “Democracy, Freedom and the Black Radical Tradition in the 21st Century.”
Davis is most famous for being the third woman ever placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List after a courthouse shooting in Marin County, California that left four people dead. The firearm used in the attack was registered to Davis and although she was not involved in the shooting, she was incarcerated for 16 months before she was acquitted.
Paired with her association with the Black Panther Party and her involvement with the Communist Party, Davis drew national attention. California Gov. Ronald Reagan once said that Davis would never again teach in the University of California system. She is now a Distinguished Professor Emerita, a title given to a retired professor honored for their distinguished contributions to academia.
The lecture began with Davis acknowledging that the event was taking place on colonized land, and paying tribute to the Native Americans who lived on the land first. “It is not only important to encourage historical memory, but also to recognize that the consequences of colonization continue to oppress Indigenous People today.” Davis continued, “If we believe in justice, equality and freedom it is our responsibility to engage in material practices of solidarity with Indigenous Peoples today.”
Davis cited MSU and Bozeman’s racial demographics, and posed a question to the audience: “Why discuss Black Radical Tradition in a place like Bozeman?” She emphasized how important it is for everyone, regardless of how diverse an area is, to understand the history of America from every angle.
The history of the words democracy and freedom were also discussed. “The freedom and democracy celebrated in 1776 was anchored in the violent deterritorialization of Native people and it was achieved by the over-exploitation of African people taken from their land and enslaved.” Davis emphasized that the freedom and democracy celebrated in history would not have been accomplished had it not revolved around the “unfreedom of others.”
Davis has been at the forefront of intersectionality — the idea that social categorizations such as race, class and gender as they apply to an individual or group create overlapping systems of discrimination. “Racism never appears as a solitary force. It is always intertwined,” Davis said.
“When we say ‘black lives matter’ we are looking at the particular circumstances of a people with a long history of oppression — and claiming that those lives matter, we’re saying that humanity matters,” Davis said, regarding the current Black Lives Matter movement. “To say all lives matter … we fail to recognize the point.”
A portion of the lecture was spent discussing the flaws in the prison system and the death penalty. Davis cited that the history of the death penalty “can be traced to the aftermath of slavery and how it became a primary tool in managing populations that were previously enslaved.” She discussed her time in prison and noted that prison reform typically leads to stronger, more permanent prisons — which is why she calls for the abolition of prisons. “Imprisonment is a single solution for a whole range of problems,” Davis said, citing that simply jailing someone who has committed a crime does not fix the root of the problem. Rather, she said, the root of the problems are flawed institutions that need to be improved on.
Presidential Candidate Donald Trump even came up in the lecture, “The Islamophobia and anti-immigrant appeal that Donald Trump relies on is deeply rooted in the histories of racism in this country,” Davis said. She continued, “We have not yet been able to understand the impacts of racism and the degree to which racism is embedded in our social structures.”
The lecture touched on several other topics, from the Haitian Revolution and its significance today to how far society has come in discussing race relations in the media. After the lecture, there was a question and answer section. Davis fielded questions that ranged from how she has changed as an activist to how other activists should practice self-care.
Davis ended the lecture with a quote from Nina Simone: “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.”