Social Change in the 21st Century

Angela Davis at U of Ps Women’s Week – 2/15/08 the 21st Century

by Bronwyn Lepore

Angela Davis, of the beautiful gap-toothed smile and uncompromising spirit – and she smiles often, in the face of (or in solidarity with) the struggles she speaks to, and readily – shakes her shaggy fro as she warms to the audience of students, academics and activists tightly packed into College Hall for her Women’s Week keynote address on “Social Change in the 21st Century.” Despite the crowd – even after moving the talk to a larger venue to accommodate demand, many had to wait patiently outside the hall for a promised short after chat – she manages to create a sense of warmth and familiarity, as if we were all crowded into someone’s living room and she’d just popped in for a brief, but intense, chat. “Who’s here?” she asked. Recognizing the privileged status of many in the predominately Penn associated crowd, Davis challenged the audience to put such formally acquired knowledge to good use, as she herself has done, “so that it might make a difference, not for ourselves, but for others,” and to recognize and respect the intellect of those less privileged outside the academy who typically form the core of grassroots movements.

A Professor of the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at U. of Calif. Santa Cruz, Davis is infamous for her time on the FBI’s Most Wanted List (on false charges) in the 1970’s. Implicated in the murder of a court judge in California and accused of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, her case garnered international support and attention. She was finally acquitted, in one of the most famous trials in recent U.S. history, after 18 months in prison. Besides her work as a scholar, teacher and writer, Davis has worked tirelessly against all forms of oppression, particularly advocating for prisoner rights and prison abolition and revolutionary women’s struggles; she is a founding organizer of Critical Resistance, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary this September in Oakland (see end blurb), the Women’s Resource Center, as well as numerous other causes, including aboriginal rights in Australia.

“What are you willing to do to make sure you will make the world a better place for us all?”

Bringing together past, present and future struggles for social change in the U.S. as well as issues of race, class and gender, Davis focused on three key elements necessary to social change: the intentionality of our use of knowledge, freedom and conscience; a focus on collectivity, building activist communities of struggle and recognizing the rights of all living things - we must “rethink the temptations of individualism” and recognition of the, sometimes slow, but nevertheless worthwhile, process of change, which requires collective patience and collective imagination. We may not personally reap the benefits of our activism, but our collective imaginations must include protecting and valuing life, and resisting the valueless culture of capitalism, for those coming after us.

Acknowledging that we are living in a depressing and potentially paralyzing time of fear and oppression, witnesses to the globalization of war, racism, poverty, prisons (“garbage cans into which ‘surplus’ peoples are deposited”) and distorted market standards of democracy, she nevertheless asked that we imagine how much worse things would be without the communities of struggle who have fought to maintain and sustain human rights. “How do we know change is possible?” History. We need to imagine ourselves a part of and inside a continuing history of struggle. She recalled the untold history of the Civil Rights movement, yet to be completed – look at all those still living without civil rights, she reminded: prisoners, undocumented immigrants - and the key, yet typically unrecognized role of black women, domestic workers who rode the buses to work and, at great sacrifice to themselves and their families, were the “body” of the Montgomery bus boycotts. “It’s usually women doing the organizing,” Davis reminded, getting hoots of recognition from her female audience. “Organizing is the ‘housework’ of the movement. Nobody notices it till it’s not getting done.” How would things be without their struggle? (Good reads on black female communities of struggle are “ ‘This Battlefield called Life’: Black Feminist Dreams,” in Robin D. G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination and Davis’ own Women, Race, and Class and Women, Culture, and Politics). They sacrificed, not for themselves, but for their daughters and sons who might reap, not middle-class complacency, but workplace dignity and a participatory voice.

To emphasize the power of community, she spoke of her own experience. Let’s get over our “Messiah Complex,” she laughed. During her incarceration, people all over the world she’d never met organized to support her, identifying with her radical activism. During her bail campaign, she recalled, a white farmer from central California was so enraged by the injustice, he drove down and put up his farm as collateral for bail money, Afterwards, when he was stalked by the KKK, Davis’ Black supporters helped protect his farm.

She argued against inevitability - “We are living in a world that did not have to come to this” - and investing too much of our time, hopes and desires in electoral campaigns. Consider all the time and energy – energy taken from anti-war and other movements - put into the Move On campaigns and trying to get Kerry and all the other dems elected, and how little they’ve done, to stop the war, support undocumented workers or fight for human rights. In fact, just the opposite: they’ve supported more war funding, anti-civil rights policies like the Patriot Act, anti-immigrant acts – both Obama and Clinton, Davis reminded, supported the fencing and militarization of the Mexican border. Citing Antonio Gramsci’s emphasis on “pessimism of the intellect combined with optimism of the will,”(critical resistance) Davis argued for resistance to the large influence of xenophobic tendencies in the U.S. and for imagining ourselves as members of global communities, creating “circles of solidarity.” Let’s ask “What do we really want? How do we comprehend our emotional attachments? Will the changes we advocate make life more livable for those coming after us? What changes will bring greater freedom to marginalized communities?” Questions that often go unaddressed by candidates and oppressions that can only be challenged by the ongoing work of communities of struggle.

Occasional big demonstrations are only a small, though more visible part of activism, Davis maintained; they should demonstrate the power and commitment of ongoing struggles not be the end goal of organizing, where energies are put into the big march but are splintered until the next mega-protest. We are confined by our lack of creative imagination and should learn from those whose struggles exist outside the mainstream, not waiting for the intensity of the next big action, or hoping for change from above.

During the Q & A, Davis gave some questions back, reminding that she is only one (incredibly active) voice. She emphasized that she doesn’t have all the answers, only suggestions and experience. Younger women/others, have to figure out and imagine how to use the legacies of those like Davis, to make sense of and re-imagine the situations of struggle we find ourselves in, to make history and change for those who come after us, not to wait for leaders to tell us what to do. I came away recharged and grateful for the privilege of being in the presence of that smile and soul spirit. Let’s put such privilege to good use.