/ 8 September 2016

Fearless activist and academic Angela Davis to deliver Steve Biko memorial lecture

Even at 72
Even at 72

She’s been called too militant, too violent, and even a terrorist. On Friday, Angela Davis will deliver the keynote address at the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture. Her impending arrival has many South Africans excited, but she was not always a woman many openly adored.

In a time when the United States was caught in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, a young woman stood out as a radical black feminist, a philosopher and a pioneer of political thought. She wore her Afro unashamedly even when the police targeted her for it. Her fearless ability to call white people out on their racism marked Davis as a woman who must be captured by the Nixon-led US government. She was on the FBI’s most wanted list, and managed to outrun the Feds before she was wrongfully arrested for kidnapping and murder and spent 18 months in prison.

“The whole apparatus of the state was set up against me,” Davis said in an interview with Swedish television while she was incarcerated in 1972.

“They have all their resources – the FBI, the police – and they really meant to send me to the death chamber in order to make a point. It really didn’t matter who I was, it was that I was a very convenient figure to make a point that they would suppress any efforts at revolution and liberation.”

A Black Panther woman
Davis’s speeches roused crowds, even when her support for guns and her conviction that peaceful protests were oxymoronic made some black activists uncomfortable.

She was a member of the Black Panthers, a group that collided with the politics of Martin Luther King Jnr’s followers because it largely disagreed with passive resistance. But she was also frustrated by the way in which constant attention was placed on violent acts from the Panthers instead of the oppression black people were fighting against.

“When you talk about a revolution most people think violence without realising that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles, in the goals that you are striving for, not in the way that you reach them,” Davis said in the interview for Swedish television in 1972.

“On the other hand, because of the way this society is organised, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that is reaction.”

Each time Davis spoke on the violent injustice of systemic racism, she referred to her own very personal experiences. She grew up in the southern states of the US in a town called Birmingham, Alabama. In interviews, she recalled how racist white people would bomb black people because they lived in the suburbs – areas believed to be reserved for white American. On one occasion, Davis remembered a church was bombed. By the time her mother got there, all that was left was broken limbs.

“I grew up in the Southern United States in a city which at that time during the late Forties and early Fifties was the most segregated city in the country, and in a sense learning how to oppose the status quo was a question of survival,” Davis said in an  interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1999. 

Still an activist
She stood at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and because she led crowds of activists, was a professor at the University of California and the University of Los Angeles, rocked her natural hair with pride and wrote powerfully on race and feminism in her academic works she became an icon for black women across the world.

Even at 72, Angela Davis still moves around the world, leading discussions and engaging in black feminism and the struggle for equality in many countries across the globe. The gentle moments of her life are seldom captured, but Toni Morrison, the American feminist writer and longtime friend of Davis, warmly remembered one such instance while she and Davis were on book tour for Angela Davis: An Autobiography.

“People would come up to her, you know: ‘My brother is in prison, and I was wondering, could we have a cocktail party [to raise money for him]?’ and the thing was, [Davis] would stop and listen, and say, ‘Where is he?’, and I would say, ‘Angela, come on!’,”  Morrison recalled in 2014

Much of her activism has revolved around the prison industrial complex and she has written books – Are Prisons Obsolete (2003) and Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire (2005) – on the topic. In her works, she describes how prisons evolved from slavery and are deeply tied to capitalist interests. In one segment of Abolition Democracy she asks: “Why does a country like South Africa, which is in the process, we hope, of building a just society – a non-racist, non-sexist, non-homophobic society – need the repressive technologies of the supermaximum prison?”

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian in 2007, Davis spoke on a how apartheid lived on in the country’s prison system, which is just one reason why the past should not be forgotten.

“I would say that it would be necessary, in South Africa, to attend to what it means to be in transition, in the aftermath of apartheid, which clearly left an imprint,” she says. “You remove the racism from its embodiment in actual individuals, and you think about it as structuring institutions.

“We have to take into consideration the ghosts that still haunt us today. Repressive institutions often have very long memories, regardless of what the individuals who are their agents know or don’t know. The memory of those institutions is inscribed in its practices and its regimes. The prison functions just like it did before.” 

Her works continue to inspire women and the Steve Biko Foundation has said that Davis’s visit has filled the event to capacity. She believes that her activism in the 1960s showed that a difference can be made in the world, and it’s perhaps one of the reasons she’s still going strong.

“You can’t assume that making a difference 20 years ago is going to allow you to sort of live on the laurels of those victories for the rest of your life. You can never stop and, as older people, we have to learn how to take leadership from the youth and I guess I would say that this is what I’m attempting to do right now,” Davis told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

The 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture will take place on Friday, 9 September at the Z K Matthews Hall, UNISA Muckleneuk Campus, Pretoria at 6.30pm. For more information, click HERE.