Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Angela Davis gives keynote Black History Month address at Ole Miss

by C.W. Roberson

There was a little history to be savored at Ole Miss Friday night. Maybe it was not one of those earthquake history moments like some in the past, but I did hear a little rumble in my mind’s ear.

Even Sparky Reardon, UM Dean of Students, an affable, fairly unflappable sort, had to remark on the strange feelings evoked by having Angela Davis at Ole Miss as the keynote speaker for Black History Month, considering the history of each institution. And, although Dr. Davis specifically denied any iconic stature, she is, in her own way, an institution as well.

For those too young to remember and unacquainted with modern history, Dr. Davis, while a professor at UC Santa Cruz, and even yet an activist, was once less academic and more notorious. Born in Birmingham, Alabama’s segregated south in 1944, she was acquainted with the four girls killed in Sunday School in a Klan bombing of a black church and was introduced to the horrors of Jim Crow at an early age. This undoubtedly influenced her later involvement with the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party.

During the introduction by Dr. Ethel Young-Minor, Associate Professor of English and African American Studies, Dr. Davis appeared both bemused and very surprised at the spontaneous and sustained burst of applause from the large Ford Center audience when Dr. Minor stated that she had become only the second woman in history to be on the FBI Most Wanted list.

Dr. Davis began her address by stating that she feels haunted by the historical civil rights movement “we are revisiting” every time she comes to Mississippi. She asked us to consider the unfinished work on these things that we tend to relegate to the past.

She addressed the issue of “colorblindness” in relation to the Affirmative Action law and opined that the move to colorblindness allows racism to be ignored. “We should learn to ask questions about how racism has changed from the racism of the civil rights era,” she said, and quoted Toni Morrison’s query “Where does racism live now?”

She spoke at length on the nature of slavery and the failure of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, noting that it was strategy on Lincoln’s part rather than a statement of morality, particularly since slavery was not abolished in states which were still loyal to the union.

The scope of her speech included native Americans as she wondered why it is so hard for the U.S. to acknowledge what we did to the original native population in this country.

One of the most riveting portions of her talk was her discussion of her childhood in Birmingham, and her anectdotes of life in a racially zoned city, where it was literally zoned into black and white areas and blacks were not allowed into the white-zoned area. She this as she wondered what kind of historical memory today’s generation has; she noted that as much as things have changed, poverty is still concentrated in black neighborhoods, and that we have become fixated on the legal institution of integration while losing sight of the institutional racism that still exists.

She contrasted the color of universities (the percentage of black to white in our universities) and the color of our prisons, which is an inverse portrait of our universities.

She spoke of the heroes and icons of the civil rights movement and said that we spend too much time focusing on them and too little time on the ordinary people. “Segregation didn’t just dissolve, it was disestablished by ordinary people who become aware of themselves as people who had the power to change the world,” she stated, “It was essential for people to imagine a world w/o segregation.”

“Why can we not now draw on those powers of imagination to imagine a world without prisons? Why can we not imagine a world free of zenophobia? We cannot live on the laurels of the past,” she said.

She wondered why we fail to see the social relationships behind these icons, and said that she was not an icon, that she was a beneficiary of the work of an enormous mass of people, and that there are ways we obsess on the individual rather than the many people who make what they did possible. Her humility was surprising to one like me who knew so little about her, other than the giant moments of history past.

She talked about Condaleeza Rice, who also grew up in segregated Birmingham, and knew many of the same people that Dr. Davis knew, who also knew the four girls who died in the Sunday School bombing and how much alike are the stories they tell about their childhoods. Dr. Davis said she found that frightening at times, and often wondered how they came to be so different. She finally came to realize that the difference is in how they define themselves. She said that Dr. Rice sees herself as this individual who, in a typical American framework, overcomes difficulty and triumphs, but that she never says anything about the structural barriers, or the collective character of the changes that allowed her to succeed.

During the Q and A portion of the address, she spoke briefly, in answer to a question, about the Black Panther Party and how they went out with a gun in one hand (carrying an unconcealed weapon was not illegal at that time) and law book in the other, both of them symbolic – the gun symbolic of their determination to defend themselves, the law book as a symbol of their knowledge of the law and their desire to be equal under the law.

She was asked for a definition of feminism, and said that there were different kinds of feminism but that she preferred the kind of feminism that makes us think about the things that are not obviously connected and see the connection.

In one of the lighter moments of the address, she was asked about gay marriage and replied that she did not approve of homosexual marriage, but that it was not because she disapproved of homosexuals, but because she disapproved of marriage

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