With all the personalities we see on David Letterman, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, all the writers and politicians we hear on National Public Radio, all the intellectuals and behind-the-scenes people we read about on the web, in the newspaper and in weekly magazines, it’s easy to think we’re close to knowing everything that’s happening in the world, right?
I mean granted, we’re human, we’re busy, we’re bombarded with information and at the end of the day we can’t know everything that’s going on, but between word of mouth, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation and maybe some esoteric but energetic blogs , we think we have a shot at being in touch.
Then out of the blue (or the ‘70’s) someone like Angela Davis pops up big as life and right away we know that Shakespeare is right: “There is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Maybe it’s the coast I’m living on - east. Maybe it’s her own selectivity about who she allows to interview her or where she’s going to appear. Maybe it’s the subjects that concern her - peace and justice - and what pathetically little cache they carry today.
Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I should just say straight out: Angela Davis has not been on my radar screen. At least not until the other night when I joined a crowd of 500 people who wanted to hear what this long-term political activist and intellectual had to say, this woman who was once on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, once associated with the Black Panther Party, the Communist Party and Stokely Carmichael, who was in and out of jail, serving time on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, who was then tried and acquitted of the crimes.
I wanted to see what someone born in 1944 and for whom the Rolling Stones and John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote songs (“Sweet Black Angel” and “Angela,” respectively) looks like.
No problem there. She looks fabulous.
Wearing a black, fitted, conservative three-piece pant suit with respectable black dress-up shoes, lipstick, gold hoop earrings and a gold chain, she still has that space between her teeth. She’s still got that fire in her eyes. She’s still got that springy coif, albeit a little grayer, with which so many people have associated her.
She’s no fly-by-night, no lightweight. From an upbringing in a segregated Birmingham, Ala., Davis got a scholarship to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she was one of three black students.
Majoring in French, she spent her junior year in France before returning to the States and switching to philosophy. After graduating magna cum laude and becoming a Phi Beta Kappa she got a masters from the University of California and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Frankfort.
How could all this happen? she asked rhetorically. Because when she begged to go to a playground from which she was excluded because of her race she had a mother who would say, over and over again, “This is not the way things are supposed to be.”
Because she had a mother, she said, who taught her about future possibilities, a mother who gave her the tools of critical thinking, who taught her the importance of imagination.
Activists, she said, must imagine the world without racism or xenophobia.
“But it’s not enough to imagine while the world crumbles around us,” she said.
Imagining a world without war and xenophobia, she said, is only the first step. After that people need to work for transformation.
She was particularly mindful of the assault on immigrants and the plan to build a 700-mile fence at the border with Mexico. The fence, she said, is “not so much to secure borders but to make us think that the people to the south of us are the enemy.”
Referencing Condoleeza Rice, the Secretary of State who was born ten years after Davis and who also spent her early years in Birmingham, she urged people to think about the community not the individual.
“Individual victories do not necessarily count as collective victories,” she said. “Condoleeza did not win a victory for women or women of color.”
As a professor with the History of Consciousness department at the University of California and the director of the feminist studies program, Davis’ focus these days is on what she calls the prison-industrial complex. With 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States - “the largest proportion of people in any country” - she questions the profits people are making from the prisons, what people are taught while incarcerated and how much good is being done.
“Take Mumia Abu Jamal, for instance,” a black journalist who has been on death row in Philadelphia for 25 years.
“In France there are streets named after him,” she said. “Last year the mayor named him an honorary citizen of Paris, the first since Picasso. Try imagining that.”
After all these years, Davis, speaking in a thoughtful, soft and resolute manner, has somehow managed to maintain her commitment to social justice.
That alone was worth seeing.