Each year, the Southbank hold the Women of the World festival, this is a period of talks, discussions etc. by a range of accomplished and emerging women from many fields. Give it a Google.
This year, the extraordinary civil rights activist Angela Davis was invited down to discuss the state of civil rights now, women and race. I booked my ticket forever ago, and genuinely counted down the weekends like a child at Christmas. Well, Christmas came and Ms Davis was a perfectly wrapped present, bow and all.
To copy the description on the Southbank’s website for those unsure why I am fan girling so hard “Davis is a living witness to the historical struggles of the contemporary era”. She is an academic, writer and an activist who has dedicated/ dedicates her life to fighting for Black rights and challenging oppression. Hounded by the FBI and branded a “dangerous terrorist” by President Nixon, Davis has tirelessly fought against capitalism and the white patriarchal society it exacerbates. She has also done a lot of work on the (in)effectiveness of the prison system. Nothing in my short synopsis, will do Angela Davis justice, so let the internet be your friend, and buy all her books :).
I furiously tapped away at my phone trying to jot down the gems she shared (though I’ve heard it’s on YouTube) so here goes. Introduced by Southbank’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE, Davis came out to a standing ovation, because obviously.
With no beating around the bush, Davis was asked with reference to her latest book, ‘Freedom is a constant struggle’ and the current (post trump/ post Brexit/ Alt fact Alt right) climate how we address both progress and regression?
“Trump is a disaster”… we all nervously laughed at this 3% humour/ 97% scarily true fact. Davis continued to say, although Hillary wouldn’t have been perfect, there would have been more space to do the necessary organising and petitioning with her in power.
Yes, over the years it’s been infuriating seeing the same problems crop up, and yes, institutional racism is worse, however conditions have changed. To say nothing has improved, is to also say the work that has been done has been meaningless. Davis recounted her meeting with activists involved in the BLM UK movement, and commented that the younger generation have more profound ways of working and moving things forward, which is inspiring. So, despite the 2016 shaped hiccups, progress has been made.
On how we can have meaningful discussions on racism..
Davis agreed this is one of the most difficult conversations to have, but it cannot be done in abstract. Racism must be discussed in the context of activism so constructive steps can be taken. Davis then questioned why the goal post for freedom and equality, is set at the centre of the systems we are trying to dismantle. Black and LGBTQ communities should not aspire to be equals in the destructive and toxic white hetero-patriarchy we are surrounded by. Meaningful dialogue on racism and all it infiltrates is thus essential, and is thankfully happening more frequently now. Davis made a poignant point in reminding us all, to be patient. The fruits of our labour may not be evident now, but that’s not why we fight. “We are creating terrain for something that may happen 50 years from now” and that is ok. Capitalism has forced us all to measure the world in such small time frames, we forget that “today we are living imaginaries of those long gone”.
Today we are living imaginaries of those long gone.
We then moved onto everyone’s favourite buzzword “intersectionality”… it’s importance/ relevance in feminism today.
Intersectionality has blossomed from the civil rights era, black female activists were (and still are) asked if they were black OR a woman, as if one couldn’t fight for equality for both. Intersectionality is thus the exploration of how we fit and challenge both these issues and their connectivity.
Davis continued by saying that feminism is such a loaded and racialised word, in that the normative standard of it is white and middle class. Intersectionality will be an actuality (ooo it rhymes) if the picture you imagine when hearing the F word is the marginalised rather than the privileged. A black trans-woman as opposed to a Lena Dunham esque type. Davis recalled being named a feminist after publishing ‘Women, Race & Class’ in the 80s, retorting that she was actually a black revolutionary woman. Fast foward to 2017, and Davis feels like women of colour have put in the work to redefine and reclaim it. She then throws shade at Hillary Clinton for failing to take note of that in the presidential campaign. Hillary may have shattered the glass ceiling, if she won, but she paid no attention to the women and communities who would never see that ceiling as they were constantly slipping on the ground crumbling beneath them.
On men and their role in feminism..
Davis insisted that men should take the initiative, they don’t need to be invited to the table. Moreover, many of the issues feminists campaign about, like domestic violence, reproductive rights, sexual abuse etc are in fact by and large men’s problems.
We then went to questions from the audience, which I must say were pretty profound… sometimes at these events people come armed with things that should be reserved for a professional counsellor………..anyway, a question was put forward by Siana Bangura about anger and self care, and how we can use it for productive energy.
Davis stated that anger can be good, referring to Audre Lordes’ observations on this. However, we must also be aware of it becoming self destructive.
When asked by an 18 year old activist, what she knows now that she wishes she knew then…
Like the true don she is Davis exclaimed nothing! She wouldn’t change a thing, because the mistakes made and experiences had were crucial in taking her to where she is now… If you didn’t know, Davis was tried for 3 capital crimes (aka crimes that could’ve led to the death penalty) , and spent 16 months in jail awaiting trial. Reflecting on this, Davis said this experience was a gift, and support she received during the whole ordeal, showed her the power and the importance of the movement.
When asked about the experiences of women in and leaving prison, Davis noted how people assume the prison complex is a male issue, when it’s not, particularly when you consider the fact that the US alone host 1/3 of the world’s female prison population. Many women who’ve been in prison, liken their treatment inside to what they faced from men outside prison, demonstrating how the violent tendons of patriarchy have seeped into institutions there to protect. Such an issue is why feminism must be understood as a movement that goes beyond the guise of simply gender, a feminist society would break down the destructive systems that hinder both women and men.
Davis has been very vocal about her support for Palestine, and thus was asked about this, and it’s importance in fighting oppression. Davis first reminded us all that she went to the Jewish university Brandeis and this is where campaigning for Palestine began, alongside her Jewish peers. Parallels can be drawn between the Palestinian and US civil rights struggle, if one looks at police brutality or anti-Black racism and Islamaphobia, which is the greatest threat today. Davis concluded by saying that Americans have a habit of being US-centric, and it’s about time they learnt to show solidarity with other causes……
The final question was posed by campaigner and sister of Sean Riggs, a black man who died in police custody. Marcia Riggs asked what gave her the strength to keep going, and in an action that moved us all, climbed onto the stage and embraced the revolutionary black woman that is Angela Davis.