Angela Davis gives book talk in Oakland

University of Arkansas at Little Rock/Courtesy

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What is the meaning of freedom? Angela Davis has devoted her life to the exploration of this question and to combating all forms of oppression that deny people their freedom based on race, gender, class or sexual orientation.

Born in 1944 in apartheid Birmingham, Ala., Davis experienced racial discrimination growing up and was involved in political activism at a young age. However, it wasn’t until 1969 that she rose to national attention when she was removed from her teaching position at UCLA due to her membership in the Communist Party. In 1970, Davis was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List on false charges, one of only eight women to ever appear on this list. The resulting police search drove her underground, and, when she was captured, President Nixon congratulated the FBI on its “capture of the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis.” Davis was eventually acquitted in 1972, after 16 months in prison following an international “Free Angela” campaign.

In 1969, Ronald Reagan vowed that Davis would never again teach in the UC system. Today, Davis is a professor in the history of consciousness department and former director of the feminist studies department at UC Santa Cruz. She is also the author of several books, including a new collection of previously unpublished speeches entitled “The Meaning of Freedom,” her first full-length book since 2003.

Davis offers a penetrating analysis of how attempts to arrive at the social landscape she envisions are consistently foiled by institutional and cultural injustice. Davis discusses the intersections of oppression in our society, revitalizing discourse about race, gender, class and sexuality and proving there are still new and interesting ways to talk about these issues. Davis collapses the social partitions that separate us and brilliantly links these seemingly unrelated issues into a broader understanding of freedom.

Davis’s fearless spirit and unwavering commitment to justice were strikingly evident when she appeared at Oakland’s Marcus Books, the oldest black bookstore in the U.S., last Friday to discuss her latest book. She began by asking the audience why last year’s activism surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin died down following the arrest of policeman George Zimmerman. Davis described how the public’s loss of interest suggests that the only thing people were demanding was the prosecution of an individual. She argued that this kind of solution results in the individualization of incidents of racism, so that we tend to think it is just the individual who needs to be cured. This interpretation cuts off discussion of social issues, failing to address the centuries-old problem of racist violence.

Davis has famously proposed prison abolitionism, condemning the prison system for lumping crimes together so that social issues are not given proper consideration. According to Davis, the structural racism and sexism apparent in the institution of the prison demonstrates that we continue to live with the ghost of slavery. Davis’ powerful speech described how we tend to think about justice in terms of the law, but the law is only capable of apprehending individuals. Therefore, any “equality” that the law can provide is necessarily a false equality — in her words, “a sameness rather than equality — the law cannot distinguish the 1 percent from the 99 percent.”

Davis challenges her audience to think about how racism and sexism permeate our everyday lives. She encourages them to question the aspects of discourse that we take most for granted, as it is this “taken-for-grantedness” that leaves us trapped in a system of injustice. By engaging in these difficult dialogues as a community, we can expand our understanding of freedom and bring about social change.

Contact Meadhbh McGrath at [email protected].