Throughout her four decades in the public eye, a myriad of words have been used to describe the ever-polemical Angela Davis: revolutionary, hero, communist, terrorist (Richard Nixon’s repeated articulation), radical, renegade, martyr, inspirer, visionary. But yesterday, in front of a sold-out crowd in the Africana Studies and Research Center, the former Black Panther and the third woman ever on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List used humor to connect with her audience.
“[My 15 months of] solitary confinement was not so bad,” Davis said. “After all, I had already been a graduate student.”
In her second visit to Cornell in three years, Davis regaled the audience (an estimated 130 students, faculty and community members) with humorous remarks throughout the evening. The intimacy of the event — officially billed as ‘a talk’ on “how to be a Scholar/Activist” — gave the historical figure of Davis a human dimension.
The talk, which was co-sponsored by the Minority, Indigenous and Third World Studies group, centered on several prescient issues — they barely glossed over Davis’ own remarkable life-story, favoring instead contemporary challenges to Davis’ lifelong causes.
Although she went on to do groundbreaking research as a renowned professor in the University of California school system, Davis is best known in relation to the worldwide movement that successfully freed her from prison. In 1970, she was implicated in aiding the murder of Justice Hayley, a judge killed by the Black Panthers in retaliation for the incarceration of George Jackson. She was arrested and faced the death penalty, galvanizing a “Free Angela Davis” campaign, sparking protests at home and abroad. Davis mentioned that she received a million postcards of flowers from schoolchildren in East Germany while in prison.
But in her talk, Davis sought to frame even this monumental personal event in terms of today’s problems.
“What’s most important about that campaign around my freedom was that it seemed like a lost cause,” Davis said, noting that the presumably unsympathetic Ronald Reagan was governor at the time. Davis described the moment as proof of “the possibilities of international solidarity, … of mass organization.”
And, indeed, over the course of the two-hour discussion, Davis preferred to discuss the injustices of today. She called for the “abolition of the prison-industrial complex,” explained the need for teachers to organize as a work force and mentioned the problems of ongoing police violence towards black men. Davis’ evident humility towards her own achievements were yet another benefit of the talk.
An over-arching message of the talk was a call for greater student activism. Davis’ buoyant and joyous expression hardened, and the room grew quiet as she recalled the lost “excitement about student activism” during the run-up to the Presidential election; now, Davis said, many have “retreated to their individual lives” because President Barack Obama “has not done everything we expected and hoped he would. ... We must return to that feeling [that we are] collective agents of history.”
She also, in accordance with the talk’s name, examined the difficulties and virtues of being both a scholar and an activist. Davis warned against treating activism as “a thing on the side.” She also cautioned against choosing a scholarly career over activism — one might neglect partaking in activism if the scholarly route is chosen.
Davis drew people from all ages and walks of life, from a student at nearby Ithaca High School to Oscar Saulsberry, who had gone to see Davis speak in Detroit over 30 years ago.
Jemilla Sequeira, Cornell’s Extension Community Educator at the Tompkins County Cooperative, came because, as a “self identified social activist [for] equity in education, health and employment,” she was interested in hearing her “role model and mentor” speak and give advice. Mark Gaines ’09 said he went to the talk because, “My grandparents were activists at the same time as Davis.” Gaines, who is black, said he was hoping to restore the social activism that “today’s black youth has shamefully lost.”
Others attended because, in the words of Dan Sinkin grad, “Davis is a legendary figure” who he hoped to “glean some wisdom from.” The night’s only tense moments came when the Executive Director of Cornell’s Prison Correction Education Program James Schechter challenged Davis’ position on prison correction. Schechter called for “pragmatism in dealing with social issues,” saying that reform was the only plausible way to help the plight of the prison system.
Davis disagreed. “Providing services would solidify” the established system, said Davis, who calls for the immediate abolition of all prisons.