Angela Davis’ personal journey is an inspiration to students who want to be a part of active change. Davis took this lecture opportunity to discuss Black History Month, rewritten histories, democracy, and community. Her initial critique addresses the true past of “Black History Month” as she challenges the audience to think about what it is that is actually being celebrated. Is it simply another commercialized opportunity for consumers? Or something implemented in schools to gloss over historical facts? Unfortunately, very few would think to equate Black History Month with its origins from Carter G. Woodson, who started Black History Week during the month of February, chosen because of the birthdays of prominent figures in black history.
Davis then takes a moment to speak about what Black History Month meant for her growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, where she and other classmates tried their best to resist the status quo of racism, tossing aside the textbooks that had rewritten the history of slavery and racial inequality. This raises another important point- individuals who are celebrated for their contributions, and the forgotten communities that were behind them in their fights for civil justice. This sense of community has been ignored in contemporary Black History Month celebrations, which speaks to the larger issue of how we represent history to ourselves.
As history books focus on individualism, we ignore the current battles of history that we are writing. We highlight the accomplishments of those lone activists, and their courageous accolades, without regard for the communities that produced them. The most striking example of this is the celebration of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus. Parks was an activist belonging to a larger community. Who has heard of Jo Ann Robinson and The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It? Activism on a community level made the change possible; it made Parks’ decision to not give up significant.
The rewriting of history is political. Activists and their challenges to government inequalities are conveniently ignored as they are portrayed as figures of democracy. But is it the same kind of democracy? On one hand we have a conservative vision, with an overabundance of security concerns and annulment of domestic programs; and on the other, we have advocates who challenge this same government and the decisions they make. We must question the way these historical memories are constructed. Davis acknowledges this issue with Coretta Scott King, and what George W. Bush said during her memorial service, highlighting her contributions to democracy while her categorical opposition to the death penalty was disregarded entirely. These commemorations have symbolic meaning, and are rife with contradictions.
Davis’ ending point is one advocating activism- fighting against racism, inequality, homophobia, sexism and a host of other injustices, and speaking up for human rights. We belong to a larger community, whether we realize it or not, and it is this community that propels justice into action. Davis’ lecture is, at the core, an impassioned plea for students to engage in activism with a critical lens. Her notion that activists today work in more nuanced and complicated environments than in the past rings true for this generation of students. Davis says several times, “The present is always haunted by the past.” We forget history; we rewrite it into simplistic terms that are not as hard to swallow and in doing so we neglect to question what we see and hear. Activism of the past should serve as a catalyst for activism in the present.
Some Questions for Discussion
Davis fears that radical activism, as civil rights activists exemplified, may not survive this remaking of historical memory. Do you believe this is a legitimate concern? Can you think of any examples of contemporary “radical activism”, and if so why would you classify it as such?
Some might classify racism as a problem of the past. What do you make of this? In what ways is racism still an important and relevant issue?
Do you agree that activism today is more complicated and subtle than in the past? In what ways are you engaged in activism? Why do you think some choose to not become involved in activism?
Davis talks about the logic of imprisonment, and how it is used to remove dispensable populations from society. Why is this a problem, and what does it mean for certain populations in the United States? What do you think Davis means by “dispensable population”, and what makes them “dispensable”?
Knowledge is also produced through media images. Think of or find an image from a historical event that was covered heavily in the media (Hurricane Katrina, Occupy Wall Street, World Wars, etc.). What sort of knowledge does this image produce? How accurately does it portray what happened? In what way does this relate to how history haunts the present?
*Many thanks to Dr. Gary Potter for bringing this video lecture to my attention, and for reviewing this piece.