The Wisdom of Angela Davis: Individuality, Education, and the Fight for Justice Activist Angela Davis Brings Standing Ovations to Santa Clarita California
“I can say that I do believe with all my heart, that the majority of people in this country want change.” -Dr. Angela Davis
SANTA CLARITA, CA- Dr. Angela Davis, a lifetime educator, has walked a long road of stirring up controversy. Eloquently outspoken and intelligent, she became a household name in 1970, when as a UCLA professor and Black Rights activist, guns belonging to Davis were used in a California courtroom hostage situation resulting in the death of a judge. Although Davis had not been present at the crime scene, she was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and eventually arrested. Despite Davis’ ties to the crime being unproven, President Richard Nixon congratulated the FBI on the “capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis.” Once imprisoned, 24-year old Davis was held for 18-months, labeled a radical, and placed on $100,000 bail. Beautiful, with her hair in a distinctive afro, Davis gave press conferences from her cell protesting her arrest, discussing police discrimination and police profiling of black people, a subject unfortunately still relevant today, almost 60 years later. She became an icon, a symbol of a movement, and thousands of people across the country rallied for her release, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who who wrote the song “Angela” to help the campaign. Davis was finally found not-guilty in 1972, the jury deciding that owning the guns did not prove her intention or implication in the crime.
Now, at nearly 80-years old, Dr. Davis has had a lifetime of activism, advocacy, and university teaching in the subjects of economic, racial, and gender justice. She has written 10 books on these subjects and lectures throughout the United States and the world. After seeing a Facebook post, I became aware that she was going to lecture at College of the Canyons, in Santa Clarita, California, an area about 30 miles North of Los Angeles that is still in transition from barren desert to bedroom community. I knew immediately that I must see this living legend and bought tickets, only to realize afterward that the Facebook post I had seen was trying to stir up controversy and protest against Angela Davis. Before I had this realization, I had thanked the Facebook poster for letting me know about this event, and I was soon blasted with responses from trolls, publicly calling me names such as Commie. Wow, I thought, Dr. Davis is still stirring up the people who bring hate to the conversation.
“I think we are at a critical turning point. And I think we could go in a very radical progressive direction. But there are those who want to make sure that we move in a conservative direction. And when I say conservative, I mean toward the past, because that’s precisely what conservatives want. They don’t want us to move in a progressive, future directed way they want us to move in a way that recapitulates the same old, same old…You look at how these people have been attempting to prevent children and young people from learning… Why are they attacking books now? Why are they attacking curricula? Because they know. They’re probably thinking about it all these white children who are being exposed to these new ideas, and they can see the future. And they don’t want that future.”- Dr. Angela Davis, College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita, 15 April 2023.
So on a bright and sunny California day, a friend and I made the 30-mile drive to Santa Clarita, not knowing what to expect from those people who made their displeasure about Dr. Davis’ speaking engagement vocal. Fear does strange things and can turn otherwise kind people into packs of feral dogs, yipping at things they don’t understand without really looking into the truth. Would there be an angry mob outside the college? Upon arriving, we saw only one lone picketer, carrying a sign that was too far away to read, along with a line that stretched the whole length of the Performing Arts Center building. Dr. Davis’ lecture had sold out 886 seats! A mixture of people, all ages, all skin colors, all sexual identifications, were waiting eagerly. A woman walked by with a t-shirt reading Black Women Are Supreme, and I knew that love and education had triumphed against any fear.
“Let’s not forget that we’re at a moment where things can still move forward. We don’t have to capitulate to those who don’t want to see us continue to move in the direction of justice…It’s worth fighting. It’s worth struggling. It’s worth engaging even when it appears as if the only sight for engagement is contradiction.” Dr. Angela Davis, College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita, 15 April 2023
Once inside the theatre, there is only good energy. On stage, moderator Angeli Francois, a professor at both Long Beach City College and College of the Canyons makes the introduction, detailing Angela Davis’ long resume and bio, to which the audience cheers and applauds. As Dr. Davis walks onstage to a standing ovation she says, “I think this is the first time that I’ve heard people applaud for the bio. Makes me wonder why it took me so long to come here.”
In the hour-long question and answer styled interview, Francois guides the topics, and Dr. Davis is articulate and verbose with her answers. In response to a question about the connection between education, racism and activism Davis is clear, “There can be no liberation without education. Education is top of the list when it comes to what has to be accomplished in order to move along a liberatory trajectory… My sense is that the real value of education is that it allows us to raise questions, it teaches us how to question the world. And certainly racism, which has been such an important element in the history of this country and the history of capitalism. If we cannot learn how to question the existence of racism, and its connection with capitalism, its connection with what is often referred to as democracy in this country- don’t get me wrong, I definitely want to see more democracy. But I don’t want to see the kind of democracy that is democracy for the [entitled] minority, and poverty for everybody else. And that’s what education is. Education helps us to see through the veil, to see past all of the ways in which we have been persuaded that justice for a small group of people is justice for all.”
A very important theme in Davis’ talk is the difference between individualism, defined by Davis as a self-centered way of viewing the world- me! me! me! and individuality, which is about self-expression and being unique in communicating ones personality, talents and preferences. The words are close and are easy to confuse, but David tells us, “Individualism promotes a sense of ‘I am the only one who matters’ whereas individuality is about recognizing that every person is different… We are so convinced that what is important is what we achieve as individuals. And individualism is produced by capitalism. It robs us of a sense of connectedness, with those with whom we inhabit this earth… The kind of acquisitive individualism that defines the way we are encouraged to think about ourselves is so dangerous. It makes us totally closed to the idea that we are who we are precisely because of our relations with others…the way to move forward is in community. It’s never by yourself.”
“I wonder how [people fighting slavery] imagined the future they were fighting for. Because they were fighting for a future, but they did not know they were fighting for our future. They were fighting for this- right here, right now. I want us to also think about fighting for a future that we will not necessarily experience ourselves. That is a way of combatting that individualism- that nothing matters except me and the individual lifespan of one human being.”
Davis is relaxed onstage, her mass of natural curls now grey, wearing jeans, an African print jacket, long flowing scarf, and sneakers. She has comfortably stepped into the role of wisened mentor and sage and it is important to her that people stay engaged. “When people often ask me how to become an activist. My advice is, at first, think about what excites you, every individual is different… Our passions are different. For example, my passion has always been ideas, And therefore, I try to use my passion for ideas in the service of the struggle. Someone else is an amazing poet, or artist, or some other form of artist. Figure out how you can use that in the effort to bring about change… In terms of devoting your life to the struggle for justice, you have to find what in you will be fulfilled and satisfied by doing this work. Because otherwise, you’ll do it for a couple of months, maybe a couple of years, but then it ceases to have value to you. So that is always the first thing that I urge people to do to think about how to commit their talents and their passions to the struggle for justice for all.”
“I’m really happy that I’ve lived this long. I get to see incredible, young people who know so much more than we know when we were young. And they’re supposed to. They are leading us in directions I never could have imagined. When I was in my twenties, we were convinced that the revolution was around the corner. We knew the revolution was about to happen, because we could see what was happening in Africa. All the African countries that were throwing off the yoke of colonialism, we could see the Cuban Revolution. We were convinced that in a few years not only would racism be overcome, but capitalism as well. And that didn’t quite happen. Today I often say I’m sort of glad that the revolution didn’t happen then. Because it wouldn’t have been a good revolution, it would have been a masculinist revolution. We hadn’t yet begun to develop a sense of the way in which hetero patriarchy has shaped the way we think about the past and the way we’re living our lives… At that time, the word feminism was kind of like a bad word. And women of color, we didn’t even identify as a feminist because we thought feminists were white middle class women and we were revolutionaries. But then we began to recognize that we could transform feminism, we could turn it into a methodology that was anti racist and anti capitalist.”
As the interview draws to a close, the audience is filled with inspiration and admiration for Dr. Davis and all she has come to say. We rise to our feet again, in another standing ovation. Dr. Davis tells us to meet her in the lobby for book signings and photos. The sense of community feels strong. She leaves us with one final thought, “I just want us to bring more freedom into the grasp of those who were never meant to experience it by the ones who have the control.”
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