Angela Davis, an educator and veteran of social movements said in Charlottesville on Tuesday that she sought to encourage female organizers and current movements.
“Since this is the first time I have visited since Heather Heyer was killed by white supremacists, I want to take a moment to remember her and also her mother, Susan Bro, because they both make us extremely proud to stand up to racism,” Davis said.
Davis, 74, spoke at The Paramount Theater as part of the University of Virginia’s Excellence Through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series. At the end of Women’s History Month, her wide-ranging talk touched on radical feminism, the prison system, capitalism, gun violence and racism, and she argued that activists should fight together for a transformation of society and not silo their causes.
“Historically, women have done the work but haven’t seen the credit,” she said. “Now we are recognizing the decades and centuries of women’s leadership, of black women’s leadership, of queer black women’s leadership.”
Born in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, Davis became involved in activism and knew several of the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church there in 1963. She attended Brandeis University, the University of Frankfurt and the University of California, San Diego, and became a member of the Black Panthers Party. Communist organizing got her in trouble in her first teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Outside of academia, Davis was involved in a politically charged murder case in California. Three men, known as the Soledad Brothers, were accused of killing a guard in 1970 at Soledad State Prison. During the trial, there was an armed takeover of the courtroom, and four people were killed. Davis was charged with murder for her alleged involvement. After more than a year in jail, she was acquitted in 1972.
After her release, Davis traveled, gave speeches and took several teaching appointments. She is a professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and researched feminism, social consciousness and African-American studies. In recent works, and in a previous UVa appearance in 2009, she argued that the prison system resembles a new form of slavery.
A feminist studies approach to huge, systemic issues is valuable, Davis said in her speech, because that discipline focuses on intersections and connections. “Abolition feminism,” she said, should fight against capitalism, white supremacy and mass incarceration by lifting up black women, trans women and white working-class women.
Still, though, gesturing towards the UVa Excellence in Diversity sign behind her, she said she hesitated to advocate for diversity.
“I am not suggesting that diversity cannot do good work, but it has to be combined with justice,” Davis said. “Diversity without structural transformation simply brings those who were previously excluded into a system as racist, as misogynist, as it was before.”
She also brought self-reflection to recent activist movements. Why didn’t young black activists in Florida and Ferguson, Missouri, get the same reception as students in Parkland, Florida, and why do many feminist movements exclude black women and trans women, she asked.
“Why can’t we make these connections?” she said. “Why do we view them as separate problems?”
At UVa and in Charlottesville, Davis concluded, activists should continue to challenge institutions and push for change.
“It is up to those of you who inhabit the space now to do the work of transformation,” she said.
UVa’s series will conclude April 12 with a speech from Michael Sam, a former National Football League player and LGBTQ advocate. The event is scheduled for 6 p.m. in UVa’s McLeod Hall. The event will be free and open to the public.