Reasons I'm glad we brought Angela Davis to the College of Charleston

On Monday Angela Davis came to speak at the College of Charleston, invited here by the Women's and Gender Studies Program (truth be told, by me--I wrote her a letter last February telling her how much we need her voice in Charleston). She is a highly sought-after speaker, and we were lucky to get her. The reason she's so sought-after, of course, is because she's an incredibly important public figure--both as an activist and as a scholar.

I'm not going to detail her history here. You can read about it on the University of California Santa Cruz site, where she teaches in the History of Consciousness Ph.D. program and the Feminist Studies Program. What I will say is that she has achieved a kind of iconic status, but her significance is not defined by that iconography--the "Free Angela Davis" campaigns that arose while she was in prison and the Afro that's the ubiquitous visual image of her (just type "Angela Davis" into a Google image search and you'll see what I mean). She's an important historical figure because of her involvement in the Civil Rights movement and the feminist movement. In addition, she's an influential intellectual, having written eight books, including the widely-taught Women, Race, and Class. She's been one of the activist and scholarly voices arguing consistently for a feminist analysis that's intersectional (a term I've discussed here before). Her life's work speaks to the divisions that define Charleston: she addresses race, gender, sexual orientation, and class, and she thinks (and writes and speaks) in complex yet accessible ways about the multiple levels on which oppression operates.

I invited her to the College in part because I thought she would be a speaker who would appeal to a broad cross-section of the campus and community--and I was right about that. Hundreds (perhaps 500-600) of people came to her talk, and she noted from the stage that it was a truly diverse crowd--in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender as well as other categories. I know that many faculty members and students came to hear her speak, but you sort of expect that at a university talk. What doesn't always happen is that the staff came out in large numbers, which I was so happy to see. And loads of people from the community were there, too.

What I hoped for--and I wasn't disappointed--was that she'd say things that many people would agree with, but that she might also push at the borders of certain audience members' comfort zones. She started by talking about the history of the Civil Rights movement, but she made the point repeatedly that the history we don't hear is that of the women who did much of the grunt work of Civil Rights--women who were savvy enough that they knew they needed a male leader in order to be taken seriously. She certainly lauded MLK as a great figure, but she questioned his status as the singular symbol of Civil Rights, suggesting that we needed to look to the women. I think people were open to this, but it may not have been what they were expecting. When she spoke about the serious problems with the US prison system (the fact that we have both the highest number of people in prison and the highest percentage of our population in prison of any nation in the world), people nodded their heads in agreement. And then when she said that she wanted to talk in particular about the difficulties faced by transgender prisoners, some of the head nodding turned to squinty-eyed scrutiny.

It's the job of colleges and universities to bring in speakers who will push the envelope, who will be provocative and ask us to think about things we might not have explored before, who will introduce us to new ideas. Angela Davis did that. And she did it not just to the insular CofC community but to a sizeable group of Charlestonians.

One thing that struck me after her talk was the fact that so many people wanted to talk to her--to have her sign their books, yes, but more so just to make contact with her, to tell her what she meant to their lives. "My mother always called me Angela Davis cause I made trouble!" one woman said as we walked by. "You're the reason I got a Ph.D. and started teaching college," another woman told her. Because of all these folks wanting to connect with her, it was fairly challenging even to move--here's a picture of me trying to guide her through the crowd to her book signing table. But she was incredibly gracious and generous with every person who wanted to connect with her. Look at her radiant smile in this picture--the woman hasn't eaten since her afternoon cookies with the students and has just been lecturing and answering questions for more than an hour, and yet she's ready to give time and attention to each of the probably 150 people who waited in line to talk with her. I know that the students were inspired, and I hope the community folks were, too.

One final--admittedly petty--reason I'm glad we brought her to the College is that her visit puts us in good company. She's spoken at Harvard, Brown, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt--along with loads of other places. So even though local talk radio decried "state money" being used to pay for "a Communist and a criminal" speaking at the College, the fact that she came here improves the College's reputation.


Kenneth said...

Money quote from the Post and Courier's coverage:

"Her hair may be smaller in circumference than it was in the 1970s, but her convictions and dreams for America are just as big."

Griffie said...

I'm so glad you brought her here. It was a life changing expierence. Thank you.

Ms. Stubel said...


the end.

Elizabeth said...

I remember her from my college days. She was a powerful voice then and still is.

Patricia said...

Is there a possibility that her speech will be uploaded to the Internet? I missed it (work) and would love to see it.

Hazel Ketchum said...

Put me on the list to hear about such events. I know I'm just a musician, but I do like to use the ole' brain once in awhile. Kudos on a job well done.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it interesting that Southern Italian docs are opposed to performing abortions. What is it about living in the South (Italy or US)?

Big rise in Italian doctors refusing to perform abortions: ministry [headline--story from Drudge Report]

Apr 22 03:27 PM US/Eastern

Nearly 70 percent of Italian gynecologists now refuse to perform abortions on moral grounds and the number is increasing, a report by the country's ministry of health said Tuesday.
Abortion was legalised in 1978 in Italy but pressure from the Vatican -- which is strongly opposed to abortion -- enabled doctors to claim a "conscientious objection" clause and refuse to carry out terminations.

Between 2003 and 2007 the number of gynecologists claiming the conscience clause to avoid carrying out abortions rose from 58.7 percent to 69.2 percent, according to the report.

For anesthetists helping in abortions, the figure of those refusing to participate rose from 45.7 percent to 50.4 percent.

"In the south, this increase is even more pronounced and in certain areas the rate has almost doubled," the report adds. In Campania, the region around Naples, the proportion of gynecologists refusing to carry out the procedure reached 83 percent, and in Sicily 84.2 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of abortions has dropped slightly. Between 2006 and 2007 it fell from 131,018 to 127,038, a decrease of three percent.

Illegal abortions are also declining, according to the ministry, and stand at around 15,000 a year.

"Abortion law is in danger", with the option to have a termination "more and more resembling an obstacle course," Milan gynecologist and pro-choice advocate Silvio Viale told ANSA news agency.

Attacks on the right to abortion became a major issue in the recent legislative elections, with polemics from the Catholic Church, and the creation of an anti-abortion party by a close friend of Silvio Berlusconi, journalist Giulio Ferrara -- although he only received 0.37 percent of the vote.

A police raid on an abortion clinic in Naples to check it was obeying the 24-week upper limit on terminations aroused great controversy recently.