Last week, as I was driving to Sackville, New Brunswick with three friends to hear Angela Davis speak, the topic of conversation in the car was the result of the vote on Motion-312. Specifically, our conversation focused on Rona Ambrose‘s vote to criminalize a woman’s right to choose abortion. After airing our frustration and anger over the Minister for the Status of Women’s decision, our conversation turned to the equally egregious fact that so many MPs did indeed vote in favour of the motion. We — three of us women, one man — lamented the continued need to fight for some of the most basic rights for women, and we expressed gratitude that our local MP voted against the bill (thanks, Megan Leslie!) We talked about the need to regularly speak up and out for women’s rights and the rights of other others, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty puts it.
As we drove into Sackville I found myself thinking about how often (or not) I write about feminism specifically here on this blog. I write quite a bit about the academy, I write even more often about my position within the academy. I deliberately try to speak frankly and regularly about the affective and concrete experiences of being among the precariate. But how often do I write about what feminism means for me? About being a feminist? Is it enough to speak in public, to take up space, to write under my own name?
I was still mulling through these questions when I sat down in the auditorium to listen to Angela Davis. As this inspiring woman walked onto the stage my attention shifting from my own internal musing to focus on her. She told us that she wanted to talk about three interconnected issues, and that she wanted us to trust her leaps in logic, for these three things were, in her mind, deeply imbricated. She told us she would talk about mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, about rights for immigrants throughout the global north, and about the global dimensions of our struggles against racism. The first thing she spoke about, however, was the importance of espousing a feminist methodology in one’s thinking, in one’s activism, in one’s life.
Feminism, Davis reminded the audience, is not a thing of the past. It is not a movement that had its time, rather, it is needed ever more urgently. The kind of feminism we need, Davis told us, is not the feminism of Laura Bush, but rather a feminism that is as concerned with eradicating racism and homophobia as it is with forwarding and protecting the rights of women. As if these things weren’t all connected. Feminist approaches, said Davis, urge us to consider institutions that purport to be discrete and allow us to hold these institutions alongside each other to begin to tease out the multiple ways they are imbricated. We need new languages to begin to expand our conceptions of being and belonging in the world.
After Davis’s talk, which was wide, ranging, and, as she promised, intricately interconnected, another woman took the podium. El Jones, an educator, spoken word artist, activist, and academic performed a poem that she had written in honour of Davis’s legacy. Specifically, though, this poem was written for Jones’s students, for young black women who have never heard of Angela Davis. Here’s an excerpt:
“For all the young Blackwomen asking who is Angela Davis
Whose potential is being wasted in classrooms papered with posters of Martin Luther King and bookcases full of Malcolm X
But they have never seen a picture of Black womens’ faces in the movement
They do not know their own power for improvement
Because they have never been taught how courageous Black women spoke against oppression…”
For the young girls who say “who is Angela Davis?”
Who are having their potential for greatness wasted
In classrooms papered with posters of Martin Luther King
And bookcases full of Malcolm X
But they never saw a picture of black women’s faces in the movement.
They do not know their own power for improvement because they have never been taught how courageous black women spoke against oppression.
For the young women unable to attend lectures because they are home tonight raising children alone whose fathers are incarcerated
They are the ones who ask me who is Angela Davis
Having never been given the information to help their homes left vacant
The women working non-unionized jobs with minimum payment with no time left over for education
They are the Angelas in waiting because she defied the expectation of what a Black woman in this society could represent.
And their lives are an embodiment of her commitment to their significance
Even when the knowledge she presents passes unappreciated
To the young women who believe that the lessons shared tonight are unrelated to their lives
They are why we need more Angelas to inspire because
There are so many neglected minds
In a society that holds that knowledge is a weapon in the possession of the oppressed.
This generation of young women has been raised without direction because we have hidden from them the message of liberation
We betrayed the revolutionary legacy by calling it militancy and in its place
We substituted an industry where black women’s bodies are displayed reduced to their sexuality
They are not told that there was a time when the people related to images of Black women with their fists raised
So led astray by the images we feed them these days their spirits grew sickly.
Now the only female MC they can name is Nikki
And they don’t even question how our voices got tuned out so quickly.
But the echo of Angela is present in the rhythm of the bass.
For the young women who say “Who is Angela Davis”
As they struggle along a path that she paved
But like so much of our history she has been erased from daily life for the people who need her most
They placed her essays into university classes while they cut the breakfast programs
That mobilized communities to feed the intellect in poverty
And cut the hours in the public libraries
And censored the books allowed into penitentiaries
To give us the impression that her moment has passed out of relevancy
But her ideas cannot be contained within the walls of the academy
And the proof is in the fact that they still find her too dangerous to explain what she means to us
Because Angela is the will to freedom vibrating through every human made property
So what she inspires in me cannot be described by biography
By an account of her degrees, a summary of her philosophy,
And there is no key to her personality that we can achieve because what she means is defined in our collective identity.
So it is not resigned to memory but changes with every consciousness that connects.
One Black woman speaking only from conviction caused the state that much friction
That they had to mobilize the entire FBI to silence her.
But they could not prevent the people from uprising in defiance so that even if they had convicted her at trial
The power of the message would survive. It found a home in the heart of the people and thrived
Until it exerted a pressure that could not be denied
And though it was not a hairstyle that made her it symbolized the pride
Of a black woman seizing the power to self-define
And so the idea of the natural resides in every confident black woman who rises unafraid
Her meaning was created in the Free Angela posters displayed in the windows of the hood
It was in the people who stood united against the police breaking the doors off their hinges
And refusing to give in to intimidation even at the cost of their own incarceration
And though the trials they initiated were politically motivated they reminded us that
All prisoners confined hold in them the power to escape.
And yes, we can resist the state whose laws exist only so long as we obey
And that freedom to change is held in the spread of ideas from mind to mind.
And so the foundation of her legacy is forged
In the realization of the power of the people combined.
And so you can find that power still residing not just in the words of the lecture tonight
But in every person outside struggling for justice and equality
It is knowing that when the oppressed embrace their own ability it is always liberatory
So Angela’s meaning is felt in the courage of the student from North Preston leaving home for university.
It is in my friend’s 5 year old daughter insisting her teacher include Africville
In the curriculum
And all those who transcend judgment about the human worth of prisoners
And all who are willing to consider new ways of forgiving
And you may not believe that you see Angela in the drivebys of my community
But that is where her message is living
So for all the young women asking “Who is Angela Davis?”
I’m not saying we need Angela to save us
Because what she gave us is the knowledge that we can save ourselves
And so the power to be Angela is already engaged in us.