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In USF lecture, Angela Davis talks of resistance and a new activist spirit

The young people who mobilized for last summer’s protests were an inspiration, she said.
Angela Davis addresses the University of South Florida community virtually Thursday evening as part of the University Lecture Series.
Angela Davis addresses the University of South Florida community virtually Thursday evening as part of the University Lecture Series. [ University of South Florida ]
Published Jan. 22, 2021|Updated Jan. 22, 2021

Angela Davis is ready to get back to work and mobilize for social change, but she’s still hopeful.

The day after Kamala Harris became vice president, and on the heels of a year that saw deep racial reckoning across the country, Davis, 76, addressed the University of South Florida community in a virtual lecture Thursday night that touched on race, gender and capitalism.

An activist and pioneer in radical Black feminism, she has been a prominent figure for decades, working as an academic and authoring more than 10 books on race, class, gender and the criminalization of marginalized communities.

Her lecture, hosted through the university’s Center for Student Involvement, was moderated by David Ponton, a professor and social historian.

Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Davis said she was fortunate to be raised in a culture of resistance. She said an early lesson she took from her mother was that things weren’t supposed to be the way they were and would eventually change. She didn’t have to accept the idea that just because she was a Black child she wasn’t allowed to go to the library or museum or amusement park.

“It was detrimental to assent to the status quo,” Davis said. “The reality that was given to me did not have to be accepted as a permanent reality. I learned when I was very young I could both inhabit conditions created by white supremacy and could be critical of them simultaneously.”

Embracing dualities, Davis said, has been essential to her work, and it’s what resistance looks like to her today. Pleasure and critique can coincide, Davis said, whether it’s appreciating the beat of a song with patriarchal lyrics that one is willing to call out or celebrating the election of Harris as the first Black woman and person of South Asian descent to be vice president, while also pushing the new administration toward more progressive action.

“Simply because there is a Black woman in that office does not mean we are moving in a progressive direction,” Davis said. “We’re going to have to be willing to mobilize and organize against the people we support. It’s possible to both be critical and celebrate and appreciate. We don’t have to opt for one or the other.”

When Davis was 18, she moved to Paris, seduced by concepts of liberty, equality and the French Revolution. A year later, a bombing in her hometown of a Black church that killed four young girls, including her neighbor, shook her. She was shocked by how the world didn’t change then, but did after the assassination of John F. Kennedy shortly after.

It was almost as if their lives didn’t matter, she said. It was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement at the time, one that woke others up, much like the last year.

Ponton, the moderator, asked Davis a question he often fields from students about the point of education.

“The purpose of education is ideological,” Davis said. “But at the same time that education is absolutely necessary for liberation.... I would never separate education from liberation.”

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In her home, she said, they were taught to read at 2 and 3 years old. But education does not have to be limited to the confines of a university or school, which she said often mimics the incarceration system for minority communities. Rather, she said, education in any form is a tool to see beyond possibilities.

“Knowledge gets produced in the course of struggle,” she said. “Knowledge gets produced behind bars.”

Davis, an advocate for communism who was acquitted in the 1970s after spending 18 months in prison on murder and conspiracy charges brought by the FBI, also spoke on the role capitalism plays in perpetuating systemic racism. Capitalism is more vast than it’s ever been, she said.

“So what do we do?” she asked. “We can’t just bring the whole system down.... But we can develop a critical awareness and make connections of the work that capitalism is constantly doing, not only on the institutions we rely on but on our interior lives.... It’s possible to engage and critique at the same time.”

Ponton asked if in her world vista and politics there was room for hope.

Davis smiled. She said the mobilization and organization of young people following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have inspired her. They’ve come up with their own language and tools for education and self-care.

It’s led to a greater awareness of what structural racism is, unlike any other time she’s seen in her time as an activist. For the first time, Davis said, it seems like lasting change is possible.

One thing she’s learned from decades of activism, she said, is that sometimes the biggest changes happen in seemingly quieter moments — by persuading others to give a different idea a chance.

“We have to combine the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will,” she said. “Hope is what we always need if we want to realize the prospect of our dreams.”

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