No. 377: Black Panther Still on the Hunt for Social Justice / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
19 September 2016
African-American struggle stalwart Angela Davis recently gave the Steve Biko annual lecture in Tshwane on Legacies and Unfinished Activism.
She started by honouring Biko's legacy in transforming lives and institutions, and articulating a "politics of blackness" that released blacks from a sense of inferiority. Davis made links between historical struggles, from the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement in the US, praising the latter struggle's young leaders and cautioning the older generation to stop describing them as leaderless because they did not fit the charismatic, religious-oriented leadership of previous generations.
She described SA as a "beacon of the world" whose anti-apartheid leaders and women's movement had inspired America's own civil rights struggle, of which Davis was a leading light. She praised the Fees Must Fall movement, hugged protesting young pupils from Pretoria High School for Girls, and condemned the government's militaristic approach to tackling peaceful protests.
She also celebrated the history of resistance from boxer Muhammad Ali to American football's Colin Kaepernick while calling for greater focus on hidden, structural forms of racism. She defiantly noted: "We cannot stop dreaming and we cannot stop struggling."
The 72-year-old Davis grew up in a middle-class home in 1950s Alabama, taking piano and dancing lessons. She also witnessed the bombings of black homes and churches by white racists. Her communism was forged at her New York high school and strengthened at Brandeis University, where she was mentored by German philosopher Herbert Marcuse.
He encouraged her to study at France's Sorbonne and Germany's Frankfurt University, where she immersed herself in the work of European Marxist structuralists, eventually pursuing doctoral studies in East Germany's Humboldt University.
Davis was also inspired by Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-British sociologist. Jamaican-American Harry Belafonte was another important influence who encouraged her to study the work of Afro-Marxists Amilcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto (whom Davis met in Tanzania in 1973) and Samora Machel. She also read Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Frantz Fanon. These experiences gave Davis a cosmopolitanism that was often less parochial than the black nationalism of her fellow Black Panthers. She joined America's Communist Party and ran as its vice-presidential candidate in national elections in 1984 and 1988.
Her appointment as a lecturer at the University of California in 1969 was controversial. The state's governor, Ronald Reagan, and the university board fired her twice for her communist beliefs (overturned by a judge) and her "inflammatory" rhetoric. With her trademark Afro, Davis continued vociferously to condemn the Vietnam war, racism and sexism, and was an early advocate of gay rights.
The most famous incident involving Davis was her 18-month imprisonment and trial for kidnapping and murder after a gang staged a courtroom release of prisoners that resulted in the murder of a judge. President Richard Nixon described Davis as "a dangerous terrorist", and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named her among its 10 most wanted people.
Davis did not deny buying the arms used in the kidnapping, but was freed of the charges which carried a death penalty.
During those trials and tribulations, James Baldwin wrote a touching open letter to Davis, noting, "We must fight for your life ... and render impassible with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber." The Rolling Stones, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono, penned songs in her honour.
Davis broke with the Communist Party in 1991, though she remains committed to an anticapitalist future. Her more recent battles have involved what she describes as America's "prison industrial complex".
Calling for restorative rather than retributive justice, she has condemned the racism involved in private, profit-driven prisons that have incarcerated 1-million African-Americans out of a 2.3-million prison population, comparing the industry to a system of slavery that demonises society's most powerless people.
Davis advocates instead for more resources to go towards education, housing, employment and building viable communities. She was an eloquent critic of George W Bush's "war on terror" and supported the anticapitalist Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. As Davis noted: "It's always a collective process to change the world."
Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, and incoming director of the University of Johannesburg's Pan-African Institute for Thought and Conversation