Angela Davis Recollects Histories, Insists on Transformative Resistance

When Angela Davis was introduced before her talk at Shryock Auditorium on Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus on Feb. 13, the speaker said he struggled to find an adequate way to encapsulate all that the long-time activist and scholar put into practice, but he found an answer – love.

“What could influence such courage, such desire for freedom?” he said seconds before Davis stepped onstage. “And what could inspire others to change the world? And I thought, it was love.”

He said it had to be love that drove Davis during the civil rights movement and throughout many historical struggles.

When Davis spoke she said “you have to act as though it’s possible to radically transform the world,” and she emphasized the importance of recuperating history.

“When I think about the difficulty we have in this country of honestly talking about our history, of talking about the colonization of the indigenous inhabitants, and recognizing that we are a settler nation, talking about slavery,” she said the abilities of other countries, like South Africa, to at least open up that repressed past, “should inspire us to get started.”

Davis said the period from 1865 to 1877 was the “most radical era,” and “the most important era in the history of the country,” because of reconstructive efforts immediately following the official end to slavery.

“We never really abolished slavery,” Davis qualified, noting “something akin to slavery emerged through the punishment apparatus.”

Drawing on Douglas Blackmon’s book, “Slavery by Another Name,” Davis said the nation lacks an adequate vocabulary to communicate the “magnitude of the impact of slavery,” and fully consider it as a “catastrophe with vast implications.”

The “convict lease system,” which started after 1865 perpetuated what Blackmon called “neo-slavery,” Davis explained.

She critiqued media coverage honoring Nelson Mandela, following his death on Dec. 5, 2013, for stressing the anti-apartheid revolutionary’s purported penchant for forgiving and forgetting.

“In all these relationships it was not about forgiving and forgetting,” Davis said.

She said Mandela demanded that people not remain the same and instead advanced the “revolutionary transformation of the self,” and “transformation of social relations.”

Elsewhere called the transformative power of love, these histories of humanization, these histories of slavery and genetic critique of the prison-industrial complex teach us “that resistance is possible,” she said. “Resistance is not only possible, but it is the only legitimate response to these systems and apparatuses of un-freedom.”

“The ideological effect of the criminalization of blackness is still with us,” she said, affirming the connections between slavery and the contemporary criminal justice system. She also affirmed the “link between anti-slavery abolitionism and the link between anti-prison abolitionism.”

After the lecture, during a question and answer session, Nick Smaligo, a Teaching Assistant in the philosophy department at SIUC, asked Davis if she had heard about the prisoners at Menard Correctional Center on hunger strike since Jan. 15., and now reported to possibly have started refusing liquids.

“How do you think the movement against mass incarceration, as the new slavery, as ‘The New Jim Crow,’ how can we – not just as academics but also as individuals as groups on the outside – how can we organize a movement against this really?” Smaligo asked.

“It’s so important to have solidarity,” Davis answered, “particularly when prisoners engage in the only form of radical resistance that is available to them.”

During the question and answer period Davis reminded the audience “how much social justice struggles influence the scholarly universe.”

She said we academics must better “acknowledge the fact that knowledge gets produced outside of the academy.”

“The way in which we conceptualize the world will never actually replicate social relations in the world,” she added, intimating the connection between theory and practice.

And contrary to popular belief, Davis said, many young people today make that connection.

Recent social movements also illustrate the potential for creating “communities of resistance,” she said.

Davis cited Occupy Wall Street as a movement that enabled society “to critically engage with capitalism in such a way that had not been possible since the 1930s.”

“I think we’re still living with the inheritances of Occupy,” she said.

Many students – or indebted former students and graduates – participated in Occupy.

Davis noted during her talk how “public education suffers because it’s not profitable according to corporate measures,” and added that there is an urgent need to recognize interconnectedness to bring a variety of social justice issues together.

“So my answer is organize,” Davis said.

Anyone interested in contacting Nick regarding organizing can email him at

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

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