Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2016 issue of The Prairie Progressive.
The function of freedom is to free someone else. –Toni Morrison
The sizzling energy that has propelled Black Lives Matter, the Democratic presidential race, and anti-Board of Regents protests in Iowa City was on full display at the Englert Theatre in March, as nearly 1000 people came to hear Angela Davis.
Once a member of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, Professor Davis graciously accepted the University of Iowa’s 2016 Distinguished Lecturer award from UI Vice-President Tom Rocklin.
Davis examined her journey from a youthful “black female revolutionary” who scorned the “white bourgeois phenomenon” of feminism, to a veteran activist who embraces the possibility of bringing those factions together. One inspiration was her study of the 1909 Uprising of the 20,000, when shirtwaist workers– most of them young Jewish immigrant women – went on strike for higher pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. To Davis, these women acted in the fierce spirit of the black radical tradition.
Davis believes that immigrants and refugees make up the most important civil rights movement of our time, but her heart is still with her long-time commitment to prison abolition. President Clinton’s ‘prison reform’ in the 1990s dismantled education in correctional facilities; ironically, in the Internet Age, the art of letter-writing is now in the hands of prisoners. Davis recommends sending letters to people in prisons as a way of making them less vulnerable to institutional abuse. She also urged action to “ban the box,” so that employers must consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the immediate stigma of a criminal record. [SF84, a bill to remove the criminal record box from employment applications, passed out of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, but is dead for this year.]
Davis had some surprising answers to questions, mostly from students, about living the life of an activist. “You must incorporate self care” in your daily routine, she said, including a healthy diet with locally grown food. Forty-five years ago, Prairie Dog would not have expected the importance of eating right to be one of Davis’s biggest applause lines.
One questioner confessed, “I don’t know where to fight, how to fight, or what I want.” Davis gently said that we learn as we go, that these confusions get resolved as we struggle. Freedom is an infinite process of being, not a commodity. We’ll never reach it and be able to rest. Fortunately, it’s exciting to not know where we’re going. More good news for young activists: “You don’t have to worry about surveillance by the government like we used to. Everyone is surveilled.”
When asked what to do about peers who don’t understand or appreciate their heritage, Davis simply said, “Don’t worry too much about it.” Learn how to formulate questions. Engage those who haven’t yet joined you. Learn to be critical of yourself. Be humble.
The final questioner identified herself as a sometimes-frustrated staff member of the UI’s Office of Diversity. Davis praised her, but said that “diversity doesn’t always do what it ought to be doing. I’ve never seen an Office of Diversity and Social Justice.”
VP Rocklin would do well to listen.
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