Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Special Feature: Angela Davis

This week, I had the privilege of seeing Angela Davis speak on campus at McGill University. You all may recognize her by images such as this:

or this:

In the 1970s, Davis was a leader and cultural icon in the American Civil Rights Movement. While she is probably best remembered for her involvement with the Black Panther Movement, her activism addresses the intersecting issues of systematic race, gender and sexuality-based oppression.

The narrow hallway outside Leacock 132 was packed with a spectrum of folks:gender queer students shared space with the middle-aged men in suits. Students, finished their classes for the day, attempted to shuffle through the sea of bodies, aware that there was something “different” about this conglomeration.

“Is there some sort of event going on?” A passing student asked, “What’s this all about?”

The crowd little resembled the typical McGill Poli-Sci or Philosophy class, trudging into the lecture hall in sweatshirts and skinny jeans. Black students are extremely underrepresented on-campus, and the general lack of accommodation for mature students means that our student population is rather young. Yet this crowd had all the variety of colours, styles and ages to (if temporarily) disrupt the “normative” McGill flow. And the energy was uncontainable. When the doors finally opened, we stormed the auditorium as one mass, with seemingly no one individual freely able to direct themselves. It got very cozy.

After a noisy, festive hour of organizing seating arrangement, figuring out overflow rooms for those who could not find a spot, and tackling media issues (despite the supposed brain-power of academics, we’re all quite inept at technology)—the lecture organizers presented Angela Davis. After a standing ovation from the audience, she began to speak.

The topic of her talk concerned media, race, and power, and took the Oscar Grant (see link for more information) case as a departure point for discussing the “institutional memory of institutions,” how institutions such as the prison system retain the memory of slavery, and how they operate to reproduce the systematic oppression of slavery.

The part of Davis’ argument that struck me the most is when she emphasized how the current prison system renders oppression, marginalization, poverty etc. invisible. The “prison-industrial complex” as she calls it focuses our attention on individual cases, in which we come to see “criminal” people as sick, wrong, and psychopathic without seeing the “sick” functioning of our social world which creates the conditions for “criminal activity” and which criminalizes certain groups. I don’t feel as if I can do proper justice to Davis’ argument, so I encourage you to listen to this audio clip on youtube of Angela Davis speaking on the topic.

She is truly an inspiring leader for a third wave feminist movement, a charismatic speaker and activist that recognizes the significance of race, class, and sexuality in the workings of contemporary oppression. I think that the diverse audience she garnered at McGill university is a testament to the reach of her message, and reflective of an alternative feminism that aims to be inclusive and dynamic. Feminism has for too long been a middle-class-white-woman-game and I think that we still have much work to do in addressing and correcting the ethnocentric, sometimes racist tradition of our own movement.

I’ll admit that this has been a somewhat unfocused blog (it is mid-term time . . . essays abound!), but I hope that you will read some of Davis’ work or get a chance to hear her speak.

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