Angela Davis: Controversy, Commitment, Courage

COML 530 | Women, Communication and Leadership
2020 Fall | C. Cunningham | Kate Vanskike

(Image: counter-clockwise from top left.
Screenshot of Zoom meeting from the author;
the letter C by artist Amber Hoit in Spokane’s Black Lives Mural;
an event advertisement by University of San Francisco)

Angela Davis was a member of the Communist party and a Black Panther in the 60s. She was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. She was arrested and incarcerated for crimes still debated today. She held a longstanding support of the Palestinian struggle in opposition of popular opinion. She was (and likely still is) considered a traitor by many.

Now that we have the obvious objections right up front, let’s move on.

Davis’ invitation to present at Gonzaga University in 2017 drew its own controversy; the university prepared for safety threats, knowing that many people in predominantly conservative communities see her only by the description in the first paragraph. This delighted her: “It’s been a while since I have encountered such controversies,” she exclaimed.

The very next statement out of her mouth was a sincere acknowledgement that the place where we gathered was indigenous land.

Such is the power of leadership. In her first breaths on stage, she made two things abundantly clear: She is comfortable with conflict, and she gives honor where honor is due.

In a crowded ballroom full of academics, Davis told the Gonzaga gathering, “I thought I would begin with a few words about the humanities and hopefully provoke some controversy there as well. In recent years because of obvious weaknesses in scientific education, we’ve developed a tendency to focus on STEM. But without the framework that the humanities can provide, knowledge can be generated in ways that are entirely disconnected from ideas and principles related to the human condition. …Dwindling support of the humanities has helped to create a crisis in democracy.”

Now 74 years old, Davis has been a political activist, philosopher, academic, and author for half a century. A stalwart feminist with an interdisciplinary interest, Davis has woven together many strands of oppression – not just women, but Black women, not just Black women, but poor Black women, not just poor Black women, but poor Black women raising men who are disproportionately incarcerated. Further, Davis acknowledges that her own ideas about addressing equality and rights for Black women focused entirely on those who were literate. “What about women who didn’t have the opportunity to learn?” she questioned. And thus began a study of the Blues as a way to “access the gender and race consciousness of poor women.”

She laid the groundwork for what Kimberlé Crenshaw ultimately labeled intersectionality, now a critical foundation for academic studies of the human experience and society. Davis clarified that when Crenshaw coined the term, she was addressing law specifically, and its inability to recognize the multi-layered experiences of individuals.

Interdisciplinarity, said Davis, is “to look in unexpected places for insights about the problems of our world.” As an example, she never imaging she would engage in anti-prison work so voraciously in her earlier years, but later learned that the knowledge produced by prisoners themselves has been the catalyst for new academic fields.

“The prison itself is an apparatus of racism,” Davis said. “That led many of us to examine how the institution of the prison became a structure that allowed many historical forms of racism not only to survive but to flourish.”

The timing of Davis’ visit to Gonzaga was just under a year into the Trump presidency. Davis reflected on the national women’s march that took place after his inauguration, the development of the Black Lives Matter network, antisemitism efforts, and the accountability of the police. She may not have imagined that those would be same topics she would address three years later, in October 2020, with another Jesuit community of learners, this time hosted by University of San Francisco.

This time, a topic added to that mix was the discussion of abolishing current criminal justice frameworks. “Many of us would never have imagined abolition would become part of a larger discourse,” Davis said via webcast during the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting on the collision of a deadly virus and the public response to racially motivated police violence. “We would not have been able to take advantage of this moment if people had not been organizing for decades.”

Sometimes, there emerge historical moments that one would never predict, but if one has not done the work, one would not be able to seize the time.”

In one fell swoop, Davis collected all the lessons of her years researching the most threatening social issues in America – from racism and sexism to poverty and punishment: “There are people who finally want to create a better USA.” “This is about political imagination.” “Citizenship is about community and creating new possibility for freedom.” “We would not be where we are today without the struggles of those who came before us. And therefore, we have a responsibility to those who come after us.”

Davis’ examples of leadership and style of communication have power. She challenges people to examine their beliefs and motives. She inspires us to move from thinking to acting. She reminds us that controversy is critical to our development. She shows us how to face criticism and emerge stronger.

If that isn’t empowered leadership, I don’t know what is.