Author Angela Davis talks art, advocacy, and activism

by Joanne Paquin / Beacon Correspondent • September 29, 2016

While many try to define what it means to be human, Angela Davis seems to have it figured out. 

“To be human is to collectively struggle to be free,” Davis said last Wednesday during a keynote lecture at the Cutler Majestic Theater, in which she received three standing ovations throughout the course of the evening.

Open to the public, Davis’ lecture covered different forms of activism and how the arts play an important role in resistance and revolution. She is internationally known for her work on fighting all forms of oppression and is recognized as a former member of the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Davis also ran for Vice President of the United States, alongside Gus Hall, on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984, and spent nearly sixteen months in prison for false charges.

Kayla LaRosa, a freshman journalism major, said she found Davis’ lecture to be one of the most insightful things she has seen at Emerson. 

“There are struggles that go on today, but they are made better and they are remembered due to the sacrifices and the struggles of people like Angela Davis,” La Rosa said. “She is absolutely incredible.”

Davis is the author of nine books, including Women, Race, and Class. She is also a distinguished professor emerita in the history of consciousness and feminist studies departments at the University of California in Santa Cruz, even after former California governor Ronald Reagan swore Davis would never teach in the state again.

In 1970, Davis ran from the police after she was falsely charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in regards to the Soledad brothers. J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon had her pegged on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted List after they learned she had purchased weapons used in a hostage situation. They sentenced her to death three times during her 16-month imprisonment. The people fighting for her freedom had little hope for her liberation.

“But with the aid of a global movement, we were victorious,” Davis said at the lecture. 

When people ask her how she wants to be remembered, she said she’d rather people remember the international, collaborative movement that allowed her to be at Emerson.

To her, strong people don’t need strong leaders. 

“Leadership should be collective,” she said. “It should be feminist.” 

And Davis has been a witness to how people can become an amazing community of resistance. For to be human is to collectively struggle to be free, as Davis said.

But what can’t be achieved with political and social movements can be achieved with music, according to Davis. She said with music, and other artistic genres, people can learn to transform their pain into joy and discover a place of possibilities, liberation, and revelation. She references Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers’ song, “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle,” Buddy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” and Beyoncé’s album Lemonade.

“Struggles for justice inspire new music,” Davis said. “And new music inspires struggles for justice.” 

Dalia Marina, a junior vocal performance major at Berklee School of Music, had high praise for Davis’ sentiment. She said she thinks that today, musicians wrongly believe they have to be quiet on controversial subjects in order to be successful.

“That’s, in my opinion, exactly backwards of what artists should be doing,” Marina said. “And furthermore, [it] just really defeats the purpose of making art or being an artist.”

In Davis’ opinion, art should challenge the status quo. It should guide people away from the given and the facticity. It also shapes the awareness of those who can change the world.

With the 2016 election in less than five weeks, Davis talked about Donald Trump. 

“At the moment, we are experiencing the strike back of those who want to make America great again,” Davis said. “We are witnessing the limits of limited citizenship. And questioning the meaning of global citizenship.” 

She also said we are witnessing the materialization of white rage, a reaction to the diminishing power of white, male supremacists. This was particularly seen with the election of President Obama.

“We didn’t elect the individual so much,” Davis said. “[Obama’s] first election resulted in global euphoria. People thought things were going to change. There was a moment of promise that we could be connected in that way.”

She said she wants people to continue to hold onto that promise, particularly over the course of the next five weeks.

Her lecture concluded with a standing ovation and questions on her personal experiences from the audience. Several individuals also approached Davis to thank her for all she has done.

Emily Schnider, a junior double-major in writing, literature, and publishing, and marketing communications, said Davis means a lot.

“[Davis] is an incredible spokesperson and a really unique voice for this community that so often gets shut down and misrepresented,” Schnider said. “She’s a badass.”