Angela Davis ’65 visits Brandeis to celebrate AAAS 50th anniversary

Angela Davis ’65 visits Brandeis to celebrate AAAS 50th anniversary

March 1, 2019

Angela Davis ’65 spoke about her childhood experience at Brandeis as an undergraduate and subsequent years as an activist, communist figure, Black Panther Party member and professor, for the 50th anniversary of the African and African American Studies (AAAS) Department on Feb. 8.

Davis began by describing her life as one full of controversy in her conversation with Juliana Richardson ’76, an honorary degree recipient, lawyer and founder of a nonprofit aimed at developing video and oral histories of African Americans.

“I don’t know what it is. It seems like each time I’ve been at the center of public attention, it hasn’t necessarily been because of something I’ve done. I was fired from my job at UCLA. I didn’t expect to be fired. I didn’t expect that kind of controversy to emerge,” Davis said.

“Well, I could perhaps narrate 50 years of my life’s trajectory by saying ‘I did not expect,’” she continued. “Nobody would ever know my name had not it been for these amazing movements that developed,” she later said.

Davis spoke about how her father, who ran one of the only black gas stations in Birmingham, Alabama, encouraged her to finish high school and go on to college. Davis attended a high school taught by teachers that had been blacklisted in the public school system for their left-leaning political beliefs. “It was a largely Jewish high school and everybody wanted to go to Brandeis, but I was one of the few who got there,” she continued, to laughs from the audience.

At Brandeis, Davis described how she learned about Israel and Palestine, and her support of Palestine which became controversial after the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, which the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced would be awarded to Davis in February 2018, was rescinded. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced that the award presentation was canceled because Davis’ statements do not “meet all of the criteria on which the award is based,” according to an earlier National Public Radio (NPR) article.

Richardson attributed the cancelation to Davis’ support of Palestine, which Davis first developed at Brandeis. “I simultaneously learned about how important it was to challenge antisemitism and to speak courageously against the continued perpetuation of anti-Semitic ideas and practices, and at the same time to speak out for justice for Palestine,” Davis said.

At Brandeis, Davis studied French literature and spent her junior year in France. Davis then spoke about her radicalization, saying there was no “one moment” where she became radicalized. “I think that I brought a sense of radicalism with me from the way in which my parents had taught us how to engage in a segregated society.”

Davis described questioning segregation, and asking her mother why she couldn’t do things like go to the library or the amusement park. “And she [Davis’ mother] would say that this is not the way things are supposed to be. And she would always say one day, they will be different. I’ve learned from the time I was a very young child to imagine a different future and not to inhabit simultaneously a segregated world, but also to inhabit in my imagination a very different world.”

Davis said this was when she first adopted a critical approach to the world, an approach of “not accepting what is simply because it is given, to always recognize that things are going to change. And that as a matter of fact, we can be a part of the process that brings about the change.”

After Brandeis, Davis went on to teach at UCLA but was fired for being a member of the communist party. She has returned since to find that the university had a poster with her picture advertising UCLA.

Richardson asked about the turbulence of the 1970s, when Davis was on the FBI’s most wanted list and was a member of the Black Panther Party. Davis spoke about the Black Panther Party, emphasizing that there are “many women whose names are not known who really played critical roles in the Black Panther party.”

After Davis and Richardson’s conversation, the two took questions from the audience, including Brandeis alumni who told Davis that they went to Brandeis because Davis went there. Richardson agreed, saying, “I came to Brandeis because you had come here. Because my father was like, ‘That’s the school Angela Davis went to.’”

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Chair of the AAAS department Chad Williams (AAAS) spoke about bringing Davis to campus, which he said was something the department had wanted to do for a long time. He described Davis as “absolutely formative” to the foundation of black studies. “She’s a part of our department’s history which we wanted to recognize,” Williams said.

Professor Faith Smith (AAAS, ENG, WMGS) also spoke to The Hoot about Davis’ focus on black feminist thought, and was glad that it was a central focus during the discussion.

Davis answered questions about her articles, the 2016 presidential election and Kamala Harris’ democratic presidential candidacy. Davis spoke about how in the 2016 election she voted for Hillary Clinton despite feeling that she wasn’t the right candidate. She also described how Harris’ history as attorney general troubled her, and called the presidential election pivotal.

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