This has been an exciting and busy week for Knitting Clio — including a trip to Philadelphia to present a paper at the Third Annual History of Women’s Health Conference at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. This gave me the opportunity to stay with my buddy Janet, and also engage in some friendly political sparring regarding the primary (she’s an Obama supporter but also a realistic one — i.e. she doesn’t think he’s a savior). I was polite enough to do my victory dance during Hillary’s Today Show interview while she and her husband were still asleep!
The highpoint of course was Angela Davis’ visit — and because she gave two lectures, both during my class meeting times, I didn’t have to prepare anything! 😉 Her first talk was based on her book, Are Prisons Obsolete. Her key point is that the prison, aka the penitentiary, was the product of a particular historical moment — i.e. the Enlightenment — and was created as a humane alternative to nasty and gruesome forms of punishment such as whipping, flaying alive, drawing and quartering, and so forth. [at this point I think she could have made a nod to Michel Foucault’s work, Discipline and Punish, but I guess she figured her audience would not get the reference.] She did, however, say that the prison was a “democratic” form of punishment in that in deprives a person of key features of democracy — i.e. liberty, civil rights, etc. She also said that the prison is a sign that the 13th amendment did not fully abolish slavery, i.e. the enslavement of the incarcerated population is allowed under this amendment. She was clear that she does not mean that there are not individuals who commit crimes, but she also wanted to focus on changing larger social and economic conditions — e.g. poverty, inequality, homelessness, lack of health care, etc. — that make certain individuals the target of the criminal justice system. [here she did briefly mention the problem of mentally ill persons in prison, although she also made what I considered an overly flippant comment about using drugs to control criminal behavior, but perhaps I misunderstood].
Her second talk of the day, which I found more useful for my teaching, was on gender, race, and class. This fit perfectly with my U.S. women’s history course, since we had just viewed Standing on My Sisters Shoulders, an outstanding documentary about key women involved the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi. Davis made some excellent points about historical memory, asking why is it that we remember the male leaders, but don’t remember the women who created the communities of resistance and did all the organizing to make the movement a success? One of my favorite lines from her talk was, “without Fanny Lou Hamer, there would have been no Barack Obama.” Right on, sister! She traced this selective historical memory to the American habit of hyper-individualism, which focuses on inspirational leaders and ignores the communities who prepare the ground.
During and question and answer period, an African-American gentleman asked her what she thought about the fact that Obama was poised to fulfill the American dream for African-Americans. Davis’ answer was that we’re still assuming that one white woman can stand for all women, and that one black male can stand for all African-Americans, and alluded to a classic anthology on black feminism. She pointed out that Obama is a politician within the existing two-party system, that he really isn’t all that progressive, and like my buddy Janet, said we have to get beyond our Messiah complex and focus on communities pushing for social change.
All in all, I was rather impressed with her modesty — especially her tribute to her mother, whom she described as a “model activist” and a symbol of how anyone can be an agent of social change. Awesome!