Angela Davis at CCSU

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!

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4 Comments

  1. Did Professor Davis provide suggestions on how to make prisons obsolete?

    I enjoyed reading your second-to-last paragraph. I wish I could have been there to hear her response to the gentleman’s question. She is right, too often people assume that one person can speak for groups that have been cast as “other.” Few people would ever think that one white man could speak for all white men, but many (white?) people think one black man speaks for all black men, one black woman speaks for all black women, etc.

  2. Yes, but the answer is complicated and I’m not sure I understand it completely. Basically, she thinks that the existing prison system does not work for the vast majority of the incarcerated population, who are non-violent offenders. She thinks that decarceration, probation, and above all job training, affordable housing, health care, and other measures to foster re-integration into society is the best way to deal with those individuals. I’m not sure that even she would suggest that incarceration for the most violent offenders should be abolished, she’s simply saying that the prison industrial complex (i.e. massive, for-profit prison systems) are a waste of money and don’t address larger issues of social inequality. Does that make sense?

  3. Thanks for this report–Davis was the keynote speaker at the last Berkshire Conference, in 2005 at Scripps College. I didn’t see her speech–dumb decision on my part!

    I also appreciate her perspective as a woman of a certain age. As Tom Hayden’s column at The Nation website this week (“Why Hillary Makes My Wife Scream”) shows once again, the Old Left was misogynist, and The Nation’s decision to print that ugly piece of work shows that the New Left is just as misogynist. (Link here: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080505/hayden) When I got a mailer this week asking me to contribute money to The Nation foundation, I sent back their envelope with a note telling them to stop printing misogynist hate speech and actually stand up for feminist values. I know they endorsed Obama–I don’t mind that–but the entire magazine has been on an ugly campaign to tear down Clinton ever since.

  4. Thanks for your response. And, yes, it makes perfect sense :). So, I guess Professor Davis would say that prisons are not yet obsolete. But, if we overhaul our society, we could make prisons obsolete.

    Sounds like it was a fascinating lecture. I wish I could have heard it.

    I like your blog very much. I added it to my blogroll.

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