In concert with so many of the stories of civil unrest and activism in the media this year, social justice icon and political activist Angela Davis took center stage on Wednesday in the Chapel. Her work in the 1970s with rapidly expanding US inmate populations, otherwise known as the prison-industrial complex, runs quite a few parallels with much of what is happening in the news today. Her talk on Wednesday, however, was given in celebration of a bright future, rather than in remembrance of a dark past.
Specifically, Davis was on campus to celebrate the Women’s Studies Department turning 30. Her lecture, entitled Our Feminisms: From #occupy to #sayhername addressed the changes in women’s studies through time.
The event was brought together by a range of disciplines, including the Departments of Anthropology, English, Film, Greek and Roman Studies, Hispanic Studies, History, Philosophy, Political Science and Sociology; the Programs in Africana Studies, American Studies, International Studies, and Urban Studies and the ALANA, LGBTQ and Women’s Centers.
The amount of collaboration it took to bring Davis to Vassar is appropriate not just because of her celebrity, but also because of the range of disciplines she herself covered. Her research interests included feminism, African-American studies, critical theory, Marxism, popular music, social consciousness and the philosophy and history of punishment and prisons.
Women’s Studies major and department academic intern Erin Boss ’16 wrote in an emailed statement about what it means to have Davis return to campus. “It’s a great honor to have Angela Davis speak here. She brings decades of work and experience and personal history, and there is so much that everyone at Vassar can learn as we listen to her,” wrote Boss. “However, I don’t want us to forget about the other Black women who have put themselves on the line in the struggle for not only their liberation, but their most basic humanization.”
While Davis spent much of her time at Vassar in the classroom teaching, she is most well-known around the world for her activism for the Communist Party as well as founding the Critical Resistance, which was part of her movement to dismantle the prison-industrial complex.
Equally importantly, Davis was just the second black woman, and third woman, to be placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list due to the alleged purchase of weapons used for murder. Even before that, Davis was dismissed from her job at the University of California, Los Angeles, a request made by Ronald Reagan due to her involvement in the Communist Party.
Davis would go on to write nine books, including her most recent book of essays called The Meaning of Freedom. In 1995, she became a professor at Vassar.
Most recently, Davis was Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, and has become heavily involved in activism surrounding incarceration and criminalization.
Rachel Simmons of the Vassar Black Students Union (BSU) pointed to this legacy in an emailed statement: “Angela Davis brings with her a legacy of activism and intellectualism. Angela Davis at Vassar reminds students, especially Black students, of a different and later generation that the social movement towards Black liberation still exists in various forms of the Black radical tradition.”
Women’s Studies Department Director Barbara Olsen said, “The Women’s Studies program asked Professor Davis to return to campus to help kick off our 30th anniversary as a recognized program here at Vassar.”
She went on to say, “We thought Professor Davis would be an excellent choice as this year also marks the 20th anniversary of her own time teaching at here at Vassar.”
Boss agreed, but wanted to be careful about how Vassar received Davis on Wednesday. “On the one hand, I am enormously pleased that Davis will be speaking as Women’s Studies guest for the 30th anniversary of the program,” wrote Boss. “On the other hand, I want to be careful as a white Women’s Studies major with how much I tokenize Angela Davis as a visible figure in the struggle for Black women’s liberation.”
While teaching at Vassar, Davis offered two classes. In the Philosophy Department she offered Continental Philosophy, and in the Women’s Studies Department she offered Women on Color: Feminist Theories and Practices.
Olsen continued, “Exploring the intersections of gender, race, and class has been the hallmark of Professor Davis’ distinguished forty-year academic career, and we regularly read her work as an integral part of the Intro class in Women’s Studies.”
The lecture took place Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 5:30 p.m. in the Chapel and was open to the public. Professor Olsen, speaking before the lecture, commented, “In her lecture, I would expect Professor Davis will speak to the ways in which feminisms are informed by both academic and activist traditions, particularly as they relate to race and class, and much of her recent work has focused on Occupy, SayHerName, and the anti-incarceration movements.”
From this lecture, students will likely be able to relate to her words and works in their academic and personal lives, as well as connect those ideas to the rest of the world. Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Africana Studies, Zachariah Mampilly said, “Angela Davis’s work touches on an extraordinary array of subjects that are central to the Africana Studies curriculum. From her groundbreaking work on prisons to her sophisticated theoretical work on the relationship between culture and politics, her contributions to our field rank her among the most seminal figures in the history of Africana Studies.”
Simmons also pointed out Davis’s influence on students’ activism and work toward intersectionality: “Angela Davis emphasizes the importance of intersectionality of struggles. Her life devoted to social activism for the liberation of Black bodies is an example of resistance and resilience for students in their activism. Her fight for humanity for queer, trans, and people of color influences marginalized students to challenge oppressive norms that society has created and used as weapons to dehumanize POC’s and the LGBTQ community.”
Olsen added, “The Vassar campus does not exist in a vacuum. We here experience much of the same things as the rest of the USA. Our community encounters racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, class prejudice, issues connected to incarceration and anti-foreign biases.”
Olsen went further, “Davis’s work vigorously and thoughtfully addresses all of these, while centering racial and gender injustice as the focus of her work.”
In anticipation of Wednesday’s lecture, Olsen said, “Few topics are as immediately important to our present as Say Her Name and the anti-incarceration movements. Vassar students attend the Prisons course, study the impact of race and gender, challenge economic injustice, but Davis’s work is central to understanding the intertwined and reinforcing power structures governing these, in particular focusing on their impact on Black women and other women of color.”
Even though the lecture was heavily attended by Vassar students, faculty and surrounding community members, Boss wants to caution the community in their focus on just Davis.
“There are many, many Black women who contribute to this work and this legacy,” wrote Boss. “It’s my hope that we as white students and faculty in the program can think about the ways we should prioritize Black women not just during Angela Davis’s lecture in the chapel, but every day—and it goes beyond providing a ‘good white person’ quote for the campus newspaper. I have work to do. Collectively we have work to do to support #blacklivesmatter and #sayhername, and that work goes deeply beyond offering Angela Davis one night of honor at Vassar College.”