Angela Davis Speaks at Boston Public Library

Angela Davis entered Rabb Hall to a standing ovation on May 29.  She was visiting the Boston Public Library (BPL) to give a lecture on the “Frameworks for Radical Feminism in the 21st Century” as part of the BPL’s Lowell Lecture Series.  

Davis smiled at the audience and said,  “The feminism I want to talk to you about this evening is precisely a framework that allows us to understand interconnections, and rationalities and intersectionalities.  It is a feminism generated by many decades of anti-racist activism and theorizing.”

Angela Davis is a professor, political and social activist, and author of nine books.  She is a former Black Panther, a co-founder of the Committees of Correspondence, was an immense supporter of the Soledad Brothers (three African American inmates accused of killing a corrections officer in 1970), and John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote a song about her.  She has fought for human and civil rights, prison reform, and racial and gender equality.

“We cannot say in good conscience that women got the right to vote in 1920…even though I know that’s what we’re celebrating today. “ Davis said. The audience laughed and snapped in approval.  “Most black women did not secure the right to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. So, we can say white women had the vote in 1920, but women got the right to vote in 1965.”  After she said this, cheers rang out from the back of the Hall.

Davis went on to speak on black women’s roles in the beginning of blues music, with artists like Bessie Smith and jazz/blues singer Billie Holiday.  The origins of blues can be traced to the 19th century South, where former slaves introduced the art form to the world. During this time, slavery had been legally abolished, but equality between white people and black people was not imminent.  

Blues, as Davis said, was an integral way to express sexuality and freedom.  “And of course we remember that during slavery, sexuality, black sexuality, was largely subordinated to the reproduction of the slave population and thus to the will of the master.”  Blues was just one example of Davis’ point to her listeners about the fundamental and nuanced lives of black women being glossed over.

Davis went on to talk about Rosa Parks.  “How has Rosa parks been represented? I mean almost everyone in this country knows her name, but they only know one thing about her.  And she is imagined as sitting on that bus for her entire life.” Parks’ story of refusing to give up her bus seat in 1955 is taught in every elementary school in the country – yet many view her as an activist’s version of a one-hit-wonder.  Davis spoke of how Parks was an investigator for the NAACP in the case of Recy Taylor. Recy Taylor, an African American woman, was 24 years old when she was gang-raped by six white men in Alabama in 1944. None of them were persecuted and it was 60 years before the state of Alabama issued an apology to her for how they handled her case.

After Parks’ bus arrest, a group of black women from the civil rights activist group, Women’s Political Council, began passing around pamphlets and spreading the word of boycotting Alabama’s bus system.  These women laid the foundation for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December of 1955.

“We assumed that Rosa Parks… was just a tired woman who didn’t move to the back of the bus, and then, spontaneously, this movement emerged.  What I want to suggest is that, both those events required an enormous amount of organizing; were organized by women. Women were in the forefront of both instances.”  Davis refers to this erasing of women’s involvement in major historical events as a “tendency to forget.”

As Davis’ hour came to a close, she said that she only had a minute left – and there was really so much more to be said. “And so I will conclude by saying,” Davis said, “that justice is indivisible as Dr. Martin Luther King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  Thank you.”