Saturday, March 2, 2013

Femmes on Fire for Angela Davis

Recently, a cold February night in Montreal was warmed up for a standing room crowd at l'Astral, where living legend Angela Davis made an appearance to speak at the city's inaugural FRO Festival. Wall of Femmes members and other festival goers were set on fire by the power of Ms. Davis' words and presence. 

For those unfamiliar with the work of Angela Davis, she is a lifelong activist involved in social justice struggles related to race, class, and gender. She joined the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party in the late 1960's, through which she fought hard for civil rights and equality. In particular, she was and continues to be a lucid and passionate critic of the prison industrial complex.

She was considered so dangerous to the established order that she was placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List over trumped-up charges and brought to trial after spending two months in hiding. She was acquitted of all charges after a massive international campaign to "Free Angela Davis." Currently, she is Professor Emerita in the Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

Among many other topics, the message she shared discussed her ambivalence over the presidency of Barack Obama; on one hand embracing the significance of the US having elected a black president (and pointing out that he was re-elected despite the majority of white men having voted for Romney - evidence of a paradigm shift in the balance of power?), and on the other hand, emphasizing that a handful of black individuals reaching previously inconceivable positions of power does not negate a deeply embedded system of structural racism that continues to deny opportunities to millions of people. 

She identified that in some ways, these achievements can make the struggle for equality even more difficult, because many people fail to acknowledge any continued problem in light of the occasional high profile successes of particular individuals. Of course, the insistence by some that we are living in a "Post-Feminist Society" creates as much frustration for feminists as the belief in a "Post-Racial Society" does for anti-racism activists. 

Touching on the parallels between the civil rights movement and the struggles for equality for women and other marginalized groups, Ms. Davis emphasized that a guiding principle for her is Martin Luther King Jr's idea of the indivisibility of justice, that "An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In this spirit, she expressed solidarity with a wide variety of current struggles in North America and around the world, and in particular with those of the world's aboriginal peoples, and of LGBTQ communities. 

This is only a tiny sample of the evening's conversation. Having taken notes furiously in an effort to not forget anything, this Femme took some time afterwards to reflect on the lessons we can learn from Angela Davis' ideas and experiences. To me, one of the most valuable points came when she discussed how she felt about being considered an icon. She explained that people tend to project their collective power onto individuals, but that any important achievements are in fact made by groups of people working together, and that it's important to remember that collective power is always greater than the power of any individual. She stressed that we cannot leave it to individuals to create change for us, that we must make the change ourselves by working together in communities. 

Ms. Davis also reminded us that we must think beyond our own selves and work for future generations as well as our own. She paid tribute to previous generations of activists, many of whom did not live to see the fruits of their labour, but who's work benefits us all and forms the foundation of continuing progress. 

Angela Davis is an inspiration to us at the Wall of Femmes because of her strength and courage, for her clear and powerful voice, and for her spirit of community and collaboration. Let us take her lessons to heart and work together to build for each other and ourselves the world we want to live in.

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