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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Angela Davis remains an important voice in America’s struggle with racism

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 18, 2017

She grew up amid the church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama, of the 1960s – and went on to study at the Sorbonne.

She was fired by the University of California system – then became a distinguished professor emerita at UC-Santa Cruz. She was an outspoken communist and radical opponent of racism who spent months on the FBI’s Most Wanted List (for charges of which she was ultimately acquitted).

She was idolized and demonized. Treated as a litmus test and symbol for the country’s cultural divisions. The Rolling Stones and John Lennon wrote songs about her. Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon called her a terrorist.

For many Americans, Angela Davis remains frozen in a kind of countercultural amber – a remnant of the contentious 1960s and 1970s, a blast from the past.

But her life and career as an academic, author and activist defies the nostalgic view. She has spent decades as an author and scholar expressing ideas that remain at the relevant, contentious center of the debate over race, justice and politics in America.

So it’s no surprise that Davis’ upcoming visit to Gonzaga University has been keenly anticipated and debated. Gonzaga began distributing tickets Monday morning for the Oct. 25 event, and they were snapped up immediately.

“We did our public distribution this morning and tickets were gone in three minutes,” Brian Cooney, a GU professor of English and director of the Center for Public Humanities, wrote in an email. “The excitement for this is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”

Cooney said that it’s important for people consider Davis beyond the context of her controversial fame. As the university sought speakers who could bring different perspectives to questions of hate speech, free speech, race and racism, Davis was an obvious choice given her long and distinguished record of scholarship, Cooney said.

The idea of hosting her as a speaker is not to endorse what she says as much as it is to spark debate and conversation, he said.

“My whole desire with all this is to try and create the kind of dialogue it feels like we’re not really having on college campuses,” he said.

Davis has long articulated ideas that have become ever more central in academic and political discussions about race. Crucially, she was an early and potent voice identifying racism as more than “just psychological attitudes,” but as a historical force built deeply and even unconsciously into systems and institutions. She has been a vocal critic of the “prison-industrial complex,” and calls herself a prison “abolitionist.”

She’s also been at the forefront of “intersectionality” – the idea that forms of racism, sexism and oppression are systemically connected and cannot be separated into neat categories.

“When you consider the depth of her work and her activism, and when you read her writings going back to the early 1970s, what we can see is that she has had something to say about our current moment long before we got here,” Cooney said in a news release announcing her appearance.

The event is being billed as a “talk on race in America” and will be followed by a moderated question-and-answer session. Cooney said it’s not uncommon for Davis to bring up local events as they connect to the themes of her speeches.

Davis has long been something of a hero on the left. In what must be one of the most bizarrely sexist press clippings of her life, People magazine wrote of her marriage in 1980: “Angela Davis, Sweetheart of the Far Left, Finds Her Mr. Right.”

She’s also been a pariah on the political right. When Reagan was governor of California he pressed the board of regents to fire her for her outspoken communism; they did, but she won the job back in court. Her communism, previous membership in the Black Panthers and other radical affiliations were a constant source of criticism from conservatives, and remain so.

She was charged with murder and kidnapping, because she had purchased weapons that were used in a takeover of a California courtroom in 1970. A judge and three others died in the incident; after she was charged, she went into hiding and was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list.

She was later captured and tried, and found not guilty – and she became a cause célèbre and culture-wars dividing line. The image of her among conservatives as a violent radical persists. Gonzaga’s College Republicans distributed flyers on campus earlier this month with photos of Davis’ wanted poster, and many of the same objections to Davis that have been boilerplate for decades, from her communism to her opposition to Israel.

Cooney said that the flyers didn’t reflect the nature of the overall discussion about Davis on campus. While she’s definitely a figure who promotes debate and disagreement, he said his hope was that it would result in productive face-to-face conversations.

In particular, he said, there is great excitement about Davis’ appearance among students of color on campus, who see it as an opportunity to broaden the discussion of their experiences that are often overlooked.

“And that’s extremely important,” he said.

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