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Growing up in the South was 'resistance' for Davis

by Sari Staver

Angela Davis spoke earlier this month in San Francisco. Photo: Alex Fiore
Angela Davis spoke earlier this month in San Francisco. Photo: Alex Fiore  

Growing up in segregated schools in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s, social justice activist Angela Davis said she learned the importance of "daily resistance."

Davis, 74, currently professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, in its History of Consciousness Department, talked about how her childhood experiences helped shape her radical political philosophy at a sold-out event at the Herbst Theater April 13, produced by the California Institute of Integral Studies. Davis spoke for over an hour with Danielle Drake, an assistant professor at CIIS.

When Davis, who came out as lesbian in a 1997 Out magazine article, grew up in Birmingham, it was the most segregated city "and one of the most violent" in the nation, she said. Oftentimes, when people learn she grew up there, they'd comment about how hard it must have been to live there.

In fact, she said, "I learned a lot and I'm actually glad I grew up in Birmingham in segregated schools.

"I got to learn so much about the history of black people," she said. "I can remember that we sang the negro national anthem. There was something really powerful growing up there. I learned the importance of daily resistance."

Davis and her classmates observed first hand the racial inequality in the South, she said. The white representatives from the local board of education "called the black teachers by their first names," she recalled. And the black teachers who pushed back and said "I'm Mrs. So and So" were fired, said Davis.

Davis said a childhood game she played illustrates the way she and her friends learned to resist.

Davis' family lived on a street that was on the "dividing line" between the black neighborhood and the white section, she recalled. Blacks were strictly forbidden from entering the white section unless it was for an "economic reason" like going to work as a domestic servant. "As kids, we developed a game daring each other to run across the street," into the white section, she said.

"We'd run up and ring the doorbell and run away before they answered," she said. "Resistance doesn't have to be spectacular. People assume they have to be like Dr. Martin Luther King" to resist.

Instead, said Davis, what is important is the "development of consciousness that encourages us in the smallest ways to resist and speak back to power," she said.

When asked how her experiences as a teenager and young adult shaped her philosophy, Davis, who came out in 1997, said she felt "constrained" living in the South so after her second year of high school, she transferred to a Quaker school in Greenwich Village, which had a special program to bring black students from the South to live with white families while attending school in New York.

"I assumed moving south to north would bring a greater measure of freedom" to me, but that wasn't the case, she said. Day-to-day life was filled with prejudice, she said.

After high school, Davis moved to France to study, becoming part of a number of radical political groups protesting the treatment of Algerians and North Africans.

"I found a sense of togetherness and camaraderie with people from all over the world. Freedom appeared to be closer on the horizon," she said.

When Davis returned to the U.S., she got involved with the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party USA, and accepted a position teaching in the philosophy department at UCLA. At the urging of then-governor Ronald Reagan, the university fired Davis because of her membership in the Communist Party, although she was later reinstated and fired again for using inflammatory language.

In 1970, Davis was catapulted into the national spotlight when she was arrested and jailed for the murders of four people in a shootout in a Marin County courthouse. Davis had purchased the guns for the people who shot the victims and was listed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. After 16 months in detention, she was released on bail and later acquitted, the jury finding that ownership of the guns was insufficient to establish her responsibility in the crime.

The experience taught Davis the importance of organized movements because her release came about only after thousands of people in the U.S. and abroad worked to free her from prison and paid her legal expenses.

"They not only saved my life but demonstrated to me that it was possible to achieve what many had thought was impossible," she said. "People all over the world demonstrated that we could win if we stood up against power in a unified way."

"Everything I've done has happened as a result of communities and collectives. These are the people who transform history," she noted.

Davis urged the audience to look critically at popular culture, try to enjoy it but at the same time critique it.

"You have to learn how to inhabit contradictions," she said.

For example, the blockbuster film "Black Panther" depicted many strong black women, but "the king was still a man," she said. "We have to ask ourselves if we want to be assimilated into a structure that fundamentally remains the same."

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