"A lot of people have called me a radical," said Angela Davis to a nearly full house in Pickard Theater on Wednesday night. "And my response is, I don't know if I'm a radical. I try to be radical, I try very hard."
From her involvement in the Black Panther Party, to her vice presidential bids on the Communist Party ticket, to her current work to abolish prisons (not to mention over haul the existing education, health care and housing systems), Davis has been an icon of radical activism.
In 1970, Davis was charged with murder and kidnapping. She fled the state, made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and became an international icon. Posters bearing the slogan "Angela, sister, you are welcome in this house" appeared in the homes of Black Liberation supporters around the world and when she was arrested, millions of people rallied for her freedom. After 18 months in jail, Davis was cleared of all charges.
While many understand Davis in terms of her revolutionary politics, Davis sees the essence of her radicalism in the word's etymology: "radical" comes to us from the Latin word for "root."
Davis discussed her efforts to dig deep into the issues underlying social injustice—discovering and untangling the roots of gender, racial and economic inequality.
After an introduction from Director of the Africana Studies Program Olufemi Vaughan, Davis took the stage.
Her distaste for confines, whether those of the prison system or restrictive social labels, was evident in Davis's opening remarks, during which she admitted to completely departing from her notes.
Whatever points she had planned to cover, she broke free in favor of speaking off-the-cuff about her belief in taking a wide approach to addressing inequity.
"It's important to think about influences and connections that are not readily apparent," said Davis. One such connection is the focus of her upcoming book: the direct relationship between slavery and the prison system.
"A lot of aspects of slavery did not get abolished," said Davis. It is important for us to realize "how palpable aspects of that institution are still with us."
Davis used the term "intersectionality" to describe the confluence of different inequalities. Gender, for instance, does not exist in a void without race and focusing on one without the other is too narrow an approach.
Davis said she learned the importance of language in effecting change during her experience as a woman on the vanguard of the predominantly male Civil Rights movement.
"It was challenging. And what was especially challenging about it was that we didn't have the language that we have now," said Davis in an interview with the Orient following the reception. "We didn't have the conceptual tools to make the case in the most persuasive way. In a sense, we were kind of groping our way toward an understanding of the role of gender at a time when the category 'gender' wasn't even used."
Despite the difficulty Davis said she experienced in discussing gender then, or perhaps because of that struggle, Davis said she thinks of her time as an activist in the Civil Rights movement as a time of personal development.
"I think that we all imagine ourselves at a certain age and I think that for me that was my formative period, so it serves as a way to measure the work that I'm doing now," she said. "I never imagined myself as the figure upon whom attention would be bestowed. I always thought of myself as doing work in the background—teaching, organizing—and so when, for reasons that may not be entirely clear to anyone, I ended up being the focus of public attention, I always tried to use that to shed light on the larger issue."
Davis cited her current work on the cases of political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal as a continuous thread that links her past and present.
Following her opening remarks, Davis joined Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry and Professor of Gender Women's Studies and Director of the Gender and Women's Studies Program Jennifer Scanlon in conversation as students snapped pictures on cell phones.
The audience was encouraged to write questions on note cards, which were brought to the front by ushers and read aloud by Casselberry and Scanlon. The use of note cards prevented spontaneous dialogue, as audience members were unable to respond directly to Davis.
Davis was preaching to the choir: the crowd groaned in response to particularly appalling examples of inequality, laughed at her jokes about Obama ("one black man in the white house doesn't cancel out the millions of black men in the big house"), and applauded her calls to action.
Davis was personable and candid at the book signing in the Maine Lounge of Moulton Union that followed the talk. Despite the line of students, faculty, staff and community members pressing forward, books and posters in hand, Davis managed not to rush her interactions.
Oronde Cruger '11 had an unconventional request for Davis. Cruger asked Davis to record a birthday message for his mother on his cell phone that he could send to her when the clock struck midnight. Davis laughed and happily obliged.
In addition to Davis's most recent publications, some attendees brought copies of "Angela Davis: An Autobiography." The cover features a young Davis against a red background, staring off seriously and somewhat sadly.
Davis has changed since that photograph was taken. The iconic afro that characterized her silhouette in the posters and buttons calling for her freedom has grayed. Her face, which was often captured in the midst of a militant speech or protest, was warm and relaxed today.
The contrast between the Davis of the '70s and the Davis that stood before Bowdoin on Wednesday prompted reflection on youth's role in activism and what is unique to young people today.
When asked to respond to what some people see as a decrease in the political activism of young people, Davis said, "I don't think there's a decline. Obviously we're not in an era where huge numbers of young people are magnetically drawn to the movement, but...had it not been for youth activism, that election would not have happened.
"I really think we should not underestimate the potential power of young people," she continued. "I think that by virtue of their age young people are more creative and have ideas that are more experimental. One of the problems of age is that you learn what works and what doesn't work as when you're young you don't necessarily know that yet and that's an advantage in terms of using new strategies.
"I always point to the importance of the imagination," Davis said. "And the youthful imagination is so central to the development of radical social justice movements."