Angela Davis and a Revived Call to Action

On October 7th and 8th, a handful of Hendrix students and professors attended the 2019 Justice Con organized by Philander Smith College’s Social Justice Institute. This two day event included three various breakout session categories as well as lectures given by Drs. Ibram X. Kendi and Angela Davis. After 2017, Philander Smith College aimed to return to its ideas of being “deeply rooted in social justice and equality” which this event did in a multitude of ways. 

The breakout sessions being offered aimed at addressing inequality and creating social change; these categories included “understanding the truth of injustice,” “recognizing the trauma injustice causes,” and “moving toward healing and creating equity.” The “Truth” track focused on addressing the history and roots of inequality in America by discussing the nuanced ways we see oppression appear in our governing bodies foundation, as well as, the often ignored ways that modern media can be utilized to address the fruit of that inequality today. Sessions in the “Trauma” category discussed the nuanced ways that oppression embeds itself into underlying experiences of trauma. Additionally, these sessions focused on the generational aspects of that trauma and how the effects of oppression are passed from one generation to the next. Finally, the “Healing” sessions centered around how do we as individuals working to dismantle an oppressive system care for ourselves and work on “building emotional fortitude for social justice.”

While these session all addressed inequality and the struggle to bring about effective and sustainable social change, they all addressed the nuanced complexities that justice work entails. From focusing on the roots of inequality in America, we are provided an understanding of how pervasive this cancer is too the foundations of our governing body. By focusing on the effects of the lived experience in an oppressive society we can see the more nuanced and implicit ramifications and how to best address them in the present moment. Additionally, doing this justice work and being change agents for a more equal society, it is crucial to take care of one’s self and address the individual mental, emotional, and even physical effect of this work so that we can continue to be those agents of change. While it is important to understand the history and modern appearance of inequality in America, it is equally important to address “how hard it is to do that work and how important self care is if you’re trying to do work in service of others”, as Psychology Professor Dr. Leslie Zorwick commented.

On Monday evening, the first keynote speaker Dr. Ibram X. Kendi gave a lecture on his understanding of racial issues in America and the need for anti-racism work. Dr. Kendi is the founder of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington D.C. Additionally, he is a renowned antiracism historian and author who published The Root 100 earlier this year. Throughout his lecture, he discussed how racism can be active or passive while anti-racist effort will always be active because to be a passive anti-racist is to be complacent in an oppressive system. 

Tuesday brought about one of the most fruitful experiences for many who attended. Angela Davis gave her keynote speech which wove together the history of inequality and its present day impact with more modern conceptualizations of inequality and the need for intersectionality in current justice movements. A Civil Rights Activist revered by many, Angela Davis paved the way for change during the 60s as well as today. She is the author of ten books on a range of societal issues and is the leader of several prison reform efforts. Davis has played one of the most central roles in expanding equality to date with her teaching and writing on many issues, specifically incarceration and the disproportionate criminalization of marginalized communities in America.

Throughout her lecture, Davis made apparent the importance of intersectionality in all areas of justice work. She emphasizes that “justice is nothing if it does not appeal to all oppression, discrimination, and social pain in our world.” While we often find ourselves touting notions of intersectionality, we tend to see it more as a box to check in our social justice movements rather than an expansion of the understanding of the nuanced interconnectedness of struggles and oppression in our country. In understanding the “larger context is the only way in which we give meaning to our specific activism” by providing us the platform to address the deeply embedded and pervasive racist ideology and formation of America. 

In addition to discussing the role that intersectionality does (and needs) to play in justice work, Davis emphasized the importance of the generational transfer of “impulse to struggle for freedom.” It has been over 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however we still see prejudice, discrimination, and inequality rampant in our society. However, each of those years we have seen groups and individuals still fighting for equal and equitable experiences and opportunities with no sign of slowing in the future. This is one of the most important take aways from her lecture because we are becoming more aware of the toll social justice work takes on an individual, however, it is awe-inspiring and empowering to see people still working for that same goal with just as much urgency and fervor as before.

While we see justice discourse changing year after year as we unfold this nations dark history of oppression and injustice, one thing we can anticipate in the future in an increased connectedness of struggles as we begin to learn form others experiences in a way that makes intersectionality core to justice work. Additionally, the importance of caring for one’s self so that we will be better equipped to care for others and do the necessary work address disparities in opportunity and outcomes is creeping towards mainstream justice based dialogue. It is important to note that change can happen overnight, but more often than not it takes time (a lot of time) and if we do not invite a multitude of voices and perspectives to the table we will leave out valuable insight to effecting that change. And if we do not carve out the time and space to care for ourselves we will experience burn out, frustrations, and discouragement to such a degree we will believe that change will never come because we have not seen the fruit of our labor yet. But as Angela Davis said, “sometimes it takes a few years, sometimes it takes a few decades, but we can’t stop doing the work…we do the work because it gets passed down from one generation to the next” so if we hope to leave the world a better place than we found it, it is instrumental that we care for ourselves and others so that we can address the multifaceted ways that injustice pervades American society.

Hendrix College students and professors prior to meeting Angela Davis
Hendrix College students and professors after meeting Angela Davis

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