Over the past few days, hundreds of people joined Black Studies at the University of Texas for our first international conference, Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism. Along with papers and engaging conversations, those in attendance had the opportunity to hear Lezley McSpadden discuss her son Michael Brown, to see Saul Williams do with language what we might only inadequately describe as poetry, and to sit in awe as Angela Davis effortlessly, compellingly, and beautifully charted a genealogy of the Black Radical Tradition that now, in the wake of Black Lives Matter, is able to pursue something that previous generations could not have envisioned.
I am far too exhausted to write in any kind of detail about the conference. I am only writing now because The Root ran a story on Angela Davis’ talk that painfully misrepresents her remarks about the upcoming Presidential election, and which far too many people have taken as truth.
I offer here neither a full account of Davis’ talk, nor a rebuttal of anyone who, in the wake of that report, has offered some valuable perspectives about voting (or not) in the upcoming election. This is merely to offer more context for thinking about her brilliant talk.
First, The Root only reported on about two minutes of a nearly 45-minute talk; two minutes in which Angela Davis never endorsed Hillary Clinton, nor even said her name—not an insignificant point. That the magazine would so narrowly focus its attention is unfortunate. That so many would believe that Davis offered so simplistic an argument is sad.
Davis spent nearly 43 minutes on the Black Radical Tradition, offering what we might call, in contemporary parlance, a decolonial view of what our political present (BLM and M4BL) makes available for that tradition. While the Black Panther Party (BPP) could take the brilliant approach of policing the Oakland police with guns and law books, Davis pointed out that in doing so, the BPP accepted policing as a legitimate practice for a liberation struggle. Now, we are at a point where we can reject policing altogether, and call for the abolition of police and prisons.
While The Root article fails to mention any of this, it does recount Davis’ remark that “we should have learned by now [that] the arena of electoral politics militates against the expression of [a] radical militant perspective.” Yet you would not know from this report that she outlined her vision of a new, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-sexist political party that would place the struggles and lives of black, Latinx, and Asian peoples alongside the struggles and lives of indigenous peoples fighting for land rights, the Palestinian struggle against settler colonialism, and the movement to abolish police and prisons. This was the context in which she announced that she would vote against Trump in the upcoming election, and while having serious problems with the other candidate, declared, “I am not so narcissistic to say I cannot bring myself to vote for her.”
In a talk centered on the Black Radical Tradition–how it might continue to formulate and re-formulate radical political valences and projects that reject the present social order–Davis made an observation that I fear we too easily dismiss in the current period.
When an audience member asked Davis what can we do to bring about real change now, she warned against believing there is some magical solution, some secret formula that might bring us to some utopia. She pointed out that her work around prisons began in the 1960s, over forty years ago, and we are only now beginning to see results. She pointed out that Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign would only bear fruit after she was no longer alive to see it.
Whatever reaction one might have to that single sentence, it is troubling that more have not inquired about how this fit into her much longer talk. Contractually, we could not record her talk. But why assume that a news report of about 1,000 words might accurately capture the full spectrum of Angela Davis’ ideas and politics? Why would anyone ever think she could be so simplistic?
I certainly do not know, but what I can say is that she offered key insights on the Black Radical Tradition and contemporary black politics. One thing I took from her talk is that we should not see the inability of electoral politics to foster radical change to therefore mean that the franchise, even if limited and limiting, is not a legitimate political tool in the struggle to build a better world. 140 characters, or even a news report, are valuable political and intellectual tools. They cannot, however, encapsulate the intellectual and political range of so important a thinker.
Minkah Makalani, who co-chaired UT’s Black Matters conference with his colleague Cherise Smith, is associate professor in the department of African & African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Makalani works on intellectual history, black political thought, racial identity, and diaspora in the Caribbean, U.S., and Europe. He is the author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (UNC Press, 2011), and is co-editor (with Davarian Baldwin) of Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minnesota, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @permission.