Political activist Angela Davis at Hamilton College.
At the end of an hour-long conversation about politics, activism, and change, Angela Davis faced one last question: What brings you joy?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, her answer returned to the work for which she is known, the work she had been describing throughout the event. “I never would have lasted this long in these movements if I did not enjoy the process of engaging in resistance,” she said. “Don’t get involved because you think it’s a duty … don’t get involved if you’re not doing something that doesn’t also bring you joy.”

The joy that Davis, a professor, author, and activist, has experienced in a lifetime of struggle and resistance against oppression was self-evident in the words she shared with a jam-packed Wellin Hall on Feb. 23. Davis’ talk was part of the College’s Voices of Color Lecture Series, for which she was also a guest in 2016. In responding to a number of dense and complex questions, Davis drew on personal experience and scholarly theory alike in measured, eloquent answers encompassing issues such as prison reform, racism, intersectionality, social media, and mass surveillance. 

A recurring theme of Davis’ remarks was the importance of perceptual vigilance with regard to structures of power. “Always ask the other question,” she said, citing the words of lawyer and activist Mari Matsuda. “So if it’s about race, ask the question about transphobia; if it’s about heteropatriarchy, ask the question about class.”

Political activist Angela Davis chats with students and signs autographs after speaking in Wellin Hall.
Political activist Angela Davis chats with students and signs autographs after speaking in Wellin Hall. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

Maintaining this mindset, which derives from feminist theory, “can help develop a way of thinking, a way of inhabiting the world, that asks us to be constantly critical, constantly conscious,” Davis explained. 

Change and collective responsibility were two central themes of Thursday’s event, and Davis touched on both of these — in several contexts. Responding to a question about how to push for progress at the institutional level, for instance, she stressed that “change always comes from collectives of people, communities of people, who come together … no matter how often you’re told that it emanates from powerful individuals, that is just not true.”

Davis’ subsequent verdict on how to effect genuine change was simple and direct: “Build movements,” she said. “That’s my answer to almost everything.”

On the subject of allyship, Davis reflected on the value of learning that takes place outside of the classroom. Understanding people and the struggles they face is best accomplished, she emphasized, through direct engagement. “Don’t assume that [colleges] are the only venues for the production of knowledge — no matter how many degrees you have, you can learn from people whose knowledge processes have been shaped differently,” she said. 

Davis closed her talk with an eye trained on the past, present, and future well-being of our world. “We all want to be happy,” she said, “that’s what it’s all about: figuring out how to produce joy and how to do it in the process of living, of inhabiting this world ethically; recognizing our responsibility not only to those who came before us, but to those who will come after.”

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