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Angela Davis: Redefining American Attitudes


Angela Davis autographs a copy of her book for Marquis Palmer '18 in the Hub.
Angela Davis autographs a copy of her book for Marquis Palmer '18 in the Hub.

Dr. Angela Davis, academic and civil rights advocate, spoke in the Chapel on Feb. 26 as part of the Voices of Color Lecture Series. Her discussion focused on how student activists can follow in the footsteps of older generations to develop and execute their own revolutionary ideology and to promote crucial socio-political change. 

A main topic of discussion was the extent of systematic contemporary racism within the context of our “democracy.”  Davis asserted that many white people are “afraid to say ‘white people,’ because that would mean ‘white’ is no longer the norm… no longer the universal.” Further, she said, some white people still argue in support of “color-blindness” racial tolerance, which effectively counteracts racial equality progress since it asks us to believe that “hierarchies and systems of oppression just don’t exist.”

In fact, we often forget that these hierarchies have been supported since before the American Revolution, and thus, Davis asserted, we neglect to acknowledge that the idea of “democracy” this country was founded on, was in essence an “oxymoron.” She challenged the audience to contemplate what democracy should mean, and how sub-systems, that support the greater system of oppression and elitism, would look different if we were to redefine democracy.

One such sub-system she feels should be reconfigured is the prison system. Davis has a unique perspective here, as she, and other activists were imprisoned because she said their socio-political views didn’t align with mainstream contemporary views. But the alleged injustices of the prison system extend beyond, what she termed, "political prisoners." Davis argued that it is “unconscionable” that about “seven million people are directly controlled by the justice system, which is about one in 35 adults.” Because of the tight grip the prison system assumes on our society, Davis said that “it would be better to call ourselves a prison country than a democratic nation.”

Davis contended that women and trans people account for the “fastest growing sector of the prison population,” and thus to only focus on the criminalization of men is to forget the most criminalized communities. She suggested we reform our ideas of feminism and instead accept the relationship between race, gender and socio-political status.  Davis criticized Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton for espousing racist and capitalist feminist ideologies, and instead encouraged the audience to accept that “race is always gender and gender is always race.” 

One of the reasons Davis said she lectures at college campuses, is that she sees the value in nurturing young revolutionaries. She sees this time in particular as one that may be looked back upon as “a historical juncture [marked by the permanent] aboli[tion] of slavery and the consequences of colonization.” At the very least, she offered, we are “witnessing a radical transformation of consciousness,” which is allowing us to change the way we think and talk about race, gender, democracy, capitalism and inequality, to name a few issues.

Moving forward, Davis encouraged the audience to reach for the world we wish to live in. That is, a world “that has no need to rely on policing and imprisonment,” a world with “free education, free health care, affordable housing.” In order to reach these goals, she sees an “end to policing and incarceration as we know it” and acceptance of “socialist principles,” which are fundamentally based on ideas of equality and tolerance. In attaining these goals, we’ll necessarily find ourselves a world “that values black lives, and thus all lives,” Davis said.

The C. Christine Johnson Voices of Color Lecture Series was created to recognize Hamilton’s commitment to cultural diversity and sponsors a lecture by an influential leader of color each year. Davis’s lecture was supported by the Days-Massolo Center, Student Assembly, the Dean of Faculty, the Associate Dean for Multicultural Affairs, the  Women’s Studies Department and the Elihu Root Chair in Women’s Studies.

** Editor's note: Angela Davis was part of the Hamilton College Junior Year in France in 1963–64.

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