Renowned Activist and Writer Angela Davis Speaks at Skirball

Davis talked about racism, sexism and their root in today's capitalist social order

Tianne Johnson
Angela Davis, activist, scholar and writer, in conversation with NYU Professor Ed Guerrero at the Skirball Center on Monday. She talked about the role of arts and aesthetics in today's political struggle. (Photo by Tony Wu)

Author and activist Angela Davis took the stage at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 5 to an audience of 860. Known for her activism as a member of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, she is currently a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she teaches history and feminist studies.

Monday’s Skirball Talk centered around politics and aesthetics in the Black Lives Matter movement and was organized by the NYU Institute of African American Affairs and Center for Black Visual Culture. The event was hosted by Professor of Film and African-American Studies Ed Guerrero.

In advance of the talk, GLS junior and member of the Black Student Union Michelle Jones expressed excitement.

“I think it’ll give me, personally, a good boost because sometimes it’s just really hard with everything going on to continue with the work that we all try to do,” Jones said. “So I’m looking for a little bit of inspiration, and who else could give that besides Angela Davis?”

For Davis, the approach to building a better world starts with an appreciation for the arts and a prioritization of grassroots resistance. Her speech, given the night before Election Day, made Davis’ talk more pertinent.

Angela Davis, activist, scholar and writer, delivers a speech during a Skirball Talk at the Skirball Center on Monday. (Photo by Tony Wu)

“Our perspectives cannot be generated from electoral outcomes […] As important as it might be to repudiate the Trump presidency, it is I think even more important to reflect on longer-term possibilities and goals,” Davis said.

Davis made clear that Americans must utilize their right to vote and that small, organized movements are much more important than individual elections. She also offered her thoughts on global issues

“This is a very difficult moment to be living in the United States,” Davis said. “The election of Trump has helped to spark a coterie of conservative political leaders — the most recent of which is [Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil. If we think that we’re having a hard time here, look at the situation in Brazil.”

After the panel, Guerrero welcomed questions from audience members as they lined up in rows to the left and right of the stage. One student asked about Nike’s commercialized partnership with Colin Kaepernick and how they feel that capitalism insistently disrupts revolution, to which Davis responded hopefully.

“I think it was great that Nike decided to take Kaepernick on again, but I don’t know about commodity activism,” Davis said. “But I think that’s an indication that Nike recognizes the power of movement. So I think that’s an indication that those of us who are doing the work have to always try to be one step ahead.”

Nursing Graduate Student Erica Gilgore was moved by the timelessness of Davis’ words, as well as her attitude toward political mobilization.

“I’m excited to be more informed about incarceration and other issues that affect this country and plague our city and our world. NYU is a major institution, and I think it’s great that she’s here; we’re lucky.”

Following the talk’s conclusion, Davis’ lasting messages of black revolution and greater social change lingered.

“People of color cannot simply aspire to inhabit spaces reserved for white people, as women cannot simply aspire to take the places of men but rather we must strive toward radical transformation,” Davis said. “If we simply want to become what white, straight, cis men in power have been in the past, we are replicating the structures that will continue to perpetuate the violence we are challenging.”

Email Tianne Johnson at [email protected].

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