Students, faculty, staff, community members and visitors filled Chapin Hall last Saturday evening to hear renowned activist and intellectual Angela Davis give the keynote address in the Black Student Union’s inaugural conference, “Night of Black Solidarity: Leadership in the Modern Age.” Davis, whose lecture was sponsored by the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Davis Center, spoke about modes of effective leadership in the 21st century. Her talk focused on the demands of truly ethical, emotional and intellectual activist leadership in an age that has both inherited and rejected oppressions of the past.
BSU Co-Chairs Tre’dez Colbert ’14 and Maya Hawkins-Nelson ’14 opened the event by thanking the various College participants who made the lecture possible, including the Davis Center, the BSU board, the leadership studies program, the women’s gender and sexuality department and College Council, among other campus groups. Colbert and Hawkins-Nelson thanked Davis for her past and ongoing contributions to the struggle against injustice, with Colbert praising her as a “pivotal activist, thinker and role model for so many of us in this room today.”
Next, justin adkins, assistant director of gender, sexuality and activism at the Davis Center, introduced Davis, describing how her work pushes against “the system of oppression” that is a “means to maintain a social order,” citing her willingness to “fight all modes of oppression” no matter the odds. For adkins, Davis embodies the type of intersectional “scholar-activism” to which we should all aspire.
Davis opened her talk by reflecting on the last time she spoke at the College, in late April 2001. At that time, Davis recalled, she talked about trash and our tendency to “throw away people who are most oppressed,” sentencing them “to a status of civil death.” For Davis, that metaphor still accurately describes the social climate of today, requiring that we innovate “possible ways of bringing about much-needed, and radical social change.” Davis focused on one main approach for enacting such change – adopting “a critical stance” towards the tenets of conventional hierarchical leadership. “Privatized, individualized approach to leadership is an impediment to understanding the extraordinary power of ordinary human beings when they come together,” she said.
Davis then clarified the shapes and practices of a “collectively exercised leadership,” drawing on familiar historical narratives of struggles against oppression. Though conventional models of leadership often prioritize one person’s contributions in a type of hero-worship, Davis recapitulated the American civil rights movement as collaboration between “comrades in struggle.”
“The very meaning of the history of people of African descent in this part of the world is the history of the struggle for freedom,” she said. Looking to leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as the individuals most responsible for causing change denies “the importance of conserving the legacies of those whose names we may never know.” Acknowledging the fight against oppression as a collective process is a vital characteristic of contemporary leadership, according to Davis.
Davis further contextualized forms of collective leadership in the “juggernaut of privatization” and “globalization of capital” that characterizes our world today. Davis discussed the extent to which racism continues to negatively permeate our society. “The racisms in this country are so complicated,” she said, and they continue to “build on the others and complicate the others.” Although Davis acknowledges the severity of the negative effects of race constructs, she urged the audience to consider “race as a kind of language.”
After foregrounding race as both a construct and a reality that indelibly saturates “our ways of knowing, our ways of thinking,” Davis tied together the theoretical underpinnings of a collectivist framework with the realities of current struggles such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prison abolition movement. Because “leadership in the 21st century requires a feminist approach,” for Davis, we must grapple with “the deep relationality that links the personal and the political, that links the institutional and the intimate, that links the public and the private.”
Davis argued that modern leader-activists must cultivate “a complicated consciousness” with which they can “adopt a critical stance in the way they perceive their relationship to reality” and imagine “what it might mean to live in a world that is not so exclusively governed by the structures of representation.”
“We have to learn how to reinvent our personal lives, to recraft our selves,” Davis said.