Angela Davis returned to the Southbank Centre for International Women’s Day 2019, following her 2017 talk about gender equality in the “post-Trump era”. Around 8pm, she had a sold-out audience waiting for her, who erupted into an instant standing ovation as soon as Davis entered the room. She was at ease, and looked as wise as I had imagined, as she sat down next to Chair and Founder of the WOW Festival Jude Kelly, who seemed slightly starstruck herself.
Angela Davis (© Southbank Centre 2019)
Davis is famous for her counterculture activism, her involvement the civil rights movement and her book Women, Class and Race. She is a professor emerita at the University of California, and up until the 1990s, was a member of the Communist Party USA – a combination that did not sit well with former USA president Nixon, who tried, and eventually succeeded in 1970, to arrest Davis for multiple allegations. This elicited a mass movement in the United States, featuring the movement “Black People in Defense of Angela Davis” as well as the creation of the song Angela, by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Her tumultuous, incredibly interesting history recurred throughout the event; to the viewer, it felt more like a fantastical story, not all of it taken too literally, but as something to learn from on a personal scale for every individual in the room.
Throughout her entire conversation with Kelly, Davis was thoughtful and philosophical, all the while staying her radical self, and answering questions to the point. “Individualism is the problem of our time. We are who we are only in relation to others”, was one of the first things she said and it set the tone for the event, in which Davis repeatedly stressed the importance of community, and the dangers of individualism. She praised “the youth” and activism around younger generations: “It’s young people who always bring about change. Young people are the ones who take risks”. On 'BlackLivesMatter', in relation to community, she beautifully said, “we are not leaderless, we are leaderful”, pointing out how leadership can be a collective, and does not have to be built around “the old model of male charisma”.
Other topics on which Davis provided insight, covered the danger of the usage of the term diversity: “I cringe when I hear words like diversity and inclusion. […] Without transforming the context, it is not going to move us in a progressive direction. […] Just having people of colour in the room is not going to change the institutional differences”. It is a perspective that often feels overlooked, especially since terms like diversity and inclusivity have become widely popularised lately.
Jude Kelly and Angela Davis in conversation (© Southbank Centre 2019)
On police violence and the politics of prison, Davis replied with arguably one of the most powerful statements of the evening: “You cannot decide that justice only applies to certain people”. Another powerful speech on the immigration crisis resulted in an overwhelming applause when she spoke; “the quest for civil rights for migrants is one of the most important issues in the world right now”. After her conversation with Kelly, the floor opened for questions asked by the audience, and flocks of admirers rushed towards microphones on both sides of the auditorium to queue for a chance to speak to the activist. From further discussions on inclusivity to racism in the legal world, Davis’ influence on society was an unmissable fact throughout the night. The conversation was a raging success. And when I sat on the 176-bus back home, and saw a middle-aged woman reading the programme for the WOW festival, I could not resist but to tap her on the shoulder and say in awe, "she was amazing, wasn’t she?”
It was no surprise to me at all that the woman replied, equally in awe, “she really, really was".
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor