The following post on the Angela Davis and Nas event was written by members of the spring 2014 “Politics & Poetics of Black Feminist Thought” class being offered by the Africana Studies, Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, and English programs. Contributors include adjunct faculty, graduate students in English, American Studies, and Sociology, and undergraduate English majors. We chose to put our individual voices together and give writing credit to the whole class as an exercise in community. While our individual subject positions are important, what matters to us more is the extent to which these outlets (the event and this post) are attempts to build coalitions. This post speaks to our efforts to be more interdisciplinary and collaborative in our approaches to academia. As a reflection of the work we are doing in this class, we offer different voices for tools to learn, to use a concept from Patricia Hill Collins.
In our attempt to respond together from our individual perspectives we are unapologetic about the disjointedness of this post.
Angela Davis credits feminism for helping her “put things together:” “feminism allows us to understand how we can make contradictions work,” she argued. “Feminism allows us to understand how we can make contradictions productive.” Davis’ ability to put contradictory things together was evident in her comments during her participation in a conversation with award-winning rapper Nas, entitled “Incarcerated Justice: Civil Rights in the 21st Century,” at Lehigh on March 10. Davis emphasized the importance of critical consciousness and the intersectionality of social justice issues. According to Davis, prison abolitionism needs feminism, and feminism needs prison abolitionism. How might feminist endeavors to incarcerate perpetrators of sexual violence participate in rather than critique a retributive justice system, and furthermore, how might feminism instead imagine rehabilitative justice? Davis argued for the importance of anti-capitalist consciousness, because the corporatization of education is linked to the prison industry, which is linked to the corporatization of food production. “Eating unconsciously,” says Davis, “is no different than espousing racism unconsciously.”
What does the importance of critical consciousness mean for those working for social justice in higher education? Davis points out that library research produces biased scholarship – biased against those who cannot be at conferences, who cannot write, etc. She encouraged faculty and students to think about activism and scholarship together, to develop citational practices that acknowledge other venues where knowledge is produced, and to define the measure of knowledge by the extent to which it makes lives better. Nas argued that hip hop is one crucial venue for knowledge production, describing his rap as a “cry” to the world, one that asks if there are others out there who cry as he does.
When found on trial for being accused of murder in association with the Soledad Brothers, there were two pieces of evidence that were used against Davis. The first piece of evidence was the guns registered in her name and the second was the idea that she was in love with Jackson, one of the Soledad Brothers. Everyone expected Davis to enter court and talk about the oppression of her race. Yet she spoke on how the oppression of her gender and how they used the idea of being in love as evidence simply because she was a woman. During her visit to Lehigh, she challenged students, faculty, and staff to use feminism as a methodology as opposed to an ideology. When asked whether prison abolition was possible in an advanced capitalist society she asked us to think about the intersectionality of struggles. Yes, it is possible! The areas that we need to target don’t seem “radical” at all : public education, health care, employment, housing and social services. Abolition and feminism go hand in hand; as Davis said, “Feminism allows us to understand how contradictions work together.”
As an academic, an intellectual, and an activist it was refreshing to hear Davis challenge the educational system. If we allow ideas to only stay in the classroom then we are creating knowledge that’s never going to make a difference. The idea of having knowledge and applying it must go hand in hand otherwise you are not receiving a well rounded education. This also speaks to the widely accepted notion that research can be done only in libraries. Davis found herself reflecting on the type of research she was conducting because she was merely relying on texts written by other academics—texts that were biased. What about those who can’t read and write? What about those who don’t have access to academic institutions? The revolution begins in the classroom. We must reinvent the educational system from the way we conduct research, to how we apply knowledge outside the classroom and who has access to the academy.
Nas echoes W.E.B. Dubois’ notion of double consciousness when faced with the question of whether African Americans feel like citizens of this country. A student in the audience found a letter from a Black man on death row and told Nas and Davis that the inmate mentioned disclaiming being American and asked what they thought about that, to which Nas replied, “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to claim America, it’s that America didn’t claim me…” Though the topic of discussion centered on the prison industrial complex, Black American identity was one of the major conflicts on which their talk focused. Dr. Peterson, who moderated the panel, mentioned there are two million people incarcerated. This number is disproportionately made up of people of color making mass incarceration the civil rights issue of our generation because Black identity is being defined by the prison experience or the threat of it. Both activist Davis and artist Nas stressed the significance of maintaining contact with individuals in prison; Nas termed this “bulletproof love.” This parallels Davis’ sentiments that we should not assume that because someone is in prison that they did something “wrong”, that we should contain our judgment because many are non-violent offenders or some are victims of an unjust criminal justice system. When people of color are victimized, incarcerated, oppressed and left unclaimed by the country they helped build on their backs, there remains a question of belonging, of home, of cultural identity. Nas and Davis helped justify this dilemma of a double consciousness, and discussed ways to come to terms with this split cultural identity by remaining active and seeking social justice to transform the oppressive institutions from disclaiming the importance of Black lives in our society.
The idea of prison abolition may seem impossible and ultra-utopian at first thought, but Davis suggested very realistic policy changes that could put the US on the road to prison abolition. Because much of the prison-industrial complex is supported by the criminalization of drugs, she advocated for the decriminalization of certain drugs and supporting drug rehabilitation programs rather than prisons. Restorative justice should replace the retributive justice currently in place. She stated that we have to get out of the habit of assuming that everyone can be treated and rehabilitated the same way. Thus, prison abolition may not be feasible for all crimes, but we as a society must step back and re-evaluate what it is that we are criminalizing, especially when criminalization unfairly targets people according to their race, gender, and class. This is doubly important when capitalist interests drive the prison-industrial complex and are pushing for society to accept greater imprisonment. Indeed, imprisonment itself is a repetition of violence on the perpetrator of the crime; instead, we should increase funding to healthcare, schools, recreational program, and general social welfare programs that would prevent such crime in the first place. Prisons hardly address the roots of such social and economic problems.
Early in the question and answer period a questioner asked both Nas and Davis how they balance their personal and professional lives with their activism. They each responded that there is no distinction. They both talked about the centrality of activism in their lives and the irrelevancy of such a distinction. For me, this question and answer was a highlight of the discussion. The answer also gives us a fresh understanding of how to conceptualize social justice and activism as it relates to our lives. Too often we consider social justice and activism side projects to be thought about when other work is done. After my homework, after my dinner, after that episode, after that party, I will think about social justice. This is social justice as superfluous. For Davis and Nas it wasn’t a matter of “later”. Activism and social justice are stitched into the very fabric of their identity. When we consider social justice it needs to be thought about in this respect: not as solely an intellectual endeavor or something to be thought about once “regular” work is done, but as something to be considered in relation to every aspect of our lives. This is social justice as central.