For Angela Davis, the phrase “the personal is political” is not mere rhetoric. Her name and image have become inextricably linked to the radical left wing of civil rights activism in the late sixties and early seventies, yet Davis seems eager to dispel the myth that they were utopian times for activism. Speaking before a packed audience at Rockefeller Chapel on the topic of “Feminism and Abolition in the 21st Century,” the now sixty-nine-year-old Davis, professor emerita of the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, critiqued the feminist activism of that tumultuous period as “too white… too middle class, too bourgeois.” She noted the particularly aggressive exclusion of transgender women, citing the case of a transgender sound engineer, who, in 1974, was attacked for bringing “male energy” to the women’s music collective Olivia Records.
Davis’ talk called for a new, expanded conception of feminism that would incorporate more inclusive imaginings of gender and race and challenge systems of mass incarceration. At times, however, Davis’ enthusiasm for expansion threatened to dilute the force of her speech. As she hit several divergent points of abolition—the case of Trayvon Martin, the Sandy Hook shootings, “apartheid” incarceration of Palestinians by the State of Israel, and the FBI’s renewed pursuits of political prisoner Assatta Shakur—the connecting thread of feminism wound thin.
Yet when Davis wove in themes from her personal narrative, her speech took on a bold coherence. In responding to a question asked by a King College Prep student about her recently and tragically gunned-down classmate and friend, Hadiya Pendleton, Davis paused before answering.
“You may know that I was accused of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy because I was a gun owner. My father [also] had guns…they were deemed necessary to defend ourselves from the Ku Klux Klan.” While Davis omits all critique of the arming of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, she is unmistakable in her call for the world to be “rid of all guns” today. It was in this moment that Davis, as well as the hundreds who had gathered to hear her speak, were forced to face a troubling reality: few people today would support the armed revolutionary actions that were called for in the seventies. How, then, can we continue to support and build upon the legacy of this activist while still moving toward the arms-free society that she calls for today? Davis leaves this question thoughtfully unresolved.