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Angela Davis Speaks at Rutgers in Rousing Talk That Elicits Standing Ovations

An idea informing Davis’ discussion was what she cited as Antonio Gramsci’s adage of possessing “pessimism of the intellect” and “optimism of the will” when advocating for social justice and building cultural movements.

Angela Davis' talk at Rutgers was informative, accessible and an honor to hear,Photo by Courtesy of Rhea Swain

On Friday, the Rutgers community had the enormous privilege of hosting Angela Davis at Kirkpatrick Chapel on the College Avenue campus. Concurrent with the subject matter of the "Angela Davis — Seize the Time" exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum on the College Avenue campus, the theme of Davis’ talk was “redefining justice and freedom for everyone.”

This event, which was organized by the Zimmerli, celebrated the nuanced ideals of justice and freedom that the civil rights-era icon has stood for in her long and illustrious career as an activist and academic.Advertisement

The highly anticipated talk was announced in February and sold out within a few hours the day of its announcement. Walking up the hill of the historic Old Queens campus to get to the chapel, the excitement in the air was palpable as the crowd of students, faculty, staff, alumni and museum patrons filtered into the nave.

The ambiance of the 149-year-old New Jersey brownstone chapel, particularly with its stained glass windows, were fit for the historic icon who would be speaking there later in the evening.

Just before the event was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m., the pre-talk chatter in the crowd paused as Davis herself unexpectedly arrived in front of the audience and was greeted by cheers and a standing ovation.

As the event began, Davis was introduced by Chancellor-Provost Francine Conway. Conway gave the audience context of not only the trajectory of the speaker’s life and career but also her centrality in the marquee exhibit at the Zimmerli for the 2021-2022 academic year.

The event was attended by prominent members of the Rutgers community, including University President Jonathan Holloway, “Seize the Time” curators Donna Gustafson and Gerry Beegan, and the Zimmerli’s newly appointed director, Maura Reilly.

Also in attendance was Lisbet Tellefsen, whose Oakland, California-based archive of Davis’ life in images inspired the exhibit, Ericka Huggins, a longtime friend and colleague of Davis, and Nicole Fleetwood, a former Rutgers professor in the Department of Art History and organizer of the “Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat” exhibit in the Zimmerli’s Focus Gallery.Advertisement

Upon approaching the podium, Davis expressed gratitude to these attendees as well as to the attentive and enthusiastic audience.

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Throughout her hour-long talk, Davis spoke with confidence, humility, grace and even (despite the serious nature of her expertise) humor. Her brilliance as an orator prompted claps, snaps and words of affirmation and agreement during the event.

Beginning with a gracious acknowledgment of the amazing artwork adorning the walls of the galleries, Davis emphasized that the major takeaway of the “Seize the Time” show should not be her own personal image but rather the collective needs and social justice issues that she has stood for since the 1960s. The art production that emerged after the civil rights movement gave rise to a new kind of politically active visual culture.

At the heart of Davis’ talk was an emphatic discussion of what it takes to devise and implement abolitionist approaches to the different manifestations of structural and systemic injustices such as (but not limited to): racism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and imperialism.

This focal point is very much in line with her most recent scholarly publication “Abolition. Feminism. Now.,” which is a collaborative book project that she co-authored with Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners and Beth E. Richie.

An idea informing Davis’ discussion that really stuck out to me was what she cited as Antonio Gramsci’s adage of possessing “pessimism of the intellect” and “optimism of the will” when advocating for social justice and building cultural movements.

What I admired most about Davis was how she made complex ideas about abolition accessible to the audience by citing real-world examples that resonate across generations.

Looking to very recent geopolitical issues, Davis was also vocal about her resistance to contemporary settler colonialism, providing the all-important example of Palestine. Speaking out against capitalism, Davis also mentioned billionaires’ endeavors in space — despite the real threat of climate change on Earth as an extreme form of settler colonialism.

Davis also took a moment during her talk to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and vehemently condemn the war waged on Ukraine by Russia under its authoritarian leader. To see Ukraine in a brighter light during this dark global time, I would recommend seeing the “Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985-1993” in the Zimmerli’s Dodge Wing before it closes on April 10.

A specific call to action that Davis gave the audience was to proactively communicate with their government representatives, in particular the democratically elected administration in the White House, to get President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to grant clemency to Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who is 77 years old and has spent more than half his life in prison.

Another point Davis made that evoked thunderous applause from the students in the audience was on the need for more profound recognition of fundamental human rights and basic necessities, like free public education and universal health care.

On the subject of race in the U.S., Davis is and has been extremely critical of the prison industrial complex for its roots in oppressive socioeconomic systems like slavery in the U.S. in books like “Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture” (2005) and “Are Prisons Obsolete?” (2003).

In recent memory, the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests of summer 2020 after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have also elicited louder activist sentiment and, according to Davis, a greater need for the abolition of systems that fail to deliver on the promise of protecting people — like the police and the prison system.

A common counterargument to Davis’ insistence on abolition is that it is a utopian (and by extension, impractical and unrealistic) vision of the future. Instead, people offer the so-far-relatively-unhelpful suggestion that the aforementioned systems should be reformed rather than abolished.

She pointed out that the Greek etymology for the word “utopia”— “ou” meaning “not” and “topos” meaning “place” — literally means “no place.” It does not mean “no time,” and there is no reason why, as people with agency and an abolitionist cause, should not “seize the time” with their activism.

After the talk, Davis answered some questions from the Rutgers community, asked by Gustafson. The first question pertained to Davis’ extensive experience giving speeches and reflecting on her favorite moments as an orator.

In the nearly 50 years since her arrest and acquittal, Davis recognized that she has been repeating herself a lot because many of the systemic and structural injustices that existed in her youth still unfortunately persist today and must be continually addressed and resisted.

The second question was about how students as young citizens can counter oppressive and racist voting rights laws being implemented around the U.S. Davis stressed the importance of having tenacity and hope as well as holding democratic leaders accountable for their actions (and general inaction).

Returning to the theme of the talk, “redefining justice and freedom for everyone,” Davis ended with the idea that freedom is not a destination but something we must always strive toward (see her 2015 book, “Freedom is a constant struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the foundations of a movement”).

Of course, the event ended with another roar of cheers and a standing ovation. Seeing Davis talk in person was definitely a highlight of my senior year at Rutgers. If you did not have the opportunity to watch the talk live or via simulcast in Scott Hall on the College Avenue campus, I would recommend catching the “Seize the Time” exhibit at the Zimmerli before it closes on June 15 or looking through the associated exhibition catalog.