Angela Davis Closes Out UT's Inaugural Black Matters Conference
Educator and former political prisoner captivates with keynote address
Finishing with a flourish, the University of Texas' first annual international Black Studies conference, Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism, closed with one of the black liberation movement's greatest living icons. "The main seed of the conference was planted by [civil rights leader] Mrs. Aaronetta Pierce, who is the chair of the Black Studies Advisory Committee," said conference co-creator Cherise Smith, associate professor of African and African American Diaspora Studies and director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. "Her thinking was that we had a lot to celebrate."
The conference was "conceived as a coming out of sorts," a high-profile stake planting of Texas' Black Studies program, as well its touted accompanying Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, and becoming the first Ph.D.-granting Black Studies department in the South.
For 60 minutes, longtime civil rights leader, educator, and former political prisoner Dr. Angela Davis captivated in the conference's closing night address. The venerated social activist and feminist provided a dynamic keynote of authoritative candor, touching on systemic intersectionality, connections between pursuit of black freedom and the Palestinian movement, Donald Trump's ascendancy, and the progression of black radicalism. Starting her keynote on fire, Davis immediately launched fuel-soaked salvos toward America's sociopolitical warts. "I'm very glad to be here at Austin again," she said. "Although, I have to keep remembering that we are actually in Texas – with huge prison populations, two-thirds black and Latino, the largest prison population in the country, which claims the largest prison population on Earth."
She hailed the works and analyses of black radical/anti-capitalist writers, especially Cedric Williams, whom she noted "insisted that capitalism was erected on the backs of black people and people of color. Capitalism is, in fact, racial capitalism." Davis also amplified support for black feminists, queer radicals, and others willing to walk the road to press forward without compromise, "because what is radical for some may not be radical for others."
Davis addressed the swelling support for Trump's politics, and its racial underpinnings, in plain specifics. "I think that reason [for Trump's rise] has to do with the failure to create the kind of mass movement – that popularizes a narrative that allows white people who are suffering – to recognize that the very conditions that are responsible for the rise of state violence and increased incarceration are [also] conditions that are responsible for the fact that their children will never achieve the economic status of which they've [laid claim]."
Stopping well short of directly endorsing Democratic nominee and former Senator Hillary Clinton – in fact, never actually saying the candidate's name – Davis invoked the "lesser of two evils" clause. "I have serious problems with the other candidate," she said. "But I am not so narcissistic to say I cannot bring myself to vote for her."
Closing out a conference solidifying connections of African Diaspora scholarship, Davis emphasized the importance of linking domestic study with critical international movements. She took specific note of various South American struggles, as well as complicated Palestinian struggle, appealing for "stronger calls to end the Israeli occupation," but also citing their similarities to black liberation efforts domestically, including the Black Panther movement.
She urged the audience to refuse placation and to maintain focus. "Of course, the term freedom, the term democracy, have very long and complicated histories. ... We assume that we know what freedom means. We assume that we know what democracy means. [These are] two of the most taken for granted terms in our society."