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Angela Davis

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Parent Issue
Month
November
Year
1991
Copyright
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
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Agenda Publications
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Editor' 's note: On October 17 Angela Davis spoke to an overflow crowd at Rackham Auditorium on the U-M campus. She was brought to Ann Arbor for the re-dedicaiion of the Angela Davis Lounge, a center in Mary Markley Residence Hall for students of African-American and Third World ancestries. Her visit was sponsored by the Markley Multi-Cultural Affairs Council, the Black Student Union, U-M Office of Minority Affairs, Residence Halls Association and others. AngelaDavisisaninternationallyacclaimedwriter.scholar and human rights advocate. She was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama and graduatedfrom Brandeis University. Her gradúate studies were undertaken at the Goethe Institute in Frankfurt and at the University of California, San Diego. Since 1968 she hos been a member of the Communist Party USA and hos twice run as its Vice Presidential candidate in U.S. national elections. Af ter one of the mostfamous trials in U.S. history, Angela Daviswasacquittedofpolitically-motivatedconspiracy charges in 1970. Davis has authored a number ofbooks including: "If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance" ; "Angela Davis: An Autobiography" ; "Women, Race and Class" ; and "Women, Culture and Politics." Davis is presently a Professor of History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Whatfollows is an abridged transcript of Davis' remarks on October 17. nrecently returned from an extremely exciting, illuminating visit to South África I'm also involved in one of the many efforts to reveal the contradictions of the celebration of the quincentennial of Columbus' arrival in this part of the world. In two and a half months we will have reached the 500 years since that voy age from Europe to the Americas. There will be quincentennial celebrations taking place all over the world, and of course in the process they are consuming untold millions of dollars. I want to suggest that as thoughtful individuals dedicated to social progress, especially to progressive or revolutionary poüücal transformation, that we embark on another voyage of discovery, and that is a discovery of the legacy of Columbus. The legacy of Columbus is still very much with us today. It is genocide. Genocide directed in the first place at the indigenous people of this continent. Genocide was therefore informed by racism which began to take shape during the same era In 1 99 1 we look around us, we see that there is a persistence of racism in our society directed not only at native people but at all people of color and that racism is sólidly rooted in a tradition which can be traced back to Columbus. Now I know you are waiting for me to say something about Clarence Thomas. So what I would like to say is that if I were asked about the most dramatic recent outburst of racism, I would refer to the treatment accorded Anita HUI. She found herself caught up in a labyrinth of politics, being used and manipulated by a group of rich, white men. I'm speaking both about the Republicans and the Democrats, who probably never considered sexual harassment a serious political issue. And in thinking about the complex issues that explosi vely emerged out of those hearings, I ask myself: what would have happened if Anita HUI had been a white woman, if she had been a white woman of that stature? And I am not in any way condoning the actions of Clarence Thomas. It was a very sad moment for me when I witnessed the Senate vote leading to his confirmation. But I think it is important for us to explore all of the interconnected, interwoven issues that emanated from these hearings as if from a vortex. I don't think that it was coincidental that it was an AfricanAmerican woman who raised an issue which resulted in an outpouring of issues and accusations and allegations. As a matter of fact, if we examine the history of this country we find that very often issues that are being fought out in the Black community serve as a kind of catalyst for all kinds of changes in this society, going back to the struggle against slavery, looking at the fight for civü rights. And I'm not in any way boasting, although I am extremely proud to be an AfricanAmerican woman, but I would like to think that I would have the same perspective if I were not an American woman. At the center of the confusing whirlwind of assaults on an American woman who was apparently simply trying playing the role expected of her in an allegedly democratie process - that is to teil the truth - at the center of that whirlwind was the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Few women workers have escaped this pervasive phenomenon. As I listened to the testimony of women witnesses on both sides, what struck me was that a substantial number of them alluded to similar incidents in their own history. Women - and I just want to take a moment to talk about this issue and I hope I wül be able to coherently return to the topic about which I am planning to speak to you this evening - women for so long have been imprisoned in a realm which has been ideologjcally constructed as beyond or perhaps below the public or political sphere - that sphere in which citizens act out their duties and responsibüities and also come under the protection of the law. Because domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, though shared female experiences, have gone largely unacknowledged in public discourse. ...I do want to say that the senators proved themselves entirely incapable of understanding the history of our country. When Clarence Thomas announced that he had been a victim of a lynching, no one said anything. Not one of those white senators knew how to respond. And what that said to me was that not a single one of them reaily understood the nature of racism or the history of Americans, which is the history also of the entire country. And Clarence Thomas trivialized and manipulated our history. And I'm not suggesting that those hearings should have unfolded as they did, because it is clear that they were attempting to use Anita Hill and that was simply dirty politics. But at the same time she was able to transcend the dirty politics that were going on there in order to send out a message to this country. Lynching as it has occurred in the past and still occurs is a part of the legacy of Columbus. As a matter of fact if we look at the legacy of Columbus we see not only the invasión of the Americas but we see the beginning of the African slave trade and the colonization of areas inhabited by people of color around the world. And linked to that process also is the explosión of anti-Semitism. At the end of my presentation 111 come back to talk about what our responsibilities might be, particularly toward those who were the first and most brutalized victims of this genocidal legacy. But if I look at what is unfolding in South África today I see the continuation of that genocidal legacy. I spent two weeks in South África during the month of September. And what I wi tnessed there was far more abominable than I could e ver have imagined and at the same time far more inspiring than I could have ever imagined. I should say first of all it was not my idea to visit South África. There is still a boycott against South África, although if you ask Mr. Bush he would probably say that all is well and good in South África, that apartheid is dead. Apartheid is not dead. I was invited to make this trip by the African National Congress (ANC), by the South African Communist Party, and by the Congress of South African Trade Unions as well as a university institution, the Institute for Black Research at the University of Durban. On the second day I spent in South África I saw a group of Black children playing among the broken gravestones of a (see Angela Da vis, page 10) Angela Davis (f rom page 1) cemetery located in Alexandra Township which is on the outskirts of Johannesburg. And that image frightened me. It conjured up old feais of my own, some childhood fears. I livednear a vast cemeteiy which I had to walk by every day on my way to school. Of course in school there were all these stories of ghosts and zombies and all those things. Every time I walked past that cemetery my heart would always beat a little bit faster. But I saw those children in Alexandra Township, whose only playground was a cemetery. Children for whom the gravestones served as a standing invitation to play hide-and-go-seek. And this image haunted me. For the remainder of my trip this image haunted me as if it were a metaphor for Black people's lives and the townships there. And they no doubt knew people buried there, people whose lives have been claimed by the violence that has become so pervasive in South África that generally it is simply referred to as "the violence."That's how people talk about it - "the violence." Of course here, people who read the pTess uncritically often refer to it as the "Black on Black violence." I absolutely refuse to cali it "Black on Black violence" even though of course in large part there are Black people killing other Black people. Look, I don't want to privilege the racial dimensión of this violence because we rarely hear about "white on white violence" and there's certainly a lot of that going on in the world. And so whenever Black people are involved in violence within a community we cali it "Black on Black violence" but I didn't hear anybody cali the massacre in Texas "white on white violence." Of course there's also Black on white violence as well. But what I'm suggesting is that there's a political and ideological reason for presenting the violence unfolding in South África as "Black on Black violence" as if we as Black people, wherever we are in the world, are supposed to be absolutely united. As if we are not allowed the opportunity to differ with each other. And of course when we saw the hearings we realize that as African-Americans we have to begin to look at our community in a very different way. That is one of the messages I got from those hearings. I grew up in the South in a time when the community was always considered solidly united. As a matter of fact the community was a larger f amily . And whenever anyone came under attack, all of us had to be there. It was interesting when I called my mother during these hearings. I wanted to see how she was reading them. And my mother is very progressive politically . She is absolutely opposed to Clarence Thomas taking a seat on the Supreme Court politically, but emotionally she expressed the fact that she feit so sorry for both of them, as if she wanted to reach out and protect both of them. And I think that the Bush administration recognized that they could manipúlate that ing of community among Afirican-Americans and that was the reason for raLsing this notion of lynching. But as a matter of fact our community is changing. We can no longer assume that our community is largely without contradictions. l canremember as achild, growing up inBirmingham, whenever you saw a Black person anywhere you al ways had to speak, even as children. Of course when I went to high school in New York people looked at me like I was crazy . That was one of the really beautiful things about having been reared in the South that I miss. I have a kind of nostalgie feeling for that kind of community which we once had. But I recognize that we no longer have that community. History has restructured us in many ways. Just as in South África it cannot be assumed that every person because she or he is Black is necessarily on what I cali the "right side of history." As a matter of fact if we examine the media representations of this contemporary violence in South África and the fact that they always focus on the fact that Black people are killing Black people, I would suggest that it is because they want us to assent to an interpretation of this violence as spontaneous outbreaks of hostilities between the Khosa and Zulu people. But the underlying agenda - which I'm convinced, based on the research that I've done - is the agenda of the de Klerk government. The agenda of the de Klerk government is to convey the message to the international community that Black people in South África are not socially mature enough to merit participation in a democratie society. Because if they're killing each other now, what would they do if they controlled the reins of power? That is the message that is being presented with respect to this violence. I was there. I talked to people whose family members were killed. I visited people whose homes had been bumed down and who had to flee to improvised refugee camps. I saw the sights where violence had taken place. And I want to share some of those experiences with you. AndI want tospend a few moments propos - ing the beginning of an analys is based on my o wn interpretations and based on discussions with the activists and leaders of the liberation movement. And this interpTetation places the govemment as the central point from which these acts of destruction and murder and poli tical assassinations are being carried out. At the begirming of September I arrived in Johannesburg. One of the first visits I made was to So weto, about twenty minutes from the center of Johannesburg, where of course there are skyscrapers and incredible wealth. The person I was travelling with was Charlene Mitchell with whom I have worked since 1967. She's the person who was the organizer of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis when I myself was in jail. We were being driven to a community center to visit people who were housed there on an emergency basis after they had been chased from a squatter's campfire by a band of Inkatha members. Of course all of you know that Inkatha is an organization which is headed by the Zulu chief Buthelezi. To make a coimection with my preparatory comments, I see quite a number of parallels between the role that Clarence Thomas is play ing in the U.S . and the role that Buthelezi is playing in South África. Before we reached our destination that Saturday morning, we saw a group of men carrying spears and shields and sticks. They had gathered at the main intersection in Soweto. I have to admit I was rather shocked as I did not expect to see Inkatha members armed, in broad daylight, on a street corner which was on the main thoroughfares of Soweto. I also knew that the govemment has outlawed what are called traditional weapons, namely the spears and the shields. So it was somewhat shocking to see about 25 men, armed as if for war, totally unconcemed about the possibility of being arrested for breaking the law. And then my eyes caught a sight which hadbecome a very familiar situation throughout the - there was a group of policemen nearby . Charlene and I looked at them and we simultaneously expressed disbelief. But the ANC comrades who were withus didn't think anything of it at all, as this happens all the time. It's the way it always is. The pólice and Inkatha - they go together . You don' t have one without the other. So these Inkatha men were poised for an attack. They were accompanied by pólice that appeared to be their protectors, if they were serving any purpose at all. Later on that moming we saw three other groups of Inkatha members, all armed. There was actually a big Inkatha rally that day. And there were even women carrying not spears, but carrying sticks. In this particular instance there was an enormous group of pólice - of South African defense forces. They were waiting in a transport truck that they cali a "hippo," because it's huge like a hippopotamus. It looks like one of those oil tankers. Pólice dressed in their military fatigue uniforms sit inside these "hippoes." That evening when we returned to the hotel and watched the news we learned that someone had been killed by Inkatha members in the aftermath of the rally. As it turns out the rally was designed to genérate the kind of emotion that gets people to go on a rampage. And we learned that houses where we had been were bumed down to the ground. . . .1 don't know if you 're aware of the system of hostels. It's still very much a part of the economie system in South África. I have been studying the hostels for a very long time but actually being there, seeing them, was an experience which I found somewhat crushing. The hostels, which are more like jails than anything else, come out of the system of apartheid, that is, specifically out of the system which defines 87% of the land as white-owned land. And 13% of the land is relegated to African people. Therefore people who travel from a homeland or bantustan to the city looking for jobs are often housed in hostels. The apartheid policy considers Black men units of labor. The hostels were designed to break up family formations in the city. So that even if a man and woman who are manied together travel to a city and the man must live in a hostel because they do not have enough money to rent a house anywhere else, the woman cannot live with him. Virtually all the hostels are male-only hostels. There are few female hostels . There is one female hostel in S o weto . There are so few female hostels because women have been considered under the apartheid policy as appendages to male labor units. The man is a labor unit and the woman is an appendage - an unnecessary appendage. Like an appendix. And besides, until very recently the only jobs available to Black women have been jobs involving domestic work. And therefore it's not necessary to créate a living place for Black women because they lived with the family for whom they worked and mostof them still do. As a matter of fact I spoke to women who were domestic servants and they get one day off per month. One Sunday per month. And they make between 30 rands and 50 rands, which is between $10 and $17 per month, if they mak e any money at all. There are some women who are very poor and have no altemative, and often end up taking a job as adomestic servant for room andboard alone. It hurt me to seeBlack women working for poor white people in South AfriIyou're white in South África, no matter what your economie status, you can afford to have a servant. J . . .1 went to Natal, which is where the violence originated, which is where Kwazulu is located, the seat of Chief Buthefeii, Zulú land. I went to two refugee centers on the outskirts of Durba.,Pne of them was located in Edendale. It is an old store and warehoue ,which was bought by the ANC to house people who had to flee thèir homes as a result of the Inkatha violence. And about 400 people wera living there when I visited. And of course all of the people there were Zulú. So you're talking about an area of South África where the overwhelming majority of Africans are Zulu. And the violence has been worse there than anywhere.'And I say this because it has been represented as the Zulus against the Khosas. There are not large numbers of Khosas there in Natal. And talking to the people at that settlement I heard absolutely convincing stories about the role that the army and the pólice were directly play ing in the violence. I saw a woman who I approached because she so reminded me of a woman I knew when I was a child, who was a playmate's mother. She was caiTying a baby in her arms and I went up and asked herho w the violence had affected her. Andthis is whatshe said. "The violence has affected us badly . " (I ' m presenting to you the translation from the Zulu which I recorded at the time.) "The township we come from is 90% in support of the ANC. In November last year when trouble started, people living in the hostels were Inkatha members. They started the war so that Inkatha based in the hostels could essentially take over the town. We lost our jobs and we lost our homes. That is why we are here. Also there were quite a few ANC members killed in our township, including the last chairperson and his wife. In all of these attacks the pólice and the army were part of Inkatha and part of the attacks on our members, like the father of this child I am carrying. He was actually shot by the army and killed." ...Sol went to take a picture of these children. I had a camera that had a long lens on it. And just as I snapped the picture the children jumped, obviously with fear. And then someone told me that they thought that the long lens on my camera was a gun and that I was shooting them. And for a brief moment I feit like I was shooting my own children. This was one of those outs tanding moments that taught me more about the impact of the violence there than anything else. It made me feel angry at myself for frightening those children in the way that I did, but also rage. But afterwards of course I went up and I played with them and eventually we were friends and we got over that. But I realized why they were so frightened. Just a few hundred feet down that dirt road was an enormous military encampment right in the middle of the town. Right in the middle of the community was barbed wire every where, about ten drab olive tents and all kinds of soldiere, or defense forces - pólice. There's actually not much difference between the army and the pólice. The pólice look just like the army. And they had these sandbags surrounding the encampment. And this was right in the middle of the township. It was a Sunday and people were coming back from church and they were greeting each other and here was this huge encampment. The encampment was allegedly there to stop the v iolence but people in the community said the soldiers had been involved in the violence. ...This is the most critical juncture in the history of the South African people's quest for freedom and democracy. And if any of you have been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in the past - let me see a show of hands. How many of you have done something, anything, in support of the struggle for democracy in South África? Signed a petition, participated in a meeting, attended a support rally? Well that's apretty solid group of people we have here. How many of you are do ing anything now? One, two, three, four. In many ways, they have been successful. And that movement Ihat was once so vital in this country is largely inactive at a time when activism is needed more than ever before. One of the problems is that if we don't look at televisión and if we aren't presented some kind of affirmation of what we need to do, we don't do it. We don't attempt to find out what is really going on in South África. They put Winnie Mándela on trial and we all get quiet, in a way that is similar to placing Anita Hill on trial. And I'm saying that because they created a conspiracy against Winnie Mándela designed to discredit the ANC. And I saw the enthusiasm for her. I met with her. I was in her home. And I saw the support for her. People are angry abou t this trial because they understand ie South African govemment does not care about Black people. So why suddenly do they spend all this energy to go after Winnie Mándela? So I will suggest to you that we should reactívate ourselves. Because if a new South África is created the face of the entire continent will be changed. And it also will carry opportunities. There will also be the opportunity of our being able to look at that part of the world and say "here are people who fought, who fought for decades, and they won." And those of us who might be upset about the fact that the press is attempting to créate the impression that capitalism has triumphed during this era and of course the social experiments of Eastern Europe failed. So if capitalism is going to be declared to be the winner, it is certainly only by default. As a communist I sincerely want the people of South África to win, because I know that they will be moving in a direction of socialism. And that will be a place in the globe that will function as an inspiraüon for people to keep on struggling to overturn this historically obsolete system of capitalism which is based on the exploitaüon of one group of people by another and inspires all forms of opprqssion and marginalization - like racism, sexism, homophobia - all of which can be represented as consütuting the legacy of Oölumbus. I wantfö appeal to you to at leastmakeyour voiceheard. I certainly hope that the anti-apartheid movement on this campus begins to reactívate itself. And I would also like to appeal to you to particípate in the upcoming counter-protests during 1992 because we owe it to our indigenous sisters and brothers to do something. And I think we can expose the degree to which genocide has become written into the po licy of this country. Personally I'm involved in organizing hearings so that people can testífy about the hate crimes they have experienced - racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, anti-woman hate crimes. But I think we should all join in celebrating with our natíve brothers and sisters. And I say celebrating this time because what we are celebrating is 500 years of resistance.