Friday, 7 November 2008

Angela Davis and Barack Obama

Last night I had the privilege of listening to Angela Davis, a woman I have admired since I first heard of her, and her activism. She was speaking to a philosophy conference so this was not the occasion to spit fire; nonetheless, though her delivery was restrained, the content of her words was as uncompromising as I expected.

What was most interesting to me was that she spent some time reflecting on the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency. This has been an event to which I have felt a strange, and unsettling ambivalence. On the one hand I am supremely glad that the Republican beast is dead (as Bill Hicks put it); and that the beast has been killed by a black man is so much more magnificent. On the other hand I am not a believer in substantial change from above; I do not look towards US Presidents for hope, for in my lifetime all I have ever seen from that quarter is war and malignant oppression.

Angela Davis articulated this dual response very well. On the one hand she was prepared to honour the moment in which the US, a country so riven by the colour line (c.f. W.E.B. Dubois), has elected a black man to the presidency. She felt the joy of the moment, and marvelled at the joy which was being expressed by millions of people across the US, and across the globe. She called this an aesthetic response which I think describes the moment splendidly. My understanding of this phrase is this: that the President is a black man is important primarily (exclusively?) because it is a post of such symbolism; finally America has a black face, if you like. Black America has been given a part to play in the aesthetics of the nation, in the way that the nation describes itself, and is described by others. For black Americans this is hugely significant, and hugely affirming: aesthetics are important.

But now contrast this with Angela Davis' description of her own activism: she has not spent a lifetime fighting for black liberation so that blacks can be included in the oppressive structure of modern America. No, she has been fighting for a new social structure in which all people, black and white, can play their part. When she was on the run in the 1960's, her dream was not of a black president but of no president and, instead, a society of fairness, and of justice. A neat way to represent this is her affirmation of the term black liberation, which was the term she and her peers used to describe what they were fighting for. It is a term that contrasts sharply with the idea of a struggle for civil rights; this latter suggests a struggle to be included in American society, whilst black liberation suggests a more militant idea, that of being free from American society in its current manifestation.

Thus, for Angela Davis, the aesthetics, and the substance of this week's vote are somewhat at odds with each other. It is this tension which I have also felt, and which explains my ambivalence very well. There is an imperative, then, to "continue to be radical", as she put it. While editorials may opine that this week's vote draws a line under America's racism, and marks the final victory for the civil rights movement, we should bear in mind that life for an American black man or woman remains fraught. They remain over-represented in the prisons, as victims of crime, as the poor. Their health is poorer than the average American, but they are under-represented in hospitals because of a lack of universal health care. The list goes on.

I will end this piece with some quotes from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States". It seems appropriate that, in a week which many are calling historic, we remind ourselves of some of the harsh realities of America's history. It is a history that has been transformed for the better by the struggle of ordinary people; that struggle goes on.

Quoting Sojourner Truth, legendary ex-slave, black activist and fighter for women's rights in the 1800s:
That man over there says that woman needs to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches.... Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-upddles or gives me any best place. And a'nt I a woman?
Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a'nt I a woman?
I could work as much and eat as much as a man, when i could get it, and bear the lash as well. And a'nt I a woman?
I have borne thirteen children and seen em most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a'nt I a woman?(p.122 More on this speech)

Quoting Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and celebrated writer:
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that revelas to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. (p.178)

Frederick Douglass again:
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle.... If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedds nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will... (p.179)

Quoting Chief Black Hawk in 1832:
I fought hard. But your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the wind through the trees in the winter. My warriors fell around me... The sun rose dim on us in the morning, and at night it sunk in a dark cloud, and looked like a ball of fire. That was the last sun that shone on Black Hawk... He is now a prisoner to the white men... He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed. He has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came, year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. The white men despise the Indians, and drive them from their homes. But the Indians are not deceitful. The white men speak bad of the Indian, and took at him spitefully. But the Indian does not tell lies; Indians do not steal.

An Indian who is as bad as the white men, could not live in our nation; he would be put to death, and eaen up by the wolves. The white men are bad school-masters; they carry false looks, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to let us alone; but they followed on and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us like the snake. They poisoned us by their touch. We were not safe. We lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and liars, adulterers, lazy drones, all talkers, and no workers...

The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse-they poison the heart... Farewell, my nation!... Farewell to Black Hawk. (p.130, full text)

On the American war of independence and still true today:
Here was the traditional device by which those in charge of any social order mobilize and discipline a recalcitrant population - offering the adventure and rewards of military service to get poor people to fight for a cause that they may not see clearly as their own. (p.77)

On farmers in the 1700s crippled by debt in an unjust economic system:
The crowd went back to the square, broke open the county jail, and set free the debtors. The chief justice, a country doctor, said: "I have never heard anybody point out a better way to have their grievances redressed than the people have taken." (p.92)

Quoting Edmund Wilson on World War II:
We have seen, in our most recent wars, how a divided and arguing public opinion may be converted overnight into a national near-unanimity, an obedient flood of energy which will carry the young to destruction and overpower any effort to stem it. The unanimity of men at was is like that of a school of fish, which will swere, simultaneously and apparently without leadership, when the shadow of an enemy appears, or like a sky-darkening flight of grasshoppers, which, also all compelled by one impulse, will descend to consume the crops. (p.233)

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