By Latanya West
On Saturday, scholar and activist Angela Davis roused a crowd of more than two hundred people at UCSD’s Price Center Ballroom, rounding out a month of campus-sponsored Black History Month celebrations. Davis, notorious for her outspoken political activism and controversial 1971 arrest, and later acquittal, for allegedly masterminding a Marin, California shootout that left three people dead, sounded at times upbeat and equally reflective. Her well-received speech signaled to the multi-ethnic crowd that the time had come to not only celebrate the heroes of Black History, but also the ordinary citizens who collectively contribute to the ongoing struggle for economic, racial, and social justice.
Gone was Davis’ passionate emotional rhetoric about revolution and ‘black power.’ In its place was a softer, yet no less emphatic insistence that the prison industrial complex is a global threat to peoples of color worldwide. The fight, Davis said, still needs to be waged.
The speech was the keynote address for the 12th Annual Black History Month Celebration and Scholarship Fundraiser Jazz Brunch. The Price Center Ballroom was electric with anticipation of the Davis speech. Much like Davis’ focus on inclusion in the fight for equal rights, the attendees were a healthy racial mixture of blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians.
Renee Burnette Terry, former UCSD Dean of Student Affairs for Revelle College, kick started the tradition twelve years ago to recognize and nurture the African American student body, called it “a wonderful end to Black History Month and an important celebration of community and UC San Diego.” The UC San Diego faculty nominated scholarship recipients Shannon Polee and Jazzalyn Livingston for outstanding academic and creative achievement in the study of African American history and culture. Harold Brown was also honored for his pioneering civil rights work at the UCSD campus. The brunch featured savory southern cooking and a silent auction to support future Black History Month scholarship funds.
According to a Los Angeles Times 2010 article, African American enrollment at UC San Diego is among the lowest in the UC system. Within the UC system as a whole, African Americans make up only 3% of the student body, Davis noted. Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, who spoke before Davis’ keynote address, made it clear he is committed to increasing those numbers. He acknowledged the efforts still to be made, and highlighted the 26% increase in enrollment for African Americans at UCSD.
Ms. Davis has a long history with UC San Diego. In the 1960’s she attended the university as a graduate student and inspired the Black Student Union to push for equity and total university engagement with the African American student body. Looking back, she reminisced about the BSU’s successful efforts to create what came to be known as Thurgood Marshall College. “Lumumba-Zapata College. Now!” was the BSU battle cry. The slogan merged the names of independence leaders Patrice Lumumba and Emiliano Zapata, a “symbol of solidarity,” Davis said, between UCSD’s Latino and Black students.
Davis urged the racially mixed crowd to “make connections” to what we normally see as separate issues. Her speech touched on several topics, from President Obama, feminism, the movie “12 Years a Slave,’ to Haiti and the prison industrial complex. “Racism is even more entrenched than ever before,” she said, and urged everyone to take a closer look at the structure of racism, here in the US and abroad. She decreed that no one can afford to “believe we’ve reached the mountaintop,” and now live in a post-racial society.
Applause and snaps of agreement from enthusiast undergraduates punctuated Davis’ points. From the responses in the mixed crowd, everyone seemed to agree that more needed to be done. The struggle continues. What was most impressive was the sense of hope present in the ballroom Saturday. Throughout the entire event, the message was clear: African American students are cherished and important. Access to higher education must be urgently addressed to fulfill the promise of African American youth.
Saturday’s event is the UCSD African American faculty and staff’s proactive response to the racial incidents that have littered UCSD’s past for decades. When asked about the state of UCSD race relations today, Hope Czebas, a third year UCSD student, echoed both Chancellor Khosla’s focus on access and Ms. Davis’ rallying cry to continue the fight for social justice. “We’ve made lots of progress,” Ms. Czebas said, but she noted that more still needs to be done, “not just with race but also gender.” Another student, who didn’t want to give her name, passionately emphasized that she wanted to focus on what she was for, not what she was against. “I want to focus on what I’m ‘pro’ as opposed to getting distracted on what I’m against. What I really care about is blacks matriculating into higher education,” she said.
Davis, who views Black History Month as a celebration of the past, the present and the future would likely agree with the students’ points. “History,” she said, “isn’t only the past. The present and the future are just as important.”
She encouraged everyone to “continue to struggle for freedom,” even though our gains may not look exactly as we’d planned them to. On the other side of many political and social battles, she commented, “What one is fighting for is not always what one wins. There are no guarantees.” Ms. Davis has taught at UCLA, Vassar, the Claremont Colleges, and Stanford University. She continues to conduct research and lecture in the U.S. and abroad raising awareness about the prison industrial complex.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, January 1944, Professor Davis was a social activist at an early age. She formed interracial study groups that were broken up by police. She knew several of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, but never lost her passion for justice. She was a master scholar at the Sorbonne, attended the University of California at San Diego where she was an active member of the Black Student Union; She attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts where she studied philosophy and she attended Humboldt University. Professor Davis taught in the late l960’s at the University of California, Los Angeles and was fired for her association with communism. She fought the termination in court and won her job back, but left at the end of her contract.
Outside of academia, Angela Davis was a strong supporter of three black prisoners who became known as the “Soledad Brothers” although they were not related. They were accused of killing a prison guard after several African Americans had been killed by guards in another fight. During the highly publicized trial which was also videotaped, there was an escape attempt during which several people were killed. The weapons used were purchased in Angela Davis’s name; she was charged and later acquitted. She has never stopped her fight for social justice.
Photos by Latanya West: