They predicted it would be standing room only, so I came early; it offers me time to reflect. Sitting at the edge of the balcony with my notebook and a clear view of the entire concert hall, I’m startled by a wave of wistfulness. Suddenly and acutely, I am aware of the passage of time, and momentarily, the passing of an era that invigorated and felt right. I’m back here once again and occupying this seat now, because I left things unfinished. Trading the activism of youth for the mantle of motherhood and family, my attention and commitment had wandered. It’s Martin Luther King Day and every MLK Holiday, I tally the progress and sigh at how much is left undone in America and its race relations. This past year, however, the accounting and the daily news reminders have compelled me to engage once again.
Angela Davis has been one of my unlikely heroes since the sixties; her steadfast courage inspired. More mythical creature and folk hero in my mind than real human being, I can hardly believe I will see her and meet her all these years later. I requested to interview her for the Charter for Compassion but she has declined all interviews while in town. Her assistant tells me she has six engagements this week alone and she will give her keynote address and leave immediately. I suppose it’s a kind of poetic justice that she’s refusing media attention and so avoids scrutiny. It’s quite likely that every time she does an interview, she’s asked about her past for which she’s not so much famous, as notorious. The media is, after all, about ratings, and has devolved to more spectacle than information. That focus forgets her subsequent work—in academia and the humanities. For her past activities, Angela’s crucifixion and dismemberment were very public and quite the spectacle. I imagine she grows weary of having her work eclipsed and being displaced permanently to the past.
She walks into the hall and a cheer goes up while a tear rolls down, involuntarily. It’s the 25th anniversary of this community’s celebration of Martin Luther King Day. That’s a much different position from the area’s historic policy and treatment toward people of color. Louis Armstrong once played a local ballroom and had to enter the hotel venue through the kitchen and was not welcome to spend the night there. Known as a “sundown town,” in this community all people of color had to be outside the city limits at dusk. To evoke Dr. King is to acknowledge past struggles for people of color even though Wisconsin soldiers wore blue during the civil war. To punctuate the irony, Wisconsin originally was Native American territory with many of its cities now named for prominent Indians and Indian names in Native language.
Professor Davis launches into her speech and brings up the ideology of “colorblindness” and points out that it’s a false security because racism is actually hidden behind the philosophy of colorblindness. She cites “the tyranny of the universal” which means offering generalities so as to avoid examining specific issues of discrimination and racism. The audience holds a collective breath when Davis, a former Black Panther, tells them that this is actually the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. The college students of color stand and give a black power salute. Another tear and this time a lump forms—A fitting salute, I suppose, to all the work in civil rights that seems like eons ago and yet, like it was just yesterday—figuratively and literally. It still stings. We are not done. Compassion toward our fellow man no matter what color skin or ethnicity is still MIA—missing in action in the collective. The university students recently went public about their experiences of racism at the hands of faculty and community, the city fumbling to respond. Angela’s appearance is part of the area educating itself while building community.
Déjà vu remembers my “Free Angela” button and wonders whatever happened to it. Angela was a household name in the early seventies. A stunning beauty, her face was iconic, a powerful brand for the civil rights movement and Black Panther Party. She appeared on posters everywhere: pop culture posters, Black Panther Party posters, “Free Angela” posters, but became infamous for an appearance on FBI wanted posters. The 3rd ever female on the FBI “ten most wanted” list, she was sought for conspiracy to commit murder because of guns; her purchase was used by incarcerated civil rights Black Panthers Party militants to kill a prison guard. A revolutionary and sympathizer, she would spend 18 months in jail awaiting a trial where eventually 12 White jurors would find her not guilty. Davis was an organizer and leader for the Communist Party; America at that time was embroiled in a nuclear arms race and felt the obligatory hatred for the Communist Soviet Union. Angela grew up with Communist sympathizers and believed that disparate governance was a viable path to racial equality.
Not sure which evil was worse—the Black Panther Party member or the ‘dirty Communist,’ the “establishment” (government, society and prevailing thought paradigm) including J. Edgar Hoover, The FBI, and President Reagan branded her a radical, an undesirable, and a domestic terrorist. Her popular counterculture rise to power collided with Hoover’s actual power stranglehold on Washington and his Cointelpro task force which stalked, spied on, detained and employed black ops against those who challenged and rattled the majority racist and privileged White class. A great deal of the Black Panther Party history is “White-washed” in the history books, painting them as domestic terrorists. They wore combat fatigues and flaunted open carry of weapons, not unlike some organized groups today. The Black Panthers formed because they didn’t trust the predominately White police, so they policed and protected their own neighborhoods. Law enforcement back then openly did worse than they do now to Black people, particularly the men—target, arrest, harass and kill without impunity. Panther Party members were roused from their beds routinely and some were executed during the FBI’s Cointelpro raids. Very few White people, in particular, know the real history of the Black Panthers. Few know, for example that it was the Black Panthers which instituted breakfast in schools for students in poor neighborhoods. Theirs is a deep and interesting story; I didn’t learn it in high school or college, the only reason I know it is because of my research and writing about pop culture and the greatest black artist of the twentieth century. If not for the requisite research, I still wouldn’t know.
Davis and the Black Panther Party were the first to try to make Black Lives Matter, by attempting to fight the cavalier treatment of black lives and black bodies by those in authority; they called for investigations and exposed racist officers; they outed the government’s introduction of drugs to neighborhoods and the routine planting of drug evidence, weapons and fictitious tales, reputations and charges, in order to maintain control over the populations in their jurisdictions. It was likely fear-inspired; there is an almost genetic White fear of Black men who are viewed as threatening—a fear about skin color and mythology of inferior and brute mentality, that goes far back in history.
Davis arrived on the scene during, and represents, a turbulent time featuring a counterculture movement long overdue for Black Americans trying to escape the legacies of slavery. This is not her first visit to Appleton; she reminds the audience that she was not welcomed here the first time—in the seventies. The laughter response is genuine but nervous.
Now, a professor Emerita of History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dr. Davis supervises PhD candidates and she’s still an activist focusing currently on the “prison industrial complex,” (her coined phrase) and the criminalization of communities that encompasses racial and economic disparities, abject poverty, gentrification, marginalization and racism. Her lobbyist weapon are books she authors calling for more compassion in the prison system, in the neighborhoods and for freedom from the marginalization of people of color through an institutionalization of that poverty, prejudice and racism.
Listening to her words about Dr. King, I’m startled by the latent emotion in that where-were-you-when memory that’s reserved for monumental and life-changing events. That was the day when hearts were broken everywhere as a great champion of humanity was silenced forever. Those hearts have never quite healed; many of them are here tonight. We, in our broken heartedness, have summoned other historic voices besides Angela Davis’ calling us to sanity and since silenced— Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Dante Parker, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland...
Angela speaks of freedom riders, the marches and speeches and sit-ins and protests that made history and called for equal civil rights and protections and remind us that black freedom struggles continue. She speaks of the triple evils that steal compassion and solidarity and humanity from people—materialism, capitalism and militarism. She observes how the country that is supposed to lead the world in democracy practices a Bourgeois Democracy that works well for the elite while it marginalizes those whose labor actually creates the new wealth. She reminds that a CEO in 1968 made 20 times the average worker’s salary but now makes 300 times that figure.
“The history of prisons is much shorter than people think ,” Davis declares citing the skewed minority statistics, calling it “‘a culture of death’—death through violence, social death, a living death with no lives in redemption, that includes the death penalty, and whose sentencing of life in prison really means to meet death there and die in prison. Prisons should be impermanent,” she says, as she calls for “better handling of transgressions by individual members of society that are ultimately less damaging to the community; not institutions that drain resources and comprise and reinforce structural racism. Reform of a dysfunctional system will not work according to Dr. Davis; to prosecute police more means sending cops to prison which just perpetuates more violence. “
She wonders out loud “how might democracy look different today, had former slaves been incorporated into that new democracy?” It’s an intriguing question and a fair one. “The ship we were attempting to sail,” she says, “was sinking.”
“What we need,” she affirms, “is to build beloved community, to envision new forms of justice, to rethink immigration in the acknowledgement of our own struggle against forms of imprisonment, to find new conceptions of security, of jobs and education, housing, healthcare, mental healthcare, to adopt an assimilation-ist strategy and to not do anti-politics but alter-politics.”
That sounds suspiciously like a fierce prescription for compassion. I remember His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at Satsang saying with his thick Indian accent: “Compassion does not mean being sweetie-sweetie all the time.
We can develop a kind of compassion that treats others the way we wish to be treated and demands it of self and others. We can practice the compassion His Holiness the Dalai Lama says the world needs so badly—compassion for the suffering of others. Oppressed people suffer. They always suffer. How, then can we act in favor of change? Begin with education; educate yourself. Explore “White privilege;” investigate what “Black Lives Matter” really means and how White lives have already mattered a long time while Black lives and Black bodies haven’t; learn what micro-aggressions are; read about slavery and oppression; find out what “the talk” is that every Black family must have with their teenage male that White families don’t need to have; study Black music and musicians; watch films; learn Black history; explore blackface and vaudeville and tap-dancing and mockery in entertainment; find the history of African Americans in sports; read about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, Medgar Evers, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Adam Clayton Powell and the Harlem Renaissance.
Spike Lee told us 25 years ago about oppression and what was happening in the ‘hood in his film “Do The Right Thing;” When you watch it, you could easily believe it’s 2016, for it’s the same thing that’s happening in neighborhoods now to people of color.
Are racial tensions really so confusing or race relations really so complex? Or is it this simple: everybody wants to be valued? Angela Davis and her friends sparked a revolution and started the dialogue five decades ago and fifty years later we are still having the same conversation. Between then and now are fifty years of violence and insults and oppression and pain. Maybe they were right the first time around: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Maybe while we’re having the dialogue this time, we might add a new kind of informed conversation, and while we’re talking—instead of just empty words, we might begin to embody the solution.
Sometimes compassion must be fierce. Thank you Angela, for your loyalty, for the reminders and echoes, and the fiercely compassionate renewed call for revolution to build beloved community—for ourselves and our brothers in a just and humane world. If I had a Zippo, I would light it and I symbolically raise my fist to you.
Barbara Kaufmann, “One Wordsmith” is staff and Lead Volunteer for the “Arts” Sector of the Charter for Compassion International. She tells “story” in words, images, art, music, and film. Founder of “Words and Violence” Program about bullying in all its forms on this planet, and writer for Voices Education Project, Charter for Compassion International, Huffington Post contributor, poet, artist, scriptwriter and filmmaker—Barbara “writes to simply change the world” in favour of a more humane narrative on this planet.