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Black Liberation: The Ghosts of the Past, the Potential of the Future

We have to learn how to imagine the future in terms that are not restricted to our own lifetimes.

Angela Y. Davis gives a lecture at the University of Vienna. (Photo: Universität Wien)

In a world full of outrageous injustice, how can we work together to build a movement for human liberation? Angela Y. Davis provides answers in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, illuminating the connections between past and present struggles for justice and freedom all around the world. Click here to make a donation to Truthout and order your copy of a book Mumia Abu-Jamal calls “vintage Angela: insightful, curious, observant and brilliant.”

The following is an excerpt from Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, the beginning of a speech that Davis delivered at Davidson College in 2013:

Thank you so much and good evening everyone. First of all it is a pleasure and an honor to be here at Davidson College to help you celebrate Black History Month. I always welcome the opportunity to come to North Carolina because I spent a number of years of my own activist career doing work in this state.

So first of all, let me say that Black History Month falls in the month of February, about which people used to complain because it’s the shortest month of the year, but there are specific reasons, including the birthday of Frederick Douglass, why we observe Black history during this month. And I should also say that since we began to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King in the middle of January we’ve extended our February celebration so now at least we have a month and a half. And those of us who recognize the constitutive role that Black women have played in the struggle for women’s rights in this country continue to celebrate Black history during Women’s History Month, which means that we now have two and a half months to specifically recognize Black history. That’s not that bad.

Black history, whether here in North America, or in Africa, or in Europe, has always been infused with a spirit of resistance, an activist spirit of protest and transformation. So I’m happy to be invited to address the topic of social protest and transformation from the sixties to the present.

(Image: Haymarket Books)(Image: Haymarket Books)When we celebrate Black history it is not primarily for the purpose of representing individual Black people in the numerous roles as first to break down barriers in the many fields that have been historically closed to people of color, although it is extremely important to acknowledge these firsts. But rather, we celebrate Black history, I believe, because it is a centuries-old struggle to achieve and expand freedom for us all. And so Black history is indeed American history, but it is also world history. There is a reason why in 2008 there was such a planetary euphoria when Obama was elected. That a Black man who identified with the spirit of the historical struggle for Black liberation could be elected president of the United States was a cause for rejoicing everywhere in the world, because people everywhere have identified with this sustained struggle for freedom or what Cedric Robinson calls “the Black radical tradition.”

It is a tradition that can be claimed by people everywhere. Regardless of race, regardless of nationality, regardless of geographical location. Moreover, Black Americans have been the beneficiaries of solidarity generated in all parts of the world. Frederick Douglass traveled to Europe to gain support for antislavery abolition. Ida B. Wells traveled to England and Ireland and Scotland to generate support for the antilynching movement. And then of course Canada offered sanctuary from slavery. When the Fugitive Slave Law prevented those who escaped from slavery from finding refuge anywhere inside the United States, the Underground Railroad had to extend up to Canada.

And then of course we can talk about cases such as the Scottsboro Nine. My mother was one of the many activists who joined the struggle to free the Scottsboro Nine in the 1930s and the 1940s. An international campaign developed, although it would be many decades before the last of the Scottsboro Nine were freed. In the 1950s there was a notorious case in North Carolina known as the Kissing Case. In Monroe, North Carolina, in 1958, a young Black boy about six years old kissed a white girl with whom he was playing and was arrested on attempted rape charges. I mention this case not so much because of its spectacular character, but because of the media attention generated in Europe that eventually led to the freeing of this young boy. And then of course there are numerous political prisoners who have been the beneficiaries of global solidarity movements. I include myself among those political prisoners.

When I was in jail there were campaigns literally all over the world. In Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, in Europe, in the former Soviet Union, in Germany — both East and West. You heard from Professor Caplan . . . about the current case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose plight is the subject of more public discussion in Europe than here in the United States. And then of course the founding of the Black Panther Party not only captured the imagination of young people all over the United States within a very short period of time; there were Black Panther Party chapters in every major city in this country. And you’ll have the opportunity to hear from the head of the Black Panther Party in Winston-Salem, next Monday I believe. But Black Panther Parties were created in places like New Zealand. Maori people who were struggling against racism in New Zealand created a Black Panther Party. In Brazil there was a Black Panther Party. In Israel there was a Black Panther Party.

So I want us to think about the very capacious framework within which the protests and struggles for Black liberation evolved. People all over the world have been inspired by the Black freedom movement to forge activist movements addressing oppressive conditions in their own countries. In fact you might say that there has been a symbiotic relationship between struggles abroad and struggles at home, relationships of inspiration and mutuality. The historical South African freedom struggle was inspired in part by the historical Black American freedom struggle. The Black American freedom struggle was inspired in part by the South African freedom struggle. In fact, I can remember growing up in the most segregated city in the country, Birmingham, Alabama, and learning about South Africa because Birmingham was known as the Johannesburg of the South. Dr. Martin Luther King was inspired by Gandhi to engage in nonviolent campaigns against racism. And in India, the Dalits, formerly known as untouchables and other people who’ve been struggling against the caste system have been inspired by the struggles of Black Americans. More recently, young Palestinians have organized Freedom Rides, recapitulating the Freedom Rides of the 1960s by boarding segregated buses in the occupied territory of Palestine and being arrested as the Black and white Freedom Riders were in the sixties. They announced their project to be the Palestinian Freedom Riders.

So I want us to think about this more capacious framework within which to consider Black history. I want to express concern that our collective relationship to history in this country is seriously flawed. Of course many of you are familiar with the William Faulkner quote that bears repeating: “The past is never dead. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And so we live with the ghosts of our past. We live with the ghosts of slavery. And I wonder why in 2013 we are not vigorously celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Do you find that strange? I know that Obama issued a proclamation on December 31 urging people to celebrate the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but I don’t know anyone who did. Do you? Then I’m also wondering what will be on the agenda for the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Maybe another film?

So I want to pursue this theme of living with the ghosts of our pasts. I’ve been asked to talk about the protest movements of the sixties. But those protest movements would not have been necessary — it would not have been necessary to create a mid-century Black freedom movement had slavery been comprehensively abolished in the nineteenth century. The movement we call the “civil rights movement,” and that was called by most of its participants the “freedom movement,” reveals an interesting slippage between freedom and civil rights, as if civil rights has colonized the whole space of freedom, that the only way to be free is to acquire civil rights within the existing framework of society. Had slavery been abolished in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation, or in 1865 through the Thirteenth Amendment, Black people would have enjoyed full and equal citizenship and it would not have been necessary to create a new movement.

One of the most hidden eras of US history is the period of Radical Reconstruction. It was certainly the most radical period. There were Black elected officials. Then we had to wait more than another century to get them back. There was the development of public education. People in this country are still unaware of the fact that former slaves brought public education to the South. That white kids in the South would never have had the opportunity to get an education had not it been for the persistent campaigns for education. Because education was equivalent to liberation. No liberation without education. And then of course there was the economic development during that brief period. I’m talking about the period between 1865 and 1877, Radical Reconstruction. As a matter of fact, many progressive laws were passed when Black people were in the legislatures of various states, progressive laws with respect to women’s rights as well, not just with respect to issues of race.

I’ve been thinking that if we really manage to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and we have another couple of years between now and the sesquicentennial of the Thirteenth Amendment, every person in this country, from high school to the postgraduate level, should read WEB Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America. In the 1960s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860s. And I’m making this point because what happens when 2060 rolls around? Will people still be addressing these same issues? And I also think it’s important for us to think forward and to imagine future history in a way that is not restrained by our own lifetimes. Oftentimes people say, well, if it takes that long, I’ll be dead. So what? Everybody dies, right? And if people who were involved in the struggle against slavery — I’m thinking about people like Frederick Douglass, or Ida B. Wells in the struggle against lynching — if they had that very narrow individualistic sense of their own contributions, where would we be today? And so we have to learn how to imagine the future in terms that are not restricted to our own lifetimes.

Copyright (2016) by Angela Y. Davis. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.

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