Civil-rights activist Angela Davis enchants Montreal audience

Angela Davis speaks during Black History Month in Montreal in February 2013. (Photo by Irwin Block)
Angela Davis speaks in Montreal during Black History Month in February 2013. (Photo: Irwin Block)

Angela Davis speaks in Montreal during Black History Month in February 2013. (Photo: Irwin Block)

The name Angela Davis recalls the heady and sometimes violent 1960s, the American civil-rights struggle and the political and social ferment that swept through much of the world, including Canada.

Davis became an iconic figure because of her ties to the Black Panthers and leftist activism. She was charged with murder in what was regarded as a frame-up, then acquitted, and at one point considered seeking refuge in Canada. She was a high-profile leader in the Communist Party of the U.S.A. and twice ran for vice-president on its ticket before breaking with it in the early 1990s.

Photos of her with an afro was one of the enduring symbols of that era, known around the world.

She taught for 17 years in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has written and lectured on feminist issues and the prison-industrial complex in the U.S.

Davis was invited here for a cultural evening, part of Black History Month, and was enthusiastically welcomed by a standing-room-only crowd Feb. 19 at l’Astral cabaret on Ste. Catherine St.

It was a long, rambling event and Davis’s talk was equally long and rambling, though always coherent—a tour d’horizon of a range of issues.

She was warm and generous in reaching out to admiring fans. She congratulated the FRO Foundation, which sponsored her visit. It seeks to encourage creative development among Montrealers based on the cultural traditions of their native lands.

“We need the creativity, vision and the imagination of artists and poets to teach us to dream and to struggle for the realization of our dreams,” she told the crowd—artists and admirers from many backgrounds.

Referring to the history-month theme, the Struggle Is Not Over, Davis expanded on words by Dr. Martin Luther King: “Justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

On racial profiling: Davis recalled that Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker was frisked at a New York City deli last month after an employee wrongly suspected him of stealing an item. (The owner of the Milano Market later apologized and fired the employee.)

“This is a daily experience for vast numbers of black people in the U.S. and here in Canada … the presumption of criminality that has persisted since the days of slavery.”

On the re-election of President Barack Obama, for whom she offers critical support: “The majority of white men voted for Mitt Romney—that tells us something about the persistence of racism—however, 96 per cent of black women, 87 of Latino women and a majority of white women voted for Obama. … The election showed that white men do not control the scene anymore. I’m talking about the one per cent and the forces of racism.”

On Black History Month: “lt is the history of the quest for liberation, and it belongs to all who identify with and cherish historical and ongoing struggles for freedom.”

On the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation: “It was a military strategy about saving the Union. … Lincoln knew that black people would fight far more passionately than white soldiers to save the Union because it meant the possibility of freedom. W.E.B. Dubois argues that black soldiers won the civil war.”

On the black presence in U.S. prisons: “As Michelle Alexander in her recent book, The New Jim Crow, has pointed out, there are more black men in prison in the U.S. than there were enslaved in 1850. That tells us something about the persistence of slavery. As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past is not dead, it is not even past’.” (There were an estimated 3.2 million slaves in the U.S. in 1850, 3.9 million in 1860. Alexander actually referred to black men in prison and jail, on probation and parole, estimated to be as high as 5 million.)

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