Members of Decolonise Sociology reflect on Angela Davis’ historic visit to Cambridge in April 2019, where she appeared alongside Jackie Kay and Gina Dent.
In April of 2019, the activist, scholar and political icon Angela Davis arrived in Cambridge for two prominent events: a public conversation with poet and novelist Jackie Kay, and a symposium titled “Pathways to Liberation: Celebrating Black British Feminisms” with Gina Dent.
Angela, Jackie and Gina’s visit to Cambridge was organised by the Decolonise Sociology and supported by the Office of the Vice Chancellor and nine co-sponsors , and was a culmination of the energies and efforts to decolonise the university. During discussions about decolonisation in the Sociology department, one of the topics raised by students was the need for “culture change” in the university, and who better to create the space to envisage this change than the inspirational Angela Davis.
The excitement in the room was palpable, not just because Angela Davis is a civil rights hero and black feminist abolitionist, but also because for many in the audience she is a symbol of the victory of collective organising over oppression – she decries patriarchy, racism and homophobia. She is a symbol of defiance against injustices and creates a space to believe in alternative futures.
“This event is historic: two of the most powerful Black women speaking and writing today are addressing us here in Cambridge, in the largest venue we could find in town, which has never seen anything like it before.” Dr Figueroa framed the conversation as part of the effort to “decolonise and decentre knowledge” in university spaces, stating: “People of colour cannot be the exception anymore, anywhere”.Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Cambridge Race Equality Champion
Davis is also a role model, and with only 25 black female professors in the UK, and none in Cambridge, one can imagine why women of colour in the audience were especially excited to listen to her talk. One student said on reflection: “It was such a powerful experience, and having three prominent black women on a major stage like the Corn Exchange was so affirming.”
Angela spoke of the role of young people in generating hope, and the importance of that hope in activism: “As Walter Benjamin says, we are given hope for the sake of those who are without hope, and young people cannot live without hope. And that is why the real revolutionaries are always really the youth, are young people”. She was all too happy to pass the torch to the next generation, describing the need to “convey those struggles in such a way that another generation comes and takes it up and moves it further”.
She spoke to the potential of future activists, saying “I always like the metaphor of that we are standing on the shoulders of the generation before us, and there will be those who stand on our shoulders, and those who are on our shoulders have a much longer vision — they’re able to see so much further.”
“I don’t mind being the person now who needs to learn to follow the leadership of young people — I like that. Don’t you?”Angela Davis, 2019
Angela’s aim to inspire and energise was successful, with several students writing in to the organisers to describe the personal significance and impact the event had for them. Former CUSU women’s officer and prominent activist Lola Olufemi wrote in her personal reflection how the words of Angela Davis “found a home in young activists”, and another attendee said: “Having that representation, and hearing the voices of women who need to be heard, was a fantastic experience.” The event also received a glowing report in Varsity, one of Cambridge University’s student newspapers.
A New Approach
There is another sense in which this event was particularly special, and that is in the way that it subverted the formats used previously in similar events. In 2015, Angela Davis spoke at the Oxford Union in favour of the motion that “Extremism in the defence of Liberty is no Vice”. This motion was previously forwarded at the Union by Malcom X in 1964, prompting Angela to open with Marx’s observation that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”, to amusement from the audience.
Cambridge could have done the same, inviting Angela to return to the topic of the historic debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. at the Cambridge Union in 1965: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” However, what we saw at the Corn Exchange was rather different. Instead of a competitive academic battling of wits, the conversational format and Jackie Kay’s thoughtful line of questions allowed Angela to step outside of her usual role.
By putting Angela in conversation with Jackie Kay, a black feminist who knew what it was like to be labelled “a black feminist”, Angela was able to reflect on and define her legacy in her own terms. Here we met Angela Davis aside from her public persona as a symbol for the civil rights movement, which has been shaped to such a great extent by powers outside of her control. Jackie observed to Angela that “Your life became a story that was happening to you”, and in those moments “we tend to step outside of ourselves”.
Angela informed the audience that the ‘Free Angela’ movement “wasn’t at all about me – my image served as a way of thinking about processes of empowerment”. This refrain runs through Angela’s autobiography, and was commented on by director Shola Lynch, who noted Angela’s insistence that her documentary be titled “Free Angela Davis and all political prisoners” to emphasise the shared nature of her struggle.
Jackie Kay’s thoughtful line of questions allowed Angela room to talk about topics other than politics – perfectly captured in an anecdote from Angela about being dragged into political conversations in the club.
“I had been in jail for nearly two years and of course I was in my 20s and I was still wanting to party. And so I’d go to these parties and people would see me and feel obligated to have a political conversation!” Challenging that political persona, Angela would say: “You don’t have to do that, let’s dance! Let’s have some fun this evening!”
In the same way, Angela and Jackie were able to swap stories and anecdotes with humour and goodwill. Members of the audience described it as a privilege to be able to watch this friendly, caring, joyous exchange, imbued equally with jovialities as nuanced and highly informative discussions of politics, such as the contradictions within “glass ceiling” feminism.
Pathways to Liberation: Celebrating Black British Feminism
Part of what attracted Angela to Cambridge was the promise of a symposium the following day, which explored pathways to liberation and black feminist activism in Britain. This follow up event gave her a chance to see the work being done towards abolition in the UK, and the ways she has inspired successive generations of activists with her legacy. The event was dedicated to the work of academics and activists:
“This symposium has its roots in radical Black and Women of Colour activist and academic legacies and their vital contribution to the transformation of the University. ‘Decolonising’ Higher Education in the UK and elsewhere must mean more than simply increasing inclusivity and diversity. The radical Black intellectual traditions that stretch back more than a century link feminism, postcolonialism, anti-imperialism and anti-racism to the very ideas of economy, polity, society – or freedom, justice, abolition and solidarity. The intersectional focus of radical Black and Women of Colour critiques links the historic violence of enslavement, colonialism, apartheid, patriarchy and racial capitalism to the contemporary politics of the prison-industrial complex, Islamophobia, poverty, sexual violence, border controls and environmental destruction. We are here to make these connections matter even more in the academy and to celebrate Black Feminist knowledge produced within and outside of the Universities’ walls. We are here to recognise the rich legacy of creative, critical radicalism in the writings and activisms of Black feminism and to ensure these powerful traditions become more foundational of our futures.”Pathways to Liberation: Celebrating Black British Feminism (Murray Edwards College, April 2019)
The first panel featured exceptional organisers from FLY, the group for women and non-binary students of colour in Cambridge. These instrumental activists reflected on the importance of Black feminist theory – practically, emotionally and theoretically – and its role and application in informing student activism in Cambridge. Angela personally met and thanked the members of this panel – she was deeply impressed and moved by their political awareness and eloquence, and effusive in her praise of their work.
The panel linked back to the conversation from the day before about the search for alternative social structures and belief in the possibility of a fairer, kinder world. In Lola Olufemi’s words: “In the room, we are all grasping for non-market values – love, care, kindness. Without knowing it, we are making an argument for something else, anything else.” Jackie Kay presaged this effort the day before when she proclaimed: “The future isn’t going to be Democrats or Republicans, or Labour or Conservatives, or whatever, it’s going to be this, [gesturing to the audience] this third way”.
The second panel, organised by feminist direct-action collective Sisters Uncut, opened up a conversation about the intersecting politics of domestic violence, housing crises, and domestic and migrant incarceration and detention regimes. There was also a collective reflection on the occupation of Holloway Women’s Prison and the ongoing need for anti-racist feminist direct action in Britain today.
A particularly memorable moment came when one of the Sisters made her case for abolition despite the murder of her best friend’s mother by an abusive partner. The strength in that personal testimony came from the recognition of the anger, pain and injustice, and yet she told those gathered that incarcerating the perpetrator would not have stopped that violence. It was a deeply moving contribution and was met with a wave of applause in support and solidarity.
The third panel reflected upon Black British feminist histories and considered how these histories offer us a vital and critical resource for the present. As in the previous two panels, connections were drawn between knowledge and activism within a Black feminist framework, and the interplay of ways of knowing and ways of being.
The symposium concluded with a keynote lecture by Dr Gina Dent (University of California, Santa Cruz), who abandoned the speech she had prepared and instead spoke candidly to the themes raised in the previous panels, reflecting both on abolition and liberation work as well as solidarity in scholarship. In her closing remarks on intersectionality, Dr Dent said to murmurs of agreement from the audience: “it’s treated as if the term does the work, but we are the ones who do the work”.
 The event was co-hosted by Decolonise Sociology and the Office for the Vice Chancellor; and co-sponsored by the Centre for African Studies, the Centre for Latin American Studies, the Centre for Gender Studies, the Faculty of Education, the Faculty of History, POLIS, UCU Cambridge, Downing College and Lord Chris Smith (Master of Pembroke College).
⬤ Decolonise Sociology would like to express deep gratitute to these sponsors for making this event possible.
Photography by Chris Boland