Introduced as a “speaker of truths, par excellence,” Angela Davis took the stage at Penn State Greater Allegheny in McKeesport to a standing ovation.
The nearly packed house on Oct. 19 at Wunderley Gymnasium --- more than 1,000 people --- was a diverse, inter-racial crowd, ranging from toddlers to college students taking notes in old-fashioned notebooks to senior citizens with gray ponytails and beards.
Davis, a prominent 74-year-old political activist and academic, became well-known in the 1960s as a radical feminist and member of the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party USA. She was the keynote speaker for Greater Allegheny’s third Crossing Bridges Summit.
Davis asked the audience a seemingly rhetorical question: “What would it take to make a world where we all felt we really truly belong?”
It will take more than a commitment to "diversity," she said.
“Diversity is actually a corporate strategy,” Davis argued. “It becomes apparent that capitalism will function better” when those who were previously excluded can potentially be exploited, she said.
If the goal is to make institutions more just, she said, “what difference does it make to bring (diverse) people into an institution that is just as racist as it was?”
In a nearly 50-minute talk that touched on issues of racism, violence, politics, world affairs and prisons, Davis noted that she has been speaking at colleges for nearly 50 years.
Davis paid homage to the name of the Crossing Bridges Summit, by referencing a chapter called “Bridges” in her autobiography, where she penned a quote that has since become famous: “Walls turned sideways are bridges.”
Jacqueline Edmondson, Penn State Greater Allegheny's chancellor and chief academic officer, said she knew Davis would be provocative and that “not everyone will agree with everything she has to say.”
Edmondson noted that the campus is looking for ways it can bridge racial divides within the community and be a catalyst for social change.
“As we started asking questions to students, history has taught them about civil rights, but mostly it focused on men," Edmondson said.
Bringing Davis to campus was a chance for students to hear directly from a woman who had devoted her life to the cause of civil rights, she said.
“And having students and community members be able to hear directly from Angela Davis is a fabulous opportunity for students to learn from and about her,” Edmondson said.
Part of Davis' talk focused on the U.S. criminal justice system --- in particular the nation's prisons, or what she calls the “prison-industrial complex.”
“In this country, we take it for granted that when you go to prison, you lose your civil rights,” Davis said. Terms like “inmates” and “prisoners” are dehumanizing, she said: “These labels are oppressive.”
Davis called prisons an “apparatus of racism” and said America's history is "rife" with xenophobia and misogyny.
And she had strong opinions about the U.S. president. “If you were to use Donald Trump as a measure of our progress our nation has made in 72 years, the result would be zero or maybe even a negative number,” Davis said.
One of the people who waited in a long line to meet Davis during a book signing was Aaryn Smith, a 23-year-old paralegal who lives in Pittsburgh’s South Side.
“I’ve always had a deep, deep love and appreciation for Angela Davis," Smith said. "I really appreciate the courage that it takes to not only go out and speak truth to power, but to be an active voice in the community.”
Smith, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in conflict resolution, brought with her an oversized portrait --- called “The Essence of Fluorescence”--- that she had painted of Davis.
“She signed it and was so sweet about it,” said Smith, who goes by the name of AryxGold for her art endeavors.
Though older and grayer than she was at the height of her notoriety, Davis is no less willing to challenge the status quo. (“Why is Israel the only state in the world that tries to be immune from criticism?” she asked.)
“We need a new society,” Davis said. “We need a revolution.”
She also challenged her audience to consider the overlapping and interconnected nature of different concerns regarding race, class and gender. “The hallmark of the most effective form of activism is intersectionality,” Davis said.
Feminists, for example, must recognize how their cause intersects with other human needs, she said. They must be feminists who also believe water is a human right, or feminists against xenophobia.
Davis said that she has been able to sustain her own activism by collaborating with other people, because there is “strength in community.”
“In many ways, we have forgotten how to build these communities," she said. "We can’t carry these burdens alone.”
Davis also encouraged listeners to "remember those that came before us."
“We are here only because of the work that they have done, five or 10 decades ago," she said. "Our responsibility is to engage into the kind of principled struggle today that 100 years from now, this institution will still be here … to discuss the range of problems that people are experiencing.”
Lynne Glover is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Carnegie Magazine and other publications. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published October 25, 2018.