At one time Angela Yvonne Davis was, as a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, a proud member of the Communist Party. She was fired for that very reason — her pride, not so much the membership part. She ran from the feds, got thrown in prison, served a 16-month sentence and was finally acquitted — clinched fist raised in defiance.
She's now a tenured professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, despite then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's vow she'd never again teach in California's college system.
In between, her floppy red Afro, stern resolve, dashikis and her refusal to break ranks with herself and join the status quo are what made and make her my heroine.
From 1970, when Davis was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List to her 1972 trial and on, my mother looked a lot like Davis. She sported her own voluminous red Afro, wire-rimmed glasses and bellbottoms. She especially resembled Davis in her statuesque resistance to sexism and racism.
People where I grew up shouted "Free Angela!" as if merely saying it would get it done, but there were miles to grow before she'd walk. At age 5, I knew Davis as an icon and figurehead; the injustice trapping her was but one of countless others before and since the civil rights movement.
Last summer I made my way to an African merchant on Fifth Street. I'd heard he had Angela Davis T-shirts. I snagged a brown one. I wear it for effect, for power, for identification.
When Davis addressed a near-capacity crowd on May 10 in Zimmer Auditorium at the University of Cincinnati, I was finally under the sound of her voice.
"Standing here at this podium at UC and in Cincinnati, I can't help but feel that, in some sense, I'm standing at the center of the world," she said. "There are some (aspects) connecting Cincinnati with Palestine and Kabul."
Then Davis did what every conscious/conscientious person paid to be seen here should do. She addressed us where we are, twice invoking the name of Timothy Thomas.
"I have never crossed a picket line or violated a boycott," she said, "so I did come after I was assured this is being done in the spirit of building restoration to . . . end police misconduct and economic apartheid in this city."
Applause erupted like pork dropped in hot grease.
I've always liked the way her mind moves around at will. Davis deftly deconstructs complicated ideas, unraveling and restitching thoughts into wholly digestible blocks and demystifying academia. Maybe what always made her dangerous is her insistence we all be included in the thought process.
"Knowledge is produced at many sites," she said. "It's not only produced at colleges and universities. One of the most important sites is at radical activism — activism against racism, against gender bias, against homophobia and activism against war on terrorism."
She spoke of connection of male dominance and racism.
"We continue to be told this is the end of racism, and that we no longer need affirmative action. Much of the racism explicit in the law has been eliminated, but does that mean racism has ended? Racism doesn't only express itself in the law. There are structural forms of racism."
Davis then took off on prison reform/abolition, women's health, white male privilege and the public apathy inherent in George W. Bush's presidency. Davis told us of the "historical links" begging us to make the right moves. We are not to look back in regret when our present becomes our past.
"Where are we at the beginning of the 21st century? Are we more able to act upon those links and connections or are we less able?
"The forces of oppression count on the parochial and provincial nature of our character. Let me be more specific. The Bush Administration relies on a certain kind of common sense that assumes we'll act upon a simplistic thought process as in a division of the world into legions that do good and those that do evil.
"Bush claims so many of our problems will be solved by revisiting marriage as an institution of male dominance as a panacea for welfare mothers.
"His presidency is about regression. So how do we exist in a post-Sept. 11th society? I'm reluctant to use that term, 'America,' because there are so many nations in America. How is it we got bamboozled by the notion of a multi-cultural America?"
Listening to Davis was like watching a hit-and-run accident.
Now let's clean up after ourselves.
Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.