Black History Month Series: Reflections on Angela Davis

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Wednesday, January 21, noted author, educator, and activist, Angela Davis, delivered a keynote address at Portland State University during its MLK Tribute event. Several CCC staff members attended the event, so we sat down with Catharine Hunter to ask her some questions about what she learned.

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Why were you interested in seeing Angela Davis?
I was interested because of everything that’s going on in the country right now. I just wanted to hear what her perspective would be.

Had you heard about Angela Davis before?
I had, but I didn’t know too much before I went and saw her. I just knew that she was a vocal social justice activist and that she had been doing her work for decades.

Was her talk more personal, academic, or both?
There was quite a bit of academic talk, but she also told stories about events that I wasn’t aware of that put things in perspective.

When you say that it put things in perspective, what do you mean by that?
She talked a lot about that we shouldn’t be shocked by the events that had been going on. She made a point of saying that when we heard [the shooting of Michael Brown] happened, we were all shocked. And when we heard that the white police officer was acquitted, we were all shocked. 

But she said that, really, we shouldn’t be shocked because it’s not shocking that either of those things happened. She gave many examples of lesser known stories about similar situations that, for a lot of us in the room, we ended up thinking, “You’re right. We shouldn’t be shocked. This is going on all the time.”

The title of her talk was Living the Legacy: The Meaning of Freedom. What did you expect, knowing that that was the title of her lecture?
When I think of freedom, I think of freedom from all oppressions. She brought things back to how we can’t talk about these events… We don’t talk about racism in an open way. We don’t talk about slavery in an open way. I felt like that’s an oppression on all of us – that we’re not talking as a society openly about these things. How can we move forward toward freedom if we’re not willing to talk about this stuff?

Based on what she said, is it more of an unwillingness to talk about these issues, or not having the tools to talk about them?
I think it’s a bit of both. I mean, people get really uncomfortable talking about those issues. I also think people get worried about saying the wrong thing, so I think that often stops people from having those discussions.

After hearing her talk about that – about the need to resist oppression by bringing those things to light by talking about them – have you found yourself thinking differently about things you’ve heard or seen since then?
Yeah. I try to remember not to be shocked. I think she said something to the effect of “we need to be radical, but we need to be patient.”

This kind of work takes a long time. I think I’ve thought about that quite a bit. What does that look like exactly? How for myself, how does that play out? How, for my community, does that play out? How can I be a part of that radicalism?

Portland’s pretty white. I didn’t realize the history of Portland until recently. It’s upsetting. So I’ve been thinking about that too and how that affects people of color even more than I had initially given thought to.

How does your acknowledgment of your race play into what you heard form Angela about what needs to happen and what needs to change? Did her talk make you think more about where you find yourself in this big picture of radicalism and resisting oppression?
I think I’ve thought more of, like, I need to learn some more and I need to expose my son to more. I need to get more information and become more aware.

I can start by finding events that we can go to and experience. In having conversations with people more about what’s going on in this city and other cities, and how to get involved to be an ally to people of color rather than sitting back. And learning these things with my son.

It’s having conversations. After hearing her speak and thinking about everything that’s going on – realizing that these aren’t isolated incidents - I guess I want to make it clear to myself and my child that not everything is okay. I guess my job as a parent, then, is to make my son aware that “Yeah, people of color are still struggling and deal with things that we will never experience as white people.” It’s my job as his mom to make sure he realizes that and is more understanding so we can become better allies.

When it comes to being an ally to communities of color, how do you think that plays out?
I feel like when you’re an ally, the people you are being an ally to are the ones who can tell what you can do to be an ally. I want to reach out to communities of color to ask what that looks like. I want to and need to listen. 

Catharine Hunter is Central City Concern’s Donor Services Manager.