Saturday, June 03, 2006

Angela who... ?

In a moment of boredom this morning I turned on television and clicked the remote into CSPAN (untypical for this hour of the day, especially on a Saturday) to see Dr. Angela Davis of the University of California at Santa Cruz at the mike speaking before the Twelfth Annual Conference on Black Student Government at the University of Iowa. Having nothing better to do at the moment except for matching socks -- and I could do that while watching -- and besides they seem to match better when they're still warm from the clothes dryer, I'd just sit, match and watch.

This is someone I've always been quietly fascinated by, but also somewhat intimidated by as well. She is a brilliant revolutionary thinker far out of my league, I thought. I couldn't ever imagine being in conversation with this remarkable woman though we'd surely traveled on the same path for brief moments in time. But there it ends.

My activism was never deep enough to have taken me to jail for my principles. Nor was it strong enough to have demanded the kinds of risky stands that she'd taken for an entire lifetime. In all honesty, I've rarely felt capable of -- or brave enough to go the distance -- not in the face of the loss of the esteem of friend or fear of foe. I think that she's always made me feel a bit less than... .

Today there would be just Betty and Angela and there was nothing to defend or deny -- from my seat on the sofa I could just lie back and wiggle my bare Saturday morning toes on the hassock and take the time to figure it all out -- try to locate the root of my fascination and admiration -- and (yes) awe of this remarkably brave woman.

Early in her talk she made the vital connection and those "doors of perception" opened wide for me. In her very clear and understated way I heard her say, "... history is not a synonym for the past. History is alive and in this moment. It is dynamic. We are history. We carry the promise of history and it is we who must bear the pain of the past." All else was heard against those words. I sat at rapt sock-dropping attention for the next hour -- as much a part of her audience as were the young students in that auditorium.

It was soon apparent that the basis for my sense of inadequacy in the presence of her brilliance lay in the fact that I'd lived my entire life within about 30 miles in one of the most liberal areas in the world, and despite its shortcomings in real terms. She started life in the racist south born of activist parents; with a mother who'd been as dynamic as she. Her mother fought the fight to defend the Scottsboro boys, been active in the NAACP at a time in history when doing so was the equivalent to being a Communist during the Fifties. Angela was clearly an Internationalist. She surely didn't share my ambivalence about the illegal alien issue. For her there were no national boundaries. I've never grown beyond a kind of informed provincialism due to a lack of exposure to the wider world.

My sincere abhorence of capital punishment grew in isolation from that single exposure to Stanley Tookie Williams and Barbara Cottman Becnel, his activist friend of many years -- and the visit to Death Row a few years ago. Out of that instance, I was able to grasp the need for abolition of the death penalty for all our sakes, but it was from that very small window of experience. This was the microcosm that encapsulates my life, limits my vision, and keeps me properly humble.

Angela has enough education plus experience and the advantages of world travel to have come to the same place at a far more sophisticated level; from the macrocosm.

Says she, "Capital punishment is rooted in racism, and it cannot be abolished until we recognize that fact and move through. During the time of the Civil War there was only one crime for which a white man could be executed; murder. On the other hand, there were 77 crimes for which blacks could be put to death. We cannot get rid of it until we recognize that history and purge ourselves of this shameful legacy through contrition."

Of course. These are facts that I'd never known and, this day I found myself wondering anew at the huge gaps in my (our) education. That I am almost completely intuitive with a deep sense of the awesome cruelty and unfairness of the act -- and that I'd found myself some years ago arriving at the same position -- was the cause of wonder. I could not claim to have arrived at my position intellectually. It was/is therefore harder for me to defend. Angela's gift of clarification was one I'll not soon forget. I'll now dig deeper and not expect those I love to follow my lead blindly just because I have the courage to stand my ground at those San Quentin gates in the shadow of the gas chamber. I will learn more for the sake of furthering this cause.

It was also clear from her remarks that societal violence -- as expressed in so many ways both individually and collectively -- is all of a piece. The ultimate expression of that cancer is surely illustrated not only by capital punishment but by Abu Graib; Guantanamo; the irony of our marines taking "ethics of war lessons" on the battlefield and within earshot of an undeclared and cruel war as a result of murdering 22 innocents in Iraq; the McCarthy-izing of communications by sweeping wiretaps; hidden torture prisons in Europe and the Mideast; over two million of our citizens imprisoned; disenfranchisement via felony convictions; etc.

She ended her remarks with an interesting answer to a question from one of the students in the audience about just what can be done to bring constructive change : " ... it is the job now of youth to be figuring out the answer to that question. It's your responsibility. We've done our work and our role now is to to support yours."

Made me wish I had about 20 more active years. I'm just beginning to get the hang is of this incredible journey called life, I think, and time will surely run out before I get The World into any kind of order ... .

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