Friday, July 11, 2014

"My Political Life Has Been Informed by the Struggle in South Africa" --- Angela Davis | JWTC 2014 Interview

American political thinker and activist, Angela Davis, traveled through South Africa with the JWTC mobile conference. During our stop at Ginsberg, I had a chance to chat with her at the Steve Biko Center. She reflects on how the South African anti-racist struggle informs her political work and comments on the place of women in political struggle. 

Angela Davis addressing JWTC participants on the Bus. (c) Tana Nolethu Forrest  

Ainehi Edoro:  60 intellectuals. One bus. 47 hours of road time. And the theme: "The Archives of the Non-Racial." What is your sense of what this intellectual project is about?

Angela Davis: The project is informed by place and space. This was the attraction for me---our movement from Johannesburg to Swaziland to the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. I have visited South Africa on three other occasions, but this is the first that I’ve been able to acquire a real sense of space. Of course, it also has to do with the kinds of conversations that have been happening around the question of race and political struggle. I was primarily interested in this project because most of my political life, which is most of my life, has been informed by the struggle in South Africa.

Ainehi Edoro: Can you tell us a bit about your life---growing up in the south and entering into a life of political activism.

Angela Davis: I grew up in a racially segregated city--- Birmingham, Alabama--- a city that was known as the Johannesburg of the south. So my entire life, in many respects, has been informed by an anti-racist political project. I’m interested in how people, intellectuals---organic intellectuals---cultural workers, imagine the possibilities of moving beyond racism.

I often tell a story about my mother trying to me help understand why it was that we lived in a place where black people where treated as inferior and systematically excluded from education, amusement parks, libraries. As a child, I constantly asked my mother why.  And I’m very fortunate that, as an activist herself, she had her vision. She always insisted that we inhabited a world that was not supposed to be structured that way.  She helped me live in that reality without feeling as though I was fundamentally of that reality.

I eventually became involved in the campaign to free Nelson Mandela. I was very young. I could probably tell the story of my political life by pointing to various moments in the history of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  For many years, South Africa was the center of the world in the sense that it was here that we invested all of our aspirations. But as with most investments that are as absolute and total as this one was, it didn’t turn out in the way we had all imagined.

Ainehi Edoro: How had you imagined it?

Angela Davis: As someone who was involved in communist politics and had close relations to the South African communist party, I could never separate economic liberation from racial liberation.  I imagine racial liberation as taking place within the context of a redistribution of wealth.  I imagined the end of privatization.  And that is not what was achieved.

But I’m interested in the achievements of the South African struggle because things are different. We cannot discount the struggles and those who gave their lives. It has to mean something, and it does mean something.

Angela Davis reflecting on Nelson Mandela's Legacy at Qunu---Mandela's hometown (c) Naadira Patel

Ainehi Edoro: You have taken part in many political movements. How has the South African anti-apartheid/anti-racist movement informed your own theories and practices around the questions of political struggle?

Angela Davis: My involvement in the campaign for international solidarity against apartheid dates back to the 1960s. I was arrested in 1970 by the US Government and charged with 3 capital crimes. I faced the death penalty 3 times. It was thanks to an international solidarity movement that I was released.

I’m saying this to point out that many South Africans joined that campaign. I received numerous expressions of solidarity from South Africans in exile, from the ANC, the South African communist party. In the year after my release---I was in jail for about two years—I visited London and participated in the anti-apartheid rally there. Not long after that, on August 9th,---the South African Women’s Day--- I went back to London and spoke at a huge rally.

I can’t imagine my own trajectory without that constant South African theme. In 1980 when I was arrested on the campus of UC Berkeley, I was participating in an anti-apartheid rally. I was also involved in the International Longshore and Workers Warehouse Union. They were the first to engage in actions that served as a catalyst for the student anti-apartheid efforts by refusing to unload South African Ships.

What I didn’t have a chance to say during the session at Qunu---where we shared our experiences about Nelson Mandela---was that I spoke to Winnie Mandela during the time of her banning. We rranged a conversation on the telephone. She went to a paid telephone. I was doing a radio show at that time, so I was able to organize the show around Winnie Mandela. I later met her and spent some time with her when she and Mandela were still living together.

Ainehi Edoro: Political movements tend to constellate around male figures. Think Mandela, Martin Luther King, Nkruma and so on. Names of women tend not to take on as much force. What do you think is the place or status of the feminine or the woman in these kinds political struggles?

Angela Davis: In the black struggle--- in black radical struggle---women have played an absolutely pivotal role. The struggle is inconceivable without the participation and the leadership of women.  It’s unfortunate that the figure of the heroic individual---the masculinist figure of the heroic individual---almost inevitably erases the people who are most responsible for the emergence and the development of these struggles. This applies to South Africa as well. We don’t hear about the women who played absolutely essential roles. There’s Albertina Sisulu. There’s Ruth First, a white woman whose name is not evoked nearly enough.

But what about those whose name we will never know? I’m primarily concerned about how we pay tribute to those whose names we can never know. How do we acknowledge that, in the US civil rights movement, it was Black women domestic workers who played the central role? Most people who are thankful for the civil rights movement never think about poor black women maids as being the ones who refused to ride the bus and therefore who were responsible for the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Women’s role in South Africa is very much the same. Hilda Bernstein’s book, For Their Triumph and their Tears, comes to mind. It’s a nice book that records the names of a number of these women.

We have to figure out how to read the silences of the archives. And certainly women are almost consistently absent---masses of women who participated in these struggles.

Angela Davis and Achille Mbembe during lunch in Johannesburg (c) Naadira Patel
Ainehi Edoro: This year’s workshop is built around the concept of the “non-racial.” What is your take on the term?  Do you see it has a helpful way of naming an ideal to which anti-racist struggle, philosophy, practice, or theory should aspire?

Angela Davis: I’m trying to be open. [laughs]. I’ve expressed some of my ambivalences, some of my suspicions, and my historical reluctance to embrace the non-racial except within a particular context of South Africa. What is important about this workshop is that we have stayed open to the exploration of all sides of the concept. The non-racial is not a unitary concept. And because it has played such an essential role in the history of South Africa and in the theorization of a free South Africa, we have to come to grips with it. We have to engage it. But then whether it travels in the way the idea of South African freedom has traveled across the planet, I do not know. But as I said, I’m trying to be as open as possible.


Ainehi Edoro is a doctoral student at Duke University where she studies African novels. She also writes an African literary blog called Brittle Paper

"Shit is Racial" --- The Archivist by Simon Abramowitsch

Simon Abramowitsch wrote this poem on the road and read it for the first time on the bus. We had just had lunch in a little town called Swellendam and were on our way to Cape Town. In the three hours that lay before us, some of the participants came up to the front of the bus to share their experience of the journey, seeing it was coming to an end. Most people reflected on our intellectual project of the non-racial. Other's gave thanks. Simon read this poem. --- Editor's Note

A JWTC participant standing on the Sliding Stone at Qunu, Nelson Mandela's hometown

The Archivist

down a bumpy road
in Swaziland, the end
of a beautiful evening,
the southern sky glistening above
the roof of her hospitality
Dolores Godeffroy told us:
is racial.”

From a bus in Southern Africa
and yet the archive is
in Oakland and Berkeley, CA
can never be removed but
can be turned inside
out from anywhere.

1. The Archive of Friendship

I was in the midst of kings:
junior high named for martin
and rodney on the tv: here
brown boys
yellow boys
black boys
white boys
together, clowning and frowning.
and we thought
it was hiphop
and we thought
it was as the sons of single mothers
and our mothers thought
it was the accident or genius of the school district.

listen: no politics here
no political families here,
or so we thought.
we learned politics from the police
they showed each one of us who we were.
we learned politics from houses bought, houses rented,
from evictions and foreclosures and property values
these showed each one of us who we were.
we learned politics from job interviews, bank accounts, and bills
these showed each one of us who we were:
brown boys, yellow boys, black boys, white boys.

in the wake of this knowledge, these politics
i tried to remember
that which I had never known.
listen now,
listen now,
i tried to remember
in Berkeley, CA
this possibility realized—so fragile
—and from where did it come?
and whose work was this?
whose politics suggested the promise of something else
whose politics worked like artists, magicians, sculptors
carving from within
carving a humanity already forever present
and listen now
listen now
I found the panther, so many
listened close.
I knew the first line
Black Power for Black People
knew that one, knew it well.
but listen again:
Black Power for Black People
Brown Power for Brown People
Red Power for Red People
Yellow Power for Yellow People
White Power for White People
All Power to the People!
in this archive
the ideal was the possible, no?

2. The Archive of Family

In the home of those friends
made amidst kings
that are now uncles and aunties
to my son: children play:
Iyari, Santana, Lucien
the laugh, the cry, the yell, even the whine.
To show you this scene
to make this scene language
or make this scene image
to utter the rainbow
would that destroy it?
—as if, somehow, this moment of freedom can exist.

but dolores told us
“shit is racial.”
here, in the home of friends
happiness, and nevertheless
we are under siege:
racism and the racial world
come through gaps under the door
cracks in the window
through the mail slot
through electric lines and tv cables
sneaks in with toys and children’s books
it knocks on the door and asks to come in
it kicks in the door in with the ferocity of the police.
and in this home of the uncles and aunties to our children,
how do we defend ourselves?
what armor shall we wear?
what arms shall we take up?
in the tradition of those who came before
what shall be our self-defense?


Image by Naadira Patel.

About the Author: 
Simon Abramowitsch works on multi-ethnic American literature and African American literature, literary ethnic nationalisms and the Black Power/Black Arts Movement--as well as the relationships between these various categories and movements.

Instagram: btownthinker

Twitter: @ambitionsaz

Blog: http://btownthinking.wordpress.com/

"The future Must Be Made in the Present" --- Notes on Biko by Jess Auerbach

Reflections on Kelly Gillespie’s Presentation ‘The Trouble with Non-racialism’ given at the Steve Biko Center in Ginsberg, South Africa, as part of the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism.
JWTC participant walking in the fading light of dusk to Steve Biko's grave in Ginsberg (c) Ainehi Edoro

On Voice

It begins with voice, rolling out over a still image and a still room, conscious of certain irony but nonetheless aware of the importance today of listening.

To Biko’s voice. So often we speak his words, read them, articulate them – but in our voices. And here is his.

It is in Ginsberg that this history began, and in Ginsberg that this sound enters the air, is absorbed into ears and through carpets and down into the ground of this place through pens and keyboards and multiple spatial recorders.

People are different, he tells us, and that’s fine, but to fail to see that difference and act with it in mind is a failure of humanity.

On the Future

We must prepare for a future in which things will be not as they are, Biko says. The question enters the air: which future are we preparing for now? It percolates with urgency, and we are all drawn in, because today the reality is that little has substantively changed.

And in the commodification and brandification of Biko’s face and voice and concepts, we find an echo of a failing of a future – the failing of the future that was dreamed and yet is yet to come.

“The sign of Biko then and now is the sign of the unfinished business of racism,” Gillespie says with calm intensity. To ignore this sign is to miss a vital marker of where and what we as a nation and a place of global movements are feeling. The future must be made in the present and the present is a national project of various exclusions.

On the Present National Project

And so the question, in this place at this time, becomes about the present to my ears. How do we enact a conscious humanity cognizant of the past but seeking to surpass it in the everyday minutiae of living? Herein lies the urgency.

Can race be surpassed in our daily lives lived now? What might that mean in coming tomorrows? Where in the grist of profound present inequality and fear are the moments where the non and the anti and the a-  of racialism are transcended through the simple experiences of living, listening and speaking together? Listening and to hearing and to voicing in South Africa as we go forward, attended and in constant dialogue with that which is outside of us, beyond us, and witnessing.

Surrealism takes us beyond the ‘sordid antimonies’of our task. It is presented as a tool of transcendence, and we closed the meditation on Biko with that as an offering from Suzanne C├ęsaire: “Colonial idiocy will be purified in the welder’s blue flame. We shall recover our value as metal, as the cutting edge of steel, our unprecedented communions.”

About the Author: 

Jess Auerbach is originally from Durban, but did her undergrad at the University of Cape Town where she began working with refugees from around the continent. Her current work at Stanford University considers the ways in which circulation within the former Portuguese empire continues to inform Angola's post-war development.

Twitter: @jess.auerbach