At Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, the life of scholar and political activist Angela Davis unfolds in an array of vivid ephemera. Items such as the letters she received from supporters while incarcerated, a manuscript of her autobiography marked with comments in the margins by her friend Toni Morrison, the FBI’s wanted poster of Davis, unpublished speeches, photographs, and much more shed light on her decadeslong commitment to activism.
“When I saved all the material I had no way in imagining that it would culminate in something like this. I just knew that I shouldn’t throw it away,” said Davis, who was on campus Tuesday to deliver the keynote address that capped a two-day conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on her work and her legacy.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Davis reflected on topics including how music and art can help transform and create community, the challenges of talking about race in America, and the need for prison reform, long a driving force of her activism — and informed in part by the 16 months she spent behind bars. Davis was charged with conspiracy kidnapping and murder in connection with a 1970 shootout during a courthouse escape that killed a superior court judge. While she was not present at the scene, investigators discovered that she had purchased several of the firearms used in the crime. An all-white jury acquitted her in 1972.
Early on in her career, Davis said she and friends eager to change the narrative around prisons decided to use the term “prison-industrial complex” to encourage people to “think about prisons in a different way.” Today she said she is inspired by “all of the scholarly work, the activist work that has emerged. To me that’s a major victory.”
But much more needs to be done today to stop mass incarceration, said Davis, who sees the problem as one rooted in racism, class structure, and an “ideologically constructed” notion of criminality so entrenched that “people see a young black man with baggy pants walking down the street and make assumptions that he’s a criminal.”