Black History Month: Excerpt from “The Meaning of Freedom” by Angela Y. Davis

from The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues 

I think it might be important for us to reflect on what it is that shapes and elicits and defines our fear. This evening I’ve been asked to talk about civil rights, human rights, the unfinished work of the struggle for equality here in the United States, and the connections with other struggles, the transnational dimensions.

I’ll begin by saying that we are, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, continuing to live the history that we often relegate to the past. At a time when many of the political leaders in this country and the majority of the Supreme Court justices, argue that precisely because racial justice has been achieved, affirmative action is no longer necessary to achieve racial or gender equality, it might be important to think about the meaning of justice, the meaning of racial justice, the meaning of gender justice, and to talk more deeply about race. The principle of color blindness has so saturated our ideas about race that we now tend to believe – at least those who voted to eliminate affirmative action in California, here in Washington, and just recently in Michigan – that the only way to achieve racial justice is to become blind to the work that race does, which means that racism itself gets ignored.

I would like us to think deeply this evening about the extent to which we live with, are influenced by, and in large measure accept racism as a fact of social life. And I would like us to think about what questions we might ask about the various ways racism transforms and becomes something quite different from the racism against which the civil rights movement struggled. That leads me to ask, where does race live? Where does racism live? Where did it reside in the past? And how do we shrink the spaces haunted by racism in order to begin to send it on its way? So we want to talk about something like the migrations of racism. We might ask, to what extent has the so-called war on terror and the current war in Iraq transformed the way racism manifests itself? And why do we have trouble perceiving that racism? Why do we have trouble perceiving the war in Iraq as a racist war?

As I was watching the news about the events at Virginia Tech yesterday, there was a brief report on what happened yesterday in Iraq. Apparently, there were five solders killed yesterday. We learn every day what the death toll is, right? Of course, numbers can’t begin to capture the fact that anytime anyone loses his or her life, it’s a major tragedy, whether it’s five or one hundred people who are harmed. But I’m interested in the fact that we rarely hear the numbers for Iraqi people. Why is that? As difficult as it might be to move beyond the barrier of those numbers, at least we would have something to work with. And, of course, estimates range from 500,000 to 700,000 so far, and some people say that one million people have been killed during the war in Iraq. Why can’t we even have a national conversation about that?

That has a lot to do with the way in which our emotions have been trained and taught by racism. I’m not talking about racism as something that cannot affect those whose bodies are racialized as the target of racist discrimination. You see what I’m saying? All of us sustain these ideological influences. We learn to think in racist terms. How many black women in this lecture hall have ever walked to the other side of the street if they see a young black man with baggy pants, the stereotype?

Racism plays a major role in determining who is subject to state punishment and who is not. How many people are in prison now? Over two million! We always think of numbers as the hard evidence, right? If you have the figures, you know exactly what’s going on. But we often fail to think about the mystifying power of numbers. There are approximately 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in county jails, state prisons, federal prisons, Indian country jails, military prisons, and immigrant detention centers. (We do not know how many people the United States incarcerates abroad in its network of secret military prisons.) This means that over the course of a year, there are more than 13 million people who are incarcerated by authorities. When we consider the disproportionate number of people of color among those who are arrested and imprisoned, and the ideological role that imprisonment plays in our lives, I want to suggest that the prison population in this country provides visible evidence of who is not allowed to participate in this democracy, that is to say, who does not have the same rights, who does not enjoy the same liberties, who cannot reach the same level of education and access, who cannot be a part of the body politic, and who is therefore subject to a form of civil death.

The governor of Florida has decided that he’s going to push for a change in the laws regarding felony disenfranchisement. Have you heard about that? Why didn’t someone do that before the 2000 election? Because it is clear that of the 950,000 people who are disenfranchised in Florida, had a small fraction of them voted, there would have been no question about the defeat of the country’s current president. There is a question about the victory, right? I won’t say that he was elected, because he wasn’t elected. But there would have been no question about the defeat. Of all the states in the U.S., Florida has the largest population of former felons who are disenfranchised: 950,000 people.

People in prison cannot vote. I think it’s really strange that we don’t question the fact that because you are incarcerated, you should not have the right to vote, you should not be a participant in the political arena, you should be banned, barred. I wonder why that is, because there are quite a few countries where people vote when they’re in prison. They just put polls up and let people vote. It used to be that students couldn’t vote, and they didn’t have polls on campuses. If you didn’t go home, where you were registered, there was no way you could vote. Do you remember that? There are actually similarities between universities and prisons. We could pursue them if we wanted to.

But the point that I’m trying to make right now is that prisons tell us that we are free. We are able to recognize ourselves as participants in a democracy because we get to look at this institution that has walled off those who are not. And because there are those who are not, by comparing ourselves to them, we know that we are. In a sense, you might say we know that we are alive, at least politically or civilly alive, by looking at those who have been relegated to civil death.

We inhabit an image environment that is saturated with representations of the prison. It would be interest- ing to keep a count of how many television programs, movies, and magazine articles you encounter with representations of jail, prison, and detained people. And the saturation of our visual environment leads us to think that we actually have some real knowledge about the issue. But, as a matter of fact, real knowledge about this institution has been marginalized from public conscious- ness. The media do not educate us about the real, long-term costs and consequences that imprisonment imposes upon us as a nation, as communities, as families, and as citizens and individuals with non-resident status. It does not educate us on how the institution of enslavement has lived on, generation after generation, by influencing how other institutions are administered.

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meaningoffreedomcoverWhat is The Meaning of Freedom? Angela Y. Davis’ life and work have been dedicated to examining this fundamental question and to ending all forms of oppression that deny people their political, cultural, and sexual freedom. In this collection of twelve searing, previously unpublished speeches, Davis confronts the interconnected issues of power, race, gender, class, incarceration, conservatism, and the ongoing need for social change in the United States. With her characteristic brilliance, historical insight, and penetrating analysis, Davis addresses examples of institutional injustice and explores the radical notion of freedom as a collective striving for real democracy—not a thing granted by the state, law, proclamation, or policy, but a participatory social process, rooted in difficult dialogues, that demands new ways of thinking and being. “It is not too much,” writes Robin D.G. Kelly in the introduction, “to call her one of the world’s leading philosophers of freedom.” The Meaning of Freedom articulates a bold vision of the society we need to build and the path to get there. This is her only book of speeches and her first full-length book since Are Prisons Obsolete?(2003).

Read the foreword and first chapter here

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