Angela Davis speech at Gallaudet University: “The Indivisibility of Justice”
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Angela Davis speech at Gallaudet University:
“The Indivisibility of Justice”
[Sustained applause and cheers]
ANGELA DAVIS [signing]: Thank you very much
ANGELA DAVIS [speaking]: Well, first of all, good afternoon! It has been so wonderful to spend time on the campus of Gallaudet. I have followed the struggles and the radical activism associated with this campus for many years, and over multiple student generations, Gallaudet has become a model for people everywhere who are striving to make justice a reality.
This is Black History Month. It is also the week when Negro History Week was first celebrated beginning in 1926. And having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama, I remember as a child when we used to celebrate Black History Week each year. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is on February 12th. Frederick Douglass’ birthday is today, February 14th.
But today is also Valentine’s Day, when we tell each other, “I love you.” [Signing]
And it is a day on which we might reflect on our love for justice and the interconnections of love and justice.
The theme of my talk this afternoon comes from Dr. Martin Luther King’s observation that justice is indivisible, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And as people on this campus have demonstrated through the defense of the rights of deaf people and the forging of a vibrant Deaf Culture, including a Black Deaf Culture, history reveals — [Applause] — history reveals the expanding parameters of justice. We cannot make the mistake, which is the formative error of this country, of assuming that democracy can work if it is confined only to a specific group of people. It used to be the case that affluent white, straight, hearing men controlled the destiny of this country.
The recent election demonstrated that even though the majority of white men voted for Romney, which I found very troubling, their will could still not prevail because ninety-six percent of black women, eight-seven percent of Latina women, the majority of white women and all of the other people who stood up for justice won out over the will of the majority of affluent, white, straight, hearing men.
And so what does that mean? It means that this is a new day for the United States of America.
Black History Month
Black history in the Americas is the history of the quest for liberation, and it thus belongs to all who identify with and cherish historical and ongoing struggles for freedom.
Black history, whether here in North America, or in Africa, or in Europe, has always been infused with the spirit of resistance — an activist spirit of protest and transformation. And therefore, when we celebrate black history, it is not primarily for the purpose of representing black people in the numerous roles, as first to break the barriers in many fields that have been historically closed to people of color, although it is important to acknowledge these firsts, but rather, we celebrate black history because it is a centuries-old struggle to achieve and expand freedom for all. Black history is indeed American history, but it is also world history.
Now, this is a special year. It is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. And I would like to ask you: What does it mean that we have not been called upon to celebrate the sesquicentennial of this act that supposedly liberated the slaves?
Obama issued a proclamation on December 31st, I believe, asking us to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st. How many of you engaged in that celebration? Not too many of us, right?
Perhaps we’re not celebrating it because there was a fraudulent aspect to the Emancipation Proclamation. It was more — When I say “fraudulent,” I mean that it wasn’t really an act to emancipate the slaves. It was a military strategy. It was a military strategy much more than it was a measure to free human beings from an oppressive, racist, immoral institution. It was a military strategy. And therefore, all of those states and all of those sections of states that remained loyal to the Union were allowed to keep their slaves.
And, as a matter of fact, Frederick Douglass said in 1865 that the Civil War — and I’m quoting — “was begun... in the interest of slavery on both sides. The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union and the North fighting to keep slavery in the Union — the South, fighting to get it beyond the limits of the United-States Constitution, and the North, fighting... for the old guarantees — both despising the negro, both insulting the negro.” This was Frederick Douglass’ observation in 1865.
Now, how many of you have read the Emancipation Proclamation? Well then, if you have read it, you know that the majority of the document deals with the exceptions. The majority of the document lists the states and the neighborhoods even and the parishes that will be allowed to keep their slaves. Very bizarre, isn’t it? Very bizarre. Yet, Abraham Lincoln was a very shrewd man. He knew that if some slaves were free, they would join the Union Army and they would fight even more passionately, or far more passionately, than white soldiers to win the Civil War.
And as a matter of fact, it was — according to W.E.B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America — it was precisely the freed black slaves who joined the Union Army who were responsible for winning the war! As a matter of fact, I suggest that during this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, or perhaps over the next couple of years, we encourage everyone who has not yet read Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America to read that book. High schools, colleges, universities, graduate-level students, everyone should read Black Reconstruction in America.
Du Bois argues that the Emancipation Proclamation brought about, in effect, a general strike. And Chapter 4 of his book is called “The General Strike” — how the Civil War meant “emancipation,” and how the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the northern invader, in whose Army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force. So he says the withdrawal and the bestowal of labor by the slaves on the Union Army was what actually won the war. This army of striking labor eventually produced the 200,000 soldiers whose evident ability to fight decided the war.
Now, let’s say a few words about the film, “Lincoln.” I was wondering, what’s going to happen when we experience the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment in 2015? Will there be another film? Who knows? But if you’ve seen the film “Lincoln,” you know that it is about his successful attempt to guarantee the passage of the 13th Amendment, but we don’t see the backstory in the film, do we? We don’t recognize in the film that actually Lincoln had been previously in favor of transporting all of the black people who were freed to another country, to another place, to Africa. He was an advocate of colonization, and he persisted until he realized that the majority of black people were not going to support him. You know, at the same time, Lincoln was an amazing figure, and as someone who has studied a great deal of feminist theory, I’ve learned how to feel very comfortable in a place of contradiction.
[Laughter and applause]
So I can be very critical — [to the audience members who applauded:] thank you — so I can be very critical of Abraham Lincoln and at the same time I can praise him. And I might even say the same thing about our President.
We can ask ourselves: What did the 13th Amendment achieve? and: What did it not achieve? Anyone who believes that the institution of slavery could be abolished simply by an amendment to the Constitution is inhabiting a fictional world. How could a few lines appended to the Constitution get rid of a long history of racism and oppression — get rid of an institution that had penetrated the very warp and woof of the fabric of American society?
But at the same time, it was important. It was extremely important. And it occurs to me that this university was founded in the year between the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. And I’m wondering how you have reflected on that historical conjuncture. And again, as someone who has studied feminist theory, I believe that we should “think together” things that are often kept apart.
And so as Elena Ruiz, in her very eloquent introduction, pointed to the importance of pursuing discussions on intersectionality here on this campus, I will only say that I second the motion.
[Laughter and applause]
But let us fast-forward to the 20th century — to the mid-20th century — and let us recognize that the mid-20th century movement for justice, for freedom, was necessary only because slavery was not comprehensively abolished. We tend to think of these historical moments as discrete and separate and isolated. Slavery was abolished and then there was a civil rights struggle, but the struggle for civil rights would have been entirely unnecessary had slavery been fully abolished.
And so what we should probably say is that during the movement of the mid-1900s — the mid-20th century — we were continuing the struggle against slavery. It was a 20th Century abolitionist movement. And I have to say that I happened to turn on the television in my hotel room last night here at the Kellogg Center, and there was an amazing documentary on the Freedom Riders, which meant that I didn’t go to sleep until 2 o’clock this morning — [Laughter] — And in many ways, that world was so different from the world that we inhabit today, and we should be proud of that. But at the same time, it’s not so different. It’s not so different. And here again is the contradiction we should be riding.
Let’s go back to the 1860s, from the 1960s to the 1860s — the latter 1860s, up to 1877. That was the most radical era in the history of this country, and it’s the era most people in this country know absolutely nothing about. If we understood what happened during that very short period, before the overturning of radical reconstruction, if we understood that former slaves were so passionately involved in the struggle for education that in the South — and I know that we are in Washington, D.C., which is the South — in the South, public education was brought to all children. White children, poor white children in the South, would have never had access to public education had it not been for the struggle of former slaves. And of course, numerous black people became elected officials. New laws including progressive laws for women, progressive divorce laws, laws that allowed women to own property — all of this came out of the era of radical reconstruction, but, of course, in 1877 it came to a close, and you had the rule of Jim Crow, the rule of segregation, the rule of the Ku Klux Klan, the emergence of a punishment system that foreshadowed the prison-industrial complex in the late 20th Century, the development of massive prison plantations, and the development of the convict lease system...
The Indivisibility of Justice — Race, and Sexuality
So my next section is on the indivisibility of justice, race, and sexuality. And, of course, we’ve been talking a great deal about marriage equality recently, and marriage equality is important as a civil rights issue, but again, I want us to have a broader framework and to go further than simply arguing that LGBT communities need to have access to the heteronormative institution of marriage — [Applause] — because, let me say, first of all, that the Women’s Movement and the Gay Rights Movement were inspired by the struggle for freedom that black people waged for so many decades — [Applause] — And what was so exciting about the Gay Rights Movement during its feminist phase was its critique of marriage, especially because this institution was a capitalist institution designed to promote the preservation and distribution of property, and also because this institution had been used oppressively against black people.
Slaves were not allowed to marry. Interracial marriage was illegal until Loving v. Virginia. And, of course, Bush. You remember George W. Bush? [Pause] Bush argued that all of the problems of poverty in the Black Community could be solved if only they got married — But it had to be heterosexual marriage, right?
So I’d like us to complicate these issues of justice. The indivisibility of justice implies that we cannot separate different causes, different struggles. It is counterproductive and contradictory to choose whether to support justice for people of color — for black people, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans — or justice for LGBT communities — [Applause] — It is also wrong to call for justice on the basis of ableism. It is wrong to exclude deaf communities and disabled people from the circle of justice, but this cannot be — [Applause] — but this cannot be corrected simply on the basis of inclusion. Social justice movements associated with hearing people should take leadership from the Deaf Community. In this age of neoliberalism, when individualism has reached impressive and unprecedented heights — Everybody is individualistic these days. The individual on the capitalist market — Hearing social justice advocates have so much to learn about the collective and community-based approaches of the Deaf Community.
The Indivisibility of Justice — Immigration Rights
We have to defend the rights of immigrants. If the concept of civil rights is to have any meaning during the 21st century, then we all have to stand up for the rights of immigrants — [Sustained applause] — And it is not only about the Dream Act and a path toward citizenship. It is about that, but it is also about welcoming the people who do so much of the labor that fuels the economy — agricultural labor, service labor — and this is an issue that black people in particular should take note of, because immigrants are people who perform the labor that black people used to perform.
We need to incorporate strategies to minimize Islamophobia — [Applause] — and xenophobia. The indivisibility of justice requires us to defend Muslims who are seriously under attack because of ideological efforts to equate Islam and terrorism. Even people who have little to do with Islam are under attack because of this ideological association. Sikhs, for example, who have been killed because their turbans are misread as Muslim. And in this context, let me say that we should reveal the so-called “War on Terror” to be a strategy for U.S. military dominance — U.S. imperialist and militarist dominance — [Applause] — Guantanamo should have been shut down four years ago, but it is certainly time to say: Shut down Guantanamo now, right now.
The Indivisibility of Justice — The Prison-Industrial Complex
We understand that in light of the rise of global capitalism, especially during the 1980s — it didn’t end in the 1960s — In the 1980s, we saw the disestablishment of the welfare state, the disestablishment of human services, the transfer of capital to profitable sectors of the economy and the decision to forget about everything else, that is to say, to “privatize” everything else, privatize education, privatize healthcare, even privatize punishment. And so using the racially-charged issue of drugs, the so-called “War on Drugs,” deeply affected communities of color. It established the basis and the framework for what we call the “prison-industrial complex,” and the background is the same as that which led to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and the emergence of the convict lease system and the plantation prison system to which I referred. The context was the need to manage, in the 1800s, freed black bodies. The context at the end of the 20th Century is the need to manage unemployed bodies of color, poor white bodies, female bodies that no longer have access to welfare which has been disestablished, deaf bodies that are denied the services necessary to produce democracy and equality. And so now one out of every one hundred adults is behind bars. One out of every thirty-seven adults in the United States of America is under the control of a criminal justice agency. Even though the U.S. consists of five percent of the global population, here in this country we have twenty-five percent of the incarcerated population. We are a “prison nation.” We are a prison nation. Justice is indivisible. Justice for the more than 2.5 million people who are at this moment in jails and prisons and military prisons and Indian jails and federal prisons.
The Indivisibility of Justice — The Internationalization of Justice
And, finally, in my talk of the indivisibility of justice, I want to briefly talk about the internationalization of justice. How do we expand our vision? How do we develop a more capacious sense of justice for the planet?
Recently I have been doing a great deal of work on Palestine, having visited the occupied territories last year, and I learned more, not only about the need to support Palestinian people who are simply struggling against oppression — They’re struggling against some of the same measures of segregation that we as black people encountered in the 1960s — But they are also thinking deeply about issues of intersectionality, and I had the opportunity to meet with a group of very young people who are called “Queers for BDS” — and BDS is “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” — and they are trying to challenge the pinkwashing strategies of Israel. How many of you have heard of pinkwashing? Oh, I only see three hands, four hands, maybe five. Not that many. Google “pinkwashing.” Find out what it is.
But let me say just very briefly, Israel represents itself as a place where women enjoy equality and where LGBT communities enjoy equality, and Queers for BDS argue that justice is indivisible, equality is indivisible. It makes no sense to argue that the state of Israel is a “haven for gay people” if Palestinians experience their lives as if they were in the largest open-air prison in the world.
The critique of pinkwashing reveals the shallowness and the contemptuous character of the democracy that Israel purports to represent, and I would suggest that we can use that approach to develop critiques of the kind of democracy that prevails in this country: the exclusion, the continued exclusion of Native Americans. Why is it that, given the fact that this country was founded on practices of colonization, Native Americans continue to be subject to forms of genocide, even discursive genocide?
And I would like to speak more. I have a lot more to say, but there is not enough time. So let me thank you very much for your attention.
And tell you —
[Cheers and applause]
Let me tell you what an honor it has been to spend this time with you.
[Cheers and applause]
Thank you! Thank you! [signing]
[Cheers and applause]