A Few Words on the Blatant Disrespect Being Shown to Angela Davis

Let’s make this plain.

Photo released on April 2, 1971, of Angela Davis raising her fist in court during her 1970 trial in San Rafael, Calif.
Photo released on April 2, 1971, of Angela Davis raising her fist in court during her 1970 trial in San Rafael, Calif. AFP/Getty Images

There have been intense, widespread and polarizing responses to my article on a statement made by scholar, freedom fighter, former political prisoner and icon Angela Davis during her Sept. 30 keynote address at the “Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism conference at the University of Texas at Austin.

During her address, Davis said, “I have serious problems with the other candidate, but I am not so narcissistic to say I cannot bring myself to vote for her.”

“Her” being Hillary Clinton, as opposed to white supremacist, fascist and completely disreputable Donald Trump. No, I’m not adding caveats here about Hillary Clinton. Check my record on that. Now, in this space, I want to clarify a few things that really should not need clarification.

Davis did not “endorse” Hillary Clinton as some Clinton supporters have breathlessly claimed—and to claim otherwise is just as ridiculous as those small minds who claim that a vote against Clinton is a vote for Trump, who, as Davis has previously noted, “traffics in white rage.” What Davis did is make plain her electoral strategy embedded within her broader commitment to realizing collective liberation for black people.

She did not say that she was “with her”; she said that she was with us.

As noted in the article, Davis is just as committed to independent politics and liberation from a white supremacist system as she has always been.

I absolutely believe that Davis is operating from a position that she believes to have the true interests of black, Latinx, indigenous, working-class people and those living in deep poverty at the center—as she always has. I do not, however, trust the same to be true of most Clinton supporters who are now cheering Davis’ comment. In my experience, these are the same supporters pretending that the extensive damage New Democrats have done—by covertly rebranding themselves as Republicans with a heart—has not devastated communities of color.

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Undeniably, Davis’ statement at the Black Matters conference carries tremendous weight—primarily because it creates space to discuss diverging and converging paths to freedom and liberation. As Davis said during her keynote, “We should have learned by now … the arena of electoral politics militates against the expression of radical militant perspective.”

Angela Davis. On the current election.

A video posted by Jo (@jonubian) on 

According to attendees’ tweets, Davis also said that she tries not to tell young people what to do because she resented that when she was younger. That is important to note here because the conversations surrounding Davis’ comment have largely devolved into reductionist charges that she is trying to shame people into voting for Clinton. These discussions are dangerous, misleading and, frankly, embarrassing.

Without question, using the term “narcissism” is politically loaded right now because that kind of argument—egocentric, immature, ignorant, naive, selfish, dangerous—is being lobbed indiscriminately by mostly middle-class liberals at anyone who isn’t voting for Clinton. There is a movement that is full of people who are not only saying what they want to see in concrete terms and presenting pathways to those possibilities, but also actively divesting from politicians who don’t work toward those goals. That cannot and should not be reduced to mere “narcissism.”

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Still, that in no way, shape or form should indict Angela Davis—Angela Davis—on charges of not being committed to us and fighting for us with the means that she believes to be most effective. Choosing not to vote for a third-party candidate is not synonymous with no longer being invested in the construction of an independent party; that struggle, as Davis has said, is an ongoing, urgent and strenuous process.

I have reached out to Davis in hopes that she will sit in circle with those of us who have modeled her radicalism in our own lives so she may answer any questions that we may have.

But the truth is, she owes us no explanation. She has placed her life on the line for us. She is at the forefront of emancipatory, intersectional black feminist thought and the fight for liberation for oppressed people around the world. And she has consistently called out the white supremacist project that is the United States of America for what it is.

Be clear: If we’ve reached the point in the ride where we cannot engage Angela Davis with respect, then we’re going in the wrong direction.

But let me also say to HRC supporters who don’t align with Davis’ radical politics (at all): Back up with the “Look Angela Davis said it; my Clintonians and I are right and everyone else is ignorant” narrative. Give us 50 feet. Don’t hide behind Angela Davis to push neoliberal politics and your favorite. The brilliance of Angela Davis—and the love and care she has shown for oppressed people around the world—goes far beyond this election.

What she stands for, many of you have never and would never—even if gifted the opportunity.

In this election, the who is just as important to contend with as the why. This does not mean that we cannot disagree with the why; Davis has encouraged us to challenge our heroes, herself included.

Still, I will build on Davis’ statement here and say that it is equally important that we challenge our comrades.

Going forward, it is my deepest hope that we all engage Davis’ statement in the context that it was given, and engage her with the love and respect that she has always shown us and that she unequivocally deserves.

Editor’s note: The Black Matters conference was organized by the University of Texas at Austin’s black-studies department. Davis’ entire keynote can be seen here once it becomes available.

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and an associate editor at The Root. She was named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.