All too rarely do I take advantage of the fact that, as a member of a university community, there is a stunning array of lectures and performances and programs available to me nearly every day. I focus on doing my job and meeting my responsibilities and look wistfully at the events calendar at all of the marvelous stuff that I'm missing. But I made an extra effort last night to stay late at the office so that I could go hear Angela Davis speak. (I've been a member of the university Lecture Series Committee, one of the sponsors, for many years, so I got to sit in the reserved section up front, although, frankly, I had nothing whatsoever to do with arranging this particular lecture).
It was pretty stunning. Davis was an icon of my youth. She's a decade older than I am, so when I was in my mid-teens, struggling to find my own way to a sense of social justice and the true meaning of democracy and what I thought it really meant to love my country, she was a freshly-minted radical philosopher being pushed out of a teaching job by Gov. Ronald Reagan (who vowed that she would never teach in a California college), pursued by the FBI (on their 10 most wanted list), tossed into prison for 16 months (before being acquitted), unbowed and uniquely articulate in her passionate critique of the state of America.
I hadn't realized, until we started getting the lecture organized, that she was born & raised in Birmingham. So among the 1300+ people packed into the hall last night, a fine mix of students and members of the community, were many luminaries of the civil rights movement, who had known her and her family back when she was a little girl and they were quite thrilled to be welcoming her back home as a tenured professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, as unbowed and impassioned as ever, a woman who has been called one of the most important public intellectuals in the United States.
She was fine and funny and laughed easily, but I was very struck by how evident it was that we were listening to someone whose early academic training was in philosophy -- someone who had learned the rigor of serious thought, of making connections between events, of putting facts and events into a broader conceptual framework so that you could try to get a global sense of the situation that you were dealing with. She touched on many things over the course of the hour and a quarter that she spoke (although her work on prisons was the central metaphor for her larger discussion of "Leadership and Democracy" -- the title of her talk), but they were all embedded in a deeply thought out conceptual framework of what democracy and social justice could -- and should -- really mean for people.
I was particularly struck by her comments on "diversity." She said she was troubled by much of the emphasis that she saw on diversity for its own sake, as if difference for the sake of difference made any difference to anybody at all; as if just making sure that you had a mix of racial/ethnic/gender types around was an end in itself. She spoke of how that kind of diversity "provincializes" our relationship with the world; that it can actually increase our sense of separateness. She pointed out that the current administration was the most "diverse" our country had ever seen -- and that in itself ought to remind us that diversity for its own sake is no guarantee of progress. (Which led her to muse on the case of another, unnamed, person in the current administration who was also from Birmingham, and who had a very similar personal narrative to her own, who had been through many of the same formative experiences, but who had ended up taking a very different path into adulthood...)
But "diversity" could be a important force, she said, if we think carefully about who is supposed to benefit from it, and how, and if that focus on diversity is used as a spark for creativity and learning and challenging the ideologies that we all find ourselves wrapped up in. If diversity is a tool for promoting community and social justice, then it can be a powerful thing.
During the Q&A, there was one question, from a man perhaps my age, who spoke wistfully about the struggles of the sixties and seventies, when college students marched and mobilized; he wondered what could be done to motivate today's students to similar actions.
"Today's students are doing wonderful things," she said. "They're just not doing them the way that we did. And that's the way that it should be. It's easy to get nostalgic when you get old, to talk about 'the good old days', but things change, and everyone has to find their own way. What kids today are doing in music and art and culture is great and transformative. The great thing about being in a university is that I've been able to watch generations of young people rise to these challenges, but always changing how they deal with them."
I do an injustice to the depth of her thought and the delight of her presentation by trying to sketch it out this way. But she was inspiring. The eyes of the students in the audience were shining with a sense of possibility.