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Lifting As She Climbs

Michelle Peltier

Michelle Peltier

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Last Wednesday, on Valentine’s Day, Dr. Angela Davis spoke to a crowd in the Wool Ballroom in an event sponsored by the Black Student Alliance, the Cross Cultural Center and the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement. Dr. Davis, one of the most influential and controversial racial justice advocates living today, was the keynote speaker for BSA’s program of events honoring Black History Month.

Davis, who received two lengthy standing ovations before she even reached the stage, spoke on several topics but began her address with reference to the city of St. Louis.

“This city reminds me how much we owe to activists,” she said, referring to those that led demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown in 2014. She referred to that event and the actions it spawned as the “inauguration of the 21st century Black freedom movement.”

“We meet on colonized land,” she added, linking the histories of the Black freedom movement with those of indigenous peoples. During her hour and a half long speech, Davis spoke several times about the interconnected nature of freedom across communities of various identities. This was no accident.

“To be human is to collectively struggle to be free,” Davis said, prompting cheers from the crowd of students, faculty, staff and members of the St. Louis community. The cavernous room, which doesn’t lend itself to this kind of event, buzzed throughout the program with the joyful energy of the mostly black audience.

Attendees playfully called out to Davis periodically and while Davis never stopped speaking, a smile often crept onto her face.

Michelle Peltier
Davis posing with the BSA Exec Board after her speech.

During a portion of her speech that indelibly tied the women of the anti-slavery movement with those that kicked off that of women’s suffrage, she worked her way to a powerful moment. As her momentum swelled, Davis proclaimed from the stage, the crowd shouting back in unison, “Ain’t I a woman,” quoting Sojourner Truth’s famous speech at the Women’s Convention of 1851 in Akron, Ohio.

Davis, born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, has always been an activist. She credits this firstly to her mother. Growing up in the segregated South, Davis’s mother always reminded her and her siblings that the racism they faced was not the way things were supposed to be. It seems she has been reimagining that “supposed to be” ever since.

Throughout the night, Davis challenged the audience not to fight for access and entry into the current system, but rather to radically rethink its injustices. She called for “not better police, but a reconceptualization of security.” She challenged the idea of black history as a series of “black firsts” that communicate “we can do it too” to those currently in power.

“Black history pivots around the story of collective freedom. It is about the uplift of community; lifting as we climb.”

Davis’s vision for the future of her world and her people may seem distant at times, but the room on Wednesday night felt precariously close to achieving it. Women in their 60s and 70s held one another alongside row after row of college students, equally enthralled with the experience.

Davis says she has never accomplished anything important alone. In fact, she doesn’t believe in justice or freedom in individualist terms. It must always be in a collective; a community. “If people come together, organize together and think collaboratively together, it is possible to bring about change,” she said during the question and answer session. “We will move further because of the work before us.”

As Davis left the stage for the night, the crowd hollered. At the close of the event, the room rose to their collective feet. All that was visible of Davis amongst the group of beaming black bodies was her graying afro drifting through the crowd, or maybe just above it.

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Lifting As She Climbs