Op-ed: Dr. Angela Davis should be welcomed and criticized

Luke Voyles | Class of 2018

On Jan. 24, noted civil rights activist and feminist Angela Davis spoke at Graham Chapel at Washington University. She received rapturous plaudits from the majority of the audience and visibly enjoyed her appearance. Davis gave a stirring oration concerning continuing sexual violence against women and brought attention to the very real issues facing various sorts of marginalized groups among women. In the end, she answered questions from as engaged an audience as I have ever witnessed. I attempted to ask my own question, but Graham Chapel was nearly packed.

As someone who considers himself a conservative, I applaud Washington University’s granting of permission to Davis to address the student body, as they did for right-wing thinkers such as National Review writer David French and conservative author Norman Ornstein. However, I am afraid that I do have a major critique with how Davis was addressed by the event organizers. They neglected to inform the audience of a key fact about Davis’ famed career: In 1984 and in 1988, she ran as the vice presidential candidate of the United States under the banner of the Communist Party.

To be fair, Marxism and communism can have dissenting views that allow for a wide range of political beliefs. However, this was not the case at the time Davis ran, along with Communist presidential hopeful Gus Hall. Davis was photographed with such totalitarian leaders as Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, Erich Honecker of East Germany and Fidel Castro of Cuba. She never apologized for her commitment to the Communist Party, even as she left the party in 1991 as the government of the Soviet Union and of most other Communist countries collapsed. Perhaps Davis might have a point in her commitment to the aforementioned cause. The Communist Party was famous for its toleration of African-Americans within its formal and informal leadership, with such notable names as James Ford, Benjamin Davis (no known relation to Davis) and Henry Winston among its membership. As a noted civil rights activist, she might still see no difficulty with her former affiliation with the Communist Party. However, she would be neglecting the fact that the Communist Party saw African-Americans as too many parties in the United States always have viewed them: a voting bloc to be controlled. The brilliant African-American author Richard Wright broke with the Communist Party in 1942 (publicly in 1944) for its attempts at controlling the direction of his literary work. The Communist Party also had no interest in elevating African-Americans to the highest leadership within the United States, as the dominance of the Communist Party by white men such as William Z. Foster, Earl Browder and Gus Hall proved.

In 1972, Czechoslovak dissident Jiri Pelikan implored Davis to speak against the Communist regime of Gustav Husak. Davis refused to help Pelikan and instead maintained her defense of the Communist Party’s goal for a one-party state. At Graham Chapel, my question for Davis would have been about whether she regretted how she had handled Pelikan’s appeal to her. How she would have answered is a strange question indeed.

By the start of 1992, Davis was without the party that allowed her an eschatological framework toward which to work. Her critique of capitalist societies would never result in the institution of a one-party state based on Marxist-Leninist principles. Thankfully for Davis, she found a new calling in her 40s as an advocate for feminist causes, as well as deciding to refocus on her civil rights work. She clearly drew inspiration from Professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw’s seminal essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” a work that called for a frank discussion of the identities toward which every individual belonged. Crenshaw’s work was never meant to posit an eschatological end toward which utopians might aspire, but this did not stop Davis. In her speech, Davis stated that perhaps a revolution was inevitable and even desirable, while also criticizing the very concept of a prison system. This leads to a few logical problems for Davis, as what would she replace prisons with since the Communist concept of re-education camps and of silencing dissidents is no longer publicly desirable? She therefore was forced to speak in abstract terms, without any basis in political reality, and her past oppresses her present.

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