“Who knew so many people would want to come out for an old radical?” said the elderly woman in front of me to no one in particular. “We thought there’d be no one here but old folks like us.” Her husband nodded in agreement. Despite the fact that I was in the foyer of Rockefeller Chapel, a cavernous venue normally blighted with accordingly cavernous acoustics, I could hear their conversation very clearly, probably because the woman was standing about four inches from my face. Waiting for Angela Davis to show up and deliver this year’s George E. Kent Lecture was turning out to be a cozy experience despite the sub-zero temperatures, as people continued to wedge themselves into the chapel. Since someone else had dutifully saved me a seat, I actually got a spot in the pews, but hundreds of others were lining the walls, spilling from the balconies and the wings, and even seated in the choir. But judging by the thunderous applause that rippled through Rockefeller when Davis actually reached the lectern, no one minded the lousy seating.
While few people who don the adjective “notorious” are actually worthy of the term, Davis is among the select few who deserve it. A former member of the Black Panther Party, she was accused of murder in 1970 and placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Although she was acquitted two years later, her imprisonment in the interim inspired thousands of people around the world to take up the cause of her freedom, and her name and image became the ubiquitous focal points of a cult-of-Che-style revolutionary rallying cry. And yet you wouldn’t know it from the apparent discomfort with which Davis, now in her sixties (although still topped off by her well-known ‘fro), regarded the raised pulpit where speakers at Rockefeller normally deliver their remarks. Like many compelling orators, she came across as both humble and sage, and seemed to take a genuine pleasure from the gathering–not just for the ego boost one surely gets when hundreds of people gather to hear one’s opinion, but for the sheer love of being together–the feeling Davis described as “the spirit that exists when people come together in the city.”
Most of Davis’s lecture was focused around that idea of collectivity, both as something to be admired and reveled in, and as a necessary foundation of effective political action. She cautioned that we have to “rescue Dr. King from his official legacy” and remember that he was no Messiah; the Civil Rights Movement did not spontaneously burst forth from his aggregated willpower. “Segregation was disestablished,” Davis declared, “because ordinary people became aware of themselves as agents of social change…The most central actors in creating these movements will always be people whose names we will never know.” Later, she commented on the cultural habituation that leads us to view this collective victory in terms of one man’s success, calling it “a very dangerous individualism.”
Davis is by no means the first person to make this observation, but it turned out that the most remarkable part of the evening arrived when she tried to make her own words come to fruition. In the question-and-answer portion of the night, when the line was inevitably long and peppered with people who didn’t have questions so much as a desire to champion one cause or another, Davis was unafraid to deviate from the usual academic detachment. Instead of trying to shut people up when they approached the microphone with a grievance or an event announcement instead of a question about the lecture, she used each person’s time as an opportunity for spontaneous political action. “Okay, what’s your name? Fred? Okay, Fred, you stand over here by the lectern, and if anyone in the audience is interested helping Fred shut down the super-max prison downstate, go talk to him and exchange emails and come up with some ideas.” She answered every question, several of which were plaintive requests for personal direction (because this is America, and individualism won’t go down without a fight). And when it was all finally over, the chapel, if not packed anymore, was still heartily occupied with newly formed political action groups making excited plans. “We constitute a temporary community!” Davis cried out with an emphatic joy. “Let’s see if we can turn it into something permanent!”