About a year ago, I had the amazing and unforgettable opportunity to meet legendary activist and prison abolitionist Dr. Angela Y. Davis. We met at the Afrikana Independent Film Festival where I was volunteering at as a youth ambassador. This Black film festival prides itself on celebrating cinematic arts through a “global Black narrative” and hosts an annual “Evening with an Icon” event during Black History Month.
Davis’ advocacy for Black feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and prison abolition is inspirational to many, and the story of how she came to be this recognized icon is full of the adversity she faced as a Black woman in social justice spaces. After studying philosophy in Europe and seeing coverage of Black Panthers carrying guns, protecting and policing their communities.in the U.S., she moved back to America to join the Black Panther Party. It was during this time that she became involved with the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), which ultimately fell apart due to the sexism and misogynoir within the ranks:
.“…Some of the guys just couldn’t deal with the fact that women were insisting on assuming leadership…If you ask who does the fundamental work of building movements, you will discover almost always that it’s women. There we were in SNCC … doing most of the work for the organization. And I should tell you if you look at the Black Panther Party, the majority of the members were women. They were the ones who were doing the work. However, when it came to being leaders and spokespeople and so forth, the men assumed it was their prerogative. Not all of the men. I’m not indicting men as men. I’m indicting the system of gender superiority to which some men did not assent.” – Angela Davis, at VCU
Soon after, Angela Davis was hired by UCLA to teach Philosophy as an assistant professor. While she was popular among many students, Ronald Reagan, who was the governor of California at the time, urged the school’s administration to push Davis out of UCLA because of her activism and affiliation with the Black Panther party. Intending to protect herself in the face of all the hate-mail, consisting of racial slurs and death threats, she bought several guns.
Her involvement with the movement for prison abolitionist began with a campaign for the Soledad Brothers, two incarcerated Black Panther Party members. After a failed attempt by the Soledad Brothers to break out of prison, Davis was falsely imprisoned for a murder she didn’t commit. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Davis was unfairly targeted and racially profiled by the criminal justice system, but by 1972 was acquitted of all charges.
Professor Davis reflected on Trump’s America and the continuous attacks on marginalized groups. Reflecting on five decades of her activism, Davis called for a more intersectional feminist agenda inclusive of Black women, Black LGBTQ+ communities, prisoners’ rights etc. When Davis speaks about how the privatized prison system targets Black women, she is speaking from lived experiences. Having authored many books about intersectionality, race, feminism, and prison abolition including,Women, Race and Class, Freedom is a Constant Struggle and The Meaning of Freedom, she coined the term Abolitionist Feminism to acknowledge the circumstances of what it’s like to be Black, a woman, and incarcerated.Her life’s work shows that she believes in the Black liberation movements, and is especially dedicated to Black women. Black women are often left out of the conversation surrounding prison abolition, despite the fact that we live in a culture where many young Black women like Bresha Meadows and Cyntoia Brown are unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system. Davis’ activism highlights how mass incarceration is a modernized form of slavery and how Black women fit into it. Incarcerated Black women continue to be unfairly targeted and exploited by America’s criminal justice system. Ever since the first Africans were shipped to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, Black people have enslaved in one system or another, and in each of these, Black women and girls have been ignored in the larger abolitionist conversations.Davis’ advocacy for prison abolition that centers Black women has inspired me to do the same for my community.
The school-to-prison pipeline in Virginia continues to separate Black families and hinder Black girls from getting an education. About a month after hearing her speak at the film festival, I helped to create Angela Davis’ Black Girl Coalition with a group of Black women who share my passion for the work. This coalition is based at Girls For A Change, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to support Black girls and other girls of color, and inspire them to visualize their bright futures and potential through discovery, development, social change, and innovation. Its headquarters are based in Central Virginia, where the most frequent school-to-prison pipelines occur in America, which disproportionately target Black and disabled students.
The mission of this project is to work with school districts in Central Virginia to provide alternatives to the push-out, through an advocacy group which makes learning skills like mindfulness and conflict resolution as accessible as possible to Black female students in marginalized communities. This project is also heavily influenced by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, and inspired by the #SayHerName movement, which directs attention to how Black women and girls are disproportionately targeted, exploited and abused by the criminal justice system. In doing so, we want to change the narrative of the conversation around the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration as modern slavery methods.
As a millennial with interest in prison abolition, hearing Davis speak about her belief in intersectional Black liberation helped to light a fire in me. Not only did it highlight for me how the activism of Black elder’s is still valuable to us, but it also served as an affirmation to young and socially conscious Black people who are willing to be a voice in the community that we will inherit.
When Davis called for a broad, anti-racist and intersectional approach to feminism at this event, she inspired me to help dismantle the cisheteropatriarchy that takes place in our mainstream conversation about the criminal justice system’s targeting of Black people. Having a diverse and intersectional narrative can save young Black women like Bresha Meadows and Cyntoia Brown from being inequitably targeted by America’s criminal justice system.