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December 18, 2012

I am currently in the throes of two kicks: Swedish films and learning more about women agitators. The most recent of these I have consumed and are in the process of consuming, respectively, are As It Is In Heaven (if you have Netfilx, watch it now; if you don’t, watch this and then go rent it) and Emma: A Play In Two Acts, by one of my favorites, Howard Zinn, about another one of my favorites Emma Goldman. These currents in my life converge in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, a documentary by a Swedish director using 30-year-old unreleased archival footage shot by Swedish journalists during the timeframe listed in the title (also on Netflix). Before I get into my reflections on the film, I want to share a quote by Emma Goldman that captures the essence of not only these two works but also the core of this post on Angela Davis and The Black Power Mixtape (TBPM):

“I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”

Moving chronologically year to year, TBPM is raw and refreshingly impressionistic, utilizing longer clips of interviews with the major players of the Black Power Movement (and sympathizers) which allows the people inside the Movement tell the story, rather than following an outside scripted narrative. I have recently been watching and listening to extended takes of speeches given by agitators, past and present, as I appreciate what this sort of experience affords me in its continuity and more holistic delivery of ‘the message.’ Soundbites abound in today’s media climate, a tactic that adheres to the narrative of the one(s) serving as middleman yet which is a reality fraught with the susceptibility for manipulation, oppression, etc. etc. In short: I think that the more and more often we hear from the horse’s mouth, the better able we are to decide whether we agree or disagree with that horse.

One such clip included in the BPMT is from an interview with Dr. Angela Davis whilst she was incarcerated in California in 1972 on baseless charges of conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. You can/should watch the clip here. Right now. Seriously. Even if you have seen it before, watch it because I have watched this clip maybe a dozen times and I think I might get smarter with each viewing.

You watch it? Okay, cool, now we can talk about it.

In my favorite exchange of the film, the interviewer leads Dr. Davis toward a question on the violence associated with and sensationalized about the Black Power Movement. She clarifies that that is truly what he is searching for a response to and then counters with two significant, enlightening points confrontational to popular (and white) assumptions in the narrative on the Movement:

1. Dr. Davis says that what most people fail to recognize in their expectations of violence in relation to revolution is that, “The real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you are striving for, not in the way that you reach them.” In effect, she is telling the interviewer, and the world watching en masse, ‘You are focusing your lens on the wrong thing here. The revolution is neither in the confrontation nor the means of that confrontation but rather in what comes from that confrontation.’ When I first heard her say this, my mind immediately went to a clip from one of my favorite films, V For Vendetta, which I think segues nicely into her second point. Watch clip here. In it, V (wearing the Guy Fawkes mask) says to a high-ranking agent of a corrupt and oppressive government a line poetic and quoted widely – “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr Creedy, and ideas are bullet-proof.” – that I think echoes what Dr. Davis was striving for: look beyond the surface, the superficial into the waters churning below, the changing tide. Therein lies the revolution, in a space that simultaneously subverts and transcends whatever forces dare stand in its way.

2. Dr. Davis then pivots to tell two personal anecdotes that serve as a microcosm of the greater and historical violence against black people in this country. The first takes place in Los Angeles, where she says she was repeatedly hassled by white police officers for no reason other than she was a black person with a natural (Afro) and therefore assumed to be militant. The other example she gives comes from her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama where a good friend of hers, a child no less, was blown up by white people; where her father and community kept themselves armed against the constant threat of violence; and where the calls for black bloodshed by white people in power were frequent and realized in actual bloodshed. Within this subject, Dr. Davis says, flabbergasted, “And then you ask me whether I approve of violence? Now, I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.” With a montage of the long history of violence and her own memories of black limbs, black heads strewn about in post-bomb carnage, Dr. Davis drives her point home:

“That’s why when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible, because what it means is that the person asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

I think for many, perhaps especially white folks in America, the connection between the Black Power Movement and images of radical violence is so automatic that it is assumed to be accurate; it is how it is talked about in historical media and how we learned about it in schools. As a future teacher – and a teacher of social sciences, no less – I have no doubt that hearing Dr. Davis making these two points, specifically, has changed the way I will teach not just about the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement in my classroom but also about the ongoing history of our evolution as a human species. As Americans, we exist and function in a culture of violence and suffering, which are by and large mainstays of the human experience. But within that, I think we need ideas and ideals and goals and principles toward which we can strive; I think we need to be honest about not just what is happening in the now but really what we want in the later. And commit to that – really, fucking commit to it. Because what else is worthier of our lives?

I think we need more thinkers. I think we need more agitators. This is what I want to be in my lifetime: I want to tend to and serve “everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things,” a beautiful and radiant life, if that is what they want. But this goes far beyond me and of what I alone am capable in my short life. Angela Davis is most certainly a woman, a person I admire. But, and I think more importantly, I admire the principles she espouses, the thought that drives them, and the conviction to hold true to the substantive, the “real content” of revolution.

Cheers to Dr. Davis.

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One thought on “The Agitators

  1. You’re riling me up, Callie Y.

    I’m using some of this info tmrw in a lesson about the environment/the Earth Liberation Front. Also a good documentary on Netflix.

    You raise in me so many questions! Have you read the Invisible Man? All about the Black civil rights movement in the 60s and the quesion of self identity and the reliability/legitimacy/fallibility of “working” within a movement – but the movement itself! So worthy of its own right, and as you say, I champion the idea behind the movement, because the idea is pure –

    But what when they become, as all inevitably do, corrupt? New movements for a better world?

    I love you. Xoxo

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