Professor Angela Davis sits surrounded by a portion of the crowd who made their way to her talk on being a revolutionary (Lerumo Sibanyoni)
It’s the second-last day of 2019. Professor Angela Davis is in South Africa as a part of Afropunk’s Solution Sessions. Acting as a prelude to the festival, the Solution Sessions platform engages social activists and experts from varying fields about ways to right the socioeconomic wrongs affecting the community that is hosting the talk.
A crowded room of almost 200 people roars with cheers and applause as Davis concludes her address on “How to be a revolutionary”. The eager crowd hushes as the floor opens for the audience to pick her brain. Davis smiles. Her demeanour is kind but controlled. Her tone is firm but not all-knowing.
One of the audience members asks her what she thinks of T-shirts emblazoned with revolutionary messages. Another asks about the weight that art, music, theatre and literature carry in a revolution. Davis sits up in her chair and sighs. She tells the story of the first time she saw her face on a T-shirt. “I met a black woman who had a T-shirt with my face on it and I asked her why she was wearing the T-shirt. She said she didn’t really know that much about my history but she said whenever she wears that T-shirt it makes her feel powerful. I said, ‘Right on’.” She then lets out a short but sincere chuckle before she confesses to once having a collection of T-shirts with radical messages.
Although Davis has since neglected her collection of T-shirts, relentlessly pursuing a hands-on approach to activism, she’s weary of invalidating those whose radical begins through the sartorial.
“The more I think about how I’ve seen revolutionary consciousness develop,” she says, “the more I recognise that everything is necessary.”
Davis’s call, in essence, is for a creative, “imaginative and multidisciplinary revolution”.
After decades of defying the status quo at a systemic level, she says one of the most fundamental parts of a revolution is sharing the information that will conscientise the masses and transform passive civilians into activists. This is because, “The real work is not so much the demonstrations but in changing people’s minds and hearts”.
And, for this information to spread efficiently, revolutionaries have to be committed to using a variety of ways to get their message across.
Although she notes the importance of the academic and political discourse that is disseminated through journal articles and speeches at rallies, Davis reminds the crowd not to forget that cultural texts and spaces created for entertainment have a wider reach. “It’s through visual art, fictional literature, films, music and fashion that our deep emotions can be transformed,” she says.
As a long-standing activist, Davis has embodied this multidisciplinary stance by supplementing her lobbyist work, literature and teaching through availing herself to other art forms. Think of how she wrote an essay that accompanied Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone by various artists or how she has been a subject in documentaries such as Dolores (2017), about the life of labour union activist Dolores Huerta.
The continuity of this approach can also be seen in the way that, for example, Busiswa’s Lahla encourages the listener to acknowledge their freedom of movement by dancing; in the way that Korean director Bong Joon-ho is able to demonstrate the absurd and unsustainable nature of capitalism by capturing the mundane details of our everyday in his 2019 film, Parasite; or in the decision to wear a T-shirt that reads “Why be sexist, racist, transphobic, or homophobic when you can just be quiet?” to run errands at the mall.