When a Moderator Takes Up Angela Davis’ Space

Last week, the iconic Angela Davis was a guest of Scripps Presents’ first installment in a series that called “Conversations,” an ironic title considering what actually ensued during the hour-long interview. Annie Gilbertson, an investigative reporter whose “first love is public schools” as she described it, was clearly not only ill- prepared, but quite unqualified to be interviewing this woman, and several people walked away from that event with the same sentiment.

Davis, rocking her gorgeous afro, graced the stage with the kind of presence that only legends of a revolutionary movement have. She had just turned 73 two days before the event, continuing to prove that black does not and will never crack. She exuded a humble demeanor and remained calm, despite the ridiculous line of questioning that followed.

Gilbertson asked questions that exposed that she had done minimal research on Davis and had no background in black issues, though she may have been active in other areas of social justice. She seemed to be talking at– not with— a very prominent figure from black history, and that in itself was really offensive. She tried to summarize and frame Davis' life for her in a tokenizing way that made a lot of people uncomfortable. The whole audience had a moment of pause when Gilbertson asked Davis if she felt “privileged” leaving Birmingham to go to a school in “integrated” New York, and if she felt like she had to “give back” because of this golden opportunity.

In that particular moment, it was so apparent that Gilbertson had not been listening when Angela spoke a few moments earlier about how she still struggled with racism at the school in New York, where there were very few people of color. Gilbertson’s inadequacy to carry out this conversation was also reflected in the fact that she didn’t ask Angela about her time as a political prisoner, nor did she ask her about black liberation movements, the Black Panthers, or Black Power, which I found shocking. She also interrupted Davis multple times to the point where some women in the front of the audience shouted, “Let her speak!”

Despite the moderator's significant shortcomings, a good portion of the talk was dedicated to how Angela got interested in Marxism and in becoming an educator like her mother. She talked intimately about her upbringing, speaking very fondly of how her mother and father always taught them to care and love others. She reflected that her mother would take shoes that she wasn’t wearing anymore and give them to school children that didn’t have any. Gilbertson then, effectively ruining this moment, asked her why she “stole money” from her father’s purse (again, using a poor choice of words). Angela then had to explain that she would take very little money, maybe “a dime or a nickel” from her father’s bag of change and give it to school kids who didn’t have money for lunch.

When asked, Angela also spoke briefly on affirmative action, which she said is necessary in order to “begin to compensate for years of exclusion and discrimination.” Davis reaffirmed her views on prison abolishment, arguing that we should look for alternate ways to rehabilitate people who have committed crimes. During one memorable moment, Davis threw effortless shade at Condoleezza Rice for being “very individualistic” when speaking about how she has dedicated her own life to helping communities at large.

In the end, it was an honor having Angela Davis here at the 5Cs, but many people, myself included, were deeply disappointed by the execution of the event. Why didn't a woman of color (preferably a black woman) or a faculty member from the Africana Studies Department ask Angela questions? Why not take more questions from the audience? This was supposed to be a “conversation,” but Gilbertson was too focused on painting her own picture of who Angela Davis is rather than asking her meaningful questions about being a legendary black activist, a feminist, a political prisoner, and a woman in the movement.

Shanaya Stephenson PO'19 is from Palm Desert, CA and intends to major in Cog Sci.

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