Letter from the Chair
For those unfamiliar with our website’s banner image, it is a photo of 25-year-old Angela Davis delivering her first and only lecture as Acting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UCLA. The course, “Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature,” was offered in the fall of 1969 and her lecture attracted nearly 2,000 students. The lucky ones squeezed into Royce Hall while the rest huddled outside straining to hear every word. Drawing on Frederick Douglass’s narrative, she methodically illustrated Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” insisting that philosophical reflections on bondage, mastery and freedom be understood in the context of actual chattel slavery—not simply as metaphor. Early into her lecture she makes a startling assertion that Black Literature is more illuminating than the whole body of Western philosophy on the question of human freedom, because the lives of African-descended people “have exposed by their very existence, the inadequacies not only of the practice of freedom, but of its very theoretical formulation.” Davis designed the course to examine the concept of freedom expressed in works by Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, John A. Williams, and poets such as the Afro-Cuban bard, Nicolas Guilllen.
Those familiar with the story know what happened next. The University of California Regents, headed by Governor Ronald Reagan, fired Professor Davis for her radical politics, in spite of strong support from UCLA faculty and then Chancellor Charles Young. Her dismissal was ultimately declared a flagrant violation of academic freedom and First Amendment rights, but subsequent historical developments closed off the prospect of her return.
Unfortunately, the drama of Professor Davis’s case has overshadowed the significance of her first “Lecture on Liberation” and the transformative effect it had on the campus. The crowd had its share of curiosity-seekers, but most of the students came seeking new knowledge, new interpretations of the world. Black struggles for freedom created an epistemological crisis for the whole country. The meaning of freedom, liberty, citizen, community, power were called into question by the experiences and struggles of subjugated, alienated groups – women, people of color, queer people, colonial subjects, youth, etc. Angela Davis’s lecture laid bare just part of a national and international rupture, and in doing so shifted the university’s intellectual center of gravity momentarily to Royce Hall. In other words, on October 7, 1969, students did not show up en masse to witness a sideshow; on the contrary, the interrogation of black visions of liberation took center stage, examined through the optic of the academy’s oldest discipline – Philosophy.
Forty-five years later, we have yet to fully grasp the idea that African American Studies is central, not peripheral, to our mission as knowledge producers. To this day, I hear echoes of a question a white student had posed to Professor Davis during office hours: “He asked whether or not I was going to limit the course to the philosophical experiences of the slave, the Black man in society, or whether I was going to talk about people.” By “people” he meant white people, the normative, the Great Men, the category of humans endowed with all the Rights of Man. Startling as this may be, many of us still must state the obvious to our own students—as Davis did in response to the question: “Oppressed people are forced to come to grips with immediate problems every day, problems which have a philosophical status and are relevant to all people.”
Fortunately, Professor Davis returns to UCLA as the Regents' Lecturer in the Department of Gender Studies for Spring 2014, where she will teach a graduate seminar on "Critical Theory and Feminist Dialogues" and deliver a public lecture that further advances her profound insights into black radical and feminist sources of ideas of freedom and abolition.
In thinking about Angela Davis as the original intellectual lightning rod for African American Studies at UCLA, I can’t help but reflect on the recent passing of Stuart Hall. His influence on African American and Africana Studies--particularly his analyses of race, culture, class, politics, media, and neoliberalism--has been immeasurable. His jointly authored text, Policing the Crisis, and essays such as "Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” “Notes on Deconstructing the ‘Popular,’” “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” and “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” have achieved canonical status in our field. Hall embodied the very best of our interdisciplinary project. He never accepted easy answers and always dug beneath the surface of things to find the underlying structures of oppression and the spaces of possibility. For those who dismissed African American Studies as little more than identity politics masquerading as scholarship, Hall reminded naysayers that our task is not to promote a unitary “black” identity but to interrogate identities and their relationship to modalities of power. Jamaica-born and Oxford-educated, Hall left the university just before completing his PhD for a life of radical activism, becoming the founding editor of the New Left Review in 1960. He taught secondary school in Britain through the 1960s but found his way back to the academy when he joined the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, where he helped launch the field of Cultural Studies.
Both Davis and Hall understood that black cultural identities and meditations on freedom could never be contained within national boundaries. This is why Davis insisted on including Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen in her lectures, and why Hall regarded the African Diaspora—a geographic and conceptual space constituted in memory, representation, culture, and social movements—as a crucial unit of analysis.
We are not newcomers to a Diaspora framework; it has been a fundamental component of Afro-American Studies at UCLA for nearly three decades, largely due to the indefatigable work of Professor Robert Hill, whose retirement last year left a gaping hole in our program. A fellow Jamaican and eminent historian whose intellectual acuity matches that of Hall, Hill can be credited with establishing critical modern Pan-African Studies here at UCLA—culminating in the monumental editorial project, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Hill was also responsible for training a few generations of students in the field of African Diaspora Studies.
With such towering figures as Davis, Hall, and Hill among our pillars, the new department of African American Studies will be built on a solid yet dynamic foundation. We have already established a global perspective, extending our scope beyond North America and the Caribbean to Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Africa, exploring transnational connections in both our undergraduate and graduate courses. And with the addition of outstanding, imaginative young scholars to our core faculty, we have developed a strong emphasis on gender and sexuality, labor, popular culture, race and the problem of modernity. I am very proud of our core faculty as well as our affiliates, and I invite you to check out their scholarship, course offerings, and individual websites.
We have come a long way since that fateful day in October 1969, when a large cross-section of the campus “thought” together about Frederick Douglass and the meaning of freedom, yet the essential liberatory impulse behind Davis’s lecture, the presumption that Black life and death, ideas and dreams, constitute the material of human understanding still holds in Aisha Finch’s reconstruction of Cuban slave revolts, in Sarah Haley’s excavations of imprisoned black women in the Jim Crow South, in Uri McMillan queer interrogations of black women’s performance practices and Afro-Futurism, in Yogita Goyal’s readings of Black Atlantic literature, in the visionary and surreal poetry of Harryette Mullen, in Mignon Moore’s investigations into black motherhood in queer families, in Caroline Streeter’s explorations of “mixed race” women caught between white supremacy and postracial mythos, in Darnell Hunt’s deconstruction of how media representations shape our national racial optic, in Mark Sawyer’s analyses of race, Latin America, anti-blackness and immigration, in Walter Allen’s studies of race and higher education, in Patricia Turner’s examinations of the cultural dynamics of racial representation in modern black folk forms, and in Richard Yarborough’s ongoing project of documenting and interpreting the very literature Angela Davis declared “projects the consciousness of a people who have been denied entrance into the real world of freedom.”
Robin D. G. Kelley
Gary B. Nash Professor of American History
Interim Chair of Afro-American Studies IDP