Shephard Fairey's Angela Davis. Boston, 2009.

Today marks the one year anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street – a time when Angela Y. Davis’s latest collection, The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues, seems especially poignant.  As Robin D. G. Kelley points out in the book’s introduction, Davis has been a powerful spokesperson for and presence in the Occupy movement.

The Meaning of Freedom spans Davis’s previously unpublished speeches from September 1994’s “Report from Harlem” to November 2009’s “Difficult Dialogues,” which she gave at the National Women’s Studies Conference in Atlanta. One of the most shocking, and a little depressing, aspects of the collection is just how relevant the earlier speeches seem today. In “Report from Harlem,” Davis spoke of the need for free education, low-cost housing, jobs, free childcare and free health care “in U.S. black communities, on other communities of color, and among poor people in general.” Now, 18 years later, attempts to balance the federal budget could mean that poor communities could have less access to these public services. Rather than moving forward toward greater social equality, the U.S. may be moving backward.

The 2008 election of Barack Obama led some erroneously to believe that racism no longer exists, but as Davis says, “Racism has not ended because one black man now occupies the highest office in the land, or because one black family is in the White House” (“Democracy, Social Change and Civil Engagement”). In 2008, Davis noted that the “election of Barack Obama did not prevent a BART police officer in Oakland, California, from shooting an unarmed black youth” (“Democracy, Social Change and Civil Engagement”). The same could be said for Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin in February. Having an African-American president didn’t stop Zimmerman from seeing Martin, an African-American teen holding Skittles, and believing that Martin must be carrying a weapon and therefore shot.

One of The Meaning of Freedom’s lessons is to recognize the covert forms of racism, classism and oppression that exist and are perhaps the most dangerous because it’s easy to write them off as “just the way things are.” As Davis says, “If we are unable to identify new contemporary modes of racism, we render those who are its targets even more vulnerable [than] they may have been previously” (“Radical Multiculturalism”). These modes and by-products of racism include voting booths that are abundant in affluent communities but rare in poor communities and racial profiling of new immigrants. However, moving toward eradicating these less obvious forms of oppression isn’t as simple as adding more polling booths in poor communities, for instance. Instead, it requires revising what we think of democracy. These revisions should include the right to work for a living wage and a society in which education is not a commodity, according to Davis (“The Meaning of Freedom”). It also requires transforming social relations to ones that link people worldwide, “not by the commodities that some produce and others consume, but rather by equality and solidarity and cooperation and respect,” she says in “Radical Multiculturalism.”

The Meaning of Freedom is essential reading, even for those who don’t agree with Davis on every issue, or even most issues. I, for one, have difficulty accepting the idea of abolishing prisons, not due to any holes in Davis’s argument, but more because I can’t imagine a society without prisons. It’s an issue I have to explore further. The only fault that I found in the book is that quite a few typos fell through the editing net and landed in the published text. Regardless of that, the speeches in the collection are inspiring, to say the least, especially in the tough economic times that have persisted since the 2008 financial crisis. It’s important to remember that things can get better, but only by modifying how we think about freedom and fairness. As Davis said in 2002, “Whatever we are doing, wherever we are it is imperative that we believe in the possibility of change.”

Photograph courtesy of takomabibelot. Published under a Creative Commons license.