On Tuesday morning, Elizabeth Hinton told everyone to get ready. The second and final—and fullest—day of a Radcliffe Institute conference honoring radical activist and global icon Angela Davis was about to start. Davis herself was seated in the front row, smiling beneath her instantly recognizable afro, now a shade of silver-gray. A capacity crowd filled the Knafel Center behind her. Hinton, halfway through her welcoming remarks, was talking about the difficult issues and “contested truths” the rest of the conference would grapple with. “If you are not uncomfortable at some point during the day,” said the Harvard historian, who chaired the event’s organizing committee, “then we’re not doing our jobs.”
For the next eight hours, the panelists—scholars, activists, educators—would discuss revolution and liberation and the fight against violent oppression. They’d talk about feminisms (plural) and blackness and queer solidarity; they’d talk about anti-capitalism and the prison-abolition movement. They’d talk about Palestine and apartheid South Africa and northern Syria. And Brazil, where Davis traveled a few weeks ago and met with the family of Marielle Franco, the human rights activist and Rio politician who was assassinated in 2018, a few months before repressive politician Jair Bolsonaro was elected president.
And the panelists would also talk about Harvard, whose recent acquisition of Davis’s papers—now archived in the Schlesinger Library and available to scholars starting this week—catalyzed the conference. Hinton praised the increasingly prominent University-hosted discussions like this one, but she also pushed back. “We can’t be in a space confronting Angela Davis’s life’s work and its implications,” she said, “without recognizing the struggles against racism and oppression that are very much alive on this campus.” She described a recent incident in which Harvard police confronted a group of students of color in the Yard as they were preparing a poetry installation for a class. And she cited the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, whose leaders have been demanding that the University withdraw its investments from prison-related industries. For more than a year, the campaign “has engaged the entire campus in thinking about the kinds of investments Harvard can and should make to advance social justice and equality, including expanding educational opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people,” said Hinton, whose scholarly work focuses on the carceral state. She has been pushing Harvard to provide education in prisons since she first arrived in Cambridge six years ago.