A week that began with a nightmare, ended with a dream.
On Tuesday morning, I received the call from my wife I’ve long dreaded—she said there was a 911 call about an active shooter in the high school and that our daughter was on lockdown in her classroom. The next few hours were consumed with determining precisely what was happening and if our daughter was safe. It turned out to be a hoax perpetrated on a series of Michigan communities by someone who called 911 purporting to be a teacher in the building where the shooting was actively unfolding.
Meanwhile, the actual teachers in Okemos High School were bravely protecting our children, pushing bookcases in front of doors, moving students into closets, and putting their bodies between danger and the lives of our kids.
Such is the diseased life of education in these United States in this, the twenty-third year of the 21st century.
I am grateful for the teachers and staff and police who moved so quickly to protect our students; I am heartsick that to be an educator in this country means to put your life at risk every single day.
Contrast this dystopian reality with the joy and possibility embodied in Angela Davis’s visit to MSU on Thursday as a speaker in the 2023 William G. Anderson Lecture Series: From Slavery to Freedom.
Prompted by Dr. Marita Gilbert‘s beautiful invitation to reflect upon those who influenced her, Davis began with her parents and their love of learning. They instilled in her a deep commitment to social justice and a sophisticated understanding of the transformative power of ideas. Both were reinforced by her encounter with Herbert Marcuse, the German-American philosopher, social-critic, and member of the Frankfurt School, who taught her that “philosophy could be a tool for revolutionary change.”
Over the course to almost two hours on Thursday, Davis focused our attention on the conditions that make such revolutionary change both urgent and necessary. She reminded us that the corrosive individualism that pervades contemporary culture is a delusion that must give way—that is beginning to give way—to a deeper recognition of our human interconnectedness with one another and the natural world. She put it this way:
“We would not be who we are without relationality with others.”
This deep existential truth awakens us to the profound responsibilities we have to one another and to the earth we share, responsibilities to which Davis called us when she emphasized that environmental justice is “ground zero of all social justice.” To recognize environmental justice as the root of all social justice is to expand the scope and complexity of how we think about justice and who we consider when we seek it. This requires an intersectional approach to our ways of being in the world. For Davis, intersectionality is a “habit of thinking things together,” a habit she practiced with us throughout the evening.
In reflection on the struggle for freedom, Davis pressed us not to think of freedom as a discrete goal, but as a journey. The tendency to think of freedom as a destination pulls us away from the vitality of freedom as a project, as a task that animates our lives.
Here again she emphasized complexity, and specifically, the “growing complexity of what it means to be free.” This complexity is felt, for example, in the ways contemporary culture is beginning to move beyond the gender binary, a shift that has brought with it a vociferous backlash intent on reinforcing the status quo.
Indeed, I was moved most by what Davis said about the political function of ideology to reinforce the status quo. “Racism,” she recognized, “is an ideology, a system.”
“The work of ideology is to persuade us that what exists must exist.”
To be conscious of the ways ideology operates on us is already to begin to initiate meaningful change. This was the great hope that emerged during our two hours with Davis on Thursday evening. That hope was, for me, reinforced by her remarks that when future generations look back upon this period of history, they will recognize it as a time of significant cultural transformation.
The Transformative Power of Education
Young people, Davis emphasized, increasingly understand that racism is structural; they recognize the fluidity of gender and the complexity of our interconnected lives. The role of education here is vital, for education has an unparalleled ability to disrupt the status quo and to move us toward more just and sustainable ways of being together.
In emphasizing the transformative change through which we are living, Davis perhaps would agree with Angel Kyoto Williams, who said:
“There is something dying in our society, in our culture, and there’s something dying in us individually. And what is dying, I think, is the willingness to be in denial. And that is extraordinary. It’s always been happening, and when it happens in enough of us, in a short enough period of time at the same time, then you have a tipping point, and the culture begins to shift.”
Let eduction advance the dying of denial and cultivate the intersectional habits of thinking and acting we need to nurture and sustain a more just interconnected world.