Staff Writer Ava Schwabecher attended the keynote conversation between Angela Davis and Barbara Ransby at the Ella Baker National One-Day Symposium. The world-renowned political activists discussed the Black radical feminist tradition, the reverberations of Ella Baker’s legacy, and their experiences as part of the Free Palestine Movement.
On Friday, the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) hosted a national one-day symposium celebrating civil rights activist Ella Baker, her legacy, and Black radicalism.
The event featured two nationally recognized keynote speakers: feminist political activist Angela Davis (University of California, Santa Cruz) and activist historian Barbara Ransby (University of Chicago).
Ella Baker, whose work spanned over 50 years and is foundational to grassroots activism, was a profoundly influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement. She was crucial in the creation of activist organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dr. Ransby spent 15 years researching Baker’s rich and meaningful political career as a dynamic figure dedicated to empowering Black individuals, collective grassroots leadership, and liberation for all. Her research culminated in the award-winning book Ella Baker and the Freedom Movement.
Dr. Davis and Dr. Ransby were introduced by Premilla Nadasen, an activist and professor of History at Barnard. Professor Nadasen began by discussing how both speakers represent the tradition of radical Black feminism through their extensive work in activism and academia. She framed the conversation around a quote from the Combahee River Collective’s statement, “A Black feminist future, one crafted by the most marginalized, enrooted in a vision of an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-capitalist world.”
Professor Nadasen began her political work with Dr. Ransby in 1985, joining her efforts at urging Columbia University and the University of Michigan to divest from South African apartheid. Professor Nadasen reflected on how collaboration with Ransby offered her insight into how all liberation movements are inextricably connected. She expressed gratitude and praise for Davis and Ransby and their fight for a more habitable future of social justice, structural change, and global liberation.
After this warm welcome, Dr. Ransby began the conversation by expressing gratitude for spending her life researching Ella Baker. “What a gift as a biographer to be able to write about a life that is so worth telling,” she noted.
Dr. Davis then opened up the conversation with commentary on the dissonance between the production of revolutionary ideas and how history accepts them. “There are ideas that resonate during the time in which the times they are produced. Then there are ideas that have to wait until history catches up with them. Sometimes history catches up with those ideas because of those that organize, study, write, speak, teach, mobilize.” She explained how Dr. Ransby displays this framework of thinking through her salient work as a community organizer and autobiographer of Ella Baker.
As the conversation continued, Dr. Davis reflected on her over 40 years of comradery and friendship with Dr. Ransby, leading to a greater discussion about the balance between political work and joy and levity. Anecdotally, Davis shared, “When I first got out of jail and would go to a party wanting to dance, people would corner me and try to have a political conversation over the music.” Dr. Ransby responded by recollecting how her time off with Dr. Davis in a more vulnerable setting, separated from work, allowed her to connect deeply with her. Having the capacity to appreciate someone in multiple dynamics, she said, is one of the best ways to connect.
Dr. Ransby then angled the conversation towards a larger discussion of freedom, racial capitalism, and solidarity. She expressed how passivity in a social movement, especially in one that waits for racial capitalism to crumble, is unproductive. There must be an active building of a vast movement, one that strives for collective change. Dr. Davis bolstered Dr. Ransby’s sentiments; “We must not forget where we’ve been, where we are, and where we can go.” They then circled back to Ella Baker’s legacy of community organizing: approaching activism with a historical consciousness can allow us to foreground our thinking in what is historically routine.
While the event centered on Ella Baker and her legacy, a significant part of the dialogue concentrated on Palestine. In the opening remarks for the symposium, Professor Nadasen offered the stage to students from SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) and JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace) to speak about the struggle they are currently engaged in.
About the recent suspension of SJP and JVP, the students expressed that “when both of our groups were suspended in the same breadth, the University made it clear that if they want to suspend SJP, they must suspend JVP too because we stand together in unconditional solidarity.” The students further asserted that, “as long of any of our voices go unheard, the rest of us are also being silenced.”
Furthermore, in their keynote conversation, Dr. Davis and Dr. Ransby reflected on their delegation to Palestine in 2011, establishing that Palestinian solidarity is always central to their beliefs. “Palestine is a commitment I take every day,” Dr. Davis expressed. Both Dr. Davis and Dr. Ransby were wearing keffiyehs in solidarity with Palestine. The keynote conversation was concluded as Dr. Davis and Dr. Ransby led the audience in a galvanizing “Free Palestine” chant.
It is important to note that while this article only covers the keynote conversation, there were several other talks throughout the day from nationally recognized scholars that can be found on the BCRW website.
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