Envisioning the Future of Black Activism

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“Every generation needs to produce its own movement, every generation needs to produce its own freedom songs and every generation needs to produce its own assessment of what the world needs,” said Marc Lamont Hill, the opening keynote speaker at the Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) Conference this past weekend.

The ABC Conference returned to its roots at UC Santa Cruz on Feb. 15-17 for the first time since the activist group’s initial assembly in 2004. The annual ABC Conference is conducted at a different UC campus each year, featuring keynote speakers, a discussion panel, workshops, artistic performances of poetry and choreographed dances and a dance for all involved to move and groove together, as one.

Over 500 student delegates were present from California’s higher education system, representing an array of schools from the complete list of UCs, to a few CSUs, community colleges and private schools.

ABC boasts the fact that it’s the only statewide alliance of black college students in the nation. It upholds the objective of ensuring that higher education institutions are spaces where students of African descent can pursue their education, unhindered by a lack of representation, resources and access.

“I’m really challenged to think critically [at the ABC Conference] about social issues, my identity, the people I’m around — and with a very solution-based mentality,” said third- year UCSC student Shadin Awad, one of 11 UCSC students on the ABC planning committee. “It’s nice to be around [black] people in academia … it’s really breaking down things, sharing books with each other and giving each other access.”

The overarching theme for this year’s ABC Conference, “Re- imagining Black Activism,” enticed social justice activist and associate professor at Columbia University, Marc Lamont Hill, to travel long distance. Hill flew six hours from Philadelphia to commence the gathering on Saturday morning, speaking at his first ABC Conference.

“It’s exciting to be thinking about freedom talk, to be thinking about liberation talk, to be thinking about justice talk in 2014,” Hill said in the beginning of his speech. “Because there’s such an extraordinary commitment to having us believe we don’t need to be talking about these things anymore.”

In a post-speech interview, Hill said his desire to engage the black community started with reading the biographies of Malcolm X and Assata Shakur. As a teenager, black activist figures like Malcolm X and Shakur ignited Hill’s drive to join organizations and “become a part of that tradition.”

Hill reiterated his sense of elation and devotedness surrounding the ABC Conference, noticing a similar actionist spark he once felt, now in the conference’s attendees.

“This is my first event with [ABC] and I’m very excited,” Hill said. “I’m overwhelmed by the amount of commitment by the students, the high level of intellectual engagement, the desire to do real work in the world. All of that is exciting, you know?”

Three different workshops, which took place Saturday and Sunday, were labeled with the motifs, “The History and Development of Black Activism,” “Black Activism Today” and “Black Activism Tomorrow.” The three separate sessions focused on one of these themes.

“I went to Don Williams’ [theater and politics] workshop, and I just felt really empowered to do theater,” said second-year UCSC student Joseph Evans. “Professor Williams talked about the history of theater and how it originated in [African] culture … ABC is bringing the light to us.”

Sunday’s ABC Conference was kickstarted by a familiar face in the UCSC community, particularly for those involved in the feminist studies department. Angela Davis, an internationally renowned activist and organizer, said prison abolition and feminine assertiveness are corner- stones in furthering the black community’s presence in public higher education.

“Prison abolition involves the fight for public education. This should be on the top of the agenda of any radical or progressive activist in this country,” Davis said. “You can’t talk about educational justice without talking about prison justice.”

A panel consisting of “new and old school activists” answered ques- tions aimed at delineating the past, present and future of black activism. Angela Davis, Bobby Seale — a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Marcel Jones — the current chair of the Black Student Union at UC Berkeley, Philip Agnew — founder of Dream Defenders in Florida, and two UCSC alumni, Tiffany Dena Loftin and Ainye Long, created the six member panel.

“As a student, you have the power to change and impact the world,” Long said, who helped found ABC 10 years ago. “It’s just beautiful to be here 10 years later. Just make sure each of you share that truth and share that love.”