5 Takeaways from Austin’s First International Black Studies Conference

Black Studies PhD candidate Drea Brown hugs poet Saul Williams after he spoke at the first International Black Studies Conference at the University of Texas at Austin on Sept. 29. Photo by Hakeem Adewumi.
The conference theme was "Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism". Here are five takeaways from the event.

Professor Angela Y. Davis spoke at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) on Friday, ending the first International Black Studies Conference, a two-day event that focused on the African diaspora and featured speakers including poet Saul Williams and Lezley McSpadden. McSpadden is the mother of Mike Brown, who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Here are five takeaways from the event:

Art is activism
“We experienced music and dance and theater as part of our ongoing quest for freedom and change,” said Davis in her keynote talk. Davis gained national attention in 1969 when the University of California at Los Angeles fired her for her membership in the Communist Party and other activism. Saul Williams echoed this theme, saying “I believe in art,” while explaining that art – including music and film – can often more quickly than policy change the way people think and act. When introducing Williams, UT art and theater scholar Omi Jones said, “Art is dangerous. UT Black Studies recognizes the connection between art and policy and makes space for the danger.”

Change is good
The panel about the Black Queer diaspora featured scholars whose work demonstrates that self-expression within Black cultures is changing and diverse. Williams performed Shotgun to the Head, written at a time during which he realized that creation brings destruction. He quoted author Octavia Butler, who said that “God is change.” Davis said, “We need movements that are prepared to resist the inevitable seductions of assimilation.”

Professor Angela Y. Davis, delivering the keynote address at the first International Black Studies Conference at the University of Texas at Austin on Sept. 30. Photo by Hakeem Adewumi.

The greatest Americans have not been born yet; they are waiting for the past to die

Keep learning
Unlike most conferences, where speakers focus on delivering specific messages, the Black Studies Conference panelists shared what they’ve experienced and have come to know. When asked how he stays authentic as an artist, Williams said he does so by “staying steadfast as a student and by reading a lot of banned books.” Davis said people often ask her for advice, but “I see myself as a learner these days.”

Power in Vulnerability
Conference discussions highlighted how people who are disenfranchised can effect change. “Freedom is not a thing, it is not an object to be achieved and it is certainly not a commodity. If it is anything at all, it is a constant collective yearning for new worlds. And who embodies this yearning more than the enslaved and incarcerated,” said Davis. Saul Williams emphasized how power – rather than race – dictates language and policy. “When I go to the Congo, people are still saying Fuck the police, but the police look like me,” he said. Davis noted that the Occupy Movement, with its emphasis on the 99% of Americans with the least wealth, changed the national conversation on capitalism.

Change takes time
“The greatest Americans have not been born yet; they are waiting for the past to die,” Williams said. Davis said she likes “the analogy of the younger generation standing on the shoulders of the older generation – and if that’s the case, they can see a whole lot more.”

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