One of my favourite annual events is the Manchester Literature Festival (MLF) which has been a calendar staple since I moved to the city in the noughties. So on hearing the news that this year’s MLF would be a ‘digital weekender’, meaning that everything would take place online, my heart sank. Then I heard that the American political activist, philosopher, academic and author Angela Davis was part of the line-up. I immediately felt a flutter of excitement.
The event took place on a particularly wintry Sunday evening. It had been pouring with rain all day and I’d decided to stream the video with my boyfriend, Adam, along with a brew and a big bowl of warming lentil dal.
“We couldn’t do this at the Martin Harris Centre, could we?” said Adam, as he logged into Crowdcast, yet another digital site I was unfamiliar with and resistant to using. “And listen, they’ve included some ambient audience chatter as we wait for it to start.”
Then something wonderful happened. At the bottom of the screen was an attendee counter which rapidly increased until it reached 700. Comments appeared in the chat bar from people all over the world, expressing their joy and excitement because they were finally able to see Davis live.
And, just like that, Angela Davis, who is the author of 10 wonderful books, converted me to the magic of an online event. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Davis is an icon who, for more than 50 years, has inspired others through her activism and leadership. Of course people all over the world wanted to listen to her speak. Of course it would be a moving, unifying experience. Why I had I expected anything less?
The event was hosted by Scottish makar and MLF patron Jackie Kay and presented in partnership with the Centre for New Writing and Creative Manchester. Kay’s buoyancy and enthusiasm is evident throughout the interview as she asks insightful questions and reveals that, when she was a young girl, her father gave her a poster of Davis which she pinned up in her bedroom.
“My mum told me to ‘say hello to Angela’,” admits Kay, highlighting just how much Davis and her work connects to people on a personal level.
The event was an hour chock-full of interesting topics including Davis’s experience in jail during the 1970s (where she reveals she was bailed out by both a white farmer who put up his entire farm as collateral and legend Aretha Franklin), as well as her upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most segregated places in the US at the time.
Davis reveals that she was a member of an interracial discussion group at her local church which was burnt down by the Ku Klux Klan. But she also says that it was “a great gift to have been reared under those circumstances because I learned the value of community”.
She adds: “I grew up with a sense of the possibility of resisting. From the time that I was very young, I knew that we didn’t have to accept the status quo. I learned how to imagine what it would be like to live under conditions of equality and that always involved other people. That was very much a source of my sense of connection with community.”
Conversation soon turns to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality which quickly spread across the United States and internationally during the COVID-19 lockdown. Davis pays homage to the many activists who have been active over the years, and states that if people hadn’t been doing the work to dismantle systematic racism for decades, “we couldn’t have experienced this current conjuncture”.
She continues: “When George Floyd was lynched, really lynched by the state, and Breonna Taylor was killed and all these others whose names that we know, people rushed out into the streets. Black people and brown people and indigenous people and more white people than ever before in our history came out. That would not have happened if not for all the work that has been done.
“It seems that the conjuncture of the pandemic and the recognition of structural racism through the pandemic, in terms of the people who were dying and the number of essential workers who were people of colour, if that organising had not happened, I don’t think people would have poured out onto the streets at a time when it was really dangerous. It many ways, [protesters] were risking their lives to participate in these demonstrations.”
What’s most interesting is to hear the perspective of someone who has lived through turbulent times like these and is now experiencing them again.
Kay agrees: “You see just how important it is to people, the fact that they are risking their lives to go on demonstrations, and just how much is at stake. There comes a moment when people say ‘no, enough is enough’ and that moment ignited.
“We are living in tinderbox times and our skin is tight because of all the different things we’ve had to face. But it is really interesting to see what the tinderbox can do and the fact that so many positive things can come out of this high-pressured and emotive time. It has been a remarkable time to live through and it will take us a long time to understand it.”
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Manchester Literature Festival has been forced to cancel live events for the foreseeable future. To donate, please click here.