Do African and African American Astrophysicists Need to Know about Angela Davis? – BlackScienceFictionSociety

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There is a new documentary on Angela Davis called “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” see and  Black Bloggers Connect (see…) invited people to blog about why such a film is necessary.  The question can be asked, “Do African and African American astrophysicists need to know about Angela Davis?”  My answer is “Yes!”

I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Angela Davis PhD when I was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz (see  At the time I was playing my role as the first African American graduate student in the Astronomy & Astrophysics department.  I was slowly being worn down by the petty discrimination, insults, and slights that I had to face on a daily basis with no one available within the department with which to decompress.  Enter meeting Dr. Angela Davis and her graduate students.  She and her students helped me put my negative experiences into the context of the USA incarnations of racism, sexism, and who has the right to make new knowledge.  In effect, I learned that what I was experiencing was not specific to just me, UCSC, or to astrophysics.

Dr. Angela Davis is an icon of the Black Power movement in the United States, however when you spend your life studying physics and astrophysics…that part of my education was neglected.  All I knew was the outline of who she was, what she had done, and in the mid-1990s when I met her that she had one of the best jobs in the University of California system: an endowed chair.  What I did not understand at the time that became important to me later was that before she became an internationally recognized political figure, she was already a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles; she was already Dr. Angela Davis with a doctorate in philosophy (see…).  This point is important enough that I am going to refer to her as Dr. Davis throughout this blog.

Meeting Dr. Davis and her intellectual community personally helped me endure a difficult situation long enough to complete my doctorate degree; however, knowing her story is important for our collective Black peers in astrophysics for many reasons, but one stands out.  Mentoring students of astrophysics, the fear emerges of being transformed during the PhD process into someone unrecognizable.  This issue touches on the imposture syndrome (see astrophysicist Dr. John Johnson’s blog on this at which arises from not seeing people like yourself in your profession as well as touches on the fear that in order to succeed in astrophysics you have to ‘whitewash’ yourself.  This whitewashing may include extraction and disassociation from family and community, adopting the value system of the majority, self-imposed silencing on certain topics, and in the extreme the adoption of majority fashion, speaking, and interaction style.  Dr. Davis is our peer in that she earned a doctorate and her working world is academia.  The process of earning a doctorate did not sever her connection to the African American community and did not change her values.  She was and is brave and courageous and willing to stand up for what she believes in and willing to sacrifice a comfortable academic lifestyle in the process.

Dr. Davis is an example for us Black astrophysicists to emulate.  Our cause is that we want more diversity in astrophysics.  Then we have to bring our values with us and we have to not be silent.  We have to insist that our colleagues create an environment that supports all students especially those we are trying to attract to astrophysics.  Dr. Davis had the California government standing against her (and she was on the FBIs Most wanted list!) and she won.  We simply have to stand our ground to our academic colleagues and dare to forego the comfort of our fairly prestigious positions.  I plan to see “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” when it comes to my town and I know that I will be better educated for it and I will be inspired. I think that the same will be true of the other African and African American astrophysicists if they make the time to see this film.

Do African and African American Astrophysicists Need to Know about Angela Davis? – BlackScienceFictionSociety.


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