On Wednesday, activist and scholar Angela Davis kicked off the University's three-day Voices of Mass Incarceration symposium at a keynote conversation titled “The Feminist Fight to Bring Mumia Home.”
The symposium — hosted by the Brown University Library, the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women and the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — centered around the personal archive of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political activist convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of a police officer.
The Wednesday keynote, moderated by Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America Tricia Rose MA’87 PhD’93, also included Associate Professor of History at Baruch College at CUNY Johanna Fernandez ’93 and author Julia Wright of the Mumia Abu-Jamal United Nations Liaison Group. Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve delivered the keynote’s opening remarks.
The symposium highlighted a new exhibit titled “Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Portrait of Mass Incarceration” at the John Hay Library, which features the musical, literary and artistic works of Abu-Jamal during his time in prison, The Herald previously reported. The collection also includes the installation of a 6-by-9-foot solitary confinement cell, similar to the one Abu-Jamal was once held in.
At the keynote, Davis described prison abolition as a “feminist project.”
“The majority of people in prison identify as men,” she said. “However, who does that institution most impact? Who are the people in the visiting room, regardless of the gender of the person who is in prison?”
Davis also discussed her own experiences with incarceration.
“When I went to jail … the first week I said to myself, ‘I have been in jail a whole week,’” Davis said. “But then I realized, as the time passed, it was basically the same day over and over again. So, at the end of a year, it was as if I had only been inside a few days.”
Fernandez highlighted the importance of Davis and Abu-Jamal’s experiences with incarceration.
“Can you imagine a study of slavery without the slave narrative?” she said. “Who better to talk about the torture of imprisonment than the imprisoned themselves.”
Abu-Jamal, who is currently incarcerated, spoke to panelists via a phone call, thanking them for their contributions to the movement against mass incarceration.
“You opened a door that now cannot be closed,” he said.
He also discussed the relationship between gender and systems of power.
“Think of the word master, and automatically, don’t you think of a man?” he asked over the phone. “The corresponding feminine term, mistress, doesn’t equal master … Words sometimes break through the bonds of tradition via the power of culture.”
Dri de Faria ’26, an attendee who participated in the audience Q&A portion of the panel, found the keynote “life-changing.”
“I’ve been really struggling with how to work inside (the) confines of a system,” said de Faria, who has experience working as a writing tutor in prisons. “But this (conversation) reinstated my faith in being able to do so, because I looked at these women and was like, ‘Wow, they have done so much and made insurmountable progress.’”
Lola Aguiar ’25 and Neshima Vitale-Penniman ’25 said they were both primarily drawn to the event by the prospect of hearing from Davis.
The panelists were “talking about decades of work,” Aguiar said. “And to just be present and here for these two hours … was really powerful. I was getting goosebumps all the time.”
“I was really struck by the commentary and conversation around time and the way that time has … been this weaponized force in mass incarceration,” Vitale-Penniman said.
She noted her admiration for the panelists’ dedication to prison abolition.
“It was just incredible to bear witness to,” she said.
Tom Li is a senior staff writer covering environment and crime & justice. He is from Pleasanton, California, and is concentrating in Economics, International & Public Affairs and French & Francophone Studies. He is an avid RIPTA enthusiast and enjoys taking (and criticizing) personality tests in his free time.