Socialist Worker

Angela Davis on Ken Saro-Wiwa

Issue No. 2031

Angela Davis

Angela Davis

The legendary US radical Angela Davis spoke recently at a commemorative meeting for author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was executed in 1995 in Nigeria, after campaigning against the exploitation of Nigeria’s Ogoni areas by Shell Oil and other multinationals.

The Remember Saro-Wiwa event was the London launch of the mobile Living Memorial artwork. This is an extract from her speech.

Greetings from people in the US fighting for environmental justice and from the many participants in the campaign to boycott Shell Oil, particularly in the aftermath of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues.

Greetings from all the people in the US who have acquired new hope in the aftermath of our most recent election. I remember what Bertolt Brecht once said, “Because things are the way they are, they will not stay the way they are.” It’s a good time to talk about change.

It’s a good time to reinvigorate our memories of Ken Saro-Wiwa. It’s a good time for the launch of that powerful “living memorial” artist Sokari Douglas-Camp has created.

Since we are gearing ourselves up to challenge some of the worst of global capitalist corporations, it is good to begin by reflecting a bit on how oil might be used in a much more positive and productive and radical way.

In Venezuela they have come up with some very interesting ideas to use their political power with relation to oil. One project is to provide poor people and people of colour in the US with oil at a vastly reduced price. They have also been providing fuel for homeless shelters and for Native American reservations.

The struggles of Ken Saro-Wiwa in defence of his Ogoni people are a beacon of light for people throughout the world. The determination to keep his memory alive is a struggle to envision and create a future that is free of the ravages of racism, genocide and utter disrespect for the environment.

We should think about the role of art in the creation of historical memory – how artists can enrich our understanding of the past and the present and push us towards a better future. Artists can encourage us to dream in a radically different way.


I grew up in what was the most segregated city in the US – Birmingham, Alabama. Literally everything was segregated. When I go there today I feel like a stranger to the city, because black people weren’t allowed in the majority of areas.

When I was very young I was upset because there were so many things I wanted to do and I couldn’t. I wanted to go to amusement parks. I wanted to go to libraries. I wanted to go to museums. My mother said to me, “This is the way things are now, but this is not the way they’re supposed to be. One day things will change.”

Now I look back and things have changed enormously, not always for the better. The segregation has gone, but the racism is probably even more entrenched in the institutions and the structures.

There is always a need to question that which is represented as permanent, but also that which is represented as already having been accomplished.

In the US we hear, particularly from the Bush administration, that racism is overcome and we’re living Martin Luther King’s dream. A lot of other people think we’re living a nightmare.

Democracy too is represented as having already been accomplished. So much so that it can be exported all over the world – never mind that the mode of exportation is violence and terror.

There’s also the question of slavery. We assume that slavery has been abolished. I was impressed by the fact that Ken Saro-Wiwa said in his final interview that to deny a people their right to self determination for 100 years is to subject them to slavery.

To take away the resources of a people and refuse to give them anything in return is to subject them into slavery.

To take away the land of a people who depend on land for their survival and refuse to pay them compensation is to subject them to genocide.

As someone who has done a great deal of work on prisons and prisoners I see the structures of slavery in the centrality of imprisonment in the US and increasingly globally.


There are over 2.2 million people in prison in the US on any given day. This means that during the course of a year millions more end up going to prison. The US incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world now.

It has become the global jailer, as you can see in the recent scandals that have emerged around Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the prisons in Afghanistan and the secret CIA prisons.

I see the structures of slavery in the use of capital punishment as a routine mode of punishment. And of course in that sense there’s a comparison between Nigeria and the US. And the legitimation of capital punishment is always much more acceptable when it is used against racialised communities.

I think that artists and art play an important role in encouraging people to think in a more complicated way about what is happening in our world. Ken Saro-Wiwa said that art must transform the lives of a community, of a nation and of a world.

Those of us who are artists should use our talents to accomplish this. Those of us who are not artists can be moved by the power of art to contribute to creating a better world. This is a good time to begin to think about challenging global capitalism. It’s a good time to think about reinvigorating the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

It’s a good time to talk about global alliances of people throughout the world. This is a good time for change.

In the early 1970s, Angela Davis was a leading radical and black activist in the US. For a time she was on the FBI’s most wanted list. She is now a professor at the University of California, and her books include Women, Race and Class.

The living memorial for Ken Saro-Wiwa will tour Britain until November 2008. Go to

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Sat 16 Dec 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2031
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