Critical race theory series welcomes Neil Roberts
By Caroline Pain
March 10, 2015
Scholars and teachers often try to find original approaches to study the work of philosophers and activists.
Neil Roberts, a professor of africana studies and political theory at Williams University, came to speak about his research at the University at Albany as part of the Critical Race Theory and Postcolonial Studies Speaker series.
Torrey Shanks, an assistant professor of political theory, already knew Roberts and agreed with Lisa Fuller, an assistant professor of philosophy, to invite him.
Roberts is analyzing the work of civil rights activist and college professor Angela Davis in a new way. Davis was born in 1944 and is known as a counterculture activist who helped found an organization called Critical Resistance, which seeks to end the “prison-industrial complex.”
“For Angela Davis, the prison is the plantation of today,” Roberts said. “Massive incarceration is the extension of Jim Crow.”
“Prison-industrial complex” comes from the term “military-industrial complex,” which concerns the financial and decision-making relationships between legislators, armed forces, and the arms industry.
Davis applied this concept to the prison system in order to denounce the privatization of prisons that triggered a higher number of incarcerations in the United States.
Roberts is known for teaching atypical classes like “Rastafari: Dread, Politics, Agency.” He was invited to UAlbany to present his draft analyzing Angela Davis’ work March 6.
Roberts described Davis’ theories on the abolition of slavery.
“She does not want to consider only black slavery,” said Roberts. “She has a very modern and even contemporary definition of slavery. There are various forms, the main one being mass incarceration.”
Roberts then continued to explain his views and the choices he made in his paper. Wide-eyed and making grand gestures while talking, Roberts was not simply regurgitating what he had written – he added life to it.
The more he spoke, the more his table moved forward along with his motions. He almost ended up in the middle of the room.
Later, Roberts offered an audience of 15 an opportunity to speak. Fuller shared her surprise with Roberts and the rest of the audience.
“It was striking to me,” she said. “To realize only now by reading your paper that Davis is such a prominent philosopher. She is a very early forward thinker and she is so unappreciated.”
Another member of the audience explained that the talk helped her better understand the notions at play in the paper. She also suggested that Roberts talk more about the notion of “fugitive democracy” and how slavery has been re-instituted in new ways.
In response, Roberts mentioned his latest book, “Freedom as Maronnage,” in which he discusses what the opposite of freedom is.
“I focused on the process of fight,” he said. “The question of experience is central here, especially if you consider the accounts of how individuals attempted at exiting an oppressing situation.” He connected with Davis’ work by saying that she was interested in the social death that came with enslavement.
The Critical Race Theory and Postcolonial Studies Speaker series continues on Friday, April 10, where assistant professor Nimu Njoya will give a speech titled, “Autonomy after Post colonialism: Gendered Representations of the Unbounded Self.”