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College of Arts and Sciences

  • Angela Davis and Nikki Finney sit in comfortable red chairs on a presentation stage, facing each other while engaged in animated conversation.

Educators Angela Davis and Nikky Finney deliver powerful conversation on race, social justice and Black creativity

The 2022 Robert Smalls Annual Lecture commemorated 50th anniversary of African American Studies Program 

The packed-out Pastides Alumni Center could hardly contain the buzzing excitement that Angela Davis and Nikky Finney brought to the University of South Carolina at the Robert Smalls Annual Lecture on April 21. 

The energy from both audience and presenters was palpable throughout the nearly two-hour conversation, where Davis and Finney discussed climate justice, gender violence, prison abolition, the power of art in communities of color, and the value of Black studies, among other important issues.

"The conversation between Angela Davis and Nikky Finney was – as advertised – truly irresistible,” said Joel Samuels, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Dr. Davis and Professor Finney engaged the audience to think deeply and critically, and you could feel the energy in the room throughout. The conversational format was particularly engaging; indeed, the entire event felt very personal and intimate, even with more than 700 people in the sold-out venue.”

Finney opened by sharing the roots of the lecture’s title, The Irresistible Conversation, pointing to the undeniable — the irresistible — power that African Americans and people of color have, but that is often denied by history and modern society. The term refers to “The Irresistible Ones,” a poem she wrote to commemorate the desegregation of the University of South Carolina.

Throughout the conversation, both speakers returned several times to the importance of art and creativity within communities of color.

“We rarely interrogate the concepts we use to gain knowledge,” Davis said. “Art allows us to feel what we don’t yet understand. Artists, poets, and musicians can reach people in a different way than the words of scholars, preachers, or academics.”

To which Finney asked and answered, “Why does Black liberation have such a wide appeal? Because of Black music and art.”

Darla Moore, a Lake City financier and philanthropist, as well as alumna of the College of Arts and Sciences, spoke briefly to introduce Davis. She listed the similarities she and Davis share, having both grown up in the deep South with a religious upbringing, but also differences in their lives because of being different races. Moore remembered a time when she had been cautioned against meeting Davis, but quickly realized that they shared more similarities than differences, especially when it comes to social justice.

She said conversations like the one Finney and Davis were holding are critical to moving America forward. “South Carolina is where the real work could and should happen. We must be in the same room talking about the same things,” Moore said.

This year’s Robert Smalls lecture capped a year of celebrating 50 years of the African American Studies Program
"African American Studies emphasizes the value of asking tough questions and thinking collaboratively about racial justice and gender equality today,” said Qiana Whitted, director of African American Studies. “Dr. Davis and Prof. Finney offered a superb model for this kind of dialogue through their frank and honest conversation covering topics from the invisible labor of Black women to the prison system. It was the perfect bookend to celebrate 50 years of AFAM Studies." 

About the event

The African American Studies Program started the Robert Smalls Annual Lecture in 1997 to host important discussions and connect with South Carolina’s history. Major-General Robert Smalls served during the Civil War and was the first African American captain of a United States vessel. After the war, Smalls became a powerful political presence in South Carolina, serving in four Congressional sessions. In 2007 he became the first African American to have a U.S. Army vessel commissioned in his honor, the USAV Maj. General Robert Smalls. 

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