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Making Space: White People Give Up Seats to Angela Davis Lecture so Black People Can Attend

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Angela Davis. Publicity Photo.

UW-Madison student Nyairy Daniels said a chance to see author and activist Angela Davis speak in person would be a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“It’s a big deal because I have looked up to the work that she’s done for my community for a while,” Daniels said. “I really started getting into looking at the real history of Black people, the stuff that they don’t teach you in grade school and I just feel like for me it’s bigger than just going to a speech or lecture.”

The personal finance major and PEOPLE scholar did not hear about the event until it was nearly sold out. So, when Allison Bell Burn, a white stay-at-home mom posted about potentially giving her tickets away, Daniels and a few others discussed the possibility of having white ticket holders give up their seats to Black people interested in going.  

“I feel like as a Black women, to see this, literally, revolutionary Black woman would be very beneficial for me,” Daniels said. “I could have the chance to in real life–first hand–ask her questions that pertain to me and how I navigate certain spaces and it’s really just something that I never thought could possibly ever happen in real life.”

This year the Wisconsin Union Directorate Distinguished Lecture Series has brought to UW-Madison’s campus a star-studded line up of Black and Brown change agents and legendary thinkers. UW-Madison will welcome the iconic political activist Angela Davis to Memorial Union Shannon Hall at 7 p.m tonight.

The Union box office began offering tickets to students this past February during Black History Month. Tickets were free if they were picked up at the Union Theater Box Office and could be ordered online for just a $4 processing fee. Tickets were to be made available to the general public on April 1, but all the tickets were taken by March 27.

Many students and other community members say they didn’t hear about the event in time to get tickets, or couldn’t make their way to the box office to claim some.

“They sold out before they ever reached the public. However, that is something that DLS is celebrating because we are so happy that students on campus are very interested in her work and their interested in coming to our lectures,” UW student and DLS Director Gretchen Trast said.  

Kenosha native Daniels said she doesn’t believe events headlined by people of color on UW-Madison’s campus are well advertised or accessible to students and people in communities of color.

“When you think about it, Memorial Union box office is only open a certain amount of time. So if you have a job that you work at that time or if you have other obligations, like you have to watch your kids or something like that, it would be harder for you to get there,” said Daniels adding that white people interested in attending events at the UW  inherently have more access.

For UW doctoral student Sakara Wages, who is also Black, it was especially difficult for her to get a ticket as a student who lives further off-campus. “There were structural barriers in order for me to get a ticket,” said Wages about her limited time and access to Memorial Union box office.

Wages, came to UW-Madison after finishing her bachelors degree at UW-Platteville and is now in her second year as a P.h.D. candidate in the Social Welfare program.

“I often ask my colleagues ‘can you name 10 Black authors?’ and they typically can’t, but they want to see Angela Davis,” said Wages who has looked up to Davis as a scholar, activist and beauty icon since she was a child.

As the number of tickets for the lecture available quickly dwindled, people from all walks of life took to the event’s Facebook page to see if anyone would be willing to give an extra ticket away. While trying to decide if she should give up her four tickets to see Davis’ lecture, Bell Bern decided to turn to the event page to start a discussion on her role as a white ticket holder which sparked a conversation about access and race.

The post read: “I was fortunate enough to be able to get tickets to this event. I’m really excited to see Angela Davis, but with all of the people who’ve been wanting to attend and won’t be able to, I’ve started to wonder if it’s appropriate for me and my friends, all white, to see this show when there are Black people who want to but cannot.”

“I was hoping that the conversation would, you know, be able to carry forward in a way where every negative objection in my mind someone would be like ‘well that’s not valid because…’ and present some alternative logic to every single doubt that I had about giving the tickets away,” said Bell Burn, who got her family’s tickets from a UW-Madison student.

“I think that’s why Facebook is a great space,” said Trast. “That’s why we like to have our Facebook page be a place for public discussion. And I think that social media can be a wonderful place for a forum to talk about issues and concerns about who should be there and have access to the event. It’s important.”

Bell Burn was particularly excited to see Davis’s speech because of her advocacy for prison reform and abolition, which she felt is an important topic for the Madison community to have more exposure to.

“I don’t have any heros exactly, but she might be the closest thing,” she said. “She’s just a legend.”

This year’s DLS committee expected to have a large crowd. However, the tickets officially sold out on March 27, much faster than they initially anticipated. Shannon Hall, where the lecture will be held, seats over 1,150 people and is the largest campus venue which can easily accommodate lecture events, according to a statement from Distinguished Lecture Series committee.

“As a student programming committee, we are committed to serving the students on our campus in general.  It’s hard to hit everybody. We tried to hit every body with our marketing,” said Trast adding that this year’s committee reached out to a number of organizations and departments on campus that cater to Black and Brown students, including the Black Cultural Center, Multicultural Student Center and Black Law Student Association.

“I think [Allison’s] post had an impact,” said Wages.

A number of people are still searching for tickets to the Tuesday night lecture and many people have decided to give their tickets away specifically to Black people who still are without a ticket.

Since Bell Burn’s original post on April 1, Daniels and Wages both have found tickets and will be able to attend.

“Give up positions that you’re in that you know Black people or [another] group [don’t] have access to. I feel like it’s a first step to allyship,” Daniels said. “I don’t want to celebrate it too much just because that should be the norm. I don’t want to give you a cookie for realizing the privilege you have in that position and realizing the greater good that could come if you did exchange your access with someone who doesn’t have that access.”