Davis, Angela (1944—)
Davis, Angela (1944—)
African-American revolutionary activist, scholar, and Communist who gained fame in the early 1970s when prosecutors claimed she had assisted a courtroom rebellion by radical black prisoners. Name variations: Angela Y. Davis. Born Angela Yvonne Davis on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama; daughter of B. Frank Davis (a gas station owner) and Sallye B. Davis (a teacher); attended Birmingham public schools until 1959, and Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City, 1959–61; graduated Brandeis University, 1961–65, B.A. magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa; attended Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, 1965–67; attended University of California at San Diego, 1967–69; married Hilton Braithwaite, in 1980 (divorced several years later); no children.
Lived in New York (1959–61); attended Eighth World Festival for Youth and Students in Helsinki (1962); spent year in France (1963–64); joined Communist Party (July 1968); traveled to Cuba (1969); taught at UCLA (1969–70); went underground (August 9, 1970); arrested in a New York motel (October 13, 1970); acquitted of all charges (June 4, 1972); served as co-chair of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (1973); was full-time lecturer, San Francisco State University (1978); was vice-presidential
candidate on the Communist Party ticket (1980 and 1984); served on board of directors, National Black Women's Health Project (1983); challenged Communist Party (1991); endorsed Committees of Correspondence (1992). Awards: Lenin Peace Prize (1979).
"Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves," in The Black Scholar (December 3, 1971, pp. 2–15); If They Come in the Morning (The Third Press, 1971); Women, Race and Class (Random House, 1981); Women, Culture and Politics (Random House, 1989); Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (Pantheon, 1998).
When Angela Davis, disguised in a wig and make-up, disappeared underground and fled from California in August 1970, she became only the third woman in U.S. history to be placed on the F.B.I.'s "Ten Most Wanted" list. Davis' decision to evade prosecution and adopt a clandestine existence was the last in a series of events stemming from her acts of solidarity with black prisoners. Her arrest in New York City two months later culminated in a highly publicized political trial that paradoxically made Davis the most well-known radical black woman in a period when a new generation of leftists considered the Communist Party, to which she belonged, moribund and discredited.
James Baldwin," Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis"">
We must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
—James Baldwin," Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis"
Early in 1970, Davis became a vocal defender of George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo, who were incarcerated in Soledad Prison, one of the toughest facilities in California. The Soledad Brothers, as the three became known, were black radicals accused of a prison murder. On January 13, 1970, a white guard, O.G. Wilson, had shot and killed three unarmed prisoners from his watchpost far above the prison yard when an altercation broke out between inmates. When a grand jury ruled that Wilson's actions had been "justifiable homicide," a spontaneous rebellion broke out in Soledad, and another guard who inadvertently stumbled upon an angry group of convicts was pushed over a railing to his death. There was no evidence that Jackson, Clutchette, and Drumgo committed the killing, and it appeared that they were being targeted simply because of their political views. They faced a death sentence.
Davis, who had been active in the black liberation movement for several years in Los Angeles, agreed to coordinate the efforts of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee for all of L.A. She spoke before community groups and on dozens of campuses. In the course of the campaign, Davis became intimate with George Jackson, and the two expressed their love as much as they could through prison bars. Radicals saw in Jackson a symbol of the racist core of the American legal system. He had received a one-year-to-life sentence at age 18 simply for being in the car when his friend robbed $75 from a gas station. As of 1969, he had already served 10 years for the petty theft. Jackson developed revolutionary consciousness inside the prison system, and the publication of a collection of his letters, Soledad Brother (1970), gave him a literary reputation as an intelligent autodidact while unveiling to the world his feelings for Davis. "I'm thinking about you," he wrote to her on May 29, 1970. "I've done nothing else all day."
With the encouragement of George Jackson, Davis took his 17-year-old younger brother Jonathan under her wing. Jonathan admired his brother tremendously, embraced his radicalism, worked for his release, and was deeply angered by the injustice of the penal system. He also served as a bodyguard for Davis at a time when she was receiving persistent death threats. He therefore knew that Davis kept some guns in her closet. On August 7, 1970, Jonathan Jackson used those guns in an attempt to free three radical black prisoners—James McClain, Ruchell Magee, and William Christmas—from a trial in a courtroom in Marin County. He armed the convicts, took as hostages the judge, district attorney, and several jurors, and attempted to escape in a rented van that he had left parked outside. Bullets fired by law enforcement officers riddled the van, however, and Jonathan Jackson, the judge, McClain and Christmas were killed. Davis had been nowhere near the courthouse, but authorities sought to charge her with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder and rescue prisoners. On August 9, she vanished underground.
Racism, and the struggle against it, had shaped Davis' experience since her childhood in the segregationist South. Born in 1944 at the Children's Home Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis was the oldest of four children, including sister Fania Davis and brothers Benny and Reginald. (Ben later became a professional football player, and Fania was later active in defense efforts on Angela's behalf and would coauthor an article with her.) Davis' college-educated father Frank Davis had given up teaching high school and owned a service station in the black section of downtown Birmingham. Sallye Davis , her mother, was also a college graduate who, as a student in the 1930s, had been a leader of the Southern Negro Youth Congress and was involved in defense campaigns for the Scottsboro Boys, nine blacks unjustly accused of raping two white girls (Ruby Bates and Victoria Price ). The Davises had cordial friendships with black friends in Alabama and New York who had joined the Communist Party, some of whom went underground to avoid anticommunist repression in the 1950s.
When Davis was four, the family moved out of Birmingham's housing projects and into a Victorian house in a neighborhood electric with racism. In 1949, the area became known as "Dynamite Hill" when an explosion destroyed the home of a black minister and his wife who were the first to buy a house on the "white side" of Center Street. Davis attended inferior, segregated schools, but was a good student and enjoyed reading at the public library. At age 15, she was accepted by a scholarship program of the American Friends Service Committee to stay with a white family and attend school in New York. While living in Brooklyn with the family of Episcopalian Reverend William H. Melish, himself under criticism for his refusal to renounce the Soviet Union, Davis attended high school in Greenwich Village from 1959 to 1961.
At Elizabeth Irwin High School, uniquely progressive and experimental, left-wing students and teachers introduced Davis to socialist and communist writings. In her 1974 autobiography, Davis recalled the excitement she felt at the time to find that the analysis of capitalism in Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto accounted for the social divisions of racism: "What had seemed a personal hatred of me, an inexplicable refusal of Southern whites to confront their own emotions, and a stubborn willingness of Blacks to acquiesce, became the inevitable consequence of a ruthless system which kept itself alive and well by encouraging spite, competition and the oppression of one people by another." Davis attended lectures by the Communist historian Herbert Aptheker and went to some meetings of Advance, a Communist Party youth organization.
In September 1961, she entered Brandeis University on a scholarship, as one of a handful of black students. In summer 1962, she attended the Eighth World Festival for Youth and Students in Helsinki, Finland, traveling to Paris and Geneva on the way. She majored in French literature and in 1963–64 spent her junior year at the Sorbonne in France on a special program. Meanwhile, the civil-rights movement for racial equality had revived throughout the South, and, while she was still in France, Davis learned that four girls she had known had died in the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. The girls (known for years as the Birmingham Four ), Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins , and Carol Robertson , who ranged in age from 11 to 14, were killed while attending Sunday School.
After her return to Brandeis, Davis began to attend lectures by the neo-Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and she took a graduate seminar from him on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. An excellent student, Davis graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1965. Her work with Marcuse had interested her in philosophy, so she decided to attend Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, where she studied under critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, among others. Davis attended rallies against the Vietnam War held by the German socialist student group, SDS, and visited East Germany for a May Day rally. In 1967, desiring to return to the U.S. and participate in the mushrooming radical movements, Davis decided to rejoin Marcuse, who had by then moved to the University of California at San Diego.
Denise McNair (11), Cynthia Wesley (14), Addie Mae Collins (14), and Carol Robertson (14) were in the Sixteenth Street Baptist church basement in Birmingham, Alabama, preparing to attend Sunday school and the monthly Youth Day service, when a bomb went off, killing all four (September 15, 1963). For years, they were known as the Birmingham Four, victims of racial hatred; their individual names were rarely given. This trend ceased when Spike Lee produced the documentary 4 Little Girls for HBO in 1998, detailing each girl's life.
At UC San Diego, Davis helped establish a Black Student Union on campus and became active in campaigns centered in Los Angeles against police brutality. She joined the Black Panther Political Party (BPPP), a distinct group with a similar name to the Black Panther Party initiated by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The BPPP soon joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a national group then in the process of collapse, and became its L.A. chapter. Davis resigned from the group when it expelled Franklin Alexander, a leading activist with whom Davis had worked closely, simply because he was a Communist. In July 1968, tired of the "irresolution, inconsistency and ineffectiveness" of the ad-hoc left, as she later put it, Davis resolved to consider joining the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA).
In An Autobiography, Davis writes that even though she knew she was a Marxist, she had at first resisted joining the CPUSA because she thought it was guilty of "not paying sufficient attention to the national and racial dimensions of the oppression of Black people, and therefore submerging the special characteristics of our oppression under the general exploitation of the working class." In L.A., however, the party had a special group composed exclusively of people of color, the Che-Lumumba Club, named after the Third World revolutionaries Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba. After long discussions with black Communists Franklin and Kendra Alexander and Charlene Mitchell , as well as with Southern California district organizer Dorothy Healey , Davis decided in July 1968 to join the CPUSA. She was convinced that capitalism had to be abolished before black liberation could be achieved.
In the 1968–69 academic year, Davis devoted herself to a successful struggle at UC San Diego for a Third World college and completed her coursework and oral exams, leaving only her dissertation to finish. In the summer of 1969, Davis traveled for the first time to Cuba. Far more than the Soviet Union, Cuba was a revolutionary inspiration for young Communists in the 1960s, because it seemed fresh and uncompromised compared to the staid societies of Eastern Europe. In a 1970 prison interview, Davis mentioned that in Cuba she had observed "vestiges of cultural racism which have to be combatted," but her belief in Communism was sustained by her visit, and she would revisit Cuba repeatedly in the 1970s.
When she returned to the United States, Davis found herself at the center of a controversy. In the spring, she had been hired to teach philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), but that summer an FBI informant had written to the campus daily with the news that she was a Communist. Governor Ronald Reagan and the UC Regents were in an uproar. A McCarthy-era state law prevented Communists from teaching at state universities. When Davis received a letter from the UC chancellor asking whether she was a member of the Communist Party, she decided to openly declare her affiliation. "Yes, I am a Communist," she replied. "And I will not take the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, because my political beliefs do not incriminate me; they incriminate the Nixons, Agnews and Reagans." Davis was fired, but she continued to teach anyway as the case wound its way through the courts. Eventually the courts found the law unconstitutional, but UCLA did not reappoint Davis for the following year (she had signed only a oneyear contract), despite her approval by the Philosophy Department.
As it turned out, Davis could not possibly have taught in Los Angeles that fall of 1970. It was the year of the Soledad Brothers, of Jonathan Jackson's courthouse liberation attempt, of Davis' underground flight and arrest and incarceration in New York City. At the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village, Davis was held in the psychological ward and then in solitary confinement until she went on a hunger strike and outside pressure convinced authorities to place her in the regular jail. Davis fought unsuccessfully against her extradition to California. In December 1970, she was transported to the Marin County Jail.
As Davis awaited trial, she became a cause célèbre. Black, young, revolutionary, with her hair in a natural Afro, Davis seemed to raise the clenched fist for an entire generation. If found guilty, she might well have been executed. A battery of lawyers, including Leo Branton and Howard Moore, built her legal defense, while the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis mobilized popular support for her. Davis did not seek out attention as did other movement "stars" like Jerry Rubin and Eldridge Cleaver. In her prison writings, she eschewed a "cult of personality" in favor of a united front among all political prisoners. Yet Angela Davis became a household name. Dorothy Healey later wrote, "Because she was not simply a Communist, but a Black in a time of racial upheaval, and because she was not simply a Black Communist but a beautiful woman, the media turned its full focus on her, and for the next few years she was never long out of the headlines." Many prominent intellectuals, cultural personalities and civil-rights leaders from around the world—including writer James Baldwin, philosopher Georg Lukács, entertainers Aretha Franklin and Herbie Hancock, Reverends Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, U.S. Representative Ronald Dellums, and Coretta Scott King —called eloquently for her release and for a fair trial. Even a song for her, "Angela," appeared on the album Sometime in New York City (March 1972) by John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band.
During her incarceration, Davis suffered further setbacks. On July 19, 1971, the cases of Davis and Ruchell Magee were severed from one another because the codefendants could not agree upon a legal strategy, feeding media speculation about personal and political differences. On August 21, 1971, Davis was dealt a much more serious blow when George Jackson was shot in the back and killed by guards at San Quentin. They alleged that Jackson had tried to smuggle a pistol in under a wig from the visitation room. Lastly, Davis sheltered private doubts about the Communist Party. During a jailhouse visit, she told Healey that she was thinking of resigning from CP because the party newspaper in New York, the Daily World, had repeatedly denounced Jonathan Jackson's act as "adventurist" and sought to dissociate Davis from him in that way. However, Bettina Aptheker , an acquaintance of Davis' since they first met at meetings of the Communist youth group Advance in New York in the early 1960s, believed Healey must be referring to the period after George Jackson was killed, when Davis was "very depressed, totally disheartened, just hanging on, trying to keep her sanity."
Rather than quit the party, Davis emerged from her trial an apparent diehard loyalist. On June 4, 1972, she was acquitted on all three counts by the jury. The prosecution had presented no evidence apart from the guns' registration (which Davis freely admitted) to link Davis to Jonathan Jackson's actions. Davis believed she owed her freedom to the defense efforts of the CPUSA and other Communist parties around the world. After a quick round of speeches to her U.S. supporters, she embarked on a tour of Communist states. Arriving in Moscow in August 1972, she said, "It was no accident that I began my tour of many countries by coming first to the Soviet Union, the first land of socialism." Davis became practically uncritical of the governments of Eastern Europe and Cuba, and in 1979 was given the Lenin Peace Prize by the USSR. She took a seat on the National Committee of the Communist Party, and ran twice, in 1980 and 1984, as the running mate of Communist leader Gus Hall in his presidential bids. She also became co-chair of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the renamed incarnation of her defense committee, with the aim of aiding political prisoners and fighting racism.
Although her public fame has faded, in the 1980s Davis achieved a new status in controversies over curricula and culture on campus. In 1978, she had obtained a job as a full-time lecturer at San Francisco State University, and in the 1980s she began to travel the college circuit, speaking on a range of political and cultural topics. Despite her training under Marcuse, Davis has published nothing philosophical. Her mostdiscussed book, Women, Race and Class (1981), is a historical and political essay that builds upon an article on women under slavery that Davis wrote in 1971 for the Black Scholar. Widely used in women's studies courses, Women, Race and Class delivers an indictment of the feminist movement with its dual theme that recurrent racism and class bias have marred American feminism and that the abolition of monopoly capitalism and establishment of socialism are necessary for the liberation of women.
In 1987, Davis told a British interviewer in the New Statesman that she was reluctant to call herself a feminist because the term "originated in white, middle-class circles and for a long time was used to connote women who worked on issues which concerned only them—isolated from the larger context." Feminists have returned Davis' criticism. One, who reviewed Davis' collected essays and speeches, Women, Culture and Politics (1989), for The Nation, found Davis' style boring, uninsightful and disjointed. "Davis's structuralism is like an unassembled Tinkertoy set," wrote Jackie Stevens. "All the pieces are there (the defense industry, homophobia, consumerism, sexism, denial, racism), but Davis never puts them together in a coherent model."
Davis is still a political and cultural radical. Her Afro is gone, but it has been replaced by dreadlocks. She joined the board of directors of the National Black Women's Health Project, formed in 1983, and has quit a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit to become a vegetarian and runner. Her brief marriage in 1980 to Hilton Braithwaite, a colleague at San Francisco State, ended in divorce. In 1985, she was arrested with students at Berkeley in an anti-apartheid rally, and that same year she joined hundreds of women in Nairobi to lead a protest against the appointment of Maureen Reagan , the president's daughter, as head of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Conference on Women. "I still consider myself a revolutionary," she told the L.A. Times in 1988. "I think that I am militant." Davis joined the faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz, specifically the History of Consciousness department, and was awarded a three-year Presidential Chair and $75,000 to increase feminist and ethnic studies at the school. She also began work on her book on black women's music of the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith , and Billie Holiday , which would be published in 1998.
As the bureaucratic states in Eastern Europe disintegrated in 1989, Davis expressed hopes that a new and more democratic variety of socialism would be the outcome. At the 25th National Convention of the CPUSA in December 1991, Davis sent a letter stating that she could not attend because of illness and the need to care for a friend dying of AIDS, but she challenged the political course of unreconstructed Stalinism proposed by Gus Hall and endorsed a reform initiative underway to unite democracy and socialism: "I believe the Communist Party will become ever more rapidly obsolescent—mere fossilized evidence of past struggles won and lost, past theoretical stances effective and not, past modes of practice with their limitations as well as their strengths—if it is afraid to engage in rigorous selfevaluation, radical restructuring and democratic renewal." For that stance, Davis was summarily stripped of her position on the National Committee of the Communist Party. No longer a member of the CPUSA, she endorsed the Committees of Correspondence, a breakaway group with a core of former CPUSA members that attracted and welcomed some socialists from different traditions, including Maoism and Trotskyism.
Abbott, Diane. "Revolution by Other Means (interview with Angela Davis)" in New Statesman. August 14, 1987, pp. 16–17.
"Angela Davis: Still on the Front Line," in Ebony. Vol. 45. July 1990, pp. 56, 58.
Beyette, Beverly. "Angela Davis Now," in Los Angeles Times. March 8, 1988.
Bhavnani, Kum-Kum. "Complexity, Activism, Optimism: An Interview with Angela Y. Davis," in Feminist Review. Vol. 31. Spring 1989, pp. 66–81.
Davis, Angela. An Autobiography. NY: International, 1988.
——. If They Come in the Morning. NY: Signet, 1971.
Healey, Dorothy and Maurice Isserman. Dorothy Healey Remembers. NY: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Keerdoja, Eileen, and Michael Reese. "Davis: Campaigning As a Communist," in Newsweek. Vol. 95. June 9, 1980, pp. 12, 17.
Stevens, Jackie. "Talking About a Revolution," in The Nation. Vol. 248. February 27, 1989, pp. 279–281.
Coombs, Orde. "Angela Davis Keeps the Faith," in New York magazine. April 17, 1978, pp. 43–47.
Davis, Angela. Women, Culture and Politics. NY: Random House, 1989.
——. Women, Race and Class. NY: Vintage, 1983.
Elbaum, Max. "De-Stalinizing the Old Guard," in The Nation. February 10, 1992, pp. 158–162.
Jackson, George. Soledad Brother. NY: Bantam, 1970.
Christopher Phelps , Editorial Director at Monthly Review Press, New York, New York