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“The work of the political activist inevitably involves a certain tension between the requirement that positions be taken on current issues as they arise and the desire that one’s contributions will somehow survive the ravages of time” – Angela Davis, (“Women, Culture and Politics,” 1989).

Student, Professor, Communist, Activist, Radical, Presidential Candidate, Fugitive, Feminist, Philosopher. Each label describes Angela Yvonne Davis, who was born January 26,1944, in Birmingham, Alabama to B. Frank and Sally E. Davis. The daughter of two schoolteachers, Angela developed a strong appreciation for education generally and philosophy in particular. Her academic career began in 1955 when she was awarded a scholarship to high school in New York City. She graduated and later received her B.A. from Brandeis University in 1965. Davis did graduate work at the University of Frankfurt, Humboldt University (Berlin), and the University of California, San Diego. It was under the direction of Herbert Marcuse in California that Davis became involved with the Communist Party in 1968. Her burgeoning radicalism led to her eventual dismissal as Assistant Professor from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1969. In 1970, the California Board of Regents also severed her position as a lecturer in philosophy.

Despite the stress to her academic career, Davis continued to be a prominent figure in national and local politics. She continued to work closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Communist Party, as well as the Black Panthers. Her work with the Black Panthers, a revolutionary group founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton, brought her into contact with issues that besieged the African-American community, such as unemployment, unfair housing and schooling, police brutality, racism, and the need for better representation within the United States government. Davis became involved with the cause of black prisoners specifically and grew close to a young revolutionary, George Jackson. Jackson was part of the Soledad (Prison) Three who were implicated in a futile escape and kidnapping attempt from the Hall of Justice in Marin County, California on August 7, 1970. The assault left four dead, including the trial judge presiding over their case, and Jackson’s younger brother.

Davis was suspected of being an accomplice to the endeavor and was later charged with kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. Her fugitive status landed her on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List.” She was eventually apprehended in October of 1970 after more than a month underground and convicted of the charges brought against her.  However, due to the resounding “Free Angela” campaign for her release and a second trial, Davis was acquitted in 1972 after spending sixteen months in prison.

Upon her release, Davis formed the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and ran unsuccessfully for Vice-President on the Communist Party ticket in 1980. In 1995, she was awarded the National Association of Black Journalists Ethel Payne Fellowship for Africa. Davis has published more than ten books, given numerous speeches, and appeared in the  film “A Place of Rage.”  Today, she continues her work as a writer, activist, and champion of reform in the American prison system.

Brief Analysis of Writings

Davis has published a number of important theoretical works that fall under the category of Third World Feminism. She writes from an analytical perspective that examines the intersections of race, class and gender, while examining history and contemporary politics (see also Gloria AnzaldúaNawal el Saadawi, and Gayatri Spivak). Her work coincided with the second wave of feminism in the United States and writing by Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinman, Doris Lessing, and other white, middle-class feminists. Davis’s writing was part of the growing movement toward black feminist thought as an alternative way to analyze the condition of women. However, in this school of thought, all women are not taken to be equal; rather, their individual oppressions are placed contextually in a matrix of race, class, and gender. Davis’s book Women, Race and Class uses a black feminist framework to look at women’s movements in the U.S., starting with the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement to present day issues that plague women of color. Her companion text, Women, Culture and Politics takes up the issues brought forth in her earlier historical account, such as racism, violence, health, children, and education. In her later work, Davis breaks from her previous historical texts and examines the lives of black American jazz singers in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Davis approaches the lives of these American musical legends from a feminist perspective to give an account of the impact that black working-class blues singers had on shaping African-American feminism. Her work remains a pillar in the history of third world feminism and Black consciousness (see also Chicana Feminism, Gender and Nation, Postcolonial Performance and Installation Art).

Works by Davis

  • If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance. New York: Third Press, 1971.
  • Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Women, Race and Class. New York: Random House, 1981.
  • Women, Culture and Politics. New York: Random House, 1988.
  • Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Vintage, 1998.
  • Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
  • Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.
  • The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues. San Francisco: City Lights, 2012.
  • Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015.

Author: Amy Bhatt, Spring 2000
Last edited October 2017.

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