A New Generation Engages with Angela Davis

This is a review of Angela Davis’ Autobiography, written by a friend of AS who does not consider herself a communist or a revolutionary but is learning about both as she organizes against budget cuts at a Bay Area community college. We are posting it because we like its raw feel and honest approach to issues that Angela Davis confronts throughout her life. These issues are political and personal, two dimensions to human existence that AS does not see as being separate.  We do not necessarily agree with all the conclusions our friend reaches in this, her first publicly posted writing. Nonetheless, we support the open-minded bAngela Davis Autobiographyut critical engagement with primary source materials that is crucial to the development of creative, scientific, non-dogmatic revolutionaries. We are excited to present her views to the blogosphere so that she may learn from the diverse perspectives that visit our blog, and so that you all might learn from a fresh new voice.

Angela Davis spent the majority of her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. In the beginning of her autobiography she speaks of the intense racial tension between whites and blacks, the inferiority of her black elementary school in comparison to the whites, and the self hatred within the black community that she experienced growing up in the south. This part of the book was one of the most memorable parts for me. The bombing of houses with black families by racist white people was such a sad, traumatic experience for Davis but, even more sad, was her growing desensitization to the bombings. They happened so regularly that she grew to accept them as just another part of being black in the racist south. I felt so sick and angry reading this part of the book. I can’t imagine how this black community must have felt and I would think that many of them would have wanted to retaliate by bombing the houses that whites resided in.

Davis also talks about the fighting and killing amongst blacks at her schools and the inferiority/superiority complexes within the black community. I could definitely relate to this part of the book. Even though I grew up decades after Davis in the opposite end of the country I experienced many of the same things she experienced during her adolescence. I remember constant fighting amongst blacks at my first high school and how the fights all seemed to be caused by different things at the time. We just fought each other and it was so normal to me that I did not stop and ask myself why things were the way they were. A few months ago I started to piece it altogether and became conscious of the fact that the oppression by blacks in this country leading up to now have ignited aggression, anger and thoughts of violence that have remained in our collective unconscious. We, in many cases, take that aggression out on ourselves. The affects of the psychologically damaging ideology of white supremacy is also still apparent in the black community. The lighter skin the better, the most European appearing facial features the better, the straighter the hair the better. We have formed hierarchies within the black community dependent on how “white” one is able to look and, in my opinion, black women are the ones who suffer the most from this. In many instances light skinned women and dark skinned women are pinned against each other in modern day society because of the assumption that lighter skin is more beautiful. Davis addresses this in her book when she expresses feelings of alienation and guilt when being told by other blacks that she had “good hair”. I have felt similar feelings when given praise for my light skin in the past. What slave masters concocted hundreds of years ago in order to divide slaves still remains in our culture today.

At a certain point in her life Davis realizes that she wants to get out of Birmingham, Alabama. She then moves to New York where she is introduced to communism and annoying white liberals. After high school in New York, Davis moves to Massachusetts to go to college and winds up moving to Europe to study. I could also relate to this part of the book. I remember a certain line where she essentially says that when she took a small step in leaving her home state she was then itching to go further, beyond that. She moved to New England, I moved to California; she moved to France and Germany and I moved to Spain. We both felt an urgency to leave a place that we felt was holding us back and we both felt the desire to learn and grow in different environments.

Learning about politics was also a very eye opening time in my life and I found her interpretation of the Communist Manifesto to be very interesting. Davis writes, “Of course, the most powerful impact the Manifesto had on me- what moved me most- was the vision of a new society, without exploiters and exploited, a society without classes, a society where no one would be permitted to own so much that he could use his possessions to exploit other human beings” (111). Communist ideology can sound very inspirational and profound; however, I think that people should be critical of any ideology which they adopt as part of their belief system and I did not see that throughout the book.

After Davis leaves Europe she heads to California. She lives in San Diego and then in Los Angeles. She gets involved with the Black Liberation Movement and joins a political organization called the Black Panther Party (coincidentally having the same name as Huey P. Newton’s organization) and then helps create a west coast chapter of the SNCC. She puts a significant amount of time and effort in building it from the ground up to watch it later dismantled. The dismantling of the organization she was part of is significant because, it displays the reality of political organizing in particular, and of life in general: sometimes something that you worked so hard to build can be destroyed and you just have to move on. Davis moved on to the Communist Party U.S.A. and then found herself battling the University of California regents to maintain a job at UCLA. Because she is a communist, Davis is continuously threatened with being fired by the regents and also receives death threats from many anti communist Americans. Davis appears to stand strong maintaining her position as a communist and fighting the UC board of regents. She also begins to get involved with helping defend a black prisoner named Hekima.

It seems that Hekima had a major impact on her because she started to realize that black inmates were becoming conscious of their oppression. Davis realizes, “He wanted me to talk about things that white people generally try to ignore- about the starvation and severe malnutrition which Black people still suffer” (248). While in a conversation with Davis, Hekima states, “What is a Black man to do when he has applied for jobs day in and day out, when his unemployment insurance is running out, when he can’t pay his exorbitant rent for his rundown apartment when his wife is desperate and, when his children are hungry?” (248). Davis becomes fascinated by Hekima’s words. She starts to realize that a certain consciousness is arising among prisoners when she states, “It was not simply the consciousness of who were in prison for political reasons. This was a mass phenomenon. Prisoners- particularly Black prisoners- were beginning to think about how they got there- what forced them into prison. They were beginning to understand the nature of racism and class bias. They were beginning to recognize that regardless of the specific details of their individual cases, most of them were in prison because they were Black, Brown and poor” (249).

This part of the book is extremely significant for many reasons. It displays how a movement to challenge the power structures of a nation affect people of so many different sectors of the population. The Black Liberation Movement affected prisoners, workers, students, old people, young people, the unemployed- so many people! The movement was not only addressing racism but classism, poverty, crime and many other issues that Black, Brown and White could identify with. Another reason why this part of the book is important is because it addresses that if conditions are set up a certain way, no matter what specific details surround an individual, it is likely that that individual will take a certain path. It is not determined that every Black person will be aggressive and fight each other or that every Black person will start committing crimes, but if conditions are set up for these things to happen, then the probability is that they will occur. The third reason why this part of the book is important is that it is the beginning of Davis’ lifelong struggle against the prison system in the United States. She then takes on doing whatever possible to try to get the Soledad Brothers released from prison and ends up developing a close relationship with prisoner George Jackson and his family.

Because of her political work, Davis is then framed for kidnap, murder and conspiracy. She spends months in jail and has to go through an exhausting trial to try to prove her innocence. There is a huge campaign to “Free Angela Davis” and Davis does whatever she can to free herself. During the trial the prosecutor read a letter that Davis had written to George Jackson some time in the past before she was imprisoned. The prosecutor attempted to use what was written in this letter against Davis but it seems to have done the opposite. The letter was eloquently written and I was impressed at how well articulated it was. Davis wrote, “Survival instincts perverted and misdirected by a structure which coerces me to kick my jobless man out of the house so the social worker doesn’t stop the welfare checks which I need to feed my hungry child…For the Black female, the solution is not to become less aggressive, not to lay down the gun, but to learn how to set the sights correctly, aim accurately, squeeze rather than jerk and not be overcome by the damage…But all this presupposes that the Black male will have purged himself of the myth that his mother, his woman, must be subdued before he can wage war on the enemy. Liberation is a dialectical movement- the Black man cannot free himself as a Black man unless the Black woman can liberate herself from all this muck- and it works the other way around…Women’s liberation in the revolution is inseparable from the liberation of the male” (347).

I felt that this letter was such an important part of the book. It displayed how beautifully Davis is able to articulate her thoughts on sexism within the overall struggle for Black liberation. For a large part of the book I was looking for this. I knew that many of the leaders of the Black Liberation Movement exhibited patriarchal behavior and, in many instances, down played the role of women within the struggle. I had been longing to read what Davis’ position on this major issue was and, when I read this letter, I was awed at Davis’ assertiveness and conviction of her stance, which does not seek to alienate and divide black men and women, but instead unites them.

I enjoyed reading this book and I found the life of Angela Davis to be very fascinating but I also had some major criticisms of the book as well. The lack of self-criticism on Davis’ part I found to be disappointing. Nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes. I felt that I could have learned more from the book if Davis had included some of the mistakes she had made during her life, how she learned from them and what she would have done instead, I feel that I would have appreciated the book a lot more. Another major issue I had was Davis’ lack of criticism when visiting Cuba and Soviet Germany. She never once addresses how these governments have strayed form fundamental communist beliefs and instead presents them largely uncritically and in some cases romanticizes the conditions of the countries. I also wished Davis spoke more on her experience in the Communist Party. She stated several times that she was weary of joining the CP because she disagreed with some of their previous actions/decisions but she did not quite elaborate on what those were. I felt unsure about why she joined despite her original criticisms of the CP and what those criticisms actually were.

One more issue I had with the book is having to read the meticulously detailed prison diary part of the book. I realize that prison is no fun and commend Davis for staying strong throughout her ordeal; however, I did not wish to read every little thing that went on during her prison stay especially after having read several other autobiographies depicting the reality of prison life. I felt like the prison diary part should have been cut at least in half. My last major criticism would be that I feel like the book was overly serious. It is strange to me that Davis only seemed to write about the most tumultuous, sad, and traumatic parts of her life and I found myself wondering…have you ever done anything fun in your entire life?! Anything crazy, reckless, irresponsible?? I wish she would have included some of her happy moments that were not connected to her political life. For example, in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I remember being surprised and happy to read about Malcolm’s lindy hopping, hustlin days in the streets of Boston and Harlem. He became more human to me, he seemed fun, I could relate to him as a young person and as someone who loves dancing. I felt like the Autobiography of Angela Davis lacked that sort of relatable, human feel.

That being said, I learned a lot from reading this book and I acknowledge that Angela Davis inspires me. Her intelligent and thoughtful approach to issues in the Black Liberation Movement; her strength and confidence; her overall contribution to the movement. Davis is definitely an inspiration to me and I appreciate her contributions to the struggle.

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3 responses to “A New Generation Engages with Angela Davis

  1. This is a great piece. I really enjoyed reading a serious, analytic engagement with Angela Davis’s autobiography. The quote this comrade uses about the gendered dynamic between black men and womyn in struggle is really important, and an issue that needs more serious engagement. This is a key quote,

    “Liberation is a dialectical movement- the Black man cannot free himself as a Black man unless the Black woman can liberate herself from all this muck- and it works the other way around…Women’s liberation in the revolution is inseparable from the liberation of the male” (347).”

    Racism and sexism have been used by the capitalists to divide the working-class and thus weaken class struggle. In fact racism and sexism was needed in this country to develop the capitalist system. Marx’s writings of political economy show us how surplus value is extracted through unpaid labor. This has been a key part of the black experience in the US. US capitalism began with slavery which is an extreme and horrific example of the capitalist accumulation process through unpaid labor. There is also a gendered division of labor, which black womyn have experienced more severely. Their unpaid reproductive labor, as well as exploited wage-labor has lead to the super-exploitation of black womyn in this country. These are the issues we need to be thinking about and discussing as we struggle together for the liberation of black people and the working-class of all colors. Like Davis said, we cannot table one oppression while working against another. An injury to one is an injury to all.

    The only thing I wonder is where Angela Davis’s militant communist spirit has gone as she celebrates the victory of Obama’s presidency, and holds expensive galas to fundraise for her non-profit.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this review. Davis’s autobiography was a huge influence on my thinking and politics and I am glad that it continues to provoke and inspire. I agree with the points made around Davis’s contributions toward building a black feminist marxist politics, tying “anti-oppression” intersectionality to class struggle.

    I think the points about lack of self-criticism, and her seeming adoration for Cuba and the eastern European Stalinist states is well taken. It’s worth remembering that Davis was still a member of the Communist Party USA when the book was published, and that the autobiography itself was put out by International Publishers (run by the CPUSA). I suspect it would have been an impossibility for the kinds of critiques of the Party and the Soviet Union that we might want to have appeared in that context. On the one hand the book is a powerful testament to one black woman’s radicalization and struggle, both physically and intellectually against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. On the other hand this book is a propaganda piece for a Communist Party that had long since ceased to be revolutionary in any meaningful sense. I suspect there may be some relationship between Davis having been politically trained in the conservative and reformist framework of the CPUSA and her tendencies toward reformism now.

  3. Could somebody tell me, if the three letters from Angela to George that were read out in court are displayed in full in the book?
    I’ve been searching everywhere for them!

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