ANGELA YVONNE DAVIS
March 22, 2021
Translated by: Maria Galanopoulou
Angela Yvonne Davis is an American activist for black civil rights, women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights, as well as a scholar with rich and significant research work.
Born on January 26, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama, she experienced racial discrimination right from a young age. More specifically, her neighborhood bore the nickname “Dynamite Hill”, since it had a copious number of houses that had been targeted by the far-right organization Ku Klux Klan. As a teenager, she organized interracial study groups which, however, were quickly broken up by the authorities, while she also knew the victims of a local church bombing, a church which, for the most part, was attended by African-American citizens and leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, in her youth, and in 1960, in particular, she became a member of the Black Panthers, a revolutionary, socialist organization, as well as of other communist parties of the time.
Having studied philosophy under the famous Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and having earned her PhD in Germany (Humboldt University), she did not anticipate that her political views would hinder her teaching work. When she returned to the University of California to teach, she was fired. However, after legal battles, she managed to be re-hired only to be fired again in 1970, this time, on the pretext of using “inflammatory language”. In fact, Ronald Reagan declared that she would never teach in the University of California ever again. An important moment in her life was her legal persecution under accusations of aggravated kidnapping, first degree murder, and George Jackson’s, a black, radical inmate’s, escape. More specifically, she was a proponent of the Soledad brothers, three inmates charged with the murder of a prison guard in retaliation for the tragic death of their African-American fellow inmates by another guard.
During one of the brothers’, Jackson’s, trial, his brother Jonathan took over the courtroom, taking hostages and demanding trading them for Jackson. Their escape attempt resulted in conflict between the authorities and the inmates which led to the death of Superior Court Judge Harold Haley and two inmates, along with the injury of third parties within the room.
The charges against Davis were based on the fact that the gun involved was registered in her name, but also on Davis’ rumored but unfounded romance with Jackson. She herself was forced into hiding, while she also entered FBI’s list of most wanted criminals until she was finally arrested and sentenced to 18-month imprisonment. Her conviction, however, caused a wave of backlash. Soon, the campaign “Free Angela Davis” was organized and a legal team was formed in defense of her case.
In their turn, the Arts responded with lyrics and melodies. John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote the song “Angela” and Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel”.
In 1972, she was finally acquitted of all charges. Now interested in prisoners’ rights, she would establish “Critical Resistance”, an organization against the prison-industrial complex.
In 1974, she publishes her autobiography. After years of personal struggle but also rejection of the longed-for academic position, in 1991, she becomes a professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California.
In 1997, she comes out as a lesbian during an interview with Out magazine, fighting, ever since, not only for the black community and women, but also against the pressure on the LGBTQIA+ community.
In 2006, she was awarded the Thomas Merton Award in recognition of her struggle for justice, while, in 2014, she received an honorary doctorate from Nanterre University of Paris. She also published the books Women, Race and Class (1981), Women, Culture & Politics (1989), Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1998), and Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), among others.
The gender, race, and social class of black women in America intersect at her work. In particular, in her book Women, Race and Class, she speaks about the racism and classism of first-wave feminism and the Reproductive Rights Movement. She discusses violence against women, attributing the social movement’s shortcomings to the isolation and lack of diversity which amplify the inability to question oppression and violence in their entirety. In the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in other movements, the inability to discuss issues that concerned black women led to the perpetuation of them working as housemaids for the whites.
In other publications of hers, she discusses slavery and how sexual abuse and rape perpetrated by white plantation owners underpinned the dominance of the slavery system, thus turning women into commodified working objects, capable solely of (re)production. In other instances, she discusses financial and social violence, underlining the exclusion of women from higher education, the importance of education as a means for freedom, the significance of a partnership between African-American and white women, but also the need for women to establish a united, multiracial, antimonopoly movement, active in supporting oppressed women around the world. Besides, as she herself advocated and continues to advocate, “Freedom must be Universal”.