Key thinker: Angela Davis (1944–)
Angela Davis (1944–)
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama at a time when Black people in the US South still lived in segregated neighbourhoods and suffered frequent racist attacks (https://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/biography/angela-davis/). The area of Birmingham Davis grew up in was nicknamed ‘Dynamite Hill’ because of the frequent bombings of the homes of Black residents by the Ku Klux Klan (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/angela-davis). Davis was involved in anti-racist, socialist, and communist politics from an early age. Her mother was active in the Civil Rights movement and often took her along to anti-racist marches and demonstrations in Birmingham. In 1956, Davis moved to New York City and enrolled at an integrated high school as part of an educational programme that hoped to give Black people from the South access to a better education (Davis, 2021). At Elisabeth Irwin High School, Davis was introduced to Marxism-Leninism and joined a communist youth group (https://wams.nyhistory.org/growth-and-turmoil/feminism-and-the-backlash/angela-davis/).
After graduating from high school, Davis obtained a scholarship to study at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she studied with the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse (see Key Thinker: Herbert Marcuse). She also spent time in Europe, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she learned about the experiences of Black people from colonized nations in Africa, and enrolled for graduate studies in Frankfurt (https://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/biography/angela-davis/). But she soon returned to the United States to participate in the Civil Rights movement. Davis completed her PhD at the University of California, San Diego, where she joined the Che-Lumumba club, an all-Black branch of the Communist Party (https://www.biography.com/activist/angela-davis). In 1969, Davis was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Despite her excellent teaching reputation, Davis quickly ran into trouble with the university’s administration who, under pressure from California’s then-governor, Ronald Regan, fired her because of her communist affiliations.
Davis had become a vocal supporter of the ‘Soledad Brothers’, a group of inmates at the Soledad Prison in California. The three men—Fleeta Drumgo, John W. Cluchette, and George L. Jackson—had been accused of killing a white prison guard in January 1970 (https://www.biography.com/activist/angela-davis). Davis and other Black activists believed that the Soledad Brothers were being unfairly targeted because of their political work as organizers for the Black Panthers in prison. Later that year, Jackson’s younger brother, Jonathan, took five hostages at the Marine County courthouse in a desperate attempt to force George’s release. Four people, including Jonathan and a judge, were killed in the ensuing shootout (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/19/t-magazine/angela-davis.html). Davis, who was leading the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, was accused of supplying the weapons that were used in the shooting (they were registered in her name). She was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list (see 35.1. Introduction).
After a brief period in hiding, Davis was captured and charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy. She was held for 14 months without bail while awaiting her trial (https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-01-17/review-angela-davis-revises-herself-shes-never-mattered-more). Davis’ imprisonment sparked a global movement to free not only Davis but all political prisoners (see 35.1. Introduction). Like Jackson, who published his book Soledad Brother (1970) while incarcerated, Davis’ political outlook and activism was shaped by her experiences in prison. She became especially interested in the intersection of race and feminism in the context of the prison system in the United States. Davis was eventually acquitted of all charges, but her commitment to reforming the criminal justice system never wavered. Prison abolition, a cause Davis is perhaps best known for today, became a central aspect of her political thought and activism (see 35.2. Abolition of Prisons).
She spent the following months on a national lecture tour, addressing audiences across the country about prison reform, civil rights, and communism (https://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/biography/angela-davis/). Davis even ran for U.S. vice president on an unsuccessful Communist Party ticket in 1980 (see 35.1. Introduction). In 1992, Davis was appointed as Tenured Professor of the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is still a Distinguished Professor Emerita today.
Davis has published several books including Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974), Women, Race & Class (1981), Women, Culture and Politics (1998), Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (1998), and Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003). The latter introduced a new generation of readers to Davis’ work and contributed to contemporary interest in the idea of prison abolition. For Davis, the call to abolish prisons is linked to the abolition of slavery, which persists in the United States despite its official abolition in 1865. Instead of abolishing slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment of the American Constitution (1865) institutionalized it by reinstating slavery as punishment for committing crimes (see 35.3.1. Prisons, racism and slavery). Because racist policing in the United States disproportionately affects Black communities, most people who are arrested and forced to perform labour for little or no wages in prison are Black. Therefore, Davis argues, racialized slavery persists today under the guise of punishing or reforming prisoners.
The system of mass incarceration in the United States, commonly referred to as ‘the prison industrial complex’ (see Key Concept: Prison Industrial Complex), is driven by the financial interests of those who seek to profit from the cheap labour of prisoners and contracts to supply their basic needs. But mass incarceration is also designed to exclude people of colour and the poor from society. Incarceration, then, is also a means for the state to deal with its ‘human surplus’ i.e., people who are unemployed and therefore not integrated into the economy. The collusion between business interests and the US state culminates in policy such as Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994), which have had disastrous effects on Black communities in the United States (see 35.3.2. Prisons and Policing).
Like Foucault (see Chapter 33 on Foucault), Davis argues that the idea of incarceration as a means to discipline a population and correct deviant behaviour is a relatively recent invention. While the call to abolish prisons may seem like a utopian idea at first, it becomes more tangible when we consider how methods of policing and punishment have changed over time. Prisons as we know them today, for example, have not always existed. Davis insists that we must distinguish between crime and punishment, since there is no logical link between the two; one does not necessarily lead to the other (see 35.3.4. Delinking Crime from Punishment). While many people break laws, only some are punished and the severity of their punishment often depends on their race, class, or gender. For Davis, justice should be reparative instead of retributive: offenders should ‘take responsibility for their actions and assume a duty to repair’ (Davis, 2003: 113-114). A more egalitarian justice system would aim to heal the social ills that lead people to crime in the first place, rather than simply punishing them for the crimes. But this, Davis argues, would require a complete transformation not only of the justice system but of the whole of society.
In Women, Race & Class (1981), Davis traces how white suffragettes, who had previously also called for the abolition of slavery, excluded Black women from their movement and lent their support to white supremacy instead (see 35.3. Woman, Race and Class: Key Points). As the Civil War erupted, Davis argues, white women became convinced that they would be disadvantaged if enslaved people acquired freedom. While they had previously worked with prominent Black activists like Ida B. Wells (see Key thinker: Ida B. Wells-Barnett) or Fredrick Douglass (see Chapter 30 on Fredrick Douglass) they now aligned themselves with white men who had little interest in women’s emancipation. The emergence of eugenics (see Key Concept: Eugenics), pseudo-scientific race theories which argued that only those people with desirable genes should reproduce, further consolidated this alliance as white women came to be seen as ‘mothers of the race’. Because Black people were considered biologically inferior according to eugenics, the white supremacist state endeavoured to control Black women’s reproductive rights and prevent them from having children through forced sterilization (see 35.3.1. Black Women’s Struggles and Resistance).
Davis’ work on the intersections of racism, the criminal justice system, sexism, and white supremacy has contributed to the development of a radical Black feminist tradition, which builds on the work of other scholar-activists like the Claudia Jones (see Key Thinker: Claudia Jones). For Davis, capitalist exploitation was not limited to class; it also affected racialized or gendered subjects. Davis has continued to engage in anti-capitalist activist work around prison reform, women’s liberation, racial inequality, and LGBTQ causes (Davis came out as lesbian in the late 1990s). Moreover, her deconstruction of the category of woman (see 35.3.3. The Category of Woman) has enabled Davis to extend her analysis of gendered oppression to trans women, for example. Angela Davis’ radical Black feminist and communist politics continue to inspire activists and scholars alike. She is today considered one of the foremost Left intellectuals in the world.
Davis, Angela Y. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
Davis, Angela Y. 2021 . Angela Davis: An Autobiography. Hamish Hamilton Penguin Random House.
Bhandar, Brenna and Rafeef Ziadah. 2020. ‘Interview with Angela Davis’ in Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah. Eds. Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought. London: Verso.
Allen, Amy. 2007. ‘Justice and Reconciliation: The Death of the Prison?’ Scholar’s Symposium: The Work of Angela Y. Davis. Human Studies. 30:4. 311-321.
Srinivasan, Amia. 2021. The Right to Sex. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.