Review by Brian Tanguay
The cover photograph for the third edition of Angela Davis: An Autobiography, published in 2021 by Haymarket Books, was taken in November 1969 by an unnamed photographer. It shows Angela Davis at age twenty-five, her chin resting on the back of her right hand, her dark eyes looking at something in the distance, and her unmistakable Afro hairstyle. Davis’ pose is deliberately reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, and what comparison is more apt for a woman who has spent the majority of her life thinking about complicated social issues and philosophical questions?
One difficulty in considering the life and work of such a towering and protean figure is where to begin. When the first edition of An Autobiography was published in 1974, Angela Davis was already a heroic figure to some and a dangerous radical to others. At the height of the Cold War, she was an avowed Communist who stood against the University of California Regents and then Governor Ronald Reagan who wanted her removed from her teaching position at UCLA. She served more than a year in jail for her indirect participation in the armed takeover of a Marin County courtroom, indicted for murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. Much of An Autobiography centers on the trial and Davis’ advocacy for the Soledad Brothers and her eventual acquittal on all charges.
Davis is known for her thinking and writing about the abolition of prisons, an idea that has traveled a great distance, from the academic fringe to the mainstream, particularly after the murder of George Floyd and the mass protests organized by Black Lives Matter. Notions of social justice often marinade for decades, waiting for the right combination of social and political factors to coalesce and gather critical mass. America will not abolish prisons any time soon, but a rethinking of the purpose of prisons is certainly underway, driven by the failed War on Drugs, Draconian sentencing that disproportionately targeted people and communities of color, and the recognition that many of society’s problems cannot be solved by law enforcement or mass incarceration. In Becoming Abolitionists, a recent book by Derecka Purnell, who cites Angela Davis as an intellectual influence, a far deeper and wider-ranging perspective on prison abolition is offered than that thrown up by opponents of any effort to direct resources away from police. Purnell outlines and amplifies what Davis has argued for years, namely, that abolition is about reducing harm in the broader society through investment in the foundations of a decent life: education, health care, housing, employment and preservation of the environment.
Davis wrote An Autobiography in her late twenties, which makes her intellectual maturity and moral clarity all the more remarkable and places her alongside other precocious advocates for justice such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Davis’ experience of incarceration had a profound effect on her thinking. “Jails and prisons are designed,” she writes, “to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo — obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to one another.” She became a devoted Communist after deep analysis, study and reflection, concluding not only that communism offered black people in America the best hope for liberation from oppression and subjugation, but the same prospect for people all over the world. While the merit of that conclusion is open for argument, I think it’s fair to say that liberation from all forms of oppression — racial, gender, economic, judicial — has been the lodestar of Davis’ long and productive life.
Davis is the rare intellectual who melded theory with practice, thought with action, planning with execution. She always sought to stand in the midst of the struggle, and she understood that creating energy and urgency for social change requires ceaseless organizing and ongoing dialogue with coalitions of like-minded people. As anyone who has tried to organize people to act on their own behalf knows, it is hard, slow and painstaking work, measured not by a single protest march or general strike or boycott, but by sustained activism over many years, of the caliber that brought about the abolition of chattel slavery and child labor, women’s suffrage and civil rights for black people.
Despite her academic accomplishments and prodigious intelligence, personal courage and moral conviction, Angela Davis never lost her sense of humility. She writes, “I had always thought it was fortuitous that I was among those who had escaped the worst. One small twist of fate and I might have drowned in the muck of poverty and disease and illiteracy.”