‘Hell, Yes, We Are Subversive’
Angela Davis: An Autobiography by Angela Y. Davis Haymarket, 358 pp., $28.95
Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing edited by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean Verso, 323 pp., $29.95 (paper)
In 1969 a UCLA student who was also an undercover FBI agent revealed in the campus newspaper that the school’s philosophy department had recently hired a member of the Communist Party. A week later, the San Francisco Examiner reported that that person was a twenty-five-year-old professor named Angela Davis.
The University of California Board of Regents confronted Davis and asked if she was a Communist. Yes, she replied. “While I think this membership requires no justification,” she wrote the board, “I want you to know that as a black woman I feel an urgent need to find radical solutions to the problems of racial and national minorities in white capitalist United States.” The board fired her, putting her into the national spotlight over questions of academic freedom and the lingering effects of cold war anticommunism.
A judge disagreed with the board’s decision, finding that it had no right to terminate Davis because of her political affiliations. During the appeals process, she was permitted to teach (to glowing reviews). But some months later the board, led by then governor Ronald Reagan, fired Davis again. This time, they claimed her political speech was unbefitting a university professor, citing her statement, “Hell, yes, we are subversive…and we’re going to continue to be subversive until we have subverted the whole damn system of oppression.”
As Davis’s professorial fate wended its way through the courts, she grew involved in a campaign demanding justice for three prisoners known as the Soledad Brothers, who were accused of a retaliatory murder of a white prison guard. One of the brothers was the well-known writer and Black Panther George Jackson, with whom Davis would be romantically involved.
In August 1970, just a few months after Davis’s second firing, Jackson’s seventeen-year-old brother, Jonathan, held up a courthouse in Marin County. He interrupted the trial of a Black inmate, gave him a gun, and the two—alongside two other Black inmates, who had been in the courtroom to serve as witnesses—attempted to kidnap the judge, an assistant district attorney, and three members of the jury. Guards opened fire. Jonathan Jackson, the judge, and two of the inmates were killed. The district attorney was paralyzed for life.
The guns Jonathan Jackson used were registered to Davis. She had purchased them long before he stormed the courthouse, out of concern for her safety. Since the Examiner article, Davis had received daily death threats. Further, as a member of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles, she had seen the efforts of police to destroy the group. In December 1969 three hundred police used grenades and dynamite in a siege of the party’s LA headquarters. The following May, National Guard troops killed unarmed college students at Kent State in Ohio, and police killed student protesters at Jackson State College in Mississippi. The repression of the left, especially the Black radical left, was intensifying.
So when news of the courthouse shooting reached Davis, she calculated that it was best to go on the run. Starting in August 1970, Davis was on the FBI ’s most wanted list, the third woman ever to appear on it. She was arrested in October, in a motel in New York City, and spent sixteen months in jail awaiting trial—mostly in solitary confinement, because officials feared her influence on women prisoners. Initially, Davis faced the death penalty. Five days after the California Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in February 1972, she was allowed to post bail. Her trial began in March. No one believed that she would get a fair hearing, so then president Richard Nixon personally invited fourteen Soviet scientists to observe it for themselves.
Davis’s portrait spread all over the country, no longer on wanted posters but on buttons, leaflets, and T-shirts. A “Free Angela Davis” campaign erupted worldwide. Aretha Franklin pledged to pay her bail in cash, “not because I believe in Communism, but because she’s a black woman who wants freedom for all black people.” Davis became a symbol for free speech, for outspoken women, and for Black militancy, an embodiment of the restlessness and rebelliousness that defined the era.
Still, she worked to deflect attention from her individual circumstances and toward the movement. Even in the astonishing moment when the jury foreperson read out the not-guilty verdict—the jury having found insufficient evidence to support her part in the plot—she redirected focus to the international campaign that had demanded her freedom. Davis described the decision as a “people’s victory.”
The fiftieth anniversary of Davis’s historic acquittal of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, charges that once threatened her execution, was little acknowledged this past June, but as a thinker she may be as influential today as she has ever been. From the uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, to the outpouring of protests in the summer of 2020, the past decade has been not a period of Black pragmatism and obeisance—as Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, has insisted—but an era of Black rebellion. The relentlessness of recent demonstrations, the glow of burning buildings, and the sheer brutality of police in response provoked memories of the Black radicalism of the 1960s. And the debates these protests inspired have thus also been debates over how to remember an earlier era of Black activism and political thought—and how best to continue that tradition.
There are two predominant ways of misapprehending the Black radical tradition. On one side, liberals have argued that the emergence of Black radicalism in the 1960s sparked white backlash and spoiled the goodwill earned by the more palatable civil rights movement. “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that…there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way,” then president Barack Obama said in 2013, at an event marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. “The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior.” That, Obama explained, “is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.”
In this view, the civil rights movement stands for “incremental progress” against the excesses of Black radical politics. But this dichotomy between the patient civil rights movement and the self-destruction of the Black liberation movement fails in the light of historical scrutiny. And it fails to see the relation between the two sides; the Black insurgency of the late 1960s was driven by people disillusioned with the slow pace of change, even after highly touted civil rights legislation had been passed.
The view, alas, endures, in the politicians who believe that Bernie Sanders failed to win a majority of votes from Black Democrats in the 2020 presidential primaries because Black voters are simply too pragmatic and have too much to lose. Or in Jim Clyburn, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and currently the third-ranking Democrat in the House. After the protests in the summer of 2020, Clyburn said that he and the late John Lewis had privately agreed that the demand to defund the police “could undermine the BLM movement, just as ‘Burn, baby, burn,’”—a slogan of the Watts riots—“destroyed our movement back in the Sixties.”
“John would never yell, ‘Burn, baby, burn,’” Clyburn said. In fact, when Lewis was scheduled to speak at the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph pressured him to change his remarks at the last minute, fearing that his comments were so incendiary that they might offend the Democratic Party officials the two of them were urging to move more quickly on civil rights legislation. “The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington,” Lewis had planned to say.
We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty.
The point isn’t that Lewis was a Black liberation radical, but that in 1963 he was as frustrated and angry about the pace of change as are today’s Black radicals demanding that the police lose their funding.
The other misapprehension of the 1960s usually comes from young people who search for inspiration from an earlier Black liberation movement. Today’s radicalizing activists can sometimes indulge in nostalgia for what is essentially an imagined unity, as if the 1960s were a period defined by organizational efficacy and political clarity. This sometimes makes it more difficult to remember both the ceaseless provocations directed at movement activists by police and federal agents and the political disagreements within the movement itself. As ever on the left, there was tension over what leadership roles women should have, whether the United States was fascist, and whether multiracial organizing was necessary or desirable. At times we neglect a more painful history of recrimination, sectarianism, and political and social intolerance among those who would otherwise be comrades. Those disagreements may explain why Davis—for all her influence as an activist, intellectual, and writer—has not always been taken as seriously as her peers from the era.
In recent years, numerous scholars and activists have made efforts to recover the histories of these mass struggles.
In particular, they have tried to examine the work of the Communist Party. In their new collection Organize, Fight, Win, which gathers the writings of Black Communist women starting in the 1920s, Jodi Dean and Charisse Burden-Stelly provide a genealogy for the strains of Black feminism that emerged as part of the radicalization of the 1960s. They establish a lineage that connects Davis’s radical politics and emergence in the 1960s to Black women who as early as the 1920s had helped analyze what they called the “triple burden” of race, gender, and class as the basis of their oppression. They, like Davis, saw themselves as part of a global struggle against capitalism and colonialism and for socialism and a better world.
Davis’s contributions, observations, experience, and originality as part of this tradition have often been overlooked even as her male contemporaries from the 1960s have been exhaustively examined. Why? As a Black queer woman, Davis does not fit into versions of radical history that predictably valorize Black men—from Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and Huey Newton—as worthy and complicated subjects.
Many biographies and documentaries have ignored not only Davis and other women, but also the movements to which they and thousands of ordinary people were attached. A spate of critical biographies that appeared shortly after Davis’s arrest did little to capture her belief that her political radicalization was the typical experience of other young Black people. Toni Morrison called one of these dime-a-dozen portraits “a Cyclopean view of Angela Davis that leaves the reader with a wholly useless biography, somehow offensive in its one-eyed stare.”
Another reason Davis’s thinking has been overlooked is her membership in the Communist Party. Communists had long been accused of invoking antiracism to recruit Black people to their cause without being genuinely interested in their welfare. Richard Wright, a former member, described his disillusionment with the party in American Hunger; Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man, questioned how real the Communists’ commitment to antiracism truly was.
For her part, in 1968 Davis joined an all-Black branch of the party in Los Angeles, whose members had local reputations as good and reliable activists. In her writing, like the Black Communist women who proceeded her, she went far beyond the party’s line, theorizing about the intertwinement of race, class, and gender in the lives of Black women years before “intersectionality” was in classrooms and on every nervous chyron. She even criticized the party as a national organization: it did not pay “sufficient attention to the national and racial dimensions of the oppression of Black people, and therefore submerg[ed] the special characteristics of our oppression under the general exploitation of the working class.”
She left the party in 1991 because of what she describes as a lack of internal democracy. All along she was lucid in her understanding of its shortcomings, but the longevity of her tenure meant she could be dismissed as its mouthpiece. Her membership also rankled some African Americans caught up in the long-standing red scare.
For five decades now, Davis has been a prolific writer and public intellectual, articulating for a broad audience how racial inequality shapes Black life. Her groundbreaking, prophetic essay “The Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves” (1971), dedicated to George Jackson and written from the Marin County Jail as she awaited trial, was as much about Black women’s resistance to slavery as it was a rebuke of the 1965 Moynihan Report on Black poverty, which offered a distorted view of Black matriarchs emasculating Black men, an idea that had become popular among Black men in the revolutionary movement.
Davis had been skeptical of the women’s movement, judging it as essentially white and middle class. Then in jail she saw how race and poverty overlapped with gender and made women inmates, especially those who were pregnant, particularly vulnerable to the state. This persuaded her to integrate gender into her political analyses—and so did the prosecutors’ concocted theory that Davis participated in the siege of the courthouse to free her lover, George Jackson (a woman scorned!). At the time, Davis’s writings were necessary interventions for building unity between Black men and women within the movement. Only later did they come to be seen as “Black feminism.”
Davis is nearly eighty now. She remains politically active and highly visible, an inspiration to younger activists and organizers internationally. She did not disappear into academia after her trial, nor did she retreat from her radical ideas. Instead, in the half-century since her acquittal, she has continued to campaign against prisons and on behalf of the incarcerated. She has also continued to embrace the politics of internationalism, championing self-determination for Palestinians, decrying police abuse in Brazil, and railing against neoliberalism in South Africa. She remains controversial: in 2019 the Birmingham Civil Rights Center announced it was honoring Davis, then rescinded the award in what was widely considered a reaction to her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel, only to reinstate the award later that month.
Now, nearly fifty years after its first publication in 1974, Davis has brought forth a new edition of Angela Davis: An Autobiography, a landmark text of left-wing Black politics. Today it is popular to see socialism as a preoccupation of young white men; the reissue reminds us of the long tradition of Black involvement in socialist and communist organizations, and of this preeminent Black woman radical’s brilliance. It preserves the text of the first two editions with some minor factual corrections; Davis acknowledges in a lengthy and insightful new preface that her views have evolved or that her language today would be different. (“I am only too aware of the ways in which masculinist assumptions prevented me from understanding the impact of prison regimes on women,” she writes about her homophobic observations of queer relationships behind bars.) An Autobiography remains an important document for understanding the scope of political radicalization in the 1960s as well as its extended lineage, for Davis’s personal history is interwoven with that of the Black movement from the end of World War II up to today.
Davis was born in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. After an elementary education in the resource-starved local Black schools, she went on to elite white private schools in the Northeast. Her family was not rich but had connections outside the South that gave her and her siblings access to a world beyond Jim Crow Birmingham—connections that flowed almost entirely through Black Communist Party members. She went on to study philosophy in Europe; by twenty-five, she was an adjunct professor at UCLA .
This was not, some critics of An Autobiographycomplained, the experience of ordinary Black people. But Davis saw something general in her life story: the contradiction between the official proclamations of the US as a free and democratic society and the daily racism she and her peers endured. This is what radicalized her. “Certainly, since 1959–1960, black people as a whole in this country have made enormous progress in the consciousness of the need for liberation, and I think that I am a part of that,” she told Ebony in 1972. “Just as I could point to hundreds, thousands of other black men and women my age who have experienced almost the same kind of development.”
During the first fifteen years of Davis’s life, the federal government used the full weight of its power to marginalize the Communist Party and criminalize participation in it. In a series of trials between 1949 and 1958, 108 Communists were convicted of advocating the overthrow of the government and cumulatively sentenced to more than four hundred years in prison. In 1947 President Harry Truman signed an executive order establishing a Federal Employee Loyalty Program to smoke out Communists who may have been working in the bureaucracy. Nearly five million federal workers were investigated. In 1950 the McCarran Act required members of “Communist-action organizations” to register with the attorney general. These and other legislative efforts helped whip up an atmosphere of suspicion and recrimination. Blacklists were created that compiled the names of actual Communists and also anyone deemed sympathetic to the cause, costing thousands of people their livelihoods.
For Davis, these persecutions were personal. Sallye Davis, her mother, had been a leader with the Southern Negro Youth Congress ( SNYC ), an organization that was cofounded by Black members of the Communist Party and that campaigned against the poll tax and for the right to vote. Sallye Davis had organized on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black youths wrongfully accused of raping two white women. Less is known about the political activity of Angela Davis’s father, Frank, but John Abt, the general counsel of the Communist Party, wrote in his autobiography that Frank had contacted him personally to ask that he represent her when she was jailed in New York City.
Many of Davis’s closest childhood friends, including Claudia and Margaret Burnham, had parents who were Black leaders in the party. (Margaret, while working as an attorney for the NAACP ’s Legal Defense Fund, was a central member of Davis’s legal team.
) Dorothy Burnham—whose writing appears in Organize, Fight, Win—had left New York City for Birmingham with her husband, Louis, to join the fight against racism and Jim Crow. Anticommunism was a national phenomenon, but repression was particularly acute in the South, where white officials blamed demands for civil rights on the outside agitation of Communist provocateurs. In the late 1940s, Bull Connor, the local official notorious for siccing dogs on Black children in civil rights protests in 1963, forced the Burnhams out of Birmingham, back to New York City.
When Davis began attending high school in New York City, her friendship network expanded to include the children of the leading party members. Among them was Harriet Jackson, daughter of James Jackson and Esther Cooper Jackson, former leaders of SNYC . She also became friends with Mary Lou Patterson—the daughter of William Patterson, best known for his 1951 petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide,” which was submitted with Paul Robeson and argued that the US government’s racism was a punishable crime—and with Bettina Aptheker, whose father was the famous party historian Herbert Aptheker, the plaintiff in a 1964 Supreme Court case that successfully challenged the constitutionality of federal prohibitions on party members’ right to obtain a passport.
In her autobiography, Davis points out that precisely because she associated the Communist Party with the parents of her friends, it at first struck her as an old and conservative organization. But these relationships also contradicted the official and popular portrayals of Communists as duplicitous and conniving. That had never been her experience, which meant that she was to some degree impervious to her era’s red-baiting and knee-jerk anticommunism. She compares her experience of reading The Communist Manifesto in high school to being struck by “a bolt of lightning.” It offered a way to make sense of the bewildering rules and regulations that held Jim Crow intact:
The eyes heavy with hatred on Dynamite Hill; the roar of explosives, the fear, the hidden guns, the weeping Black woman at our door, the children without lunches, the schoolyard bloodshed, the social games of the Black middle class, Shack I/Shack II, the back of the bus, police searches—it all fell into place. What had seemed a personal hatred of me, an inexplicable refusal of Southern whites to confront their own emotions, and a stubborn willingness of Blacks to acquiesce, became the inevitable consequence of a ruthless system that kept itself alive and well by encouraging spite, competition, and the oppression of one group by another.
Davis spent a portion of her college years in Paris, at the Sorbonne, and eventually attended a graduate program in Frankfurt. There she embraced her status as a protégée of the Marxist intellectual Herbert Marcuse, whose lectures she had attended during her senior year at Brandeis, by undertaking doctoral study of philosophy at Goethe University with theorists including Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas. Her radical politics were meanwhile deepening. In Paris she had encountered the Algerian resistance to the French occupation, and now in Germany she was under the influence of the mass student movement. But she had her own battles to wage at home.
Davis returned to the United States in 1967. She headed to San Diego to continue her studies with Marcuse, who was by then teaching at UCSD . She also decided to join in the political activities of the Black liberation movement in Los Angeles. Particularly after her experiences in Frankfurt, that meant becoming a part of an organization. “As 1968 got under way, I realized how much I needed to find a collective,” she writes.
Individual activity—sporadic and disconnected—is not revolutionary work. Serious revolutionary work consists of persistent and methodical efforts through a collective of other revolutionaries to organize the masses for action. Since I had long considered myself a Marxist, the alternatives open to me were very limited.
Finding no clear or easy entry points into the Black movement, she had to create her own. Davis helped organize a Black student union at UCSD and in doing so developed ties to organizing beyond the campus. But she quickly discovered how complicated the terrain of the Black movement was. In the years after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, the Black Congress, representing the many different groups working in the movement, had become the hub of radical organizing in Southern California. There was constant jockeying to position one’s group as part of the congress’s leadership, trying to distinguish one’s group from the rest based on political superiority or revolutionary zeal.
These differences could and did spill over into political violence. In the fall of 1967, at a Black youth conference designed to promote unity in LA, a shootout erupted between members of the cultural nationalist US Organization, led by Ron Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, and a group called United Front. Tensions could be easily manipulated by FBI informants or others directed to disrupt the organizing activity of the Black left. “In the midst of the chaos that followed the shooting,” Davis remembers, “I read the literature, sat in on some of the workshops, and discovered that about the only thing we really had in common was skin color. No wonder unity was fragile.”
Davis eventually joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee ( SNCC ), which in Southern California by the late 1960s was very different from the student civil rights organization that had been founded in 1960 in North Carolina. The LA branch of SNCC came together out of a negotiated compromise between the Los Angeles Black Panther Political Party and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which had been formed in Northern California in 1966. Davis recalls in her autobiography that an Oakland Panther demanded
that your motherfuckin’ party get rid of the name the Black Panther Party. In fact, you better change it to the motherfuckin’ Pink Pussycat Party. And if you haven’t changed your name by next Friday, we are going to off you all.
With assistance from James Forman, who led SNCC nationally, the West Coast chapter was born.
SNCC quickly established itself in the community by organizing against police brutality and developing a program around political education, for which Davis was responsible. Within months, the group had become popular and influential. Davis would call it “one of the most important organizations in the LA Black community.” But the successes were short-lived. Over time, two problems developed that generated deep political conflict.
The first was sexism, which undermined the daily work of the group. Davis describes men, anxious about their leadership within the organization, accusing women leaders of plotting a “matriarchal coup d’état.” “I was criticized very heavily…for doing a ‘man’s job,’” she writes.
I became acquainted very early with the widespread presence of an unfortunate syndrome among some Black male activists—namely to confuse their political activity with an assertion of their maleness. They saw—and some continue to see—Black manhood as something separate from Black womanhood. These men view Black women as a threat to their attainment of manhood—especially those Black women who take initiative and work to become leaders in their own right.
The second problem was anticommunism. The men who constituted the leadership of the local SNCC chapter objected to the prominence of Franklin Alexander within the group because he was a Communist. Eventually Alexander was expelled. This was not just sectarian strife but a conflict motivated by substantive political differences. Davis’s part in leading the “liberation school” was criticized because she was teaching Marxism as part of her political education classes, where group leaders believed that it would be best to teach people practical trade skills that could aid in their survival instead.
Most of the laws used to intimidate Communists nationally had been ruled unconstitutional by the late 1960s. But the social stigma of party membership remained, even among students and the emergent Black radical left. The Communist Party was hounded by the US government, and its own repressive leadership—with its ever-shifting and equivocal positions, its intense sectarian opposition to political opponents, and its rigid and uncritical support of the Soviet Union—also jaundiced its reputation among intellectuals and activists.
And yet the deepening crises within the revolutionary Black left—authoritarian leadership; suffocating sexism, including the subordination of women leaders; erratic political lines; a tendency to glorify violence in lieu of organizing mass struggle—nonetheless paved Davis’s way into the party. In 1968 her entry came through an all-Black LA branch called the Che-Lumumba Club. The LA chapter of SNCC had included not just Franklin Alexander but also his partner, Kendra, another party cadre. Davis was enamored of the political sophistication of Franklin’s older sister Charlene Mitchell, a party organizer who ran for president of the US on a Communist Party ticket in 1968.
In Davis’s experience, not only were women leaders, organizers, and political thinkers in the party—the California Communists were led by the dissident Dorothy Healy—but her male comrades treated her as an equal, respecting her organizing acumen and her political contributions. In her view, the Communist Party had a clear understanding of the oppression and exploitation under capitalism, and also centered its doctrine on building a multiracial mass movement rooted in the working class. Davis’s long-standing commitment to multiracial organizing came from her parents’ influence, and, as she explained in the collection Feminist Freedom Warriors (2018), she needed something larger than the Black Panther Party:
My experiences within the Communist Party gave me this global framework, this way of identifying not only with labor struggles and struggles that were being conducted by people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, white workers, and so forth, but also the world.
It was not so much a moral imperative as the only logical way in which a successful revolution could actually take place in the US. Anything that did not involve “the masses” was hopelessly utopian.
Her rejection of Black nationalism put Davis at odds with the dominant currents of the Black radical left. She was “disturbed” when, in 1968, she heard Stokely Carmichael tell a Black Power conference in Los Angeles that “as Black people…we have to forget about socialism, which is a European creation, and have to start thinking about African communalism.” In the United States, she writes,
when white people are indiscriminately viewed as the enemy, it is virtually impossible to develop a political solution…. I was learning that as long as the Black response to racism remained purely emotional, we would go nowhere.
An Autobiography was written at the prodding of Davis’s editor at Random House, Toni Morrison. Davis was concerned that, at twenty-eight, she was too young to write a memoir, but Morrison encouraged her to write a “political autobiography.” In the first edition of the book, Davis said it
emphasized the people, the events, and the forces in my life that propelled me to my present commitment. Such a book might serve a very important and practical purpose. There was the possibility that, having read it, more people would understand why so many of us have no alternative but to offer our lives—our bodies, our knowledge, our will—to the cause of our oppressed people.
She also hoped others “might be inspired to join our growing community of struggle.”
Her reluctance to focus on herself in her own autobiography has not gone away. “I am more convinced than ever that we need to engage in relentless critique of our centering of the individual,” Davis warns in her new preface. She is a reluctant self-analyst, torn between telling her story and refusing the seductive indulgence of reducing important historical events to her own involvement. Her account is driven by a need less for people to understand her emotional self than to situate herself within a larger political movement and use her experience to shed light on the experiences of her generation.
The autobiography gave Davis an opportunity to reclaim her life story, which mainstream outlets had grossly distorted during her incarceration. These pop-psychology assessments of Davis carried over to the original reviews of the book. “If there is an Angela Davis separate from the Communist woman,” the Black writer Julius Lester wrote, “Davis does not know her and has little desire to do so…. Her will is so strong that, at times, it is frightening.” The reviewers’ search for the “real” or “other” Angela Davis reeks of sexism, as does the assumption that her life was not fully consumed by politics—that there must be some interior built around other desires.
It is hard to imagine such a question being asked of Malcolm X. “If this book were about a man,” Morrison wrote in response to a reader’s report expressing concern about the lack of “humanness” in the manuscript,
certain problems of credibility would never arise. The real question you know is why doesn’t she think and behave like a female?… How nice it would be if Angela were really Jane Fonda and not Jean d’Arc.
For Davis’s male critics, her “frightening” lack of sexual or romantic desire and her ill-fitting position in the world of revolutionary politics turned her into an exotic figure and made it possible to dismiss her political and intellectual contributions. This perception is not only inaccurate—she writes intimately about her love for George Jackson, for one—it also continues to marginalize the work of women radicals from the era.
One of the more comprehensive engagements with Davis’s ideas can be found in Ibram X. Kendi’s award-winning Stamped at the Beginning (2016), which uses her life to understand the past fifty years of the struggle against racism. And yet Kendi misreads Davis’s politics to explain his own ideas. Kendi and Davis share “antiracism” as a political objective, but they mean vastly different things by that word. For Kendi, racism is the product of errant public policies that produce disparities in social, political, and economic life. Accordingly, he sees the resolution of those disparities in “antiracists” taking electoral power so that their ideas can guide public policy, eventually turning them into “common sense.” But this solution depends on the essentially liberal assumption that changing ideas, without changing the structure of society, is the way to social transformation.
For Davis, by contrast, the root of the problem in American society is not racism but capitalism. Racism is central to the function of capitalism because it divides those who have the greatest interest in fighting it—including working-class and poor white people. Undoubtedly, capitalism makes life harder for those who are not white. But in Davis’s view, “antiracism” means developing a political strategy for changing everything, not just ascending to positions of power in the existing structure. When the Nation of Islam publication Muhammad Speaks asked its readers in Harlem in 1971 to submit questions for Davis, a number of them asked why she was a Communist. She answered them in an article she wrote for Ebony while she was jailed in California. “I am a Communist because I am convinced that the centuries-old suffering of Black people cannot be alleviated under the present social arrangement,” she wrote. “Capitalism cannot reform itself. Black people more than any should understand the truth of this statement.”
Davis eventually left the Communist Party, but not her belief that capitalism is at the root of oppression and exclusion in American society. It is a belief that has animated her activism and organizing as a prison abolitionist. She was involved in the establishment in 1997 of the prison and police abolition organization Critical Resistance. She also returned to the classroom, going on to teach in the history of consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz for fifteen years (this after Reagan said, in 1970, that she would never teach in the California system again). In 2018 Davis donated to Harvard her enormous collection of personal papers, reflecting, in her words, “fifty years of involvement in activist and scholarly collaborations seeking to expand the reach of justice in the world.”
The power of An Autobiography lies in Davis’s understanding of both the tremendous forces assembled against her generation’s dreams of a new society and the ideas and actions of her cohort that stalled their forward momentum. She distills how male supremacy undermined the leadership of Black women and introduced authoritarianism and intolerance into more general debates over the politics, strategy, and tactics of the movement. Today, the struggle for Black liberation has taken new form and exists in an altogether different context, but the endless assault on Black life continues to make that pursuit necessary.
An Autobiography confirms some of what we know, including the ruthless efforts of American officials to bury a movement. But it also shows how sexism and sectarianism unravel potential coalitions and undermine crucial solidarities. In writing about her own experiences, Davis captures why so many of her peers became radicalized. Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans engaged in riot and rebellion in the 1960s, literal attempts to burn down the status quo. The breadth of their struggle, undertaken against a backdrop of global resistance to colonialism and white supremacy, gave young radicals the impression that revolutionary change was within their grasp.
“We felt we had the energy of stallions and the confidence of eagles as we rushed into the neighborhoods of LA—on the streets, in houses, campuses, offices—driving, walking, meeting, greeting,” Davis writes about her early organizing with SNCC .
We experienced the heights of brotherhood and sisterhood doing something openly, freely, and above ground about our own people. This was no sly manipulation of the establishment, marked by compromise and gradualism. Nor was it the individual heroism of some one person whose outrage had reached the point of no return. Our stance was public and our commitment was to our people—and for some of us, to the class.
[Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the Leon Forrest Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern. She is the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.]