The Arts > Culture
Hasta la Victoria!
The long arms of Angela Davis
“Revolution is a serious thing, the most serious thing about a revolutionary’s life. When one commits oneself to the struggle, it must be for a lifetime.” — Angela Davis
I first heard about Angela Davis in 1969.
Fresh out of college, I had been active in the student movement (SDS), the Underground Press (The Rag), and in el movimiento Chicano. The civil-rights movement had shifted from nonviolence to more radical and militant protest to combat the establishment’s ploy to criminalize and demonize this new activism.
It was therefore no surprise to read in the New York Times an editorial about how regents of the University of California at the bidding of Governor Ronald Reagan planned to dismiss Angela Yvonne Davis, an assistant professor of philosophy “with a background of black militancy and membership in the Communist Party.”
The 25-year-old Davis was fired and Reagan reportedly celebrated with a bottle of champagne and vowed that she would never teach in the state again. A judge soon ordered her reinstated until her one-year contract expired.
Davis was actively involved in the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee and had developed a relationship with Black Panther George Jackson, who had been indicted for murder of a white prison guard without witnesses or evidence. In August 1970, Davis became a fugitive from justice after police claimed that a gun registered in her name had been used by Panthers to force the release of the Soledad Brothers. The blotched abduction ended in the killing of a judge and several Panthers.
Fearing for her life, Davis went underground. President Nixon labeled her “a terrorist.” J. Edgar Hoover added her name to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list on kidnapping and murder charges. The whole world was watching. Students mobilized an international Free Angela Davis campaign. She became a cause célèbre and perhaps the first black woman activist of the movement. Once captured, she spent 18 months in prison awaiting trial. During this time, George Jackson was killed in an attempted prison break.
Davis’s image, with her proud stance as a black woman with a righteous Afro, became a symbol of resistance worldwide. In Cuba, her image on posters (Libertad por Angela Davis) became as numerous as those of Che. John and Yoko penned a song, “Angela,” the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel,” and Bob Dylan wrote about George Jackson’s death. Black entertainers came to her defense, too. Aretha Franklin offered to post Davis’s bail. “I have the money,” she said. “I got it from black people, and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.” Sammy Davis Jr. took up collections at black and Jewish events for Angela’s defense.
In 1972, an all-white jury acquitted Davis of all charges. She briefly moved to Cuba where she was welcomed and still remains a revolutionary hero, but she soon returned to the U.S. and wrote her best-selling autobiography.
I met Davis in 1977 during a trip to California to raise awareness about the gas cut-off in Crystal City, where the town was protesting the policies of the Lo-Vaca Gathering Company. Davis invited me to speak at the Communist Party convention. She held a press conference, where she said: “Our brothers and sisters in Crystal City are fighting on the front lines of the struggle against the stronghold of the utility monopolies. They deserve our solidarity and support.” The event reaped an outpouring of support, from solar panels to wood-burning stoves.
Davis campaigned on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984 as its vice-presidential candidate. She later left the party and returned to teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As an academic, she has published books on black and feminist theory, race and class, on culture and politics, and legendary women blues singers. She remains a recognized leader in the movement for economic, racial, and gender equality and spearheads an organization that calls for the abolishment of the prison-industrial complex.
“It’s almost as if the prison in both concept and institution serves as a place to deposit what is undesirable,” she was quoted as saying in the British press. “So inside those prisons we deposit those people who are assumed to be the undesirables in our society, lock them away, and not worry about it.”
Davis, who will mark her 66th birthday next week, isn’t a stranger to controversy, nor is she timid when it comes to addressing issues and concerns that we face as a society.
On the topic of race: “What’s more important than the racial identification of a person is how that person thinks about race.”
On the economic situation: “There is hope in the way we can see this as a moment beyond capitalism or alternatives to capitalism or a reordering of society.”
On her Afro: “It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo.”
On President Obama: “I don’t want to represent Obama as a messiah because he isn’t. During his campaign he never sought to invoke engagements with race other than those that already existed.”
On public education: “Let’s start anew building a school system that truly attends to children’s needs, their potential and their passion. In the process, I think we will create a new social terrain where punishment as a problem will begin to recede further into the past as the future takes on the shape of our dreams of peace and justice.”
Davis’s appearance in San Antonio is a rare opportunity to listen and engage in discussion with this living legend of the civil-rights movement.
Bienvenida Compañera Angela! •