The Long Fight

A Review of Angela Davis: An Autobiography
by Angela Davis

Author Biography

Angela Yvonne Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944. She attended Brandeis College in Waltham, Massachusetts. She later attended the Frankfurt University in Germany to study Marxism. Upon coming back to California, she joined the Black Panther Political Party and the U.S.A. Communist Party. Davis was arrested in 1971. After an eighteen month long trial, she was proven to be innocent.

“WANTED: Angela Davis…is wanted for the crimes of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. She is likely armed.”1 But also, she is a black and a communist. This is the story of the great Angela Davis, one of the most famous Black Power Movement leaders of all time. In the book Angela Davis; An Autobiography, Angela Davis describes the gruesome life changing sixties from the point of view of a political prisoner. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Davis could relate to the horrible conditions of slavery closely. Her political career took her all over the world in her breathtaking journey during the Black Power Movement.

The novel began on a dark, terrifying night. It was August 9, 1970 and Angela Davis was on the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ (FBI’s) Most Wanted list. Disguising herself with a wig and different clothes, Davis hid at a stranger’s house. After escaping, she went to Chicago to live with David Pointdexter, a friend who helped her hide at her time of need. Although, she changed her disguise again and left the city. Davis was caught by the FBI on October 13, 1970. John Abt and Margaret, Davis’s friend, became her attorneys. They fought to get Davis out of the 4B, abnormal unit, which consisted of women who were addicted to drugs and were suffering form psychological problems. Finally, they succeeded in moving Davis to the tenth floor dormitory. Because she introduced communism to the women in the dormitory, Davis was moved to the sixth floor isolation room under maximum security. The importance of her political case caused the prison warden to become more careful. In reaction to the move, Angela and the other women went on a hunger strike. Her attorneys filed a lawsuit on the grounds that she was the victim of undue discrimination. This strike led to a protest outside the prison and her sister, who had been very close to Angela all her life, spoke at the protest. While watching the protest, Davis was overcome with anxiety and stated that, “[her] frustration was immense.”2 On the tenth day of the hunger strike, a ruling was passed that eliminated maximum security conditions. Having the right to leave her jail cell, Davis found donated books in the library and gave her prison mates the novel Soledad Brother, George. The Soledad Brothers were other political prisoners in San Quinton prison. Davis finally crossed the line when she started to teach karate to the inmates. It had been to pass time, but the warden saw it as defiance. On December 21, 1970, there was a massive demonstration that spread from New York to California to free Angela Davis.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, Davis was not a stranger to the segregation in the South. Her town was called Dynamite Hill because there was not a single day when a black family’s house was not blown up by their racist white neighbors. Although she had grown up around that violence, she never really understood the hatred. Davis keenly remembered her long, free summers in New York where her mother attended the New York University and worked towards her Masters Degree. Her summers in New York made her sensitive to the segregation in Birmingham because while she was allowed to sit in her favorite seat behind the bus driver in New York, she couldn’t in Birmingham. She described New York as “a place where Black people were relatively free of restraints of Southern racism.”3 From early on, Davis’s parents had supported the liberation movement. At the age of twelve when her grandmother died, it left a hole in her heart. She had always talked to Davis about the brutality of slavery that had hurt the lives of thousands. At the same time in New York, her friend’s father, a communist, was forced to go into hiding because Senator Joe McCarthy was making allegations that all communists were evil. At school, she saw how hard it was for other children to buy decent lunch and clothing. Her mother had always told her to be kind to others, so she helped out as much as she could by giving her money to those children. She said that, “the pervading myth is that poverty is a punishment for idleness and indolence.”4 In class, Davis and her classmates learned about respected black historical figures like Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. Because her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father was a high school teacher, Davis had started to read at a very young age. She also took piano lessons and ballet classes. As she entered high school the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was declared illegal in Alabama. Her parents, who were members, refused to stop paying their dues. Finally NAACP was replaced by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, headed by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. During the latter part of 1956, someone planted dynamite under the Reverend’s bed and the house exploded, but luckily the Reverend survived because he was not in the house at the time of the explosion. After high school in Birmingham, Davis attended Elizabeth Erwin High School in New York for a year. She always had respect for the Melish family, who she stayed with during her years at Elizabeth Erwin. While in school, Davis came face to face with “The Communist Manifesto”; its concluding words said, “Let the ruling class tremble at a Communist Revolution…workers of all countries, unite!”5 Davis thought this statement was calling to her.

After high school, Davis received a scholarship and decided to attend Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Besides herself, there were only two other African American students. During this period, she began to call herself a communist. While Davis was attending a conference, The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted and the speaker left in the middle of the conference. The entire campus was full of chaos, because people feared nuclear weapons and a possible Third World War. Davis visited France, Lousanne, Geneva, Paris and Finland with her friends that summer. When she came back from the Communist Youth Festival in the summer, she was arrested by an FBI agent but was later released. During her second year, Davis completely indulged herself in the language of France. That year, Malcolm X came to the campus of Brandeis. Davis “experienced a kind of morbid satisfaction listening to Malcolm reduce white people to virtually nothing.”6 The racism she had felt in Birmingham was greatly avenged by this. Davis spent her third year in France. On September 16, 1963, she heard of a girls’ restroom bombing in Birmingham that killed four girls. Davis found herself lost in the strange world where no one understood racism. She realized that, “the people who planted the bomb… were not pathological, but rather the normal products of their surroundings.”7 The same year, President Kennedy’s assassination took place. While taking philosophy courses by Herbert Marcuse, her interest for Marxism grew. For graduate school, Davis decided to attend Frankford University in Germany where she witnessed many mass demonstrations against the United of America. The phrase “Black Power” was coined during The March of Mississippi. In the summer of 1967, the conference of ‘The Dialectics of Liberation’ was held in London, where she heard Herbert Marcuse and Stokely Carmichael speak. When she moved to Southern California, Davis lost contact with the movement. At the University of California, San Diego she protested against the Vietnam War and was arrested, but the San Diego District Attorney Office dropped the charges and made a formal apology due to the pressure from the media. In the meeting with James Franklin and Kendra Alexander, she was introduced to the Black Panther Political Party. As a result of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 14, 1968, tensions began to mount at twenty three cities. As a member of the Panther Party, Davis found it hard to secure the area. In July 1968, Davis joined the U.S.A. Communist Party.

On December 22nd, 1970, Angela Davis was arrested and charged for murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy. No public statements were allowed by anyone involved in the case because of its popularity. National United Committee to Free Angela Davis was formed. January 1971 was her first prosecution. Davis’s legal investigators wrote a book which was about repression and called it If They Come in the Morning. This book was about the struggles of the Black Power Movement leaders. Jail communities were racist and sexist. During an incident at the jail when the warden had to evacuate the jail cells, the African American prisoners were handcuffed while the white were not. Ruchell, Davis’s legal investigator, decided that he wanted to pursue the removal strategy further. The strategy was that they would use African American and female jurors in their favor. Davis remembered the time when she and her friend were tried in front of the court for spending the night in the men’s dorms because by the time they had come back, the women’s dorms had been closed and they were labeled as ‘moral criminals.’ On March 27, the Soledad Brothers were acquitted. Angela gave the opening statements to her case. The jury gave their verdict, “not guilty…not guilty…not guilty.”8

Angela Davis: An Autobiography is an overview of her trial during an 18 month period from 1970 to 1971. Angela Davis states that her book is, “what [she] considered to be to be the political significance of [her] experiences. The political manner of measurement emanated from [her] work as an activist in the Black movement and as a member of the Communist Party.”9 She reveals her thesis by stating that, “furthermore [she is]convinced that [her] response to these forces has been unexceptional as well, that [her] political involvement, ultimately as a member of the Communist Party, has been a natural, logical way to defend our embattled humanity.”10 During this time, she had been thinking about what was better for humanity. Davis tries not to state any type of point of view throughout the novel; she tries to keep it to the point where she is only stating details.

In “Angela Davis: An Autobiography,” a critical analysis of Davis’s novel, Ivan Webster of The New Republic states that, “she has taken a rather narrow approach, propping up this account of her life with tract-like doctrine, reprising speeches, listing political debts and settling old movement scores.”11 Because of Davis’s limited view concerning the political events, she only allows her readers to see pieces of reality. He is simply saying that with her narrow view on the only observations of the political events, she only lets us see so little. He also asks, “why did these things happen to these women, we keep asking and get only partial answers.”12 There is a feeling that all the chaos that happens throughout the book only took one person and thirty years. In the New York Times Elinor Langer tells us that, “writing it was not an act of self-discovery; it was an act of political communication.”13 Davis was in need of propaganda for the Power Movement. Langer believes “That was an odd moment for a young black militant to join the Communist Party.”14 During the Cold War when no one wanted to be associated with a person labeled as a communist, Davis chose to join the Communist Party and became an important figure.

Much of Davis’s writing is based on the political events that raveled her life. She discusses the many movements of the people around herself and to some extent simply gives us observations. This may be her strength from her stand point as she says, “the real strength of [her] approach at that time resides… in its honest emphasis on grassroots contributions and achievements.”15 But the truth of the matter is that she forgets to state what goes on inside her mind. This may be her plea to keep the autobiography as political as possible. After all, it was published first in 1974, during the Black Power Movement. Although, she does tell us some details of her jail life and her interactions with the prisoners in the Marin County Jail, she starts to speak about communism. Another thing she continuously states is the fact that she is not an important figure and saying that, “[She] did not want contribute to the already widespread tendency to personalize and individualize history.”16

The Sixties was the time of the Black Power Movement. After centuries of slavery and segregation, it was a time for a new beginning. During the Harlem Renaissance, there was a great migration of African Americans to New York. Davis states, “New York was Camelot.”17 because of its desegregated areas. During the Free Speech Movement, students organized freedom rides in the South. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. organized a march to Birmingham that shook the entire South. President John F. Kennedy took actions to aid the Civil Rights Movement. Although President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson, the next president, kept his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement.

In the year 1965, there was a protest in Selma, Alabama against the racial voting booths. The police ended up killing many of the protestors. As the Nation of Islam came about, so did the radical ideology of Malcolm X. He was later shot in 1965, by one of the persons from the Nation of Islam. Many people were outraged and did not understand why anyone would do such a thing. Another Black Power Advocate, Stokely Carmicheal, proposed the idea of separate countries for blacks and whites. The Black Panther Party came about as a great symbol for Black Power in Oakland, California. Davis was a part of this organization and to some extent was one of its most important political figures. But, the mass demonstrations of the BPP lead to its demise in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In the year 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, leaving the country in great turmoil. As Davis states, “Never would any one of us have predicted that he would be struck down by an assassin’s bullet.”18

In her autobiography, she tells us about her life and her famous trial from a political stand point. During her life she had become very famous for her struggle in the Black Power Movement. Even though she was one person, a lot of people helped her become who she was. She had always wanted to make the world a better place to live—a world free of racism of any kind. She understood that people wanted and needed was for the society to act as a whole. The long and hard battle was fought by the Civil Rights leaders and Angela Davis was a significant part of it. But it wasn’t just a battle, it was century long war during which the Civil Rights leaders fought for the ability to stand tall and have dreams for the generations to come.

review by Naima Hafeez

  1. Davis, Angela Yvonne. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1974. 15.
  2. Davis, Angela Yvonne 47.
  3. Davis, Angela Yvonne 84.
  4. Davis, Angela Yvonne 89.
  5. Davis, Angela Yvonne 111.
  6. Davis, Angela Yvonne 127.
  7. Davis, Angela Yvonne 130.
  8. Davis, Angela Yvonne 394.
  9. Davis, Angela Yvonne viii.
  10. Davis, Angela Yvonne xv.
  11. Webster, Ivan “Political Fury.” The New Republic 16 Nov 1974: 30-31.
  12. Webster, Ivan “Political Fury.” The New Republic 16 Nov 1974: 30-31.
  13. Langer, Elinor “Autobiography As An Act of Political Communication.” The New York Times. 27 Oct 1974. 27 May 2006. .
  14. Dennis, Peggy “Our Political ‘Criminals’.” The Nation 16 Aug 1975: 118-119.
  15. Davis, Angela Yvonne viii.
  16. Davis, Angela Yvonne viii.
  17. Davis, Angela Yvonne 82.
  18. Davis, Angela Yvonne 176.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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