An Autobiography, by Angela Davis


Five stars, read in April 2017. Yes, once again a post has taken me this long to write.

For years I have been meaning to find out more about Angela Davis, and as so often happens, now that I’ve finally met her books I cannot believe it took me so long—or that in all my reading, she’s the first person to address the whole problem instead of just parts. There are several kinds of systemic inequality in the world, and they’re all related. (If you haven’t read her book Women, Race and Class, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you do.) Angela Davis explains these cultural problems expertly.

This is the only autobiography I’ve ever read that starts out as exciting as a movie plot. In fact, even the layout of the book is artistic, almost cinematic; it’s split into six sections named Nets, Rocks, Waters, Flames, Walls, and Bridges, and the way they follow each other is beautiful. These are the first sentences of part one:

I believe I thanked her but I am not sure. Perhaps I simply watched her dig into the shopping bag and accepted in silence the wig she held out to me. It lay like a small frightened animal in my hand. I was alone with Helen hiding from the police and grieving over the death of someone I loved.

The book begins as she goes into hiding, then follows her for two months underground before she is arrested and held in the Women’s House of Detention in New York City. This section is frightening and captivating all at once.

In the next section, Davis talks about her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama.

Time did not cool the anger of the white people who still lived on the hill. They refused to adapt their lives to our presence. Every so often a courageous Black family moved or built on the white side of Center Street, and the simmering resentment erupted in explosions and fires. On a few such occasions, Police Chief Bull Conner would announce on the radio that a “nigger family” had moved in on the white side of the street. His prediction “There will be bloodshed tonight” would be followed by a bombing. So common were the bombings on Dynamite Hill that the horror of them diminished.

I can’t stop thinking about this, especially when I hear white people continue to deny the existence of racism and discrimination. I am 32 years old and this is the kind of country we had in my parents’ childhoods. This barbaric behavior was not just pervasive, it was considered righteous. And most of those people are still alive. A person would have to be truly, genuinely stupid to believe that all of this just vanished between then and now—but then, I don’t think anyone really believes that. It’s not a question of their stupidity; it’s a question of their selfishness, their willingness to put their own mental comfort over actual human lives and believe whatever is most convenient.

On Davis’s first reading The Communist Manifesto:

What struck me so emphatically was the idea that once the emancipation of the proletariat became a reality, the foundation was laid for the emancipation of all oppressed groups in the society . . . 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 which kept itself alive and well by encouraging spite, competition, and the oppression of one group by another. Profit was the word: the cold and constant motive for the behavior, the contempt and the despair I had seen . . .

Of course, the most powerful impact the Manifesto had on me—what moved me most—was the vision of a new society, without exploiters and exploited, a society without classes, a society where no one would be permitted to own so much that he could use his possessions to exploit other human beings. After the communist revolution “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

And see, that last line—”the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”—that seems to me like the most basic definition of American society. This is what I grew up believing the United States was supposed to be. Each person has the same rights, each person is equal. Everyone, no matter who their parents were, has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (what else is “free development”?). No one is allowed to prevent them from it. But what we have is, and has always been, far short of that.

Describing a speech given by Malcolm X at Brandeis, where the “smug sense of comfort which reigned over this white liberal college was abruptly shattered by [his] appearance”:

I kept thinking that it must be a tremendous experience to hear him speaking to a Black audience. For the white people, listening to Malcolm had been disorienting and disturbing. It was interesting that most of them were so bent on defending themselves and on distinguishing themselves from the slave master and the Southern segregationist it never struck them that they themselves could begin to do something concrete to fight racism.

About the Birmingham bombing that killed Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson:

This act was not an aberration. It was not something sparked by a few extremists gone mad. On the contrary, it was logical, inevitable. The people who planted the bomb in the girls’ restroom in the basement of 16th  Street Baptist Church were not pathological, but rather the normal products of their surroundings. And it was this spectacular, violent event, the savage dismembering of four little girls, which had burst out of the daily, sometimes even dull, routine of racist oppression . . .

Those bomb-wielding racists, of course, did not plan specifically the deaths of Carole, Cynthia, Addie Mae and Denise. They may not have even consciously taken into account the possibility of someone’s death. They wanted to terrorize Birmingham’s Black population, which had been stirred out of its slumber into active involvement in the struggle for Black liberation. They wanted to destroy this movement before it became too deeply rooted in our minds and our lives . . .

The broken bodies of Cynthia, Carole, Addie Mae and Denise were incidental to the main thing—which was precisely why the murders were even more abominable than if they had been deliberately planned.

At a conference in London about the “Dialectics of Liberation:”

As in the United States, there was a natural inclination to identify the enemy as the white man. Natural because the great majority of white people, both in the United States and England, have been carriers of the racism which, in reality, benefits only a small number of them—the capitalists. Because the masses of white people harbor racist attitudes, our people tended to see them as the villains and not the institutionalized forms of racism, which, though definitely reinforced by prejudiced attitudes, serve, fundamentally, only the interests of the rulers.

This is a topic I found particularly interesting when she addressed it in Women, Race and Class as well. In that context she was discussing the expansion of Northern capitalists throughout the South during Reconstruction, and how lynching was used to make sure black people remained the most exploited class, which served the dual purpose of increasing profits and making the white working class identify with their oppressors rather than their fellow exploited workers. This, this exact thing, is how Donald Trump came to be president in 2017.

Probably most compelling to me was Davis’s description of her time in Cuba. I was particularly struck by the image of billboards along the road from the airport to her hotel:

. . . posters about the Campana de los Diez Milliones; posters of El Che; posters praising the people of Vietnam. Many of these billboards had been used in the past to advertise U.S. products, bearing such slogans as “Drink Coca-Cola” and “The Pause that Refreshes.” I felt a great satisfaction knowing that the Cubans had ripped down these trademarks of global exploitation and had replaced them with warm and stirring symbols that had real meaning for the people. The sense of human dignity was palpable.

The questions raised for me, naturally, are how much of what I know about Cuba and Fidel Castro is accurate. Angela Davis has a very different opinion of him than what I have always vaguely heard.

One day I remarked to a Cuban how I admired his skill in cutting cane—it was almost like an art, the way he did it. He thanked me for the compliment, but quickly added that his skill was a skill that needed to become obsolete. Cane-cutting was inhuman toil, he said. Before the revolution thousands had had to depend for their survival on working like animals during the cane season . . . The job of cutting cane had become qualitatively different since the revolution. No one was a cane-cutter by trade any longer; during the cane season everyone pitched in . . .

He continued to do it because he knew that he was working for the day when his sons and their children would not have to toil under the sweltering sun. Mechanization of the entire industry was on the agenda . . .

In this way he subtly criticized me for having romanticized something which was really nothing more than terribly hard work. It was then that I began to realize the true meaning of underdevelopment: it is nothing to be utopianized. Romanticizing the plight of oppressed people is dangerous and misleading.

On a more individual scale, I have long been bitter about the way poverty is romanticized by people who don’t understand it. You hear it everywhere, but I remember it particularly from going to church while I was growing up. Thrift is considered a very pious quality in that church, which is strongly influenced by both the nineteenth-century American pioneers and the Great Depression (which most of the church’s current leadership lived through). It’s common to hear church members talk fondly of the “poverty” of the early years of their marriage—the years when the wife supported the husband through law school or med school, the dinners of rice and beans and the date nights planned creatively to avoid spending any money. Of course, these stories are always shared by people who’ve gone on to make quite a lot of money, and who do not comprehend that poverty is not the same as temporarily not having much money. Poverty is life-threatening; it’s not something you look back on as a sweet memory once you’re past it.

Throughout her trip, Davis was thrilled by the signs of equality and dignity she saw among the people, the ways that Cuba had addressed the same problems the U.S. still struggles with.

Wherever we went, we were immensely impressed by the results of the fierce struggle that had been waged against racism after the triumph of the revolution . . . Now it was simply a crime to discriminate against Black people in any way, including the use of racist language. What was more important, of course, was the destruction of the material base of racism—weeding it out of the economy. During our trip, we saw Black people in leadership in factories, schools, hospitals and wherever else we went. It was clear to us . . . that only under socialism could this fight against racism have been so successfully executed.

When I think about the tyranny of the capitalist marketplace—the way we have to prove that diversity is lucrative in order to start seeing it, the way everything from car insurance to overdraft fees to bulk grocery shopping is rigged so that having less money actually costs more—I can see exactly why that would be true.

All our separate movements—political prisoners, welfare rights, national liberation, labor, women, antiwar—might generate storms here and there. But only a mighty union of them all could beget the great hurricane to topple the whole edifice of injustice.

This is what sums up Angela Davis the most comprehensively. She’s been a controversial figure in U.S. history, and I certainly don’t guarantee that anyone who reads this book will feel the same way I do about her. But either way, she’s an important and under-explored figure, and it’s beyond worthwhile to hear what she has to say.


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