Archive for the ‘Angela Davis’ Category

AnAutobiographyOfAngelaDavisWritten: 1974
Read: 2009

“An Autobiography” (1974) by Angela Davis tells the story of the first 28 years of her life, from birth to her arrest, imprisonment and trial. It was edited by Toni Morrison, who had already written “The Bluest Eye” and was then working for Random House.

I got it from the library because it was out of print – but now it seems to be back in print again!

It is not as good as, say, the autobiography of Malcolm X, but it is still well worth reading.

Malcolm X was not only more important in history, his story is one of self-discovery, a search for the truth that remakes him. Like St Augustine’s “Confessions”.

Angela Davis’s life was far more straightforward: she saw how unjust American society was growing up and sought to change it by taking part in SNCC, the Black Panthers and the Communist Party. In time this landed her in prison.

The part about the trial was well written: it could have bored you to tears with all the ins and outs that trials have, but she avoided that. Best of all was the ending: even though you already knew she would win, you were still overjoyed when she does win! That is how the book ends.

The book starts two years before with her on the run from the FBI. She is arrested in New York and put in prison. Since she is to stand trial in California, she is sent back. At that point the book jumps back to fill in the first 26 years of her life and then ends with her imprisonment in California and the trial.

She writes at great length about her time in prison. It affected her powerfully, but not me: I expect prison to be terrible, so nothing she said shocked me.

The same goes for what she said about the police in Los Angeles: from living in New York I already knew how they can be. But it is nice to know that I am not just imagining it.

One of the best parts is her account of growing up in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s. It makes you see how some things have changed like night and day (like being able to walk in through the front door) while other things remain the same (like the police).

She won me over when she said she loves reading books but hates going to parties.

Another good part was her account of the Los Angeles police trying to wipe out the Black Panthers.

She lives in Los Angeles in the 1960s. There are no Jim Crow laws  there, yet in some ways the racism is worse: because the whites there know and understand blacks less they seem to regard them more like wild animals to be threatened, shot and put safely behind bars.

She says little about philosophy, which she studied for years, and little about racism in New York, where she lived during part of high school.

It is called “an” autobiography. Is she going to write another one?

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BE021354The trial of Angela Davis, a black American Communist revolutionary, lasted 13 weeks and ended on June 5th 1972. She was found not guilty of all three charges by an all-white jury: kidnapping, conspiracy and murder.

The crime: Her gun had been used by a friend to kidnap a judge in order to free three prisoners. In the shoot-out that followed her friend, the judge and two of the prisoners died.

Under California law at the time she was, strictly speaking, party to murder since it was her gun. But they could not prove she wanted anyone dead or knew what her friend was up to (conspiracy).

A white service station owner said he saw her with her friend on the morning of the shoot-out but it turned out that he had a hard time telling black women apart, even light-skinned ones with Afros.

When they arrested her the state hoped to prove she had political motives to use violence to free the Soledad Brothers and others from prison, thus the shoot-out (though it was not the Soledad Brothers themselves who were being freed in that instance).

Libertad_angelaBut when it came time for the trial they could no longer use that argument: by then she had become world famous as a political prisoner, putting America to shame, a country that prides itself on supposedly not having any political prisoners.

Besides, it would have been a hard thing to prove: while she had given plenty of speeches urging the freedom of the Soledad Brothers and against the police and the prisons, she always pushed for peaceful protests, never violence. She knew blacks were hopelessly outgunned. She was not the violent revolutionary some made her out to be.

So instead the state wound up trying to prove she had fallen in love with one of the Soledad Brothers and was therefore driven by passion to desperate measures to free him. It was sad: while she had written many letters to the Soledad Brothers there was no sign of a love affair in any of them.

She had been in prison a year and a half, having been hunted down and arrested by the FBI after two months on the run across the country. She was denied bail because it was a capital case.  During the trial, however, California overturned capital punishment and she got out on bail.

On the last day of the trial during lunch word came from the FBI that some black men had hijacked a plane in Seattle and, landing in Oakland, were waiting for her. They wanted her to stand at the end of the runway in a white dress with a half million dollars and parachutes enough for them and her. What a great Hollywood ending – I imagine them parachuting into Cuba as their plane crashes into the sea – but none of it was true.

Then the jury gave the verdict. After she heard the third not guilty after the third charge she broke down and cried.

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Angela Davis went from Brownie to Communist, from bookworm to black revolutionary. To her it seemed natural.  To accept American society the way it is would be to accept that there is something wrong with black people.

She grew up under Jim Crow in the American South in the 1950s in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents taught her to think for herself. The black schools in Birmingham were in terrible shape, but they did teach her black pride and black history. What she did not learn at school she made up for by reading books.

In 1959 at age 15 she won a scholarship to study at a private high school in New York: Elisabeth Irwin High School. It was where all the teachers who were too left-wing for public schools went to teach. Her school did not turn her into a communist, but it did make communism a respectable opinion.

She got another scholarship, this one to Brandeis University. She was almost the only black person there. She largely kept to herself – it was easier that way – and so she read and read, read books of French and books of philosophy – and books of French philosophy.

In 1963 she went abroad to study a year in France. She was barely in France when news hit that four black girls were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church. She knew two of them. From growing up in Birmingham she knew bombings were used to keep blacks in line by fear and terror.

She noticed that the French saw the Algerians like how whites saw blacks back home. The Algerians were fighting a war to free themselves from French rule.

After Brandeis she studied philosophy in Germany under Theodor Adorno and then under Herbert Marcuse in San Diego in America. Of all the schools of philosophy she thought Marxism was the closest to the truth.

One summer she went to Cuba with friends, helping to cut sugar cane and seeing first-hand how communism had overturned racism.

Then back in America she saw first-hand how the Los Angeles police tried to wipe out the Black Panthers.

The police ruled the ghetto by fear and terror, not law and order. Shooting a man in the back they called “justifiable homicide”. They would break up protests by blacks, not allowing them the right of peaceful assembly. They would break into houses without a warrant and start shooting.  In the prisons it was even worse. The police and the prisons did whatever they wanted to black people –  the courts and the press did not care.

The only way to make them care was to stage mass protests. She helped to do this first as part of SNCC and then the Communist Party. She joined the Communist Party in July 1968 by paying 50 cents in dues. From her study of philosophy she found they had the best-grounded ideas and from her experience of Cuba they were the only ones who proved they could overthrow racism.

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arrestAngela Davis was arrested in New York by the FBI on Tuesday October 13th 1970. She had been on the run for over two months, crossing the country from Los Angeles to New York.

Her face was on the cover of Life magazine and it was on television. Hiding out in Miami she watched one of those shows on television where the FBI saves the day at the end in some big shoot out. She imagined it was her getting killed. Just then her picture appeared on television and a deep voice said:

Angela Davis is one of the FBI’s ten most wanted criminials. She is wanted for the crimes of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. She is very likely armed so if you see her, do not try to do anything. Contact your local FBI immediately.

Her gun had been used to kill a judge. That made her party to murder. Once she left California and crossed state lines that brought in the FBI.

She says it had little to do with the gun or her flight: the government was looking for an excuse to come after her to weaken black power. Ronald Reagan, the governor, had already fired her from UCLA for being a communist.

When she heard about the judge getting killed she did not return home. She laid low for a few days in Los Angeles and then was driven in the night by a showgirl to Las Vegas. There she caught a flight to Chicago and got to a friend, David Poindexter, before the FBI did. They went to Detroit, New York, Miami and then back to New York.

One by one the FBI found each of her friends and relations, except for Poindexter, and kept a close watch on each one.

lifeIn New York Davis and Poindexter stayed in room 702 at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge at 861 Eighth Avenue at 51st Street. They made a striking couple. Her picture was everywhere. A man noticed her in Times Square even though she was not wearing her trademark Afro and looked kind of Puerto Rican.

That night when they returned to their room the door opposite opened and an arm came out and took hold of her. It was the FBI. The man asked, “Angela Davis? Are you Angela Davis?” She said nothing but soon her fingerprints proved that they had found her at last.

They took her to the Women’s House of Detention at Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street. When she was 15 she had walked passed that prison every day on the way to school, acting like she could not hear the women inside screaming. Now she would be one of those women.

They put her in with the madwomen. They gave her wrinkled hot dogs and cold potatoes to eat. If found guilty of the charges she could be sentenced to death. Yet she felt better than she had in a long time: if she listened carefully she could hear the people outside protesting for her.

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To: Rachid Bouchareb

We, the undersigned, are opposed to the idea of R&B singer/actress Beyonce Knowles playing the role of Angela Davis in any biographical film portraying Dr. Davis’ life. On February 5 2009, the online version of Hollywood Reporter (an esteemed print publication that follows the film business) quoted French/Angolan producer/director Rachid Bouchareb as considering Beyonce Knowles for the lead role in his planned Angela Davis biographical film. We believe this is a mistake that Rachid Bouchareb must reconsider and avoid. Dr. Davis is an iconic figure in the struggle for equality for all and against the forces of oppression that would exploit divisiveness for profit and control. We would like a serious actress with significant training in the art of acting to portray this powerful role and we feel Beyonce lacks the gravitas to successfully portray Dr. Davis. Further, we feel the music of Ms. Knowles is in large part not in line with the feminist tradition of Dr. Davis’ life and work (with due acknowledgement of elements of Ms. Knowles’ work that arguably attempt to empower women and challenge patriarchy, where some may debate that such themes are present).

Of equal importance, we feel there are many talented but “undiscovered” black actresses who would do a wonderful job in this role who deserve an opportunity to showcase their talent in such a historic film, should we all be blessed to see this story brought to the screen.


The Undersigned

Click here to go to the petition and sign it (requires name and email address. You can keep the email address private).

I found out about this petition from the Invisible Woman.

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