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Angela Davis

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Angela Davis (1944- ) is a famous black American revolutionary, a University of California professor, a “soldier of freedom”, a fighter for equality and the country’s best-known communist. She became world famous in 1971 when she was in prison and people in both America and the Soviet Union protested to “Free Angela”.

Her big Afro and putting her fist in the air are one of those images that sticks in your mind. You see memories of it in Erykah Badu and in the New Yorker cover with Michelle Obama shown as a black revolutionary.

In 1969 Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, had her fired from UCLA for being a communist. A year later her gun was used to kill a judge. That put her on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. She went into hiding and was on the run across the country. She made the cover of Life magazine. After a two-month manhunt she was caught in New York City and thrown into prison. She was widely seen as a political prisoner.

angeladavis08After 16 months in prison and protests round the world, all charges against her were dropped and she walked free. She went to the Soviet Union where she received a hero’s welcome. Then she wrote her life story, edited by Toni Morrison.

Since then she has been teaching, speaking and writing, particularly against American prisons, but more generally about race and women’s rights.

For her Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are no surprise.

A fourth of all prisoners in the world are in American prisons. Prisons have become America’s way of dealing with its freed slaves, otherwise known as black people. Selling crack will put you in prison, but selling Prozac will not. America now has five times more people in prison than it did 30 years ago. It has nothing to do with the crime rate.

Just like Condoleezza Rice, she grew up in the black middle-class of Birmingham, Alabama in the days of Jim Crow. She lived in an all-black neighbourhood, near a street where everyone on the other side was white. Later she came to New York and went to high school there.

She went on to study philosophy, studying under Marcuse. She even studied in Paris and Germany for a while. Overseas she met students from Africa, which made her see that what blacks in America face is worldwide. Then in 1963, when the four black girls were killed in the church bombing in Birmingham, she knew she had to come back.

She joined SNCC, then the Black Panthers and then, after Martin Luther King was killed,  the Communist Party. Like Paul Robeson, she saw communism as the best answer to racism.

Being black in America meant she could not accept society the way it is. To do so would mean saying she is not fully human. So working to change society seems natural to her.

Unlike Will Smith and John McWhorter, she believes racism is still alive and well. She says it hides behind a show of colour-blindness.

– Abagond, 2009.

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robeson2Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an American singer, actor and a fighter for equal rights for all men. He is best remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” (1936).

In the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the best known black men in the world, but by the 1950s he had become known as a suspected communist.

His father was a slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad, later becoming a Presbyterian minister. He spoke out against injustice and was forced to resign. His mother was a schoolteacher. When Robeson was six her clothes caught on fire from the stove. She died.

From his father Robeson learned to have an “unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty”.

Robeson did well in school, became an All-American football player and then went to New York to get his law degree at Columbia University. He got into a top law firm but then found that whites refused to work with him.

He turned to stage acting. He was best known for playing the lead in “Emperor Jones” (1924, New York; 1925 London) and “Othello” (1930, London; 1943, New York). He also acted in films, “Show Boat” (1936) being his best-known. But later he left film acting: the stereotypes that Hollywood made blacks act out sickened him.

Robeson had a very deep, rich singing voice. He gave concerts and put out records. In 1925 he became the first person ever to give a concert of Negro spirituals.

But despite being a famous singer and actor who travelled the world performing, many whites still would not accept him. He was refused service at restaurants, rooms at hotels – and not just in the American South either.

In 1934 he travelled to the Soviet Union and there he found something he had never experienced before: “Here for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity.” He saw communism as the answer to racism.

In the 1940s he spoke out against racism in all its forms and continued to sing.

In 1950 the American government asked him to sign a piece of paper saying that he was not a communist. He refused. They took away his passport.

It got worse: He was blacklisted by concert halls. His records were pulled from shops. His income fell from $104,000 (145,000 crowns)  in 1947 to $2000. They even took away his title as an All-American football player.

When he was brought before the McCarthy hearings they asked why he did not live in the Soviet Union. He said:

Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

He wrote a book about his life story, “Here I Stand”. When it came out in 1958 the New York Times refused to review it.

He got his passport back that year because of a Supreme Court ruling, but by then he was a broken man.

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