Occasionally it happens, in my often random encounters with literature, that it dawns on me that it’s been a while since I’ve read, say, a book by a woman author, or by an African American. So it was that early last November I re-visited Mrs. Dalloway, my first volume (and first love) among the three that I’ve read by Virginia Woolf; and from there launched into each of the successive volumes (in Ann Goldstein’s translation from the Italian) of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, which my wife Anita – for good reason – had so enthused over; and finally, by way of transition from Maya Angelou, landed on the figurative lap of the in-some-circles infamous Angela Davis.
My first encounter with her I owe directly to Anita, who caught the notice in our local paper for the first annual Africana Film Festival at the University of Southern Indiana, in Evansville. Thanks to her sharp eye, I showed up at 6:00 on the evening of Thursday, January 30 for the first of three monthly cinematic offerings: Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012), written and directed by Shola Lynch. Upcoming are Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and George Tillman’s The Hate U Give (2018), which I also hope to attend, in the latter case with Anita.
The primary focus of Lynch’s documentary is Dr. Angela Davis’s 1972 trial and acquittal, by an all-white jury, on murder and conspiracy charges related to a deadly shootout at a Marin County courthouse. I remember hearing her name mentioned – derogatorily, of course; she was a known political radical of the worst sort! – by my conservative Republican parents at about that time. We had lived in Torrance, a suburb of Los Angeles, during the years just prior to the initial controversy that broke out in 1969 when UCLA’s philosophy department hired her to teach an introductory course on Marxism, Kant, and such. The state’s newly-minted governor, Ronald Reagan, was at the center of that political melee; I vaguely recall having been taken along to a rally for candidate Reagan when I must have been going on eight years old.
Davis was the Vice-Presidential candidate on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 when I voted in my first election (for Reagan, though I would repent of my decision and vote against him four years later); I thought she had also run, another time, for President, but I must be mistaken in that regard.
It was in 1968, anyway, a year before Angela arrived as a professor at UCLA – fresh from doctoral studies in Germany – that my father moved us back across the country to Indiana. Davis was a brilliant young Black woman with a big Afro, acknowledged membership in the Communist Party USA, and some association with the Black Panthers, though she was too much of a feminist to ever join their organization with its militaristic and misogynistic hierarchy. In Reagan’s California, in the heart of the Cold War, her radical Marxist orientation was enough – this after a journalistic hit job that accompanied her arrival – to get the university’s Board of Regents clamoring for her dismissal before she’d even delivered her first lecture. She went ahead and presented it to a packed hall of two thousand attendees, but despite the objection of a majority of faculty members and at Red-baiter Governor Reagan’s instigation, she was promptly fired.
And from that moment she became a prominent and popular speaker and activist, but also widely vilified and feared. She immediately received a daily barrage of hate mail and death threats, so it is little surprise that, as a self-defensive measure in that gun-friendly state, she might have thought to arm herself. But when three guns, later shown to be registered in her name, showed up in the possession of a Black Panther who died in that fateful courthouse shootout, Davis was accused of masterminding the whole plot. Given the political climate and the presumption of guilt by everyone from local law enforcement and Governor Reagan to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Richard Nixon’s White House, she felt that she had no choice but to go underground. The FBI hunted her down and she was extradited from New York back to California and charged, as stated above, with murder and conspiracy. The recommended penalty was death by execution.
Before she could be tried, fortuitously, the California Supreme Court declared capital punishment to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” and riding a wave of “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” protests (it was she herself who insisted on the “and All Political Prisoners” part), her lawyers had her give the defense’s opening argument; thus was she introduced to the jury in her own voice, that of an educated and articulate woman relating her own history and the causes and motives that brought her to this moment.
One of the lawyers, when he spoke to the jury about the popular presumption that if she ran she must be guilty, asked its all-white members to close their eyes and conduct a thought experiment: suppose you’re Black (don’t worry, he joked with them; you can return, afterwards, to being White) and, given the long and inglorious history of slavery and Jim Crow, of whippings and lynchings and political and societal oppression, consider whether, with the hyped-up hysteria and pre-judgment surrounding the present case, you would have turned yourself over to the Law.
And the point was also made: you heard her speak, you know she’s an extremely intelligent woman; do you suppose that, if it was her intention to orchestrate such a murderous attack, she would have been so stupid as to buy those guns under her own name? But in any case, that was not what Angela Davis was about; her politics may have been radical, but it was never a politics of violence. And there was not a shred of forensic or other evidence directly linking her to the crimes.
The documentary contained numerous bits of black-and-white footage of her speaking at the time, and full-color footage of the decades’ older Angela Davis speaking in retrospect; among the many other voices, ranging from Reagan and Nixon to fellow travelers and admirers, were a close friend (white) and one or two of her blood sisters.
And what was my pleasant surprise to learn that on the following Wednesday evening, independent of the film festival that brought me there, Dr. Angela Davis was to be present in the flesh, speaking to attendees at Carter Hall on that very campus!
And thus we come to my second encounter with Angela Davis. On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 5, I drove through gray skies and steady rain to arrive an hour early for her keynote address, fitting conclusion to USI’s sixth annual Mandela Social Justice Day. She spoke on the theme of “Democracy and Civil Engagement.”
Carter Hall, located on the second story of the student center, is a spacious facility where I was once honored as co-winner of the 2005 Louis Schewe (pronounce: Loo-ee Shoo-ee) Essay Award for a piece on John Dewey’s concept of the ideal conjunction between work and play (at the time I was a high school Spanish and English teacher, commuting from Tell City and working on a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree). Leading up to the hall is a concourse that looks out of large picture windows at the Liberal Arts Center. When I arrived it was still lined with a variety of table-booths for the Social Justice Activities Fair that preceded the speech.
The hall was, indeed, packed. Just prior to the introduction, people were being directed to a nearby room with a screen set up so that everyone could see, as well as hear, the speaker. A screen was also set up in the main hall for the benefit of those farthest flung of us. As I walked in, the front section was filling up and I took a seat in the front row of the back section. I pulled out the book I was reading (Ta-Nahisi Coates’s debut novel The Water Dancer) from under my green serape and applied myself to it for a while.
Despite my just over twenty years in the classroom, where I had to be as much actor-comedian as teacher, I have always felt awkward showing up to these events. As far as I can tell, I was the only one alone, surrounded by strangers, though simultaneously among members of a potential community – an activist community, however limited my contributions to it might be. In such moments, engulfed in that initial anxiety, I inevitably wonder if I should have come.
But as Angela Davis warmed up, I was glad I had come. She is a remarkable presence and an engaging speaker. I imagine, even experience a little bit, I think, what it must have been like to be in that auditorium for her first lecture at UCLA some fifty years ago. Her face is more weathered, her hair more white than black, but her style no less dignified and her mannerisms essentially the same. She has a wonderful smile and a disarming personality that embraces the members of her audience as fellow travelers and equals (in her estimation, if not in our own) in the long road of resistance to the brute forces of ignorance, prejudice, and ill will.
I did not take any notes, but relying on what I managed to scribble in my journal the next evening (and on the further vagaries of memory) I can perhaps give a fair impression, at least, of her discourse and message.
A central principle in her thought is the idea of “critical resistance,” which is also the name of one of various activist organizations that she has been involved in organizing. She points out that the term contains a double meaning, but perhaps most essentially the positive sense that lies hidden behind the more common and popular: critical in the sense, not of casting aspersions or putting down or tearing apart, of identifying all that is wrong in a particular argument or line of thinking, but in the sense of probing a subject and daring to ask the bold, the potentially illuminating, questions. Within an activist community, then, and in its relationship with the larger society within which we all live, it is not a matter of any single intellect laying down and establishing what needs to be addressed, but of a collective questioning of each other’s and our own ingrained assumptions. Thus and only thus do we position ourselves to recognize and raise the questions that might – over time, if not immediately – upend the false certitudes that stand in the way of social advancement.
By way of example, Davis speaks of the original focus of her activism: the freeing of political prisoners. But when she and her larger community probed deeper into the “prison-industrial complex,” as they began to call it (borrowing the phrase from an essay by a fellow activist, with its felicitous echo of the very-much-related military-industrial complex), they realized that we need to concern ourselves with the very notion of criminality, which those concerned primarily with keeping order attach to the most marginalized among us: Black and Brown, but also impoverished Whites; LGBTQ communities, in particular trans and other gender-nonconforming people (and none more than Black trans women, who have been so courageous in claiming their space and raising public awareness in the face of horrific violence); Muslims, of course, and the so-called “illegals” swarming along our Southern border.
Anyway, her ultimate goal is not prison reform but the total elimination of a brutal prison system, a complete and truly radical overhauling of what we call criminal justice, but which for so many Americans is criminal injustice. But how is that going to happen, she asks, if we don’t fully and critically address the underlying causes of this mass incarceration?
This points to the interrelatedness, the intersectionality (in the MALS program, in the context of the divided infrastructure of American education, we spoke of interdisciplinarity), of all the existential crises that face us. So that when we work for climate justice or immigration justice or the abolition of prisons – for the establishment of more reparative rather than punitive justice, in other words – we are all engaged in a common struggle. While we may not each be able to address all of those and the seemingly infinite number of other apparently separate issues, we should recognize that they all belong to a single holistic ecosystem, all of it woven together in a single thread, as it were. And by making those connections, by being mutually aware of the larger web of relationships that we all operate within, by somehow discovering how to coordinate those efforts (as Dr. King tried to do by making the radical correlation between the evils of racism, poverty, and war), if we ask the right questions and listen to the concerns others raise to us, we will find ourselves well-positioned to whatever new opportunities might arise.
For instance, Angela asks, who knew that the killing of Michael Brown and the famous pictures of police in riot gear facing off against unarmed Black protesters would give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which would become the catalyst for the next stage in racial activism? Likewise, as Davis points out, when she and her comrades were first working on the problems of incarceration and police brutality, none of them were thinking about problems of gender; so that we owe a great debt to the trans and gender-nonconforming communities that have broadened our frame of reference. The more we learn, she says, the more we realize how much we don’t know and that, individually, we never will know. Hence the desperate need to think and act within an ever expanding web of diverse communities, and to engage ourselves critically with the questions that we each raise and that we raise to each other.
Those, roughly sketched, are the main threads of Angela Davis’s thought on the question of democracy and civil engagement. But among other things – of particular note, perhaps, given the associations that led to her original notoriety – I am interested in what she had to say about the important contributions of the Communist Party to a number of social movements in the United States, and in particular to the Civil Rights (or Freedom) Movement. Rosa Parks, for example, whose political biography is portrayed as having effectively begun when she refused to move from a seat at the front of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, was actually engaged in the struggle for voting rights as early as the 1940s. But we seldom hear of this, Davis suggests, because their activities were supported by the Communists.
While I began this essay musing about my readings in women’s and African American literature, I have to confess that I have not actually read a single page of any of Angela Davis’s several books. But now that I am alerted to the deficit, I am bound to get around to it at some not-too-distant point in my literary-rhetorical wanderings. Perhaps a good place to start – if not with Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003); or Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (2015); or Feminist Family Values (1996); or Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974) – would be the book that she says she is currently writing on the convergence of jazz (in her down time she likes to go out to as many jazz clubs as possible, she says) and civil resistance.
The above essay is adapted, drawn, and edited from my journal entries of Feb. 1 and 6 and with the consultation of other sources for occasional details and confirmation of fact. I apologize for any slight inaccuracy that might remain.
As for my long absence (around four months, by now), it can be at least partially explained by a planned left-hip replacement and, some six weeks later, a second surgery precipitated by the inconvenient discovery of an infection. Through six further weeks, from home, of daily trips to the local hospital for antibiotic infusions via a PICC line in my right arm, I rested and read a lot, but did no writing of any note outside of my journal.
Anyway, with this contribution, I announce my return to public literary activity. With any luck it won’t be another four months before you hear from me again.