Angela Yvonne Davis was born in 1944 in a middle-class neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama, nicknamed Dynamite Hill because the Ku Klux Klan regularly bombed the homes of African Americans who lived there. As a young woman, she had a sort of divided existence. In Birmingham, where her father, Frank, owned a petrol station and her mother, Sallye, was a teacher, black people had to sit in the back of the bus. In New York, where Davis lived with a white family for a time (as part of a project to give black children in the south a better education), she attended an integrated high school, and African Americans could sit wherever they wanted.
It was at Elisabeth Irwin High School that Davis learned about socialism in history class and joined a group of young communists. The Communist Manifesto, she explains in An autobiography (first published in 1974 and now reissued with a new introduction), was a revelation. “Like an expert surgeon, this document cut the cataracts out of my eyes… Once the emancipation of the proletariat became a reality, the foundations were laid for the emancipation of all oppressed groups.”
In 1972, then 28-year-old Davis – a philosopher, scholar, activist, supporter of the Marxist Black Panthers – was found not guilty on three counts (murder, kidnapping and conspiracy) after a gun she owned was used in a shooting in which four people died. She had spent 16 months in pre-trial detention.
An autobiography centers on the two months she spent on the run (from the FBI’s “most wanted” posters) as well as her arrest, imprisonment and trial – experiences that shaped her into an anti-racist radical , feminist and prison abolitionist. His book is captivating; as fresh and relevant today as it was almost 50 years ago. The words ignite the page with humor, anger and eloquence. Returning to prison after a court appearance, she wrote: “Darkness rested on me like a coffin lid.
In the introduction, Davis writes that she believed the end of capitalism would come during her lifetime. She dismisses this now as “political naivety”. Today, she’s professor emeritus of the history of consciousness and women’s studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and says her optimism about the prospects for radical change has been bolstered by movements like Black Lives Matter and calls for the defunding of the police to be withdrawn.
Davis is also one of four authors – including his partner, Gina Dent – of Abolition. Feminism. Now., which argues that in the United States (and the United Kingdom) “race, gender, social class and sexuality are more important determinants of who goes to prison than simply committing a crime”. Their goal, they state, “as a joyous starting point,” is to build “a truly intersectional, internationalist and abolitionist feminism.” They ask us to envision a system in which, instead of pouring billions into jailing people – often the poorest, the most traumatized, many of whom suffer from mental health issues and/or addictions – that money is invested in education, health, housing, decent benefits, training and jobs. Civic first aid, if you will, applying the anti-criminal mantra: “First, do no harm”.
The book refers to massive private prisons, mostly in rural areas of the United States, which provide both local jobs and large returns for shareholders; vested interests in maintaining a prison society. Abolition. Feminism. Now. details how, in 2018, 30% of all surveillance devices such as beacons were produced by a single company, GEO Group, which also operates the largest number of private prisons. Meanwhile, politicians shamelessly waged “the war on drugs”, introducing life imprisonment after three strikes. The book claims that in the United States there are more black men behind bars than there were slaves in 1850 – “a contemporary system of racial control”.
In his autobiography, Davis expresses his discomfort with the idea of becoming an international political celebrity – his face, with its characteristic halo of hair, on T-shirts: “My image was a substitute for the work that the masses are able to do. in terms of changing the world. In 1972, on regaining her freedom, she wrote: “Work. To struggle against. The confrontation stretched out before us like a road strewn with rocks. Half a century later, it’s a road she still walks on.
An autobiography by Angela Y Davis is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Y Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R Meiners and Beth E Richie is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply