Angela Yvonne Davis was born, in 1944, into a middle-class neighbourhood of Birmingham, Alabama, that was nicknamed Dynamite Hill because the Ku Klux Klan regularly bombed the homes of the African Americans who lived there. As a young woman she had something of a split existence. In Birmingham, where her father, Frank, owned a service station and her mother, Sallye, was a teacher, Black people were expected to sit at the back of the bus. In New York, where Davis lived with a white family for a while (as part of a project to give Black children from the south a better education), she attended an integrated high school and African Americans could sit where they liked.
It was at Elisabeth Irwin high school that Davis was taught about socialism in history classes and joined a communist youth group. 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 away cataracts from my eyes… Once the emancipation of the proletariat became a reality, the foundation was laid for the emancipation of all oppressed groups.”
In 1972, the then 28-year-old Davis – 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 shootout in which four people died. She had spent 16 months on remand.
An Autobiography is centred on the two months she spent on the run (gracing the FBI’s “most wanted” posters) along with her subsequent arrest, imprisonment and trial – experiences that moulded her into an anti-racist, feminist, prison-abolitionist radical. Her book is riveting; as fresh and relevant today as it was almost 50 years ago. The words fire off the page with humour, anger and eloquence. Going back to prison after a court appearance, she writes: “Darkness lay on me like a coffin lid.”
In the introduction, Davis writes that she believed the end of capitalism would come in her lifetime. She dismisses this now as “political naivete”. Today she is a professor emerita of history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California Santa Cruz and contends that her optimism about the prospects for radical change has been boosted by movements like Black Lives Matter and demands to defund the police.
Davis is also one of four authors – including her partner, Gina Dent – of Abolition. Feminism. Now., which argues that in the US (and UK) “race, gender, class, sexuality are more important determinants of who goes to prison than the simple commission of a crime”. Their aim, they state, “as a joyful starting point”, is to build “a truly intersectional, internationalist, abolitionist feminism”. They ask us to consider a system in which, instead of pouring billions into imprisoning people – often the poorest, most traumatised, many struggling with mental health issues and/or addiction – that money is invested in education, health, housing, decent benefits, training and jobs. Civic first aid, if you will, applying the anti-penal mantra: “First, do no harm.”
The book refers to the gigantic private jails, mainly in rural areas of the US, that provide both local jobs and significant returns for shareholders; vested interests in maintaining a carceral society. Abolition. Feminism. Now. details how, in 2018, 30% of all monitoring devices such as tags were produced by one company, GEO Group, which also operates the largest number of private prisons. Meanwhile politicians have shamelessly waged “the war on drugs”, introducing prison for life after three strikes. The book claims that in the US there are more Black men behind bars than were enslaved in 1850 – “a contemporary system of racial control” .
In her autobiography, Davis expresses her unease at becoming an international political celebrity – her face, with its signature halo of hair, on T-shirts: “My image was a stand-in for the work that masses are able to do in terms of changing the world.” In 1972, on regaining her freedom, she wrote: “Work. Struggle. Confrontation lay before us like a rock-strewn road.” Half a century later, it’s a road on which she still walks.
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