1960s iconic revolutionary talks paths to peace, her hip hop connections, and how jail imprisons all of society

Angela Davis: former member of the American Communist Party, former fugitive, former potential denizen of death row, and very current human rights activist. She’s far more than the photographic cliché that her iconic Afro has become. To millions, the author-intellectual Davis is a living hero from an era in which too many firebrands were extinguished all-too violently.

She was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, and took her parents’ social justice activism to her marrow. When she was a teenager she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A brilliant young student, she travelled at age 16 to Germany where she studied at the Frankfurt School under the guidance of German philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno. While studying at the Sorbonne in 1963, Davis received word that two of her friends had been murdered. Euro-American terrorists had butchered her friends Rosamond Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, two of four African American girl victims at the Birmingham church bombing. Davis described them as being like sisters to her.

Upon her return to the US, Davis graduated with her B.A. magna cum laude. Upon earning her Master’s Degree, Davis began teaching in California’s public university system, where she earned the wrath of then-governor Ronald Reagan for her association with the revolutionary Black Panther Party and her membership in the Communist Party; Reagan’s government attempted to have her fired. But that case of political repression disguised as employment harassment would soon prove to be the least of her problems.

Davis was linked romantically to George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, hard-time prisoner and “Field Marshall” for the BPP. In 1970, Jonathan, Jackson’s younger brother, attempted to free his brother from a Marin County courthouse; his bungled operation led to his own death, and the deaths of three other African Americans and a Euro-American judge. Accused of having supplied weapons to Jonathan Jackson, Davis became a fugitive, and at age 26 became the third woman in US history to be placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.

On the run for weeks, living in and out of safe houses until she was finally caught and imprisoned awaiting trial, Davis conducted a first-hand analysis of the interior of what she would later call the US “prison-industrial complex.” A black star on Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s enemy list, Davis faced execution by toxic gas; having become an international cause celebre, Davis eventually won acquittal and her own freedom, but refused to walk away from the horrors she’d seen behind bars for the last (and nearly the final) sixteen months of her life.

As arguably the lead advocate for prisoner rights in the United States, Davis entered electoral politics as the US Communist Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1980 and 1984, and published books on a variety of topics, including Women, Race & Class; Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday; Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire; and her classic autobiography. Today as Professor Emerita, she teaches in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, inside the very state system Reagan swore would never employ her again. 

She continues to lecture widely, and is a mainstay on the modern enemies-lists of American arch-conservatives.
Angela Davis spoke with me by telephone from her home in San Francisco in March 2006, prior to her appearance at the University of Alberta Students’ Union Revolutionary Speakers’ Series in Edmonton. We spoke about many topics, including:

  • The struggle to overcome racism inside the peace and social justice movement
  • The political significance of the Canadian activist Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam Today
  • The reasons for the affection by many African Americans for former US president Bill Clinton
  • Angela Davis’s early 1990s connection with rap star Ice Cube and her perspective on hip hop, including her favourite rappers
  • The archetypal, historical, literary, and political significance of the prison industrial complex, and the elimination of the prison programmes that promote rehabilitation
  • How the political value of dehumanizing prisoners reflects the political propaganda around anyone deemed to be a “terrorist”

We began by discussing solutions to the problems facing us right now. Remember that Davis spoke with me during the second term of US president George W. Bush.

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