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“Angela Davis” is a name that brings to mind fierce images of one bad sista-girl. One with a killer Afro and membership in the Black Panther Political Party. Riling up visions of political rebellion, it reminds us of 1969, when the statuesque not-takin’-nothin’-off-nobody beauty was fired from her teaching position at UCLA because she was a member of the Communist Party. Then there’s the infamous FBI wanted poster.
But there is far more to Davis’ story than fairy-tale notions of love, the law, and liberation. Today, the 53-year-old is a professor in the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz and holds the University of California Presidential Chair in African-American and Feminist Studies.
However tempting it may be to romanticize her lifeshe’s the black heroine who spent 16 months in prison for her political beliefs, the woman who fell in love with legendary Soledad Brother George JacksonDavis shuns such mythmaking. She isn’t much bothered by the fact that many young people know little about her.
“I’m not concerned with people knowing who I am. That isn’t what is important to me,” she explains with an almost regal air. “I want young people to remember the women’s struggle, that women played a huge part in the movements of the ’60s and ’70s.”
Women’s rights and issues are still major concerns to Davis, and her dedication to such causes brings her to town Friday for SisterSpace and Books’ inaugural “African-American Women Writer’s Conference.” The black-owned U Street bookstore plays host to squadrons of African-American women seeking out not only black literature but the solace of one another’s company at frequent lectures and meetings. Davis is “honored to have been invited” to the conference, and is extremely impressed by what the store’s owners have made of it. “It’s not only a literary center but a community center,” she says. “SisterSpace is a unique institutiona space for the exchanging of ideas.”
While unfazed by her lack of stature among young blacks, Davis does understand that there is indeed a disconnection between the black radicals of her generation and young black activists today. “Each generation has to carry forth their own movement,” she says. “You mustn’t wait for things to occur; you have to make things happen.” However, Davis is proud of the student activism she sees taking place on university campuses such as hers. “It’s going on, but the media does not publicize it,” she says.
Davis’ days as a student activist brought her more than enough grief, but in addition to being harassed for her political beliefs, in 1970 she was arrested under false charges by the FBI, when guns used in a kidnappinga plot devised by Jackson’s teenage brother attempted to exchange hostages for the release of the Soledad Brotherswere found registered in her name.
Davis says her time in prison was “enlightening. [Black people] are looked at as dispensable. We will get put in jail for reasons much more simple than those that a middle-class white person might be. Many black people have a connection with someone in prison, but we keep silent about it. It’s not a subject of daily conversation. In the meantime, some of the most talented and creative of our people in our country are being locked up. I think this is an expression of new racism. Prisons don’t rehabilitate. If individuals were not criminals going in, they are when they leave.”
Davis successfully endured her incarceration, but admits it wasn’t due solely to her own strength. “I think because I had a connection with the movementI had people rallying for me. You see, I was a political prisoner, not a criminal. I never got caught up in that.”
While Davis may have appeared the stoic martyr, fear did indeed become a factor during her imprisonment. She recalls her anxiety with a knowing chuckle: “Absolutely…I was scared, but you can’t let the fear overwhelm you. If you let it take over, that’s it.”
In Davis’ self-titled 1972 autobiography, she relates her contempt toward the penal system: “Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zooobedient to our keepers but dangerous to each other….Consequently, two layers of existence can be encountered within almost every jail or prison. The first layer consists of the routines and behavior prescribed by the governing penal hierarchy. The second layer is the prisoner culture itself. The rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives in order to shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits.”
Today, Davis is committed to the struggle of imprisoned women. She feels there is sufficient emphasis placed upon incarcerated men and is vigilant in her effort to bring women’s needs to light. “The rate of arrest and conviction is increasing among women,” she explains. Davis has made herself a staunch supporter in the fight for the rights of female prisoners. In the last few years, she has become active in both the California Coalition of Women in Prison and Legal Services for Prisoners With Children. In 1993, she conducted a series of interviews with San Francisco County Jail inmates to uncover their feelings on possible effective rehabilitation methods in an environment where rehabilitation is now virtually nonexistent.
Davis is still as infuriated with American racism as she was 30 years ago, but notes that the situation today is more subtle than it was during the in-your-face ’60s. When she was growing up in Birmingham, Ala., it was a morbidly anticipated occurrence for homes of black people to be blown up by whites who didn’t want them around. Now, Davis feels, racism has taken a new posture, manifesting itself economically, via a lack of jobs and lower pay for blacks. And this racism is having the most profound effect on young black men.
“There is a reason why things [among young black men] have gotten so out of hand, a reason why drugs permeate our communities. Not having jobs, not being able to find them, leaves them no other alternative than to go to the drug economy. There is a reason why they can’t find jobs. We have to look at the bigger picture,” Davis insists.
Davis feels the passivity of black leadership is also a contributing factor. “Do we have black leaders?” she asks. “The great leaders of our time evolved from some kind of movement. The individuals in prominent positions today are more…spokespersons. There is no true leadership.”
Davis argues that the cause has never really changed, that just because the romance has dwindled and racism has become woven into the fabric of the system, there is no excuse for giving up the fight.CP