When you read an account of how someone describes the highs and lows of their existence in their early 20s it tells a lot about their character. Most people are trapped in the pursuit of selfish interests, a good job, obtaining good housing and a lover to share their time with. There is nothing wrong per se with such pursuits, however often there is no balance and actions to promote community development is ignored.
Angela Davis: An Autobiography is the inverse of this typical selfish pursuit of happiness, one informed by an insightful political and philosophical recognition that as long as historically repressed and exploited communities in the U.S. were politically and economically marginalized that she, as a black woman, would always be a second class citizen if not de jure but de facto. The personal narrative that frames it makes this book something beyond a jeremiad against American Society. Instead she describes how her hopes, dreams, and aspirations along with most others with dark skins were unable to follow through on them due to the oppressive ignorance of numerous Whites.
For many years Angela Davis studied under the German Marxist Philosopher Herbert Marcuse in Europe and in California. Distinguishing herself as a serious scholar in her field, she obtained entry into prestigious study abroad programs that placed her in the center of radical student life in Europe – an important connection for subsequent speaking engagement in support of legal defense fees – while also studying historical materialism. Her engagement with historical materialism, or the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, combined with her desire for a practical outlet for her education besides being a professor is what drew her to become a member of the Communist Party USA.
Davis likes to conclude some of her anecdotes with a “lesson learned” message advocating steps to increase political awareness, make cadres function better, etc. There’s not enough of them where it reads like anecdotes mixed with catechism, but they do open up what I thought was a number of ambiguities and contradictions. In her description of working with SNCC and other parties, for instance, she claims that certain Black Nationalist groups are overly fixated upon the nationalist question, are unduly critical of socialism as a “white man’s thing” and the need for working with like-minded people. However these criticisms are said in such passing that they offer little in the way of political education to those uninitiated in the debates surrounding these and other topics.
One of the recurrent narrative elements of all of the Black Panthers stories is their arrest by police and being charged with crimes that courts of law subsequently are determine to not have been committed by them. Huey, Assata, the Panther 21, many others. Escaping with years of their lives in jails makes them a lucky one. George Jackson, for example, was killed while serving time. The prison guards staged a riot and shot him down. His death greatly affected Angela. They had formed a romantic relationship through their letters. While not able to make their affections physical, I found the connection evident from reading his letters mentioning her and her reactions here to be very compelling.
Marxist Paul Saba published a highly critical review of the autobiography in the first issue of Class Struggle magazine, stating that class which Davis praises the most and adopts is that of “…the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, with firm reliance, not on the working class, but on the liberals, the intellectuals, lawyers and professors. This is combined with the condemnation of any movements among the people which base themselves on class struggle rather than the capitulation of the revisionists.” Considering the large amount of the book which is devoted to praising legal professionals and uncritically describing her academic studies with Herbert Marcuse, that the CPUSA has largely foregone working class and African-American struggles I think that this is a fair assessment. I think the criticism is, however, unduly harsh. While I’d agree to an extent with Saba’s claim that there’s a fair degree of distance between her and African-Americans generally – a result of her education and class privilege stemming from her profession – I think the book does great service to showing the traps and barriers faced by radical activists. One can certainly think that more should be done while still respecting the effort. Rather than performing the same old song and dance about the correctness of one’s foundation of political action, as Saba does, in order to claim theoretical superiority – I think it’s better to praise the exemplary courage and determination to better the world despite the risks inherent to one’s life and liberty. This perspective, critical but also respectful, seems to me to be on display in Shepard Fairey’s poster below.
Final note: Those preferring to read the book digitally can find a free copy here.