Angela Davis is a radical political activist, philosopher, scholar, and author. She was hugely influential in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as a leader of the Communist Party USA and a member of the Black Panther Party. Since today is her birthday (she turns 72!), Kristen Cochrane reminds us why she’s such a bad bitch.
Whatever your political affiliations are, it is awkward to talk about race. This can explain why people who mean well often say “I just don’t see race!” to the ire of people of color and their allies. When we “don’t see race,” it implies that we don’t see that someone is more likely to be subjected to physical and symbolic violence. It implies that we don’t acknowledge older and recent histories that make Black people and people of color work twice as hard to get the same opportunities as white people. It’s also awkward because white people who care about critical race issues get accused of contributing to “reverse-racism” by people who “just want an egalitarian society” but aren’t willing to put in the work (lol). For these reasons, we at Slutever are acknowledging the whitewashing of feminism by celebrating women of color who deserve to be celebrated for their bravery and inquiry into subjects that can be, well, dangerous to look into.
On that note, here are seven reasons why Angela Davis rules.
Angela Davis at a Black Panther Rally in DeFremery Park, West Oakland.
1. She is among a history of Black women who have fought for women’s liberation and feminist groups to acknowledge that Black and working-class women face more difficulty than white, middle-class, and upper-class women.
Although well-meaning for the most part, the second-wave of feminism in the 1970s was mostly white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender (those who identify with the sex they are born with), and obviously that this was exclusionary. These women were asking for the right to work, while women of color and working-class women were saying, “wait, we are already working?” Angela Davis is among a history of women of color—like Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, for example—who let people know that not all women face the same kinds of oppression. Since then, third-wave feminism and our current moment of feminism have tried to remedy it, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
2. She thinks that philosophers should not sit in the Ivory Tower.
Her academic teaching career began in 1969 at the University of California, Los Angeles. Ronald Reagan, California’s Governor General at the time, tried to fire her before she taught her first class, and he ultimately succeeded. At the time, she was also a member of the US Communist Party and the Black Panther Party, but prestigious universities like Princeton University and Swarthmore College still wanted her. “I decided to teach because I think that any person who studies philosophy has to be involved actively,” she told Stuart Jeffries at The Guardian in 2014. And Davis was involved actively, from high school until today—now, as a 71-year-old, she still publicly lectures on critical race issues and the Prison Industrial Complex, amongst other urgent social justice and human rights concerns. Today, she is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness Department.
3. She became acquainted with the eminent 20th century social theorist Herbert Marcuse, who Davis said inspired her mix of theoretical inquiry and on-the-ground activism.
Marcuse, who wrote seminal books like Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1965), didn’t just sit at his typewriter navel-gazing on champagne socialism. Angela Davis was a student at the University of California, San Diego while Marcuse was a professor there, during which she led a student demonstration that sought to name a new building “Lumumba Zapata,” after both a Congo revolutionary named Patrice Lumumba and a Mexican revolutionary named Emiliano Zapata. Marcuse was the first person to walk into the building and occupy it, and students followed him. Davis said that Marcuse taught her “that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary.”
Angela Davis challenging the assumptions of the interviewer during her time in jail, from the documentary film The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011).
4. She spoke critically of the killing of Black high school student Trayvon Martin in 2012 by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman.
Since Davis’ methods stem from bringing history to contemporary thinking, she said that the murder of Trayvon Martin reminded her of “those who were part of the slave patrols during the slave era.” Professor Victor E. Kappeler writes that “in 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.” So it’s not inflammatory or alarmist for Davis to compare a de facto racially segregated society to American slave patrol systems, especially when it parallels are this significant.
5. She went to jail and lived to talk about it.
Black women are often killed or found dead in jail under suspicious circumstances. Luckily, Angela Davis survived the 22 months in a maximum-security jail after being charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy charges. She was 28-years-old when she was released after a 13 week trial, after an all-white jury decided that she was not guilty. Her charges stemmed from the belief that she had supplied Jonathan Jackson with firearms which he then used to kidnap Superior Court judge, Harold Haley. Jackson had kidnapped Haley to use as negotiation for the release of the Soledad Brothers, three Black inmates who were charged with killing a white prison guard to avenge the deaths of three Black inmates who had been killed by another prison guard.
A poster advocating for the release of Davis from a maximum-security prison.
6. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the worst places to live during the Jim Crow laws.
The name Jim Crow was a character name of a white man who would wear blackface in minstrel shows in the 1800s. During Jim Crow laws, Black and white people were separated in the Southern United States in social and educational institutions, among others. However, it wasn’t just the South who was engaging in this type of discrimination. As historian Richard Rothstein cogently explained to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, the U.S. government fundamentally created ghettos in the Northern United States. Today, Angela Davis speaks out against what has been called the New Jim Crow laws, where people of color are still more likely to face discrimination, violence, and incarceration in for-profit prisons.
7. She is an outspoken vegan.
In an attempt to shatter the anthropocentrism of most societies (a.k.a. that human beings are more important and valuable than animals, plants, and the earth), Davis has spoken on animal welfare and how food production involves the suffering of animals, who also deserve to be liberated. “I usually don’t mention that I’m vegan but that has evolved,” she said. “I think it’s the right moment to talk about it because it is part of a revolutionary perspective – how can we not only discover more compassionate relations with human beings but how can we develop compassionate relations with the other creatures with whom we share this planet, and that would mean challenging the whole capitalist industrial form of food production.”
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, “Happy Birthday Simone de Beauvoir,” HERE :)