From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Review: Angela Davis Revises Herself. She’s Never Mattered More
Date January 28, 2022 1:00 AM
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[ Angela Davis sketches out her life since the original
publication 50 years ago, then as an activist and academic,
self-critically assesses the book’s limitations and, most important,
links its long-ago events to the recent Black Lives Matter protest]
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Andy Lewis
January 17, 2022
Los Angeles Times
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_ Angela Davis sketches out her life since the original publication
50 years ago, then as an activist and academic, self-critically
assesses the book’s limitations and, most important, links its
long-ago events to the recent Black Lives Matter protest _

Angela Davis’s new introduction to a fresh edition of her 1974
autobiography amplifies its relevance in 2022., photo credit: Angela


Twenty-eight is young to write a memoir. Nearly 50 years on is a long
time for a memoir to be reprinted. In a new edition of the classic
“Angela Davis: An Autobiography,” readers get something of a
unicorn: A period account of living through the late ’60s and early
’70s that still feels vital and relevant two decades into the 21st

Angela Davis: An Autobiography
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By Angela Davis

Haymarket Books; 420 pages

January 18, 2022

Hardcover:  $28.95 ($23.16 20% off - direct from publlisher);

E-book:     $28.95 ($17.37 40% off - direct from publlisher)

ISBN: 9781642595680;  ISBN: 9781642596656

Haymarket Books
First published in 1974, when Davis
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at the height of her initial fame, this update includes the original
memoir, the perfunctory introduction to the 1988 second edition
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yet another, longer intro written for this version. The new preface
sketches out Davis’ life since then as an activist and academic,
self-critically assesses the book’s limitations and, most important,
links its long-ago events to the recent Black Lives Matter
[[link removed]] protests
as a signpost for today's activists.

For many readers younger than 50, the name Angela Davis probably
registers vaguely, but it is worth remembering who she was, because
she has something to say to us today.

It is hard now to convey what a sensation Davis was in the early
1970s. Born in 1944 and raised in Birmingham, Ala. (where she knew the
four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
[[link removed]] in
1963), she finished high school at the integrated Elisabeth Irwin
School in New York, graduated from Brandeis and earned a PhD in
philosophy from Berlin's Humboldt University. She first became well
known in 1969, when at the instigation of California’s
then-governor, Ronald Reagan
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UCLA fired Davis, then a lecturer in the philosophy department, for
being a member of the Communist Party. When a court ruled that that
was illegal, the university fired her again on the grounds that
she’d used inflammatory language.

But her greatest notoriety came the following year. In 1970, Jonathan
[[link removed]] took
five hostages in the Marin County courthouse in an attempt to free his
brother, one of three inmates, known as the Soledad Brothers, charged
in the death of a guard at the California prison. In the ensuing
melee, four people were killed, including Jackson and a judge. Davis,
who led the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, had purchased the guns
used in the escape attempt. Authorities charged her with murder,
kidnapping and conspiracy. (She maintained that Jackson had taken the
guns without her knowledge.) Davis went underground but was captured a
couple months later. Awaiting trial, she was held for 14 months
without bail.

The case made her a cause célèbre. “Free Angela Davis" became a
rallying cry for the young on the left. Protests were held in support.
A plane hijacker made her release one of his demands. The Rolling
Stones and John and Yoko wrote songs about her.

In early 1972, Davis' lawyers managed to get her released on bail. In
June, she was acquitted of all charges, with the jury finding that she
was not at all involved in the courthouse ambush. Davis went on an
international speaking tour and became involved in numerous political
causes; her autobiography was published in 1974.

As Davis herself notes in the new edition, the book is more a
political coming-of-age story than a traditional memoir. Indeed, she
initially declined the offer to write it, not wanting "to contribute
to the already widespread tendency to personalize and individualize
history.” But her editor — Toni Morrison
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by the way — convinced her of the value of doing a political memoir.
Even more than that, though, the book is better seen as falling in the
long tradition of prison diaries.

Prison was a formative experience for Davis. She opens with a long
section on her flight underground, her capture and her first months
behind bars before doubling back to her early years and then returning
to her trial and prison time. It is in these sections that the book
really comes alive. There’s an immediacy to her writing, her
descriptions of life behind bars tactile and engrossing.

Davis movingly recalls seeing a prisoner going into labor alone in a
hallway and details the untreated or overmedicated psychological
problems of inmates. She vividly captures the inhumane conditions and
the prison culture of banding together into "families" for mutual

Her descriptions of homosexual relations behind the prison walls are
cringeworthy to contemporary ears. Davis acknowledges in the new
introduction that the way she "uncritically embraced homophobic
premises" sticks out like a sore thumb. (Ditto with her inchoate
feminism, which she fleshes out substantially now). She should be
applauded for leaving in the old material, especially at a time of
quick flareups over old work by everyone from Dr. Seuss
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fortunately, she is still around to place them in context and evolved
(or savvy) enough to own up to early blind spots.

Yet in her critique of the carceral system, Davis has always been far
ahead of the curve. The era of harsh and punitive incarceration that
was nascent when she was in prison and that peaked in the ’90s
appears to be coming to an end, and in recent years, Davis' views
have become mainstream
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She should be an inspiration for today's prison reformers for the ways
she both humanizes the incarcerated and embeds their experience within
the larger structural inequalities of American society.

The middle chapters are ... fine. They are at their best when they are
personal and specific. The sections on growing up in the South during
the early civil rights movement, on being one of the only Black women
at college and on her protesting in the late ’60s are great. It is
when she describes her intellectual journey that the book falls flat.
Partly it comes down to changing times — the eclipse of Communism,
though it survives as a straw man
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and partly it’s a young ideologue’s tendency to get mired in
political abstractions.

Yet, in practice, Davis' views on racism and political activism remain
acutely relevant. As she observes in the intro, the book "pivots
around state violence: the violence of the police, the violence of
jails and prisons and the complicated ways these forms of violence
infuse the communities they target." In the wake of Trayvon Martin
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this is an important observation. There's a tendency to see these
deaths as the result of individual wrongdoing, rather than the product
of bad laws and flawed policing. Davis' story and the long arc that
connects 1972 to 2022 are a stark reminder of how deeply embedded
these problems are in American life.

"My contribution, like the work of others who have attempted to
narrate aspects of the anti-racist struggle, will hopefully help us
better understand the world today," Davis writes now. “Angela Davis:
An Autobiography” continues to fulfill that goal as the rare book
that even almost 50 years later feels timely and relevant. Maybe too
relevant, considering how little has changed in the interim.

_[Andy Lewis is the author of “The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable
Journey of the Civil Rights Generation
[[link removed]],”
among other books.]_

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