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Angela Davis established an early reputation as a scholar who linked race, class, and gender with activism. She became nationally known in 1970 when, after she was indicted for owning guns used in a courtroom shootout in California, she went underground. After a two-month search, the FBI arrested her in New York City. In those politically turbulent years, Davis became a highly visible prisoner, a symbol as an African American woman fighting for justice in prisons, and her imprisonment was protested across the nation and elsewhere in the world. She was acquitted of all charges in 1972.
Angela Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 24, 1944; her father was a gas station owner, her mother a schoolteacher. Birmingham was a deeply racist city, referred to as Bombingham in the 1960s because of the many bombings of African American homes, businesses, and churches, but nevertheless even in the 1950s her mother and grandmother took her to protests. She attended segregated schools until high school, when she received a scholarship that allowed her to attend a private school in New York City. That experience provided further support for her developing political views, as she joined a socialist club and interacted with teachers with radical views. After high school she went to Brandeis University and attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she developed a deeper understanding of political oppression in Algeria, which was under French control at the time, and began a political dialogue with Algerian students protesting French colonialism. While at Brandeis she studied with Herbert Marcuse, a radical philosopher. She graduated with honors from Brandeis with a major in French and then went to West Germany to study philosophy with Theodor Adorno, another radical intellectual. She went to Los Angeles in 1967 and began working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the Communist Party of the United States. She earned her master’s degree in philosophy in 1969 after completing all requirements for her doctorate except the dissertation and began teaching philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
In 1970, UCLA fired Davis because of her membership in the Communist Party, but she succeeded in convincing the courts to reinstate her. Soon thereafter she began work on the “Soledad Brothers” cause on behalf of inmates at California’s Soledad prison, which led to her indictment for gun ownership, her decision to go underground, and the FBI labeling her as a most wanted criminal. She returned to Germany to earn her doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and she taught at Stanford University, the Claremont Colleges, the California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Art Institute, and eventually at San Francisco State University from 1979 to 1991. In 1980 and 1984 she ran for vice president for the Communist Party USA. In 1991 she became a faculty member at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and from 1995 to 1997, she held the prestigious appointment of University of California Presidential Chair. She continues to be a tenured full professor in the History of Consciousness program at the university.
Her contributions to political philosophy result from her persistent identification of resistance among groups too commonly assumed to be compliant with authority, such as African American women. She uses the work of Michel Foucault to analyze the intricacies of race and punishment in the United States and how incarceration has colonized many groups such as Native Americans forced onto reservations, acts that reaffirm white norms of not only behavior but also such apparent ideals as freedom. She argues that we should imagine and act toward a social order without prisons and de-incarceration, rather than having a social order that forces large numbers of people, including groups suffering from racism, to spend time in prison. She also argues that privatization of prisons is directly linked to racial, gender, and class oppression, providing profit for corporations while reifying the identity of people of color and the lower classes as problematic.
In her work both as a professor and as a political activist, Angela Davis has articulated the complex relationships among race, class, and gender that result in what she sees as pervasive elements of oppression. Her experience as a political prisoner, which captured international attention, combines with her scholarly work to create an intersection of personal commitment and scholarship, evidencing forms of feminism intertwined with race, ethnicity, and class in an international context. She continues her deep interest in the prison system and the difficult lives of inmates in increasingly privatized prisons in the United States.
- Aptheker, Bettina. 1999. The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Davis, Angela Y. 1974. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: Random House.
- Davis, Angela Y. 2005. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, Interviews with Angela Y. Davis. New York: Seven Stories Press.
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