I was not anxious to write this book. Writing an autobiography at my age seemed presumptuous. Moreover, I felt that to write about my life, what I did, what I thought and what happened to me would require a posture of difference, an assumption that I was unlike other women–other Black women–and therefore needed to explain myself. I felt that such a book might end up obscuring the most essential fact: the forces that have made my life what it is are the very same forces that have shaped and misshaped the lives of millions of my people.
When I signed up for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge, I knew immediately that I was going to read Angela Davis’s autobiography.
I feel like I can’t even talk about this book without talking about why I wanted to read it. So, a brief history.
I have seen this book practically my whole life because my mother owns it. (It has a slightly different cover than the picture in this post.) I never read it.
In college, I read Assata: An Autobiography, and I absolutely loved it. LOVED IT. I was enthralled by her, wanted to know more about the Black Panthers. So when my professor said he was going to teach a class on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, I signed up. [The Wikipedia page may be more accessible.] And I read a host of literature by and about the Panthers. We read Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown and George Jackson. We read about Eldridge Cleaver and Li’l Bobby Hutton and the Soledad Brothers. (My favorite book we read that semester was David Hilliard’s This Side of Glory. I wrote a paper on it.) I saw the movie. Still, I didn’t read her book. (It wasn’t on the list.)
Angela Davis came to speak at Iowa State University when I was a student there. I went; I was enthralled by her words. She is an eloquent speaker. Still, I didn’t read her book.
When I went to Oakland this summer, I considered going on the tour. I didn’t go for boring financial and time reasons. And still, I didn’t read Angela Davis’s book.
Until the challenge came, and I knew there was no excuse not to anymore. In fact, I was going to make it my first non-fiction read for the challenge. So when I went to my parents’ house for Christmas, I asked my mom if I could read her copy, and she told me yes, and I started it the day after Christmas.
And finished it a month later.
I was kind of surprised by how long it took me to read the book. It’s well-written to be sure, and I have read these types of autobiographies before (see above), but for some reason I couldn’t quite engage with the book. Then I figured out what it was. The last memoir I read was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and the two books are vastly different in style. For one, Angelou’s book reads like a novel. There’s dialogue and scene building and characters. Not so with Davis. And that’s when I realized I was reading the book wrong.
Romanticizing the plight of oppressed people is dangerous and misleading.
This is an autobiography, but it’s intention is not to describe people and places. It’s not even to provide a clear snapshot of Davis’s transformation into a revolutionary leader. Her assumption is that the reader understands all of that (probably because it was first published in 1974, on the heels of the Black Liberation Movement). When I guide my students in their reading, I always tell them they should be able to answer one question clearly at the end of a selection: “What am I supposed to do, think, or feel after reading this?” I know what I wanted to think and feel when I was reading. But what I actually wound up realizing is that this is the chronicle of the events that led to Davis being on the FBI hit list. It’s to show what she was actually doing and involved in while the charges were being trumped up against her. It’s also to show the conditions of prisons and prisoners, the importance of communication between prisoners and those outside, the reasons we shouldn’t isolate their experiences from our own. It’s to show the systematic oppression of blacks and women and black women.
Prisoners–particularly Black prisoners–were beginning to think about how they got there–what forced them into prison. They were beginning to understand the nature of racism and class bias. They were beginning to recognize that regardless of the specific details of their individual cases, most of them were in prison because they were Black, Brown, and poor.
When I finished the book, I didn’t feel like I knew Angela Davis the person or the adolescent, the way I felt I knew Marguerite after reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or even Harriet Jacobs after reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Frederick Douglass or David Hilliard.
But I do understand Angela Davis as an intellectual and a fighter. I understand her approach to activism, the fact that she won’t tolerate bullshit from the people she works with or the people who sought to silence her. I also understand that there are benefits to being educated, to being a part of the intelligentsia, and to knowing and understanding our rights.
This is, in actuality, her defense. She talks about her trial and that she and her legal team had set up a fantastic defense, intended to last days or weeks. But it was condensed to three or so days once it became clear that the prosecution had nothing on her. But the thought and care put into the autobiography shows what she put into her opening and closing statements of her trial. This is the narrative to support her defense, not the narrative, necessarily, of her life. It’s her story in her words and it paints a complete picture of the woman who stood trial, why she stood trial, and how she accounted for her time before and during her trial.
Jails are thoughtless places. […] The void created by this absence of thought is filled by rules and…fear.
When I saw Angela Davis speak at ISU, she spoke again of the importance of connections in prison. She spoke about the importance of narratives, and how important it is for the voice of the people to be heard. She talked about how the media shapes our responses and our forgetfulness. All things addressed in her autobiography.
The tremendous energy of the movement which had so swiftly transformed my jail situation was energy my sisters and brothers had a more than equal right to. I tried to assuage some of my pain by establishing contact with sisters and brothers in prisons all over the country. […] I answered letter after letter from prisoners…More than ever before I felt a need to cement my links to every other prisoner. My very existence, it seemed, was dependent on my ability to reach out to them. I decided then and there that if I was ever free, I would use my life to uphold the cause of my sisters and brothers behind walls.
I’m glad I got over my assumptions of what I thought the book should be and appreciated for what it is. It’s a political document, not a story narrative. It’s Angela Davis speaking in her own voice and constructing her own narrative and making sure her story isn’t forgotten. But it’s also a call to not let other people’s stories be forgotten. It’s a call to keep fighting for the rights of those who maybe can’t speak for themselves, especially political prisoners. It’s a call for a continuing social justice movement.
What had just unfolded was incontrovertible proof of the power of the people.
Women Unbound Challenge: 1/8; POC Challenge: 1/15
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