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date: 18 February 2019

Angela Y. Davis and Communication Studies

Summary and Keywords

Angela Yvonne Davis is an American-born, internationally acclaimed intellectual, activist, and icon. Davis’s groundbreaking work and generative theorizing synthesizes Marxist, feminist, critical race, and cultural studies to illuminate workings of power. Her many books, articles, and essays pose crucial questions that have inspired the work of generations of scholars, cultural workers, and activists. Spanning from the late 1960s to the early 21st century, her writings and speeches have provided rich understandings of history, justice, representation, identity, and resistance.

Keywords: Angela Y. Davis, Marxism, Black feminism, African American studies, Black Power, blues, representation, photography, radical imagination, prison abolitionism, communication and critical studies

Angela Davis: Activist, Intellectual, and International Icon

Angela Yvonne Davis is one of the most recognizable and well-regarded faces of Black feminist, socialist, and antiracist thought and activism. Around the globe, this prolific author and public speaker is recognized for contributing key frameworks to debates over the operations and impact of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation. Davis has helped critical scholars reconceptualize how to analyze and historicize the workings of identity and power, spurring new ways of imagining what the good life and a just society look like and how to achieve them. Alongside other radical thinkers, Davis laid foundations for intersectional analysis of social phenomena in the 1970s and 1980s, bringing together tools and perspectives from African American studies, women’s studies, Marxism, and cultural studies.

Among her most generative works are the books Women, Race, and Class (1983), Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire. Prisons and Torture (2011), Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974), and Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1998b). Davis’s theorizing about the workings of power and hierarchy has been foundational to developing intersectional Marxist analyses of women’s and men’s roles in society, with particular emphasis on how analysis of Black women’s lives and histories allows us to see important, often obscured aspects of struggles for justice and concepts of freedom. In addition, communication studies scholars have drawn from Davis’s work to frame questions and pursue research about political communication, race and gender representation, political economy of media, and more.


Angela Y. Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, an American city that would soon become associated with the worst violence of the civil rights movement. Even before the movement, however, Black residents like Davis and her family were well aware of the terror of white supremacy: her neighborhood was known as “Dynamite Hill” due to Ku Klux Klan bombers and night riders targeting Black activists who lived there. Davis’s parents were highly active in social justice movements (Davis, 1974, 1993). She observed her mother and father doing the everyday tasks of organizing—writing letters, holding meetings, raising funds—and she also saw the threats that stalked them for speaking up against racial and class injustice. She also understood from an early age that struggles for justice were not unidimensional: her mother was a national officer for the Southern Negro Youth Conference of the CP-USA, and the family actively supported the defense of the Scottsboro Nine, Black youth who were falsely and sensationally accused of raping white women. Davis discusses in many of her essays and interviews how formative these childhood experiences were in helping her to understand the long-time role of Black women in the labor movement and antiracist struggles. These experiences and memories solidified her understanding of the need to consider race, class, and gender simultaneously when analyzing oppression (Davis, 1974; James, 1998).

Davis left Birmingham in 1959 to attend high school in New York City through a sponsorship from a progressive Quaker group that her parents knew about. During her time in Manhattan, she read Karl Marx and engaged in protests and progressive causes. Davis enrolled at Brandeis in 1961, where she studied with Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse later recruited her to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. Before graduating from Brandeis, she studied abroad at the Sorbonne, as well as in West Germany with thinkers of the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno. Davis’s international travel allowed her to see the anticolonial struggles of North Africa first-hand, adding to her understanding of the relationship between imperialism and racism. In her theoretical work and her activism, Davis steadily refused to restrict her analysis of society to either race or class, gender or nation.

Although Davis could have remained in Europe to get her doctorate in Germany, she was compelled to return to the United States in 1963 in response to the burgeoning civil rights movement and the violent white backlash against Black communities. Importantly, her family was acquainted with the victims of the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in her home town of Birmingham. Known collectively in public memory as “the four little girls,” Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair were youth activists. On September 15, 1963, white supremacists bombed the church while the girls were attending a program there. The murders happened while Davis was still in Paris. Later in her life, she wrote about the impact of that event, not only on herself in the moment, but also how the way that reporters and historians who reduced these individuals to anonymous “four little girls” represented a pattern of erasure and devaluation of Black women and girls in social movements and American history (Davis, 1993).

After she earned her master’s degree in philosophy, Davis was hired as an assistant professor in the philosophy department of the University of California, Los Angeles. She continued her involvement in social justice issues there, joining the Che-Lumumba Club in 1968, an organization formed by Black and Latina/o members of the Communist Party (CP-USA). Her CP-USA membership attracted negative attention from the Regents, as well as then-governor of California and Red Scare stalwart Ronald Reagan. She was fired in 1969, and Reagan declared that she would never teach in the University of California (UC) system again. This occasioned Davis’s first moment in the national spotlight, as her colleagues and intellectuals across the country protested her dismissal as an attack on academic freedom, as well as being sexist and racist. She regained her job, but the scrutiny continued as she participated in the defense of the Soledad Brothers, three Black prisoners who were accused of murdering a White prison guard. Davis worked with both the Black Panther Party (BPP), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

By 1970, death threats from white supremacists and anticommunists had become a daily occurrence. Like her parents and countless Black activists before her, Davis prepared to defend herself by organizing bodyguards and purchasing firearms. Given the level of violence against Black leaders and everyday participants in civil rights protests, Davis felt under siege, and she knew that she could be targeted for assassination by legal and extralegal forces alike. She never hid the fact that she bought and practiced using guns, but when Jonathan Jackson, brother of Soledad Brother George Jackson, used one of her guns in the failed and fatal San Quentin hostage-taking plot, Davis was accused of being a coconspirator. She fled in fear of a government that had already extrajudicially killed so many Black political prisoners, and she was put on the Ten Most Wanted List by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (Davis, 1974).

Davis was captured in October 1970 and spent 16 months in prison before a judge allowed her to post bail. In those intervening months, she wrote one of her most famous essays, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves.” At the same time, activists around the world started the Committee to Free Angela Davis. The global campaign raised funds for her legal defense and generated protest media, including the pamphlet “Frame Up,” which charged the FBI and California authorities with racism, sexism, and corruption.

The committee’s work coincided with public exposure of COINTELPRO’s unconstitutional and violent persecution of Black and leftist activists; many juries were throwing out cases against other Black activists, including BPP members Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale, in the wake of these revelations (James, 1998). These cases added to the clamor for Davis’s release. When she finally went on trial, Davis made opening statements in her defense that were later published in the 1972 pamphlet, Frame Up: The Opening Defense Statement of Angela Y. Davis. She indicted not only the police and prosecutors, but also the intertwined systems of racism and misogyny. She was acquitted on June 4, 1972.

Davis’s flight from the FBI, imprisonment, and trial made her an international icon of radical politics. She continued her intellectual and activist pursuits, at many times restating the Marxist admonition that the point of philosophy is not just to describe society, but to change it. Her writing, speeches, organizing, and teaching furthered this goal. She continued working with the CP-USA, including running as a vice-presidential candidate in 1980 and 1984. She began teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1984, and served on the faculty of the History of Consciousness Program and Feminist Studies. Davis was appointed the UC Presidential Chair in African-American Studies and Feminist Studies in 1994.

Although she retired in 2008, Davis returns to the UC system to teach and lecture as a professor emeritus. Around the world, Professor Davis is recognized as one of the most important public intellectuals to emerge from the American left, and she continues to affect public discussions and organizational actions for social justice.

Race, Gender, and Class

From her self-reflexive critiques of intragroup gender dynamics in Black freedom movement organizations to her analysis of historiography and popular culture representations of Black people and struggles, Davis consistently and incisively explains the perils of separating or excising gender and class from race. Her essays provide clarity around questions of why we must attend to multiple axes of identity, and they serve as exemplars of how to apply critical theories to illuminating how race, class, and gender (as well as sexuality and nationality) work in hierarchical societies. Davis demystifies commonly held beliefs about work, family, social movements, representation, and history, not only to provide a more complete picture of the world, but also—and as important—to garner inspiration from the past. Rediscovering and reclaiming experiences, wisdoms, and practices from the past provide examples of alternative ways of dealing with difference and distributing labor—ways of being that could inspire a more just future through solidarity.

One of the most important contributions that Davis made to revising and recovering Black history and representations of that history was to insist that labor and gender should be at the center of any analysis of the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants. She was on the leading edge of Marxist feminists who brought gender and sexuality to the fore; revealing how class analysis alone was insufficient, Davis historicized the labor of African-American women during and after slavery to make clear how labor was implicated in and shaped by racial and gender hierarchies. From the oft-cited observation that more Black women than White women have worked outside the home, Davis (1983, p. 5) explored the roots of this difference in the way that slavery defined Black women first and foremost as laboring bodies:

As slaves, compulsory labor overshadowed every other aspect of [Black] women's existence . . . the starting point for any exploration of Black women’s lives under slavery would be an appraisal of their role as workers.

From this starting point, she moves to the ways that viewing female slaves as working bodies first and women second generated different, racialized ideological understandings of femininity and women’s roles in Black and white communities. The Industrial Revolution resulted in more leisure time for bourgeois white women, as well as the rise of the cult of true womanhood that reduced women’s place to the home and amplified patriarchal control. True women were not laborers; they were delicate homemakers with no role beyond the walls of the home. In turn, enslaved Black women were the foil for free white bourgeois women; Black women were not intended for leisure or granted male protection. Thus, Davis explains, the cult of true womanhood excluded Black women and served as ideological justification for their enslavement: They were neither real women nor mothers; thus, it supposedly was “natural” that they were slave laborers and were punished brutally as men were.

Davis, then, does not undertake recovery of Black women to merely represent them, adding them to a list of notable subjects for study or mention in history textbooks. Rather, she takes the experiences of slave women and slave testimonies seriously as valid data points for historical analysis. Here, we learn about the workings of power, consider how the gendered and raced aspects of labor underpin hierarchies within and across racial and gendered groups, and examine the discourses and representations that justify and normalize those hierarchies.

Socioeconomic Contexts of Cultural Production

Davis provides a deeply contextualized understanding of the conditions under which Black women and men lived and labored in different eras. Given the socioeconomic conditions of slavery and Jim Crow, the gender and class experiences of Black men and women were necessarily different than their white counterparts. This affected not only their relations with the dominant white society and institutions, but also gender roles, labor, and cultural production within Black communities. Davis’s work on female blues artists exemplifies her mode of intersectional cultural analysis, where culture is produced under unjust social conditions while simultaneously providing zones of freedom and inventiveness. Her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998b), reviews the ways that women performers of blues have been forgotten or hardly recognized in musicology. The bare recognition given also reflected stereotypes of Black women as sexually uncontrollable (if not under the control of men). While Davis acknowledges the music industry’s male domination and how music producers cheated Black artists, she argues that blues women’s work reveals serious roots of feminist consciousness and joyful rejection of bourgeois constraints on women’s agency.

Davis reflects on the commodification of Black music and exploitation of its artists, and then moves to look at previously unrecognized artistry and impact of blues women. In their songs, she finds evidence of how Black women experienced life after emancipation from slavery as reflections of the ways that race and labor shaped Black women’s roles and agency in communities. Returning to her earlier work on slave women, Davis reiterates how, under slavery, Black women and men were unable—by design—to embody white bourgeois norms of patriarchal control of households and delicate, subservient womanhood.

After emancipation, full citizenship was denied and constrained by Jim Crow laws and the violent terror of white supremacy; however, within their intimate lives, homes, and segregated communities, Black people experienced more freedom of movement and choice in terms of labor and sexuality. Thus, where mainstream music critics chastised Black women for being vulgar in their lyrics about lovers, Davis (1998b, p. 26) argues that blues women were celebrating the relative autonomy and freedom they had gained postslavery to choose sexual partners and experience pleasure:

These blues women had no qualms about announcing female desire. Their songs express women’s intention to “get their loving.” Such affirmations . . . give historical voice to possibilities of equality not articulated elsewhere. Women’s blues and the cultural politics lived out in the careers of the blues queens put the new possibilities on the historical agenda.

Davis’s analysis views blues women as nascent Black feminists, giving voice to a range of issues taken up by Second Wave feminists 50 years later, including spousal violence and wage inequality.

As in her deconstruction of the stereotype of the Black matriarch, Davis’s writings on popular culture illustrate how media are not a terrain where producers churn out “positive” and “negative” representations of Blackness, but rather a space in which a variety of representations provide traces of history and communal struggles for self-determination. These traces may provide alternative ways of understanding socioeconomic oppression and rethinking our assumptions about our “natural” role in the world.

Davis advises that analysis take place to recall the conditions of production and reception of Black popular culture to guide interpretation of blues women’s lyrics. Reminding readers of the primacy of oral tradition in Black communities and live performance in the blues, she cautions that analysis of blues lyrics requires listening to a blues queen’s voice, not merely reading a transcription of the words that she has sung. Intonation, pauses, emphases, and flourishes in performance reflect African-American traditions of signifyin’, truth-telling, calling out, and naming (Nommo) that have to be taken into account.

Representations of Blackness: History and Popular Media

[I]nstead of seeing past struggles as a source of inspiration impelling us to craft innovative approaches to contemporary problems, we frequently replace historical consciousness with a desperate nostalgia, allowing the past to become a repository for present political desires. We allow the present to be held captive by the past.

Davis (2012, p. 18)

Davis’s writings on Black Power images and other representations of Blackness take on the commodification and selection of Black images for circulation, squarely identifying how political and socioeconomic factors have shaped and limited available historic images of Black people. Indeed, she notes that when she was a teenager, she had no knowledge of key figures of Black resistance such as Ida B. Wells, and she is glad that today’s youth have at least some exposure through the media to icons like Malcolm X or herself (e.g., Davis, 1998a, 1998c, 2012). She called on historians and photographers to “reverse the conspicuous sparsity of images depicting Afro-American life within the recorded history of photography,” a sparsity due in part to the ways that Jim Crow conditions “forcibly and systematically rendered invisible” the work of Black photographers and filmmakers (Davis, 1983, p. 265).

Davis criticizes U.S. arts and education establishments for not including even esteemed Black photographers such as James Van der Zee in histories of photography, let alone museum exhibits (Davis, 1998e, pp. 265–266). This exclusion compounds the fact that in the early days of photography, Black practitioners and would-be practitioners were denied access to materials and education, and that Black people themselves were not seen by white media-makers as fit subjects for photographic documentation or portraiture. Rather, Black caricatures and stereotypes were the norm, even in a landmark abolitionist text like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where illustrations of the enslaved were crafted in accordance with “stereotypical notions of racial inferiority” (Davis, 1998e, p. 268), as well as racialized gender hierarchies that placed white femininity on a pedestal. Davis does not limit her analysis of Black imagery to blatantly racist archetypes, such as the mammy or the coon, that emerged in the antebellum era. She also turns her critical lens to an array of white-dominated and Black-oriented media productions, including reproductions of her own image and images from the social movements into which she invested her energies as a scholar-activist.

Examine any popular, scholarly, or artistic representation of the 1960s, and you are likely to find an image of Angela Y. Davis in a full Afro hairdo. This image of Davis is iconic and has been employed over time by multiple agents to signify any (or all) of the following movements: Black Power, feminism, communism, socialism, and antiwar. The iconic image is also a referent for radical chic and retro fashion, as well as signifying “Black Is Beautiful.”

Resurgent interest in and circulation of photos of Davis from the late 1960s were sparked in large part by hip-hop culture, which took up Black Power themes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, articulating heroes like Malcolm X and Angela Y. Davis into a new generation’s understanding of Black resistance and pride. As hip-hop’s retrieval of 1960s Black radicals mingled with baby boomer retrospection on the 1960s and 1970s, and as the culture wars raged, the image of Davis sporting an Afro became a synecdoche for Black radicalism, radical feminism, and socialism.

Many scholars have delved into the pitfalls of nostalgic references to Black Power and feminism, with particular attention to the commodification of symbols of those movements or their cooptation by neoconservative agents. However, few of these analysts lived through the actual events, let alone served as the object of radical chic fascination. Davis, employing the same critical apparatus that she uses to deconstruct other cultural phenomena, turns her eye to her own mediated image in “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia,” an essay that serves as the introduction to a volume on African-American representation in photography. She combines personal and sociological observations to (a) historicize how and why her image became iconic and (b) interrogate how past and present circulation and appropriations of that iconic image are largely disconnected from the radical liberation politics in which she participated and continues to participate in today. Through this analysis, she demonstrates how unfixed and malleable images are, but she also attends diligently to the ways that available meanings and interpretive lenses are shaped by power hierarchies.

Davis tacks between how white authorities used and circulated her image and how contemporary hip-hop and fashion media use the iconic Afro image to raise critical questions about the perils of ahistoric dissemination of Black images. First, she reminds us that the image most associated with her was originally circulated as part of an FBI-led criminal hunt for her, a hunt that led to her incarceration, trial, and acquittal. That same image, though, was also used by activists in seeking to turn public opinion in her favor. Thus, the image served to criminalize her body and facilitate surveillance, while simultaneously mobilizing public opinion in her favor. At the time, she writes, she was “intensely aware of the invasive and transformative power of the camera and of the ideological contextualization of my images, which left me with little or no agency” (Davis, 1998a, p. 275).

Likewise, Davis notes how other Black women who wore Afro hairstyles were subjected to heightened scrutiny, further endangering them within a society that already discriminated against them. She recounts how other women with Afros were detained by police forces unable to distinguish them from Davis, seeing their hair as a generic sign of radical political ideology. “Consequently, the photograph identified vast members of my black female contemporaries . . . as targets of repression. This is the hidden historical content behind the continued association of my name with the Afro” (Davis, 1998a, p. 276). Thus, white law enforcement’s use of the image to track Davis had repercussions for any Black woman in their sights who wore her hair naturally.

Davis underscores how the image both endangered other Black women and erased them. Because she is touted as if she was the originator of the Afro style for Black women, today’s retro fashion obfuscates the fact that Davis herself was emulating women in the community, not the other way around (Davis, 1998a, p. 273). This erasure occurs both in mainstream media (as in a New York Times retro fashion special that named her as a fashion icon for the Afro) and in ostensibly oppositional media like political hip-hop. Davis acknowledges the potential for the recirculation of her photo to inspire a new generation to rediscover a radical African American past, but she is wary that the dominant pattern of recirculation suggests “this historical memory may become ahistorical and apolitical” (p. 274).

One of the most pressing problems of how her image is being used in hip-hop dovetails with her analysis of the repurposing of Malcolm X. Davis is disheartened by the reduction of her politics to a hairstyle, as well as the ways that fashion models and rappers position women with Afros as appendages to male radicals. Thus, the image is used to assert a patriarchal vision of the Black Power movement—a vision violently contradictory to Davis’s Black feminist and socialist politics. Further, in focusing on her as an individual heroine, the imagery obliterates “the activist involvement of vast numbers of Black women in movements” and amplifies masculinist contours of Black Power organizations beyond the levels “actually exhibited at the time” (Davis, 1998a, pp. 277–278).

The same is true concerning the recycling of snippets of Malcolm X’s early speeches and his image. Davis looks back at the evolving philosophy that Malcolm X wrote and spoke about in the later years of his short life, particularly around his split with the Nation of Islam over hypocrisies around the treatment of women and his growing global orientation that distanced him from American-based Black nationalism. While she acknowledges that there is no way to know if he would have come to greater feminist consciousness had he lived, Davis insists that a holistic remembering of Malcolm X requires more than the reduction of him to advocating masculinist understandings of self-defense. “Considering the willingness of Malcolm to re-evaluate his political positions,” she writes, “[i]t is highly ironic that Malcolm’s admonition regarding the mental prison in which black people are incarcerated can be evoked today with respect to the way his own legacy has been reconstructed” (Davis, 1998c, p. 286). Thus, when she sees Black youth wearing hats and T-shirts with catch phrases like “By Any Means Necessary,” she is cautious about making claims about their knowledge of Malcolm X or the ideas with which he engaged during his lifetime. Rather, Davis calls on us to take a critical attitude that embraces Black youth’s desire to assert Black pride in a champion for African-American freedom, while at the same time interrogates the narrow lens used to create these commodified versions of Malcolm’s legacy.

Demystifying Motherhood

Like other Black feminist philosophers, Davis works from the particulars of Black women’s experiences to decode raced and gendered assumptions about womanhood, family, and the private sphere. Her writings on reproductive labor and technologies skillfully maneuver contemporary debates and panics about the so-called biological clock running out for women who pursue careers. Laying bare the dominant assumptions about women, fertility, and genetic technology in this postfeminist panic, Davis questions whether the problem is new. Rather, as working-class white women and enslaved women were denigrated as problematic so-called breeders, their experiences of motherhood were fragmented and under scrutiny by those empowered to take their children away, or impose labor conditions under which mothering their own biological children was arduous at best. Davis (1998d, p. 212) says:

Slave women were birth mothers or genetic mothers—to employ terms rendered possible by the new reproductive technologies—but they possessed no legal rights as mothers . . . their status was similar to that of the contemporary surrogate mother.

Enslaved women and working-class women of all colors who had to seek employment outside the home were unable to spend the same amounts of quality time with their children as the white bourgeois women who hired them to nanny or serve as wet nurses to their offspring. As such, panics over in vitro technology or surrogacy denaturalizing motherhood, an experience viewed as unified and continuous, ignore the facts that many women were denied the privileges and rights to have such an experience of pregnancy and child-rearing. Further, unlike the elite women with financial resources to pick and choose among surrogates and egg donors, working-class and enslaved women did not have choice of when and how to have children. Between the sexual violence of slavery and the forced sterilization of the eugenics era, women of color and working-class white women had limited choices for their fertility. As such, Davis (1998d, p. 214) argues, these histories “constitute a socio-historical backdrop for the present debate around the new reproductive technologies.”

Davis does not juxtapose these histories of Black and working-class motherhood with contemporary debates over fertility merely to raise awareness of injustices. Her project, as always, is to demystify discourses of “feminine” social problems to expose how dominant framing and attention to particular issues obfuscate the workings of powerful interests that reinforce existing inequalities and mask opportunities for women to work in solidarity to attain reproductive freedom for all. One cannot think through the issue of reproductive rights just by identifying people who share the biological capacity to bear children. As Davis (1998d, p. 219) says:

[T]he social/economic/political circumstances that oppress and marginalize women of various racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, and thus alter the impact of ideological conceptions of motherhood, cannot be ignored without affirming the same structures of domination that have led to such different—but related—politics of reproduction in the first place.

Thus, as the mainstream discourse frames the reproductive crisis as figuring out ways to extend reproductive options for older, wealthier women, Davis focuses on the historical and contemporary struggles of women of color and working-class women to control their bodies to illuminate broader assaults on women’s autonomy. Because the dominant discourse assumes that all women will have children, and frames this reproductive choice narrowly within a nuclear family that is not representative, the question of choice is artificially narrow and reinforces the essentialist and misogynist assumption that a woman’s main role is to be a reproductive vessel—one requiring oversight and intervention to ensure that reproduction occurs in the “right” way within the “correct” or “natural” family structure, which is always imagined as hetero-patriarchal. Davis (1998d, p. 220) says:

“[B]eneath this marriage of technology, profit, and the assertion of a historically obsolete bourgeois individualism lies the critical issue of the right to determine the character of one’s family . . . implicated in the ideological offensive against single motherhood as well as the homophobic refusal to recognize lesbian and gay family configurations . . .

Again, looking at the specific histories of how differently raced and classed women experienced childbearing and childrearing, Davis demystifies the discourse on idealized motherhood, then and now. She declares these “new” fears about technology distancing women from the “natural” processes of mothering are reanimated facets of prior technologies and labor practices that compartmentalized motherhood and the labors of mothering in the service of propping up the cult of (white) womanhood. What is needed from feminists, then, is “the reconceptualization of family and of reproductive rights in terms that move from the private to the public, from the individual to the social” (1998d, p. 220).

The dominant discourse which privatizes the reproductive choices of women—and always frames these as a choice of how and when to be a mother, not whether to bear children at all—distracts from the ways that not all women have equal choices or control over their fertility or family composition, and that there are profit motives driving the fertility business that we should at the very least bring some skepticism to, given the potential for exploitation.

Radical Imagination

Wherever I am, whatever I happen to be doing, I try to feel connected to futures that are only possible through struggle.

Davis (2012, p. 36)

From her dissection of domestic labor to challenging the need for prisons, Davis uses Marxist historical analysis, feminism, and critical race theory to pose difficult questions that require us to see the world in a different light. Drawing from “usable pasts” to contextualize contemporary debates, her questions are meant to incite radical reimaginings of social relations and institutional arrangements. She cautions that reform movements are often confined within “frameworks that [reproduce] the stultifying idea[s]” that undergird injustices (Davis, 2003, p. 20). Thus, the “most difficult and urgent challenge today is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice,” where inegalitarian institutions and practices are not assumed to be necessary to social life (p. 21).

Domestic labor was one early target of Davis’s charge to go beyond reforms to reimagining the entire process of housekeeping. While sympathetic to the movement to provide women wages for housework, she asked whether fighting for pay to do a type of work that most people believe is “neither stimulating, creative, nor productive” is the right focus for feminists’ energies (Davis, 1983, p. 223). Finding the root of the problem in the historical feminization, privatization, and devaluation of housework in the industrial era, Davis argues that household chores need to be both defeminized and industrialized in the ways that other work has been. The feminization of housework and its relegation to the private sphere mean that it has lagged in comparison to other types of work in the public marketplace. The capitalist, patriarchal, “structural separation of the public economy of capitalism and the private economy of the home,” she argues, needs to be addressed to challenge both the gendered and devalued understandings of housework (p. 228).

But merely paying women to do housework would not undo the assumptions about the private sphere and feminization of labor in the household. Turning to the case of women of color who overwhelmingly supply paid domestic labor, Davis reminds readers of the abuses that occur within privatized spheres, particularly when race and class also structure relations between domestic laborers and their employers who devalue housework as women’s work that doesn’t require significant compensation. Shifting the burdens of housework and childcare from the shoulders of working-class women of all colors “contains one of the radical secrets of women’s liberation”: imagining a society where high-quality childcare and household support are socialized and accessible to all people (Davis, 1983, pp. 230–232). While weaving and spinning—two tasks that used to be household labor—have become industrialized, capitalized, and mechanized, no such application of technological advances has occurred for other work within the house. From this analysis, Davis (1983, p. 223) calls for the socialization of housework, where “[t]eams of trained and well-paid workers, moving from dwelling to dwelling, engineering technologically advanced cleaning machinery, could swiftly and efficiently accomplish what the present-day housewife does so arduously and primitively.” With this socialization, women of all classes would be freed to pursue a wider range of creative, productive pursuits.

For Davis, progressive movements must always use historical, critical analysis to not only contextualize how particular socioeconomic phenomena emerged, but also to remember that things have not always been as they are, and as such, they can change radically. Her work on prison abolition, a lifelong pursuit, exemplifies the ways that she draws upon usable pasts to frame compelling, urgent questions to map the terrain of justice and suggest routes to social change.

The Prison-Industrial Complex

In 1997, Davis collaborated with fellow activists to form Critical Resistance, an “organization dedicated to dismantling the prison-industrial complex.” The organization and its mission reflect Davis’s lifelong commitment to prisoners’ rights and prison abolitionism. It is this issue, perhaps, that provides the most challenging act of imagination in a world that takes imprisonment for granted as a just, reasonable, and effective means of dealing with lawbreakers. But Davis’s Marxist philosophical training—as well as her own experience as a prisoner (recall that she spent 16 months in jail, much of that time in solitary confinement, before she was exonerated)—led her “to ask questions about contemporary and historical realities that tend to be otherwise foreclosed . . . How do we imagine a better world and raise the questions that permit us to see beyond the given?” (Davis, 2005, n.p.).

Part of this radical imagination requires a look to the past, to social movements that challenged dominant thinking about how society is organized. Davis compares three prior movements for radical change, the antislavery, antilynching, and anti-Jim Crow movements, to the contemporary movement to abolish prisons. Her choice of comparisons is meant to effectively illustrate two issues that all these social movements have in common: (a) identifying the roles of race, class, and gender in determining who is a citizen and who is a criminal; and (b) the necessity of creating a vision of a future without institutions and practices thought to be natural or necessary to a functioning society.

Looking to the past for inspiration, though, is not an exercise in replicating the theories and strategies of those eras. Instead, Davis analyzes the prison-industrial complex with the aim of identifying and dismantling “those structures in which racism continues to be embedded” in order to “imagine what might be necessary” to challenge those structures now to ensure a more just future (Davis, 2005). This requires pointing out the racist underpinnings of the prison system, questioning the assumption that crime is what produces prisons, and looking to alternative models for dealing with lawbreaking behavior.

Davis takes an interdisciplinary approach to historicizing and deconstructing the prison system, drawing on history, sociology, and geography, as well as critical race, Marxist, and feminist theories. She notes how prisons morphed from temporary staging places for the accused to await trial and public punishments, like whippings, into long-term or permanent warehousing of convicted lawbreakers. While the shift from public, corporal punishment to imprisonment was seen as a progressive improvement, the goal of reforming convicted lawbreakers while imprisoned never lived up to the ideal. The gap between the ideal of reform and the brutal realities of imprisonment stem in large part from the ways that particular populations were and are criminalized, rendering them noncitizens and subhuman and thus deserving of harsh treatment. The second-class citizenship of African Americans, codified in Jim Crow laws that explicitly called for harsher sentences for Black offenders, as well as practices that encouraged police to focus surveillance on and allow vigilante violence against Black people, resulted in a prison system with an overrepresentation of Black prisoners (Davis, 2003, pp. 25–29).

Having established that the prison is a racist institution, Davis turns to the emergence of the prison-industrial complex in the 1980s and 1990s to debunk the myth that crime produces the need for prisons. Statistics show that in the 1970s, violent crime was decreasing. Yet states across the nation rapidly increased the construction of new prisons in the 1980s (Davis, 2003, pp. 34–36). Davis explains how prison construction was posed as an engine of economic revitalization for rural and deindustrialized areas that had lost jobs to globalization. Simultaneously, new laws and mandatory sentencing rules passed in the so-called War on Drugs criminalized drug possession and use in ways that targeted Black and Latina/o communities for extra policing (e.g., longer sentences for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, the latter being more likely to be used by white, upper-class drug users). From this historical and sociological analysis of the rise in prisons at a time of less violent crime, Davis asks, why were large portions of voters and their congressional representatives convinced that prisons would make them safer?

The answer, for Davis, lies in the role of ideology and capitalist profiteering in generating the prison-industrial complex. Named to resonate with the military-industrial complex, the term prison-industrial complex refers to the ways that states and multinational corporations have found myriad ways to profit from incarcerating people who, in previous eras, would have been part of local farming or industrial economies. Rather than focusing resources on solving the issues facing workers displaced in the global economy with investments in education, for example, Davis shows how law-and-order rhetoric combined with racial ideologies of crime to frame prisons as a solution to social problems. This is the ideological work of the prison: It relieves us of thinking about and “seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism, and increasingly, global capitalism” (Davis, 2003, p. 16). Tough-on-crime discourse that increased in the wake of Black Power and antiwar movements and media narratives that depict a world besieged by violent crime, combined with the promise of economic revitalization, lend a naturalness to prisons as a necessary and permanent part of the social landscape.

Through this analysis, Davis illustrates why “it requires a great feat of imagination to envision life beyond the prison” rather than just fight for prison reform (Davis, 2003, p. 19). While she agrees that many proposed reforms, such as fighting sexual abuse of prisoners, are important, activists must question the deeper factors driving the abuse of prisoners and the uneven application of laws, and also frame new questions. How do we decriminalize drug use and make drug treatment accessible to all? How do we decriminalize sex work? How could models of restorative justice replace imprisonment as the main way of dealing with crime and its effects on communities? These questions, Davis argues, must be posed and debated widely in order to secure effective changes similar to the paradigm shifts brought about by antislavery and anti–Jim Crow activism. “It should be remembered that the ancestors of today’s most ardent liberals could not have imagined life without slavery, life without lynching, or life without segregation” (Davis, 2003, p. 24). Historical, intersectional analysis of the prison recognizes “that ‘punishment’ does not follow from ‘crime’ in the neat and logical sequence offered by [dominant] discourses that insist on the justice of imprisonment, but rather punishment . . . is linked to the agendas of politicians, the profit drive of corporations, and media representations of crime (Davis, 2003, p. 112).

Demystifying assumptions about crime and punishment, as well as unpacking how particular populations are unjustly criminalized and surveilled, Davis turns to theorists of restorative and reparative justice to offer a vision of society where those who break laws are not labeled “criminals” for life, but rather citizens who are “liable” for harms done (Davis, 2003, pp. 113–114). Instead of subjecting lawbreakers to time-bound banishment from society, restorative justice frames the issue as how to repair harm done to the community and how to reintegrate offenders into society as responsible, contributing citizens. These and other imaginings of how justice could be done can be realized only when we cast “the net of alternatives to help us do the ideological work of pulling apart the conceptual link between crime and punishment,” a link that is skewed by racist and classist ideologies (Davis, 2003, p. 100).

Angela Y. Davis continues to be an active, vital participant in the major public intellectual discussions and struggles of the 21st century. From her work toward prison abolition to her support for labor, women’s, and anticolonial movements, Davis brings to light crucial questions and frameworks for unearthing and analyzing injustices that are naturalized and justified within hierarchical societies. Her interdisciplinary methods provide models for inquiry, with an aim to resist oppression, forge solidarity across identity boundaries, and imagine better worlds.

Further Reading

Baldwin, J. (1963). The fire next time. New York: Dial Press.Find this resource:

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (10th anniversary ed.). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (Ed). (1971). If they come for you in the morning: Voices of resistance. New York: Third Press.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1988). Women, culture, and politics. New York: Random House.Find this resource:

Dawson, M. (2013). Blacks in and out of the Left. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Dent, G. (Ed.). (1998). Black popular culture. New York: New Press.Find this resource:

Johnson, C. (2007). Revolutionaries to race leaders: Black Power and the making of African American politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Los Angeles Times archives on Angela Davis. Available online.

Lynch, S. (2012). Free Angela and all political prisoners. DVD. Realside Productions.Find this resource:

Mohanty, C. (2003). Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity (5th ed.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Moraga, C., & Anzaldua, G. (Eds.). (2015). This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color (4th ed.). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Find this resource:

New York Public Library Angela Davis Legal Defense Collection. Available online.

Olsson, G. (2011). The Black Power mixtape, 1967–1975. DVD. Sveriges Television/PBS.Find this resource:

Riggs, M. (1986). Ethnic notions. DVD. California Newsreel.Find this resource:

Robinson, C. (2002). Black Marxism: The making of the radical tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Find this resource:

UCLA University Archives collection on Angela Davis. Available online.


Davis, A. Y. (1974). Angela Davis: An autobiography. New York: Random House.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1983). Women, race, and class. New York: Vintage Books.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1993). Remembering Carole, Cynthia, Addie Mae, and Denise. Essence Magazine, February, 92.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1998a). Afro images: Politics, fashion and nostalgia. In J. James (Ed.), The Angela Davis reader (pp. 273–278). Malden, MA: Blackwell. Originally published in 1994.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1998b). Blues legacies and Black feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1998c). Meditations on the legacy of Malcolm X. In J. James (Ed.), The Angela Davis reader (pp. 279–288). Malden, MA: Blackwell. Originally published in 1992.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1998d). Surrogates and outcast mothers: Racism and reproductive politics in the nineties. In J. James (Ed.), The Angela Davis reader (pp. 210–221). Malden, MA: Blackwell. Originally published in 1994.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1998e). Underexposed: Photography and Afro-American history. In J. James (Ed.), The Angela Davis reader (pp. 265–272). Malden, MA: Blackwell. Originally published in 1983.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (1997). The prison industrial complex. Speech delivered at Colorado College, May 5, 1997.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (2005). Abolition democracy: Beyond empire, prisons and torture. New York: Seven Stories Press. Electronic book.Find this resource:

Davis, A. Y. (2012). The meaning of freedom and other difficult dialogues. San Francisco: City Lights Books.Find this resource:

James, J. (Ed.). (1998). The Angela Davis reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource: