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The Continued Relevance of the Legacy of Angela Davis

After nearly 50 years since its original publication, activist, scholar, philosopher, and author Angela Davis’ 1974 autobiography, Angela Davis: An Autobiography, has been reissued. Written at the young age of 28, Davis’ account of her formative years provides a framework for the development of her famously revolutionary, and distinctly intersectional, political and philosophical ideologies. In this reissue, Davis presents a newly written introduction. With a slight air of self-critique, Davis points towards some of the limitations in her 28 year old self’s political and intellectual maturity. She places emphasis on a failure to recognize the magnitude of patriarchal and misogynist frameworks, and similarly regrets her lack of attention to the pervasiveness of sexism and homophobia. Nevertheless, her younger self’s ability to hone in on the connection between the struggles of both African-Americans and the working class, as well as her maturation into linking these struggles with other oppressed peoples around the globe, is of the utmost importance in our current day. Indeed, a large portion of her new introduction is dedicated to the application of her politics to the set of issues we face in 2022. Taking a look at some of the subjects of her advocacy, we can see a number of directions our political attention can and should be pointed.

In the new intro to Davis’s reissued autobiography, she notably critiques her 28 year old self’s lack of attention to the magnitude of restraint discerned by patriarchal and misogynistic frameworks. However, since the writing of her autobiography, Davis has become a prominent feminist scholar, producing distinctly intersectional works of literature on the topic. In writing books such as Women Race and Class, Women Culture and Politics, and (her most recent work, with Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth Richie) “Abolition. Feminism. Now.,” Davis has managed to implement her crucial understandings of intersectionality into feminist thought and theory. With a keen focus on the shared struggle of oppressed peoples, Davis’ feminist insights stand in an apt position to be utilized by a growing field of scholars and activists who are looking to emphasize an intersectional approach.

Prison abolition, a relatively mainstream topic of debate, has been on Davis’ agenda far before it had anywhere near the level of traction it has garnered in recent years. Davis herself famously spent roughly 18 months in prison from 1970-1972 under charges of murder. She asserted her innocence, and was ultimately found not guilty. Many have seen her imprisonment as an example of a long line of politically motivated arrests, targeting Davis on the basis of her Leftist ideologies (as, at the time, she was a member of the Communist Party USA). Her experience within the prison system (which she recounts in great detail throughout her autobiography), helped influence her later scholarly and activist work, which largely focused on prison abolition. She published a landmark book on the topic in 2003, “Are Prisons Obsolete.” With a growth in popularity of books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, public recognition of the horrors of mass incarceration has begun to see a steady increase. This increase in recognition may allow for a more main-stream discussion of prison abolition to follow. The research and literature that Davis has already produced (years in advance of this increase in recognition) will surely prove vital to young scholars and activists looking to push the needle on topics pertinent to modern race-relations and human rights as a whole. 

Almost more so than anything, Davis might be best recognized as an avid critic of modern capitalist structures. Indeed, she was a member of the Communist Party USA from 1969-1991, and had a distinctly stronger focus on economic plight and politics than many of her Civil Rights Movement predecessors (who tended to focus more on racial segregation under the law as oppossed to theories of wealth distribution). Whether one agrees with her Marxist 

proclivities or not, it is certainly difficult to deny the realities of our country’s decrepit wealth gap that Davis has so eloquently described time and time again. As is commonly documented, the gap between upper-income and lower and middle-income households is rising, with an increasingly diminishing middle-class. Future activism and political action will certainly need to find a way to recenter itself around the reality of our pressing economic issues. Presenting a legacy of radical economic and capitalist critique, Angela Davis’ past and present teachings can prove vital to movements intent on both pointing out and radically shifting these economic realities. 

Although it may have been 50 years since the first publication of Davis’ autobiography, her political, social, and philosophical views remain markedly relevant. In moving forward, we can only hope to build onto her legacy of activism in a way that can negate the amalgam of threats we continuously face. As these organizational structures continue to develop, the core of Davis’ worldly philosophies must continue to be heeded: a shared global struggle of oppressed peoples will, undoubtedly, require a shared global resistance. As such, the freedom fighting fervor of Angela Davis finds itself in the masses, and is heard in every revolutionary cry.

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