If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, 1971 (with others)
Angela Davis: An Autobiography, 1974
Women, Race, and Class, 1981
Women, Culture, and Politics, 1989
The Angela Y. Davis Reader, 1998
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, 1998
Angela Yvonne Davis was raised in the integrated section of Birmingham, Alabama, that was known as Dynamite Hill. Both of her parents had attended college and become teachers, although her father left the teaching profession because he could make a better living running a service station. In Angela Davis: An Autobiography the author criticizes the “Booker T. Washington syndrome” that afflicted the educational system in the South, where African Americans were promised falsely that they would be rewarded for their work.
In order to escape the South, Davis passed up the opportunity of early admission at Fisk University, a historically African American university in Nashville, Tennessee. Instead, she chose to attend Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York, taking advantage of a program designed to send African American students from the South to integrated high schools in the North. During her high school years Davis became acquainted with Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848). She thereupon attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts and spent her junior year at the Sorbonne in Paris. She undertook graduate studies at the University of Frankfurt, Germany, and at the University of California, San Diego. At one point she studied under Herbert Marcuse. Davis began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1969, but she was dismissed when Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, insisted that the university’s board of regents invoke a regulation in their handbook prohibiting Communist faculty. Davis sued for reinstatement and won, contending that the anti-Communist statute, which dated back to 1949, was unconstitutional.
Before her case at the university was resolved, Davis became involved in another controversy. On January 13, 1970, a fight had erupted among inmates at Soledad Prison in Salinas, California. When a white guard shot and killed three black prisoners, another white guard was killed in retaliation, and on February 14, 1970, three prisoners were indicted for murder. Davis began corresponding with George Jackson, one of these three prisoners, who became known as the Soledad Brothers. On August 7, 1970, while the Soledad Brothers were being tried in the Marin County Superior Court, Jackson’s brother Jonathan and three other men pulled guns in the courthouse in an attempt to free the defendants. Guards began shooting, and the judge and several others were killed. On the basis of an affidavit alleging that three of the guns used in the frustrated escape were registered under Angela Davis’s name, a warrant was issued for her arrest. On June 4, 1972, she was acquitted of charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy after a trial that had captured the attention of the international press.
In the aftermath of her association with the Soledad Brothers, Davis published If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, an indictment of the American penal system. In the book she asserts that American prisons hold a disproportionately high number of poor African Americans, an indication that the country’s justice system is a tool of a capitalist society that wants to undermine the proletarian class struggle. The book includes a foreword by Julian Bond, an open letter from James Baldwin, essays by George Jackson, and essays by one of the participants in the Marin courthouse revolt.
Published when Davis was only thirty, An Autobiography was precipitated by the enormous amount of attention Davis received as a result of the Soledad Brothers’ trial and her own. The book chronicles her childhood and education, her firing by UCLA, and her trial in connection with the Soledad Brothers. An Autobiography is less a personal memoir than a testament to her faith in Communism. Her accounts of her visits to East Berlin and Cuba in the 1960’s offer insight into her political beliefs.
Davis published her next two books in 1981 and 1989, the first and last years of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, her political foe since his days as governor of California. These two books demonstrate her fidelity to Communism throughout the conservative 1980’s, when civil liberties and minority rights received less attention than they had in the 1960’s; in fact, Davis ran as the vice-presidential candidate on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. Women, Race, and Class offers a scholarly history of women’s rights groups in America. Davis argues that these groups have discriminated against black women since the nineteenth century. There were, for example, no black women at the first women’s rights convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls. Davis notes that the suffragist Susan B. Anthony did not want to dilute her struggle for women’s rights with a campaign for racial equality. Within the context of race and class, Davis also examines the facts and myths about rape and the antirape movement.
From 1979 to 1991 Davis taught at San Francisco State University and in 1992 became a tenured professor in the department of history and consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, acting as the chair of the minority women’s studies department. Women, Culture, and Politics, a collection of essays and speeches, is evidence of Davis’s commitment to the cause that first brought her notoriety twenty years before. One of the essays is the preface to the Soviet edition of Women, Race, and Class, and several essays deal with women’s issues internationally.
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, which won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1998, is a compelling example of how Davis’s scholarship is affected by her Communist beliefs. A study of the early blues singers Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Davis emphasizes these three women as role models for African American women not only as artists but as businesswomen, using music as a way to achieve economic independence and sexual self-determination.