Black History Month: Angela Davis

Black History Month: Angela Davis

Welcome back to our series of blogs celebrating Black History Month by highlighting women of color who we think you should know about. We’ve previously talked about Mary Bowser, Julie Dash, and Marian Anderson. Today we’re talking about Dr. Angela Davis.

Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. Growing up, she was actively involved in both her church youth group and the Girl Scouts, the later of which she credits for her political activism. Davis graduated Magna Cum Laude from Brandeis University (which she attended on full academic scholarship) and then spent time doing graduate work at the University of Frankfurt. She followed her mentor to UC San Diego, where she earned a masters in philosophy before going back to Germany to earn her PhD at Humboldt University in East Berlin.

By this point, she was known in the academy as an activist, a member of the Communist Party, and a Black Panther. She was hired as an associate professor at UCLA in 1969, but soon the institution’s governing boards were clutching pearls over her activism and language. (We ask who they thought they hired, but that is neither here nor there.) She ended up leaving when her contract expired in 1970 to pursue public activism full time.

One of the first big bullet points in any biography of Davis is the rigamarole surrounding the Soledad Prison trial. Here we quote from Biography, which provides a succinct explanation.

Outside of academia, Davis had become a strong supporter of three prison inmates of Soledad Prison known as the Soledad brothers (they were not related). These three men — John W. Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Lester Jackson — were accused of killing a prison guard after several African-American inmates had been killed in a fight by another guard. Some thought these prisoners were being used as scapegoats because of the political work within the prison.

During Jackson’s trial in August 1970, an escape attempt was made and several people in the courtroom were killed. Davis was brought up on several charges, including murder, for her alleged part in the event. There were two main pieces of evidence used at trial: the guns used were registered to her, and she was reportedly in love with Jackson. After spending roughly 18 months in jail, Davis was acquitted in June 1972.

After being acquitted, Davis kept earning her moniker as “radical”. She worked at UCLA in consciousness raising, lectured on radical feminism and race around the world, authored several books, and continued to be a thorn in the side of the established academic thinking on gender and race and economic theory. 

I (Dr. Donnelly) read several of Davis’ works as part of my PhD and to say her ideas are challenging is an understatement. Davis’ worldview is informed by worlds entirely different from my own and her cross-cultural education means she sees intersecting inequalities in exacting ways. Her words are intentional and often incite complication and confrontation.

Davis is one of the most influential scholars of the 20th century, and yet I know no one who agrees with her all the time. To me, that makes her work even more important as it is always rubbing up against someone’s assumptions and rearranging them.


This concludes our celebration of Black History Month 2019, but our celebration of women continues with both our series on Women’s History Month and our Birthday Cards to Badass Broads, which will continue throughout the year. 

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