With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis makes the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of prisons.
As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly, the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.
In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Professor Davis seeks to illustrate that the time for the prison is approaching an end. She argues forthrightly for "decarceration," and argues for the transformation of the society as a whole.
Today is the 78th birthday of Dr. Angela Y. Davis.
To celebrate her life and work, we're excited to share this excerpt from Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, an extended set of interviews with Dr. Davis. We're also offering 50% off both Abolition Democracy and her other incredible short work, Are Prisons Obsolete?.
Happy Birthday, Dr. Davis. We're so lucky to live at the same time as you.
Angela Davis, you are probably one of the top five most important black women in American history. In 1974, your book Angela Davis: An Autobiography was published by Random House. Since then it has become a classic of African-American letters that is central to the traditions of black women writers and black political thinkers. In many ways your autobiography also harkens back to the tradition of black slave narratives. How do you see this work now with thirty years hindsight?
Well, thanks for reminding me that this is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of my autobiography. At the time I wrote the book I did not see myself as a conventional autobiographical subject and thus did not locate my writing within any of the traditions you evoke. As a matter of fact, I was initially reluctant to write an autobiography. First of all, I was too young. Second, I did not think that my own individual accomplishments merited autobiographical treatment. Third, I was certainly aware that the celebrity—or notoriety—I had achieved had very little to do with me as an individual. It was based on the mobilization of the State and its efforts to capture me, including the fact that I was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. But also, and perhaps most importantly, I knew that my potential as an autobiographical subject was created by the massive global movement that successfully achieved my freedom. So the question was how to write an autobiography that would be attentive to this community of collective struggle. I decided then that I did not want to write a conventional autobiography in which the heroic subject offers lessons to readers. I decided that I would write a political autobiography exploring the way in which I had been shaped by movements and campaigns in communities of struggle. In this sense, you can certainly say that I wrote myself into the tradition of black slave narratives.
In what way do you think that the black political biography plays a role within this tradition of American letters?
Well of course the canon of American letters has been contested previously, and if one considers the autobiography of Malcolm X as an example, which, along with literature by such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, that has clearly made its way into the canon, one can ask whether the inclusion of oppositional writing has really made a difference. Has the canon itself has been substantively transformed? It seems to me that struggles to contest bodies of literature are similar to the struggles for social change and social transformation. What we manage to do each time we win a victory is not so much to secure change once and for all, but rather to create new terrains for struggle.
Since we are talking about canons, it seems to me that your work fits within another tradition—the philosophical canon. If we think of the work of Boethius, of Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Antonio Gramsci, Primo Levi . . . these are philosophical figures who have reflected upon their prison experiences. Do you see your work contributing to this philosophical tradition of prison writing, and if so, how?
Well, often times prison writing is described as that which is produced in prison or by prisoners, and certainly Gramsci’s prison notebooks provide the most interesting example. It is significant that Gramsci’s prison letters have not received the consideration they deserve. It would be interesting to read Gramsci’s letters alongside those of George Jackson. These are two examples of prison intellectuals who devoted some of their energies to the process of engaging critically with the implications of imprisonment—at a more concrete philosophical level. Personally, I found it rather difficult to think critically about the prison while I was a prisoner. So I suppose I follow in the tradition of some of the thinkers you mention. However, I did publish a piece while I was in jail that could be considered a more indirect examination of issues related to imprisonment. I wrote an article entitled “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,”10 which helped me formulate some of the questions that I would later take up in my efforts to theorize the relationship between the institution of the prison and that of slavery. I produced another piece—a paper I wrote for the conference for the Society for the Study of Dialectical Materialism, associated with the American Philosophical Association—entitled “Women and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation.” Both pieces were published in The Angela Y. Davis Reader in 1998. If They Come in the Morning, the book on political prisoners I wrote and edited with Bettina Aptheker, is another example of my prison writing. Finally, I also wrote an extended study of fascism which was never published. But it was only after I was released that I felt I had sufficient critical distance to think more deeply about the institution of the prison, drawing from and extending the work of the prison intellectual George Jackson.
You were trained as a philosopher, yet you teach in a program called the History of Consciousness at the University of California. Do you think that philosophy can play a role in political culture in the United States? And, has philosophy influenced your work on aesthetics, jazz, and in particular, the way in which you analyze the situation of black women?
Absolutely, and I think that I draw from my background in philosophy in that I try to ask questions about contemporary and historical realities that tend to be otherwise foreclosed. Philosophy provides a vantage point from which to ask questions that cannot be posed within social scientific discourse that presumes to furnish overarching frameworks for understanding of our social world. I have earned a great deal from Herbert Marcuse about the relationship between philosophy and ideology critique. I draw particular inspiration from his work Counterrevolution and Revolt that attempts to directly theorize political developments of the late 1960s. But at the same time the framework is philosophical. How do we imagine a better world and raise the questions that permit us to see beyond the given?
There are beautiful pages in your autobiography about your relationship with Herbert Marcuse, who was your teacher and mentor, and part of the Frankfurt School. You spent some years in Frankfurt in the late 1960s. You also studied with Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and Max Horkheimer. Do you see yourself as a critical theorist in this Frankfurt School sense?
Well, I’ve certainly been inspired by critical theory, which privileges the role of philosophical reflection while simultaneously recognizing that philosophy cannot always by itself generate the answers to the questions it poses. When philosophical inquiry enters into conversation with other disciplines and methods, we are able to produce much more fruitful results. Marcuse crossed the disciplinary borders that separate philosophy, sociology, and literature. Adorno brought music and philosophy into the conversation. These were some of the first serious efforts to legitimate interdisciplinary inquiry.
You ran twice as the vice-presidential candidate of the Communist Party in the United States before leaving the party in the 1990s. After the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, what role, if any, can communism play today?
Although I am no longer a member of the Communist Party, I still consider myself a communist. If I did not believe in the possibility of eventually defeating capitalism and in a socialist future, I would have no inspiration to continue with my political work. As triumphant as capitalism is assumed to be in the aftermath of the collapse of the socialist community of nations, it also continually reveals its inability to grow and develop without expanding and deepening human exploitation. There must be an alternative to capitalism. Today, the tendency to assume that the only version of democracy available to us is capitalist democracy poses a challenge. We must be able to disentangle our notions of capitalism and democracy so to pursue truly egalitarian models of democracy. Communism—or socialism—can still help us to generate new versions of democracy.
Do you think that the anti-globalization movement—the anti-WTO movement—can take up the role that Karl Marx assigned to the proletariat? In other words, can we say, “anti-globalists of the world unite”?
Well, this transition is a little too easy. But this is not to dismiss the importance of creating global solidarities, cross-racial solidarities attentive to struggles against economic exploitation, racism, patriarchy, and homophobia. And there is a link, it seems to me, between the internationalism of Karl Marx’s era and the new globalisms we are seeking to build today. Of course, the global economy is far more complicated than Marx could ever imagine. But at the same time his analyses have important contemporary resonances. The entire trajectory of Capital is initiated by an examination of the commodity, that seemingly simple unit of the capitalist political economy. As it turns out, of course, the commodity is a mysterious thing. And perhaps even more mysterious today than during Marx’s times. The commodity has penetrated every aspect of people’s lives all over the world in ways that have no historical precedent. The commodity—and capitalism in general—has insinuated itself into structures of feeling, into the most intimate spaces of people’s lives. At the same time human beings are more connected than ever before and in ways we rarely acknowledge. I am thinking of a song performed by Sweet Honey and the Rock about the global assembly line, which links us in ways contingent on exploitative practices of production and consumption. In the Global North, we purchase the pain and exploitation of girls in the Global South, which we wear everyday on our bodies.
The sweatshops of the world.
The global sweatshops. And the challenge is, as Marx argued long ago, to uncover the social relations that are both embodied and concealed by these commodities.
There is a great tradition of African-American political thought that has been deeply influenced by Marxism and communism. But one way that we sometimes talk about black political thought is in terms of two figures in tension. For example, there are the comparisons made by John Brown versus Frederick Douglass; Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. Du Bois; Malcom X versus Martin Luther King. And in this we are able to discuss the tensions between black nationalism and assimilation or integration. How do you see yourself in relationship to the tension between nationalism and integration?
Well, of course it is possible to think about black history as it has been shaped by these debates in various eras. And we shouldn’t forget the debate between W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. But I actually am interested in that which is foreclosed by the conceptualization of the major issues of black history in terms of these debates between black men. And I say men because the women always tend to be excluded. Where, for example, do Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells stand in these debates? But I am interested precisely in what gets foreclosed by this tension between nationalism and integration. And perhaps not primarily because the actors are male, but because questions regarding gender and sexuality are foreclosed.
So you see your work as contesting this way of viewing the black tradition of political thought . . .
. . . that way of making sense of integration.
So you wanted to displace the focus and say there’s another way in which black political thought can proceed.
Absolutely, and I think that the assumption today that black political thought must either advocate nationalism or must disavow black formations and black culture is very misleading.
Yes, but one of the things that is attributed to globalization is the end of nationalisms. Do you think that there is a role for black nationalism in the United States? Has it become entirely obsolete, an anachronism?
Well, in one sense it has become obsolete, but in another sense one can argue that the nationalisms that have helped to shape black consciousness will endure. First of all, I should say that I don’t think that nationalism is a homogeneous concept. There are many versions of nationalism. I’ve always preferred to identify with the pan-Africanism of W. E. B. Du Bois who argued that black people in the West do have a special responsibility to Africa, Latina America, and Asia—not by virtue of a biological connection or a racial link, but by virtue of a political identification that is forged in struggle. We should be attentive to Africa not simply because this continent is populated by black people, not only because we trace our origins to Africa, but primarily because Africa has been a major target of colonialism and imperialism. What I also like about Du Bois’s pan-Africanism is that it insists on Afro-Asian solidarities. This is an important feature that has been concealed in conventional narratives of pan-Africanism. Such an approach is not racially defined, but rather discovers its political identity in its struggles against racism.
In addition to the recent thirtieth anniversary of your autobiography, we are also celebrating fifty-plus years of Brown v. Board of Education. Do you think that the forces of black integration, the forces of civil rights, have been betrayed and somehow rolled-back by the past two decades of Rehnquist serving as the Reagan-appointed chief justice?
The promise of those struggles has been betrayed. But I don’t think it is helpful to assume that an agenda that gets established at one point in history will forever claim success on the basis of its initial victories. It is misleading to assume that this success will be enduring, that it will survive all of the changes and mutations of the future. The civil rights movement managed to bring about enormous political shifts, which opened doors to people previously excluded from government, corporations, education, housing, etc. However, an exclusively civil rights approach—as even Dr. King recognized before he died—cannot by itself eliminate structural racism. What the civil rights movement did, it seems to me, was to create a new terrain for asking new questions and moving in new directions. The assumption that the placement of black people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the heart of government would mean progress for the entire community was clearly fallacious. In this, there were no guarantees, to borrow from Stuart Hall. The civil rights movement demanded access, and access has been granted to some. The challenge of the twenty-first century is not to demand equal opportunity to participate in the machinery of oppression. Rather, it is to identify and dismantle those structures in which racism continues to be embedded. This is the only way the promise of freedom can be extended to masses of people.
But don’t you worry about the conservative court? I mean if we think about the role of the Warren Court in advancing the racial justice agenda . . .
The justices in today’s Supreme Court are very outspoken about their conservatism. What does this mean for racial justice in the future?
Of course I’m worried about that. The only point I’m attempting to make is that past struggles cannot correct current injustices and that people who tend to sit back and bemoan the betrayal of the civil rights movement are not prepared to imagine what might be necessary at this moment to challenge the conservatism of the Supreme Court. It’s very difficult to recognize contemporary racisms, especially when they are not linked to racist laws and attitudes and when they differently affect individuals who claim membership in racialized communities. I’m suggesting that we need a new age—with a new agenda— that directly addresses the structural racism that determines who goes to prison and who does not, who attends university and who does not, who has health insurance and who does not. The old agenda facilitates assaults on affirmative action, as Ward Connerly pointed out in his campaign for Proposition 209 in California. From his vantage point, what is most important today is the protection of the civil rights of white men.
Right. But very smart strategies are being used, ones that displace attention from issues of racial justice by speaking in terms of multiculturalism. An example is last year’s court decision in Michigan—Grutter v. Bollinger—that says that affirmative action must be administered for the sake of preserving multicul-turalism. What is the difference between multiculturalism and racial justice?
There’s a huge difference. Diversity is one of those words in the contemporary lexicon that presumes to be synonymous with antiracism. Multiculturalism is a category that can admit both progressive and deeply conservative interpretations. There’s corporate multiculturalism because corporations have discovered that it is more profitable to create a diverse work place.
Yes. They have discovered that blacks and Latinos and Asians are willing to work as hard, or even harder, than their white counterparts. But this means that we should embrace a strong politically inflected multiculturalism, which emphasizes cross-racial community and continued struggles for equality and justice. That is to say cross-racial community not for the purpose of creating a beautiful “bouquet of flowers” or an enticing “bowl of salad”—which are some of the metaphorical representations of multiculturalism—but as a way of challenging structural inequalities and fighting for justice. This version of multiculturalism has radical potential.
And along with the question of multiculturalism and racial justice, there’s another question that tremendously worries me personally, existentially. That is, we keep talking about the “browning” of the United States; that by the year 2050 a quarter of the American population will be of Latino descent. Do you think that this browning of America will entail an eclipse of the quest for racial justice?
Why should it?
Conservatives claim that questions of racial justice are essentially black questions . . . and that multiculturalism and racial integration of Latinos are separate from racial justice work, affirmative action or reparations.
Well, you see, that’s the problem, and it seems to me that contemporary ideologies encourage this assumption that racial competition and conflict are the only possible relationships across communities of people of color. It is as if these communities are always separate and never intersect. But, if one looks at the labor movement, for example, there are numerous historical examples of Black-Latino solidarity and alliances. Regardless of which community might be numerically larger, without such solidarities and alliances, there can be no hope for an anti-racist future. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that this is a new era. Conditions of postcoloniality here in the United States and throughout the world convey the message that the “West” has been forever changed. Europe is not what it used to be. It is no longer defined by its whiteness. The same thing, of course, is true in the U.S. among black people who are used to being the “superior minority.” We must let go of this claim. There is this prevalent idea that because black people established the historical anti-racist agenda for the United States of Amer- ica, they will always remain its most passionate advocates. But black people as a collective cannot live on the laurels of its historical past. We have recently received harsh lessons about conservative possibilities in black communities. “Black” can not simply be considered an uncontestable syn- onym of progressive politics. The work of progressive activists is to build opposition to conservatism—regardless of the racial background of its proponents. That black and Latino communities cannot find common cause is one example of this conservatism. Our job today is to promote cross-racial communities of struggle that arise out of common—and hopefully radical—political aspirations.
For more writings against the prison industrial complex, check out Abolish!: A Reading List on Police, Prisons, and Protest
Revelations about U.S. policies and practices of torture and abuse have captured headlines ever since the breaking of the Abu Ghraib prison story in April 2004. Since then, a debate has raged regarding what is and what is not acceptable behavior for the world's leading democracy. It is within this context that Angela Davis, one of America's most remarkable political figures, gave a series of interviews to discuss resistance and law, institutional sexual coercion, politics and prison. Davis talks about her own incarceration, as well as her experiences as "enemy of the state," and about having been put on the FBI's "most wanted list." She talks about the crucial role that international activism played in her case and the case of many other political prisoners.
Throughout these interviews, Davis returns to her critique of a democracy that has been compromised by its racist origins and institutions. Discussing the most recent disclosures about the disavowed "chain of command," and the formal reports by the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch denouncing U.S. violation of human rights and the laws of war in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, Davis focuses on the underpinnings of prison regimes in the United States.
With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly, the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.
In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Professor Davis seeks to illustrate that the time for the prison is approaching an end. She argues forthrightly for "decarceration," and argues for the transformation of the society as a whole.
A Free E-book Against Police Repression
"The ideas that can and will sustain our movement for total freedom and dignity of the people cannot be imprisoned, for they are to be found in the people, all the people, wherever they are. As long as the people live by the ideas of freedom and dignity, there will be no prison that can hold our movement down.” ―Huey P. Newton
Defund the Police. Abolish Prisons. Refuse State Repression.
- “Fighting to Win” from Full Spectrum Resistance: Building Movements and Fighting to Win by Aric McBay (2019)
- “The Problem is Civil Obedience” from The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Updated and Expanded 2nd Edition by Howard Zinn (2009)
- “Slavery, Civil Rights, and Abolitionist Perspectives Toward Prison” from Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis (2005)
- “Women in Prison: How We Are” by Assata Shakur (Joanne Chesimard), 1978, from Voices of a People’s History of the United States, 10th Anniversary Edition, edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (2014)
- “We Remember the Days of Glory but Tend to Forget They Were Fourteen-Hour Days” from ’68: The Mexican Autumn of the Tlatelolco Massacre by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (2019)
- “Even Liars Know the Truth” from ’68: The Mexican Autumn of the Tlatelolco Massacre by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (2019)
- “Prison, Where Is Thy Victory?: January 3, 1970” by Huey P. Newton (1969), from The New Huey P. Newton Reader, edited by David Hilliard and Donald Weise (2020)”