Review by JD Douglas
Angela Davis was the guest speaker on International Women’s Day at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Her audience came from far afield, filling the 2,500 venue. They were there to witness a cultural icon, a one-off, a centre piece of America’s history. To narrow her acclaim only to America and her fight for the liberation of unjust causes (The Struggle) would minimise who she is. It is akin to saying Martin Luther King spoke well, Vincent Van Gough was a Dutch painter, or Pele is a Brazilian footballer.
Angela Davis first came to national attention in the late sixties, when she was fired from her teaching post at the University of California, after admitting to being a member of the Communist Party. She fought her case in public, sighting the unconstitutionality of her dismissal. A year later her well known face merged into a mushroom afro and became her calling card to the world. The poster image of the cultural and political revolution. As well known as Che Guevara’s bearded face with his peak revolution cap, an image worn by generations on T-shirts even today. She would expect that point to be made.
It was through reading a little known book, Soledad Brothers that I first became aware of Angela Davis. The author was a convict turned political activist: George Jackson. His book part letters part manifesto was essential reading for anyone trying to understand what was happening in America beyond what was published in the United States’ Government organ the Reader’s Digest. Angela Davis was one of his biggest supporters.
In 1970, Jonathan Jackson, the 17 year old brother of George and a small group attacked a California court, attempting to take hostages in exchange for the release of his brother. In the ensuing shootout, the judge was killed and two inmates along with Jonathan Jackson. Angela Davis had bought the guns and ammunition used in the attack. Under oath she admitted to being in love with George Jackson. It was a well-known love affair that was conducted in public via published letters due to his incarceration.
Under California law she was charged with murder, kidnap and criminal conspiracy. The triumvirate of California powers; Governor Ronald Reagan, President Richard Nixon and F.B.I Director Edgar Hoover: All avowed enemies for everything she stood for, made her public enemy number one, where internal security was concerned.
She was put on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list. She went on the run and her face was shown around the world as a fugitive on the run. Tonight at the Festival Hall she mentioned without detail, “I was on the FBI Most Wanted list.” A badge of honour turned Victory medal.
I felt a ghost, but surely ghosts don’t exist.
While studying for GCSEs at Bourneville College, my Geography teacher: Mrs Cummings invited me to the lecturer’s Christmas party at her house. Unusual at the time, she considered me hip enough to fit in. Upon arrival, I realised I was at a joint event of the Workers Revolutionary Party members and staff Christmas Party celebration. Lecturers who had hitherto hidden their political thoughts were now in full flow. Half-way through, Mrs Cummings handed me an album and instantly snatched it back. She returned it, wrapped in a brown paper bag with the words. “You can’t go home with this on the bus”. Ten minutes later my curiosity got the better of me, I made my excuse and headed home.
The now discarded brown paper revealed the Face of Angela Davis against a Red (revolutionary red) back ground. My non -musical albums (Spoken Words) were of poets; be they Langston Hughes or The Last Poets. Now this album was different, delivered in a mixture of Black slang, California hip talk, revolutionary jargon, part social rhetoric, political dogma all rolled into one. After several playbacks I felt I knew her pattern of speech and delivery, even if some ideas were not totally comprehensible.
Tonight the voice was the same only the drawl, had become more teasing, more mischievous, raspier and totally infectious. The question was ‘what message it would deliver?’
World Cultural Icon.
Now on the run, the global fight for her acquittal spread to some 68 counties. Labelled a terrorist at the time, she expressed her displeasure to her audience. The hurt continues to this day.
She became a cause celebre. Artists from the Rolling Stones (Sweet Black Angel) to John Lennon, released songs bringing her plight to the widest audience. In Angel, John Lennon sang: ‘They gave you everything but the jail house key/they gave you coffee/they gave you tea/they gave you everything but equality.’
After her release she became the symbol of resistance, hope and spokesperson for the down trodden the world over.
The process of her release and acquittal would inform her outlook in regard to how we should participate in the struggle. She emphasised “You have to organise, you have to be part of the debate, and you have to be part of the movement of action.” Without which she would have been still sitting in jail in 2019.
Instead she was invited to as many left leaning countries that time would permit. In Russia she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and an Honorary Degree from Moscow University. In Russia, she believed that Socialism in action would end racism. Visiting the Soviet Union in the 1930s the American Singer and activist Paul Robeson would come to the same conclusion. When visiting the German Democratic Republic and Cuba she was photographed with their leaders Eric Honecker and Fidel Castro respectively.
Born in Birmingham Alabama in 1944, the 1963 infamous bombing of an Alabama Baptist Church which killed four innocent girls had a degree of personal interest. The murdered girls were known to her. This ignited a burning desire to fight against injustice where ever it raised its head.
Interviewed by the Artistic Director of the South Bank, Jude Kelly, Ms Davis was soon in her stride. Admitting that after five hundred years without any meaningful change in society, ‘we do not give up’ was the caveat that followed. The process is continuous, the struggle continues, hope and challenge equally demanding.
To prove her point she demonstrated, that in January this year the Birmingham Civil Right Awards Committee had revoked her Fred L. Shuttleworth Human Rights Award. Her long-standing support for Palestinian prisoners was well known, she asserted. With slight provocation she asked whether any one nation state was immune to criticism. She did not see the revocation of the award primarily against her but rather against the very spirit of the indivisibility of justice. A reminder that her doctorate is indeed in Philosophy.
Next she offered support to Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar who became one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress. The young Congress woman had brought the wrath of many, including Democrats, who seems overly keen to denounce her.
As a member of Congress Human Rights Group she had made a reference to Israel. The backlash included a famous tweet from the President. Her exact words? “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it’s okay for people to push for a foreign country”
The Chair of the Human Rights Group hit back with “We can question any US foreign policy, we can question China, Russia, Saudi Arabia. Israel is a member of the same international conventions and treaties, but it is unfortunate, not uncommon for criticism of Israel to cross a line into anti-Semitism”
That argument continued and reverberated from the American political scene to the Festival Hall. Ms Davis rounded by saying she is against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Racism in all its manifestation. News that the British Conservative Party had suspended 14 of its members for Islamophobia, a day before would have pleased her. “To criticise the State of Israel and its actions is not the same as being anti-Semitic. The two are different things.”
When it came to current activism, the Prison-Industrial Complex would re-enter her discourse right to the end. She is the co-founder of “Critical Resistance” a grass roots organisation established to fight the American Prison system. One third of the people incarcerated on the planet are housed on American soil.
Having spent 18 months in jail, she is well placed to talk about almost every aspect of the system. She believes internal searching of women in prison is as much a violation as a sexual attack.
The future of the struggle is with the young. A nod no doubt to the newly elected young 22 year Minnesota Congresswoman. Throughout her life Ms Davis has spearheaded the feminist movement. Early in her life, aged three, her mother instilled in her that things as they are, don’t have to be that way.
In her words you question all norms, you dissect meaning, you challenge. When you commit yourself to the struggle it is for life. She has worked throughout her life to transform our minds and systems, she teased. To use one of her famous quotes, “If they come for me in the morning they will come for you in the night”.
She refused to endorse or participate in the Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March. Tonight she was pointing out that feminists must have a broad array of critical tools. Vocabulary in feminism needs to be shared. She believes in making feminist contradictions productive.
Dear to her heart is the role of women and their denied place in history. She cites that the Montgomery Bus boycott which was organised by a Black women, Jo Ann Robinson, is often credited to male leadership in the person of Martin Luther King. The role of Black women in the struggle is a continuous theme. You name a moment in the struggle and she finds the woman behind it. Rosa Parks was not some timid seamstress but an organiser, who demonstrated ably her cause, long before a young Minister from Alabama would lead the Civil Rights Movement.
The Women’s movement, she insisted must be a challenge to sexism, male superiority, homophobia, xenophobia, racism. Lose sight of that point and we make little change.
Black women and their place in history was touched on. Many years ago I experienced first-hand her passion for putting Black women at the fore front of the struggle. Ms Davis had attended the show ‘Black Heroes in The Hall of Fame’ at the Hackney Empire. As the script writer of Black Heroes, I wrote dialogue for all the various characters, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bishop Tutu, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis.
She was suitably impressed and joined the cast in the finale. On stage she stood next to me and the small talk started. Four minutes later we had a discussion in the wings. ‘How the hell did you write that,’ she enquired? How does it go? This was my cue to recite the words I had put into the mouth of her character. Quote: “The history of Black Liberation shows the important part that we Black women have played. From ancient times our warrior queens have gone where our men have feared to tread. But this does not mean fighting our Black brothers, together we stand, united, uncompromised and un-divided”
I repeated line by one final time, with nods of approval from the great lady. Some compliments remain private, only to be visited when your ability is doubted or questioned by others.
Our discussions led to the many women whose contributions in whatever avenue of life were ignored. Black Heroes she felt had made great strides in this direction. Addressing injustice is very important to her.
In the mid-eighties, I staged a Paul Robeson exhibition and Memorial Concert at London’s South Bank. The German Democratic Republic Government invited me to catalogue their recently acquired memorabilia on Robeson. Arriving in East Berlin, I was taken on the official tour reserved for “comrades “. A day at the Free Worker’s Holiday Camp; a welcome at the Paul Robeson School, a tour of all their public arts, access to the house of their most famous playwright Bertolt Brecht. And that was only the start. I glimpsed first hand and experienced what it felt to live in a Communist State. Much the same as Angela Davis 15 years before. The waiting list for a Skoda car was 20 years.
Now at the Festival Hall it was time to sum up her position, where she stands on the issues, Ms Davis introduced the notion of Reparations. Yes we need reparations she insisted, through the State of Economic Institutions; through education; through jobs; housing; through the abolishment of prisons. Each item on her list was greeted with louder applause. Some at the back were already on their feet in rapture. I thought, ‘do you know what you are applauding?’ It was at this point that the ghost appeared. Echoes of a Ten Point Program, a 1967 document, printed in the Black Panther, newspaper. And I quote:
(1) We want power to determine the destiny of the Black Community
(2) We need full employment for our people
(4) We want decent housing. Fit for the shelter of human beings.
(5) We want education for our people.
(8) We want freedom for all Black men held in Federal, State, County and City Prisons and Jails.
Yes every single mantra that night, already written in the Black Panthers Ten Point Program. Yes the ghost of Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton was clearly in the house. Here is someone whose world view had not changed, but history and society had caught up with her solutions. Now they were being applauded. Back then they came under the banner ‘Revolutionary Humanism’. Today it’s Social Justice. Times have changed but not Angela Davis.
Angela Davis was speaking with Jude Kelly on International Women’s Day 2019 at the Southbank, London
JD Douglas is a writer, poet, director, and critic. He is the script writer of the following plays: Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame, JA Story, Reet Petite-the Jackie Wilson story, Chatham Conversation, Black Heroes of Kent, Swing Time at the Palace, Toussaint, The Life of Muhammad Ali and Samuel Coleridge remembered. The Great Debate.
Books: Caribbean Man’s Blues, Paul Robeson; A Portrait
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