126. Fugitive for Justice: Angela Davis

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The eventful life and penetrating philosophy of Angela Davis, an icon of resistance deeply informed by Marxism and influential on black feminist thought.



Further Reading

• A.Y. Davis and B. Aptheker, If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (New York: 1971).

• A.Y. Davis, Angela Davis: an Autobiography (New York: 1974).

• A.Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: 1981).

• A.Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: 1999).

• J. James (ed.), The Angela Y. Davis Reader (Malden: 1998).


• C.A. Barnwell, “A Prison Abolitionist and Her Literature: Angela Davis,” CLA Journal 48 (2005), 308-35.

• J.M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography (Philadelphia: 1989).

• M.V. Perkins, Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties (Jackson: 2000).

• N. Roberts, "Angela Y. Davis: Abolitionism, Democracy, Freedom," in M.L. Rogers and J. Turner (eds), African American Political Thought: A Collected History (Chicago: 2021), 660-684.


Thomas Mirus on 18 June 2023

Davis's "solidarity"

In 1975, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told this story about Angela Davis:


"In our country, literally, for an entire year, we heard of nothing at all except Angela Davis. There was only Angela Davis in the whole world and she was suffering.... Little children in school were asked to sign petitions in defense of Angela Davis.... Although she didn't have too difficult a time in [American] jails, she came to recuperate in Soviet resorts. Some Soviet dissidents - but more importantly, a group of Czech dissidents - addressed an appeal to her: 'Comrade Davis, you were in prison. You know how unpleasant it is to sit in prison, especially when you consider yourself innocent. You have such great authority now. Could you help our Czech prisoners? Could you stand up for those people in Czechoslovakia who are being persecuted by the state?' Angela Davis answered:  'They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.' That is the face of Communism. That is the heart of Communism for you."

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

Peter Adamson on 19 June 2023


Wow that is quite a story - and quite literally hard to believe. Plausibility-wise it gets off to a rough start with her supposedly being treated gently in American prison (go read her autobiography) and then "recuperating in Soviet resorts." And I find it literally inconceivable that Davis would have said that anyone should rot in prison for any reason; I mean, people say uncharacteristic things sometimes, but much of her career has been devoted to opposing the very existence of prisons. 

I googled it and it looks like the source is Solzhenitsyn's Warning to the West. Would be interesting to know how he got hold of this supposed anecdote. 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ervin Dervisevic on 19 June 2023

Why is it hard to believe…

Why is it hard to believe that she supported people's prisons? She was a member of the Communist Party USA till 1991.

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Peter Adamson on 20 June 2023


Well, I don't find it hard to believe she would, shall we say, put the most favorable spin possible on what communist governments might do (though I actually don't think I ran across anything, pro or con, from her on the Soviet Union while reading up on her - unlike Claudia Jones - but of course I didn't read everything!). The thing I find implausible is that she would have been in favor of prisons specifically, since as we explain in the episode prison abolition and a critique of the whole idea of prison is one of the main features of her thought. 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ervin Dervisevic on 20 June 2023

Well, I did not read her…

Well, I did not read her work so I cannot argue one way or the other about her specifically.


However, she was a commited commie and significant part of Marxist(-Leninist) thinking are definitional games*. With that in mind, I could imagine Angela Davis thinking of and defining prisons as tools of capitalist and racist oppression. Therefore, people's prisons of Eastern Europe were not real prisons by definition since they were obviously not part of capitalist/racist oppression.


*Definitional games is what Raymond Aron calls "a distinction between the subtle or esoteric meaning and the literal or vulgar meaning of words."

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Peter Adamson on 20 June 2023


Sure, I can imagine that too; as I say, one would like to know the real source of the attributed quote. I'm just saying that, given that at first glance it conflicts very strongly with one of Davis' most fundamental and cherished positions, a healthy dose of skepticism would be a good first attitude to take. She was a controversial and hated figure, especially for anti-communists like this author; it is at least as easy to believe that scurrilous rumors would be perpetuated about her as to believe that she would say something so uncharacteristic. 

In reply to by Ervin Dervisevic

Andrew on 21 June 2023

To be honest, this just…

To be honest, this just simply reads as "oh, being a commie means someone is hypocritical and duplicitous (what you call definitional games), she was a commie so therefore she is hypocritical and duplicitous", and then just hypothesizing how she could be deceitful and hypocritical about her position on prisons.

In reply to by Andrew

Ervin Dervisevic on 22 June 2023

Not necessarily hypocritical…

Not necessarily hypocritical or duplicitous. On the contrary, I am trying to say that opposition to capitalist prisons and support for people's prisons is not a contradiction once we take into account that Davis may (sincerely) think of prisons as tools of capitalist/racist oppression. Hence, Lubyanka is not a prison but an educational facility where people are persuaded to understand the errors of their bourgeois ways.


Sarcasm aside, I am not arguing that she did say what Solzhenitsyn wrote. I have no idea. All I am saying is that it would not be surprising since there is no contradiction.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thomas Mirus on 25 June 2023

Her view on Soviet Union

Davis was a recipient of the Soviet Union's "Lenin Peace Prize" (there's some dark comedy for you). An article about various recipients of the prize says: "After her release, Davis went to the USSR several times, met with fans, participated in meetings of the Soviet women's movement, and performed at the Youth Festival. Before she was awarded the peace prize in 1979, she was awarded the Vladimir Lenin birthday medal and the title of Honorary Doctor of Moscow University in 1972."


So while I can't further substantiate Solzhenitsyn's anecdote, it's probably fair conclude at the very least that she didn't have much of a problem with the Soviet Union. (She certainly looked very happy in the picture of her getting the prize.) 

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

Peter Adamson on 25 June 2023

Back in the USSR

Ok, that makes sense and is not surprising - of course Claudia Jones gives us a precedent, she also visited the USSR and was very positive about the situation there. 

In reply to by Thomas Mirus

mehmet on 2 July 2023

This fits into my experience…

This fits into my experience of the leftists.. When somebody they support is harmed, they immediately object, and during that objection they always refer to universal principles like basic human rights, freedom of opinion and democracy..  But when their side harms or kills somebody, they never object.  

hydr on 10 September 2023


I followed the accusations above. I have no idea who said what. But I met Anglea Davis once and she was a very, very nice person. 

In reply to by hydr

Peter Adamson on 10 September 2023


Good to know! I believe Chike met her once too.

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