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 Peter Adamson

Vilem Mudroch on 17 January 2024

Davis and the Soviets

Hi Peter,
On the whole, great podcasts, congratulations. And while I do appreciate your efforts to present all these philosophers, from the Pre-Socratics to CRT, in a positive light, I have, as one of the millions of victims of Marxism, all kinds of problems with the Africana Marxists. In this specific case, just for starters, why is it difficult to accept the fact that Angela Davis has suffered for all her adult life from the proverbial blindness in her left eye? The Solzhenitsyn anecdote appears, inter alia, in the Wiki article on Davis; there is also a note there on her view of the function of the Berlin Wall, “where she laid flowers at the memorial for Reinhold Huhn, an East German guard who had been killed by a man who was trying to escape with his family across the border in 1962. Davis said, "We mourn the deaths of the border guards who sacrificed their lives for the protection of their socialist homeland" and "When we return to the USA, we shall undertake to tell our people the truth about the true function of this border."” If this account is true, then Davis probably totally unthinkingly and uncritically accepted the ludicrous justification of the Wall by Walter Ulbricht, who claimed that the Wall was not meant to keep East Germans from escaping to the West but to protect socialism. Would she then not have justified the killing by the border guards of potential escapees on the grounds that these people had been guilty of failing to appreciate the benefits of living in their socialist paradise? More in the way of just a minor detail, she herself clearly never had a problem with the fact that she, along with the socialist elites, could travel freely in and out of the Soviet block, while for the vast majority of the population such travel was just a dream; to leave permanently, many people literally did risk their lives.

In reply to by Vilem Mudroch

Peter Adamson on 17 January 2024

Davis and East Germany

Well, I tend to doubt that she did anything (especially anything so provocative) "unthinkingly and uncritically." I wouldn't defend those comments about the Wall obviously but we need to understand her, and Claudia Jones who also seems in retrospect naive about the Soviet Union, within historical context: during the Cold War it may well have seemed that criticizing the US necessarily implied being in favor of the East Bloc countries, and vice versa. So such remarks are part of a larger picture of their thought.  

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Vilem Mudroch on 18 January 2024

more on Davis and the Soviets

Sorry, I’m still not convinced. There are historical contexts and then there are individual actions. The former tend to lead to certain kinds of attitudes and behaviour but the actions of individual human beings within the historical givens are hardly ever uniform; we are indeed free (even if only in the compatibilist sense of the word) to follow the crowd or not. I must admit that I’m very pleased to hear from your Africana podcasts that many of the Africana philosophers were not Marxists and were even critical of Marxism, nor did very many display the same kind of a naive stance toward the Soviet Union as Claudia Jones or Angela Davis did. Some other explanation for Davis’ defence of the imprisonment of Eastern European dissidents and of the Berlin Wall would be needed (provided the stories are true).

On another note, are you planning on presenting the views of Afro-American conservatives, people like Thomas Sowell? Even if one doesn’t always agree with Sowell’s views, the man is highly intelligent and has a lot to say about a broad range of problems, related to Africana issues as well as numerous other topics.

In reply to by Vilem Mudroch

Peter Adamson on 18 January 2024


I guess not on Sowell, unless Chike is planning to include him in the penultimate episode on professional philosophers (but it looks like Sowell was an economist, at least in terms of academic affiliation). We did look at E. Franklin Frazier who I think it would be fair to characterize as a conservative.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Vilem Mudroch on 19 January 2024

Sowell, Davis and the Wall

Given your broad conception of philosophy, Sowell would count as a philosopher, regardless of his academic affiliation. As far as Angela Davis, the Wall and the Eastern European dissidents are concerned, I have a hard time understanding the reasons for your incredulity about Solzhenitsyn’s account of Angela Davis but you possibly have a hard with my reaction, so maybe we can just agree to disagree?

In reply to by Vilem Mudroch

Peter Adamson on 19 January 2024


Yes that may well be true, about Sowell. Actually to be honest there is a more general problem here, which is that once one gets to (say) 1600 or so, the idea of covering "everyone who was a philosopher" in my broader sense is just nonsense. There were numerous figures we only touched on in the Africana series who could have had their own episode, like Padmore and Lumumba. So I wouldn't claim that what we did here was to cover everyone one could cover. The idea was more to tell a comprehensive and comprehensible story, and I do think or at least hope we did. I'm still feeling my way in terms of the implications of this same problem for, say, the 17th century. 

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Vilem Mudroch on 20 January 2024

17th century

Since in the course of answering a question on Africana you mention the 17th century, I assume that you’re busy working out a plan for that new series of podcasts. So here a comment from me about the 17th century rather than Africana. I guess you might have already looked at the four Grundriss volumes on the 17th century; they do provide a decent overview of all that material, even if the volumes are somewhat outdated by now. The one called “England” was the least well done, mainly because the editor had little knowledge of British philosophy (it actually covers Great Britain as well as Harvard University; the name of the volume was justified by pointing to the fact that in the German speaking world Great Britain was invariably called England; for the 18th century this nonsense was not repeated, in part thanks to yours truly). The volume on France is far better though, and the parts on Spain and Italy are fine too. The volume on Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe must be the best, since it took us over twenty years to complete it (haha); it will also be the least outdated, since it was the last to appear. Similarly to the Islam volume, to which you have contributed, the 17th century is clearly structured, with emphasis on grouping the authors into schools of thought, institutions of learning, academies etc. That should be a help to anybody looking at the 17th century, even if in the end you decide to divide up things differently. Of course, it’s also possible that you’ve already got everything set up on the 17th century, in which case please do disregard my remarks. Should you, however, have any questions about the 17th century, do feel free to ask. It’s been a while for me but I do have a good memory.

In reply to by Vilem Mudroch

Peter Adamson on 20 January 2024

17th century

Great, thanks! No I am FAR from having the 17th c all figured out, but you're right that the Überweg is a good resource that I should check out when I get there. For now my head is more in the Counterreformation but I think/hope that over summer 2024 I will start to make more concrete plans for the 17-18th c in France and the Low Countries, which is what I will be covering first, starting around the turn of the year I think or maybe a little sooner.

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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Africana Philosophy in the Twentieth Century

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