We should be wary of deifying Angela Davis. Deification strips people (but particularly Black people, and especially Black women) of our humanity.
I’m like 99.9% sure this is what you, dear reader, thought as soon as you read this title. But, bear with me, as I promise it’s not what you think.
To be clear, Angela Yvonne Davis is a force of nature. A communist, Marxist force of nature, who just so happens to be a lesbian (coincidence? I think not!). And to the uninitiated and untrained eye—in the plainest sense—it would make total sense to deify her. Probably one of the greatest Aquarians to ever Aquarius (unless we’re talking Toni Morrison), Davis has penned 10 books that focus on race, class, feminism (as demonstrated in her book Women, Race, and Class) and the necessary connections that need to be made between all three to attain liberation; as well as America’s prison industrial complex (as demonstrated in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?). But besides her literary contributions, her activism spans decades.
Davis’ organizing and advocacy stemmed and started, like all great people and things, from the influence of another Black woman: Davis’s mother Sallye Bell Davis—who greatly inspired her communist and Marxist intellectual thought. Bell Davis, was a top organizer and officer for the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), whose primary focus was forging important community alliances among Black people in the South. It was also abundantly clear that the organization had communist leanings and was one of Davis’s earlier instances of exposure to that school of thought. And it was soon actualized when she attended Elisabeth Irwin High School and was subsequently recruited by Advance, a communist youth group.
She only got more radical as time went on. Seriously. While she balanced racking up degrees from universities, like Brandeis University, the University of Frankfurt, and the University of California at San Diego, she became increasingly active in the civil rights movement. Particularly, when she heard the news of the Birmingham church bombing of 1963—as she knew the victims personally. Soon after, Davis joined the ranks of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and quickly became a member of the Black Panther Party (the BPP). But of course, lots of people forget that Davis was a member of the BPP for like, two seconds, and left because of the widespread misogynoir among the group and its, for lack of a better term, [male] “leaders”. After leaving the BPP, she joined the Che-Lumumba Club (an all-Black branch of the Communist Party in Los Angeles).
Her communist beliefs would go on to simultaneously and continuously radicalize her thoughts about the poor conditions of prisons and how they should be abolished (a la The Soledad Brothers) AND create complications in her life that included getting fired by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). She was eventually put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List (à la J. Edgar Hoover) because of her “connection” to Jonathan P. Jackson (younger brother of George Jackson). Jackson would later go on to storm a Marin County courtroom and take several hostages in order to secure the release of The Soledad Brothers. Davis was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping in connection with a judge who was killed during the extended hostage situation and eventually was acquitted of all charges—notably after she chose to make the opening defense address herself, despite having a pretty stacked team of defense attorneys.
And listen. What I’ve mentioned above is just the SparkNotes version of her life.
Why does this matter? Well, even if one is not in favor of deifying the venerable activist-educator-author, I could understand why one would do it. I mean, besides her very long and documented history of being an educator and an activist, her books have greatly influenced what we consider [Black] feminist thought and laid the groundwork for understanding how sinister the prison system is in the United States, its’ undeniable connection to slavery, and why we must advocate for its abolition. Hell, I’d personally contend that you don’t get illuminating books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander without the heavy lifting Davis does in Are Prisons Obsolete?
I’d also argue that the rush to deify her comes from an interesting concoction that includes celebrity, the co-opting of civil rights movements, and the pesky phenomenon of the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility that Black women experience in general. There are many examples of all of these things colliding, but none are so clear as, let’s say, the emergence of civil rights “leaders” and “activists” like DeRay McKesson and Shaun King. Both (it’s not coincidental that they are both [Black] men, though I caution myself on using the word Black with the latter) have quickly become attention leeches since their rise coincided with the fight for Black lives in Ferguson and the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter back in 2014. Since then, despite credible claims that both of these men are misusing the movement for their own purposes—including increasing celebrity status and, you know, allegedly pocketing disappearing money—the two have continued to masquerade as “leaders” of a movement they merely co-opted.
This has proven to be wildly problematic and, to be honest, unethical with the revived #BlackLivesMatter movement this year. While King runs around and pretends he is actually being useful in this moment (taking credit for shit he had nothing to do with), McKesson (with the help of Campaign Zero, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, and Samuel Sinyangwe) attempted to derail the current and ardent calls for the defunding and abolition of the police by advocating for more toothless and painfully liberal reform under #8CantWait. While the plan was later proven to not only be nonsensical but to have also embellished the details of the proposed estimate of a 72% drop in police violence, the damage was done and several celebrities and notable politicians ran with it, complicating the fight for defunding and abolition.
Of course, all of this is fucking irritating. In addition to being harmful. Not just because of the co-opting and the shameless grabbing at celebrity by these two (which is made easy by their status as men), but because people like Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, and Elaine Brown are alive. Very much alive. Many of us always look to our radical Black ancestors and Black elders to decide what to do in times like these. And here are these women, ancestors in the flesh. Elders who still walk among us. Who continue to produce important pieces of thought that aid in the struggle for Black lives. And yet, people would rather defer to charlatans like McKesson and King.
It’s fucked up. It truly is. And thereby makes it completely understandable that people would seek to combat this attempted erasure and not-so-subtle attempt to render these elders invisible by, well, deifying them. And elevating them to similar celebrity status. Which, while well-intentioned, is simply not the way to go. Mainly because deification strips people (but particularly Black people, and especially Black women) of our humanity and opens the door for hyper-scrutiny. Mainly because deification makes it so that people don’t even find it necessary to engage her actual politics before deciding to “stan her” or remember that she, is in fact, a Black lesbian. And a proud one too.
But mostly, as Davis mentions herself in Freedom Is A Constant Struggle, because it puts the focus back on “leaders” and highlights that a lot of people still thank that movements like these require one “leader”. One messianic figure. An “MLK”. Or a “Malcolm”. A “Rosa”. A “Harriet”. But the problem with this thinking is that it obscures the fact that all these “leaders” mentioned worked in tandem with each other during all of these movements. That no forward movement would have been made toward liberation in these instances without participation and collaboration between many and different Black people. Between Black people with different politics. And between Black people with completely different ideas about how to tackle the sort of injustices facing all Black people.
So. While the fight for Black lives will continue, it must be made clear that deification can’t be part of it. Otherwise, we risk the movement being derailed by the corrupting power of not only celebrity… but also? Ego.
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