Volume II, Number 2, Fall 2006

"'Revolution Is a Serious Thing": Angela Davis's Autobiography as a Prison Narrative'" by Nina Bosnicova

Nina Bosnicova is a Ph.D. student of English and American literature at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Email: bosnicova@hotmail.com.

The notion of imprisonment has played an important role in the genre of African American autobiography since its beginnings in the slavery era. Slave narrators severely criticized the degradation of human beings by the institution of slavery. In more contemporary times, imprisonment in African American autobiography has often been used on a symbolic level, as in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), showing how racism and sexism of the American society put cage-like limits on the lives of African American women. This paper discusses the prison experience of Angela Davis as reflected in her life story from 1974 entitled Angela Davis: An Autobiography. The paper should shed light on the workings of the American prison system as a site of racial and political repression. It should also show how an imprisoned human being, in particular a politically conscious one, is able to craft out of the prison’s space of subjugation an effective field of resistance. Davis’s oppositional (communist and feminist) consciousness, as will be seen, helps her discover valuable political energy in everyday aspects of the prison life. Not only does Davis actively support the collective resistance of her fellow prisoners, she also develops her own individual forms of protest.

Although Davis was arrested on the charges of kidnapping, conspiracy and murder, she tries to prove throughout her life story that these were only a made-up pretext. In reality, Davis was imprisoned because of her political convictions and activities under the Federal Government’s program called COINTELPRO which targeted political dissidents. Davis presents herself as a political prisoner and sees her membership in the Communist Party as the most important rationale for her incarceration. Even if she does not stress race in linkage to her own arrest, she makes it the basis of her analysis of the imprisonment of other women she encounters in prison. In the New York House of Detention where she is first held, she notices that “all the women were either Black or Puerto Rican” (Davis, Autobiography 19). The point that Davis is implicitly making through this information and that she keeps reiterating in her theoretical pieces is that “the racial imbalance in incarcerated populations” should be viewed as “evidence of structural racism,” rather than “a consequence of the assumed criminality of black people” (Davis, “Race” 268). Talking about the difference between jail and prison, Davis develops the argument further when she says that “because the jail system is inherently biased in the favor of relatively well-off, jails are disproportionately inhabited by the poor, who cannot afford the fee” (Davis, Autobiography 61-62). In Davis’s understanding, of course, poverty in the U.S., more often than not, goes hand in hand with the racial minority membership, thus making the majority of the incarcerated population non-white. Davis also realizes that racism affects not only who mostly ends up in prison, but also who is treated more favorably while there. Witnessing the handcuffing procedure in the Marin County Jail which involved three prisoners, she notices that only a black woman and a Chicana woman are handcuffed while “the matrons had done nothing to restrain [. . .] [the white woman’s] movements” (Davis, Autobiography 298).

Davis discovers racist practices in other aspects of the prison system as well. For instance, she explores how the country’s racism contributes to the choice of who, in most cases, gets employed as a prison guard. A lot of the matrons Davis encounters in prison are black women. She learns that they had been driven “by necessity to apply for this kind of job” (Davis, Autobiography 44). First disadvantaged by the society’s racism and sexism in their access to well-paid jobs, they are, moreover, consciously used by the State to dispel the possibility of racial (and gender) solidarity among African American women in prison. As Davis observes: “Like their predecessors, the Black overseers, they were guarding their sisters in exchange for a few bits of bread” (Davis, Autobiography 44). Not only does Davis point to the historical continuity of racism on behalf of the State by comparing her own era with that of slavery times; she also manifests the inextricable intertwining of racism and the economy in the U.S. Davis, further, tells the story of being put in a cell next to a white, psychologically disturbed woman who suffered from fantasies of being sexually attacked by a black man. Davis is conscious that the placement of the woman next to her was a part of the prison’s effort to “break” her through the white woman’s racism (Davis, Autobiography 35). Davis makes the story of the woman’s psychological illness symbolical of the illness of the American society at large. In Davis’s perception, racism is pathological; it is a “plague [that] infects every joint, muscle and tissue of social life in this country,” prisons included (Davis, Autobiography 37).

Davis devotes a considerable amount of space to the critical description of the conditions of the cells into which she is placed. For instance, she describes her cell in the Santa Clara jail as “subhuman,” since it is extremely cold and the leaking toilet leaves the floor covered with water (Davis, Autobiography 324). Davis, however, makes sure to inform the reader that the lack of hygiene in prisons, the insufficiency of space and the cold were by far not the worst obstacles she had to struggle against during her incarceration. As a political prisoner, she receives special treatment that often includes her isolation from other prisoners as well as a 24-hour surveillance of all her daily activities. Davis is conscious of the jailers’ apprehensions of her “contagiousness” as a political prisoner and a Communist. She is frequently placed in solitary confinement because the prisons’ officials “feared the impact the mere presence of a political prisoner would have on the other women” (Davis, Autobiography 21).

Davis ensures that her oppositional consciousness be visible already on the linguistic level of her autobiography. The rich use of words such as “comrades,” “brother” and “sister” reveal her conviction about the need for unity, familial trust, and love among the members of African American community if social change is to be brought about. Davis’s occasional calling of police officers “pigs” and her suggestion that the word “fascism” could be used “interchangeably with the word ‘racism’” is strategic (Davis, Autobiography 198). Such “renaming and reframing [. . .] facilitates an analysis of the dynamics of power and domination while also making implied connections to other manifestations of state repression across historical and geographic boundaries” (Perkins 84).

In addition to her adherence to Communism, Davis manifests strong feminist consciousness. Davis’s thought, as reflected in her autobiography, clearly belongs to the beginnings of black feminism, since it corresponds to its tendency to offer a critique of not only sexism, but also class and race oppression, seeing the three as inextricably connected (Roth 71). This is most visible in Davis’s criticism of the sexist attitudes of the male members of the Black Power Movement with which she was involved for a few years. As she recollects: “I was criticized very heavily by male members of Karenga’s organization for doing ‘a man’s job.’ Women should not play leadership roles, they insisted” (Davis, Autobiography 159). Or later: “By playing such a leading role in the organization, some of them insisted, we were aiding and abetting the enemy, who wanted to see Black men weak” (Davis, Autobiography 180). Davis’s condemnation is oriented primarily at the black men in the movement who are unwilling to break free from the narrow confines of chauvinist thinking and who fight oppression (racist) while not being wholly liberated from oppressive (sexist) attitudes themselves. The point she ultimately tries to make in her life story is that

adherence to values that perpetuate the patriarchal order (resulting in, among other things, [. . .] the devaluation of women’s work) hurt African Americans as a group by undermining the solidarity needed to mount unified (i.e. across gender) resistance to shared racial oppression. (Perkins 104)

Davis’s feminism is, moreover, projected onto her depiction of her prison experience. Davis aims at showing the reader the particular nature of female imprisonment. She strongly criticizes the fact that one of the “jail outlets” designed as a source of pastime for the prisoners is a space in which women can do household tasks, such as washing and ironing (Davis, Autobiography 309). The assumptions behind the creation of such an outlet, according to Davis, are highly sexist and lie in the prison officials’ reasoning that “women, because they are women, lack an essential part of their existence if they are separated from their domestic chores” (Davis, Autobiography 309). Race and gender, moreover, intersect in that black women are ordered to do the washing when no white women volunteer to do it. Further, one of the procedures reserved for female prisoners only is the vaginal examination done each time prisoners leave the “jail for a court appearance, and upon their return” (Davis, Autobiography 22). Davis also comments on the way the female prisoners’ bodies become sexualized through the matrons’ voyeurism. As she observes: “Female jailers must have something of the voyeuse in them – even those who are not homosexual inevitably stand and watch you with deep interest while you strip down to the nude” (Davis, Autobiography 324-5). The female body, interestingly, is made an object of medical and sexual gaze when it serves the prison’s disciplining and harassment of the prisoners, but refused proper treatment when it needs one. Davis herself develops a serious skin disease, for instance, as a result of the prison’s unwillingness to provide her with a suitable medical examination.

Pregnant women, according to Davis, are likewise ignored and denied necessary health care. She tells the story of a pregnant prisoner just about to deliver a baby who was not paid any attention at all by the matrons. As Davis suggests in her article “Outcast Mothers and Surrogates,” this attitude of the jailers could, in part, be explained through their “ideological links to the cult of motherhood” (363). They have nothing but scorn for pregnant prisoners because they perceive them as the mothers who “have failed to find themselves in motherhood” (Davis, “Outcast” 363). Pregnant prisoners are viewed as “undomesticated and hypersexual” and as reproductive of the “culture of poverty” and therefore as undeserving of respect and care (Davis, “Race” 275). The incident with the neglected prisoner in labor pain opens up a number of questions for Davis: “Were they going to let her have the baby right here in this dump? Even if they did take her to a halfway decent hospital, what would happen to the infant once it was born? Would it be placed in an orphanage while she did her time?” (Davis, Autobiography 22). Davis clearly counts on the reader’s familiarity with the experience of slave women who were often separated from their infants at the moment of birth and expects them to draw a parallel between her own time and that of slavery in terms of the black mother’s position in American society.

Another area in which Davis’s feminist consciousness comes through is her emphasis on the female characters in her autobiography. She does not present herself as an isolated character, but rather makes sure to depict herself as a “self-in-relation” (to other women) (Smith 33). Davis’s mother and sister have a strong presence in her story. Both function not only as sources of emotional and psychological support for Davis, but also as political activists fighting for Davis’s acquittal. It is not a coincidence that Davis’s main attorney during her numerous trials, Margaret Burnham, as well as another lawyer who joins Davis’s defense team later, is a woman. As Davis explains: “We felt it was politically important for women to assume visible roles in the defense” (Davis, Autobiography 328). Davis also names a woman – Charlene Mitchell – as a direct influence in her political development and her decision to join the Communist Party. The mutually caring relationship that Davis tries to develop with other female prisoners as well as with some of the guards can similarly be seen as a reflection of her feminist sensibility. Finally, Davis’s repeated “signifying” upon women’s slave narratives, in terms of themes, style and vocabulary, should be looked upon as her feminist-oriented effort to acknowledge and pay tribute to her female political and literary ancestors, such as Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince (Gates 75).

Davis’s effort to shape prison into a site of political resistance is very self-conscious. She perceives every act and every moment in the prison as potentially charged with valuable political energy. From the very beginning of her imprisonment, Davis ponders over the “possibility of collective political activity in jail” (Davis, Autobiography 61). Whenever allowed contact with other prisoners, Davis becomes their political mentor, making them familiar with the communist ideology and the nature of their own social position in the United States. Conscious of the poor library resources in the prison “whose sole function was to create emotional paths of escape,” she tries to disseminate political books, such as George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, as a way to help the prisoners become more conscious politically (Davis, Autobiography 52). Davis also convinces the prisoners to become participants in the demonstration that is taking place outside the New York House of Detention as a part of the effort to free political prisoners. Davis’s fellow prisoners end up shouting political slogans and banging on the cell bars as a way to protest the injustice of their own and Davis’s incarceration.

Another collective act of resistance that Davis ignites is a group hunger strike which starts as Davis’s individual reaction to her solitary confinement, but is soon joined by other women. By fasting, both Davis and other prisoners

deliberately objectify themselves, turning the institution’s privacy-invading devices back upon themselves. The gaze of the incarcerators is forced to witness a display of fasting bodies and the fast’s effects: weakness, dizziness, scurvy, diarrhea, and eventual immobility. (Hileman 63)

Through the hunger strike, the prisoners employ the body “as a sign of their power” (Hileman 64). Davis’s presence in the prison awakens and energizes the oppositional political consciousness of the prisoners and teaches them how to use that consciousness as a means to resist their current status.

Davis also discusses various forms of resistance that the prisoners have developed prior to her arrival. One of the strategies used by the prisoners (and highly reminiscent of slavery) is a communication system called grapevine through which the prisoners find out the information they are often denied by prison officials, such as the dates of their trials or transfers to other prisons. Davis, for instance, learns through the grapevine that she is soon to be moved to solitary confinement. Although limited, the grapevine is yet an important source of empowerment, because it gives the prisoners at least some degree of control over the information connected to their own future existence. Davis is rather critical of the other two strategies of opposition that she discovers in prison. One is the existence of the prison subculture and the other is the presence of homosexuality linked with the attempt to create some kind of a family structure and family life. Davis writes that a whole system existed “through which the women could adopt their jail friends as relatives” (Davis, Autobiography 54). She understands that this system “served as a defense against the fact of being no more than a number” (Davis, Autobiography 54). Nevertheless, she rejects homosexual activities since she perceives them as preventing “many of the women from developing their personal dissatisfaction with the conditions around them into a political dissatisfaction, because the homosexual fantasy provided an easy and attractive channel for escape” (Davis, Autobiography 56). Davis’s rejection might partly spring from failing to see more intimate areas of human life, such as sexuality, as potentially effective and sufficiently serious sites of political opposition.

Davis realizes that the prison subculture, with “the rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives” was designed by prisoners as a means to “shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits” (Davis, Autobiography 53). She, nevertheless, calls it “a resistance of desperation” (Davis, Autobiography 53). What Davis sees as problematic about the strategy is that it tries to resist the system from within. As she puts it: “All its elements are based on an assumption that the prison system will continue to survive” (Davis, Autobiography 53). As a Communist, Davis, of course “votes” for revolution and prefers such tactics of resistance that are aimed at overthrowing the prison system in its entirety.

In addition to discussing the collective resistance she supported while in prison, Davis reveals to the reader a number of ways in which she was able to resist as an individual. The effort Davis makes in her autobiography to make the reader familiar with different kinds of oppositional behavior has to do with the fact that she conceived her book as a political autobiography. As such, her life story is to figure primarily as a pedagogical “tool for advancing political struggle” (Perkins xii). One of the oppositional strategies that Davis deploys, conscious that it was the prisons’ intent to “convert the [prison] population into specimens in a zoo,” is keeping herself mentally active (Davis, Autobiography 53). In her own words: “Getting totally involved in my work was a fundamental condition of survival and sanity” (Davis, Autobiography 300). Throughout her incarceration, Davis continues in her political writing, and while in the Marin County Jail, she publishes an anthology of her work, If They Come in the Morning, with the help of Bettina Aptheker. Not only does the work on the book keep Davis mentally alive; it is also expected to have social impact once it reaches the reading public. “We saw the book,” Davis writes, “as an instrument through which people could deepen their knowledge of repression, through which people could become acquainted with cases of political prisoners” (Davis, Autobiography 305).

Countering the prisons’ intent to break Davis emotionally and spiritually, she reacts politically by exerting an immense amount of control over her personal emotions, such as anger and pain. Rather than submitting to them, she consciously searches for their more effective outlet in sociopolitical meditation and intervention. Even the most personal event in the autobiography – the death of Jonathan Jackson to whom Davis was emotionally close – is handled in a very rational manner. As Davis reminisces: “I tried to dispel my blind rage over Jonathan’s death in order for my anger to become constructive” (Davis, Autobiography 279). Taking into account Davis’s extraordinary ability to discipline her emotional states, it seems absurd that during Davis’s trial in California, the prosecution chooses to present as the main motive for her “crimes” her uncontrolled passion for Jackson. Davis interprets the prosecution’s trial strategy as a reflection of “male chauvinism” (Davis, Autobiography 363) and feels solidarity with the female jurors who “too had known the experience of being accused because they were women of acting irrationally and according to emotions, rather than logic” (Davis, Autobiography 364).

Davis uses her body as a sign of power in a number of ways. Her Afro, for instance, becomes a statement of racial pride. The fact that the use of natural combs necessary for the upkeep of an Afro is prohibited in prisons proves that prison officials recognized the hairstyle as a political statement and therefore tried hard to limit its occurrence. Also, upon entering the court rooms where her trials are held, Davis always greets the audience by a raised fist, which is a gesture denoting black power and black solidarity. When attacked in the New York House of Detention by “the jail’s riot squad,” comprised of the male guards, Davis defends herself physically, overturning the stereotype of female physical weakness and submissiveness (Davis, Autobiography 69). Davis also defends herself verbally whenever the situation requires it. Her verbal defense often reminds one of the female slave narrators’, such as Harriet Jacobs’s or Mary Prince’s, use of “sass” as a way to protect themselves from their masters’ and mistresses’ offenses (Johnson 37). For instance, when one of the matrons feels it necessary to follow Davis to the bathroom, Davis responds: “Do you think I’m going to flush myself down the toilet?” (Davis, Autobiography 74). Davis also uses her voice as a source of resistance when she participates in the prohibited ritual of good night shouts with other prisoners. She sees the ritual as strengthening a sense of togetherness and community among the prisoners.

This paper has attempted to read Angela Davis’s autobiography as a prison narrative and to reveal ways in which racism permeated the American prison system in the 1970s when Davis was imprisoned. Davis combines a complex discussion of racism with the exploration of sexism and the particularity of the female imprisonment experience. She succeeds in creating out of the prison’s space of oppression an effective field of political resistance. The above analysis could, moreover, be looked at as an attempt to contribute to the general scholarly discussion of the genre of autobiography. Through the depiction of Angela Davis as first and foremost a political subject, the essay points to the constructed nature of the self in autobiographical works. The subjectivity to which the reader is exposed in Davis’s autobiography is clearly not a simple reflection of the autobiographers’ “true” self. Rather, it is a consciously crafted persona set to fulfill particular political tasks. The most important among these, of course, is to teach her fellow African Americans, and in particular African American women, how to effectively oppose racism and other forms of discrimination by which they are victimized in American society.

Works Cited

  • Davis, Angela. An Autobiography. New York: Bantam, 1974.
  • Davis, Angela Y. “Outcast Mothers and Surrogates: Racism and Reproductive Politics in the Nineties.” American Feminst Thought at Century’s End: A Reader. Ed. Linda S. Kauffman. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993.
  • Davis, Angela Y. “Race and Criminalization: Black Americans and the Punishment Industry.” The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Pantheon, 1997.
  • Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
  • Hileman, Sharon. “‘Yes, I Can’: Empowerment and Voice in Women’s Prison Narratives.” No Small World: Visions and Revisions of World Literature. Ed. Michael Thomas Carroll. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996.
  • Johnson, Yvonne. The Voices of African American Women: The Use of Narrative and Authorial Voice in the Works of Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. New York: Lang, 1998.
  • Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2000.
  • Roth, Benita. “The Making of the Vanguard Center: Black Feminist Emergence in the 1960s and 1970s.” Still Lifting, Still Climbing: African American Women’s Contemporary Activism. Ed. Kimberley Springer. New York: New York UP, 1999.
  • Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.