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Angela Davis on Reissue of Her 1974 Autobiography, Her Editor Toni Morrison, Internationalism & More

StoryJanuary 19, 2022
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Activist and scholar Angela Davis has released a new edition of her 1974 autobiography, first published and edited by Toni Morrison nearly 50 years ago. The book details Davis’s remarkable early life, from growing up in a section of Birmingham, Alabama, known as Dynamite Hill due to the frequency of bombings by the Ku Klux Klan, to her work with the Black Panther Party and the U.S. Communist Party. It also follows her 16-month incarceration, during which she faced the death penalty and was eventually acquitted on all charges, which influenced Davis’s focus thereafter on transforming the criminal justice system and building a movement for abolition. The edition includes a new introduction, which links the racial justice uprisings and events of the past decade to her lifelong learnings and work. “What struck me was how much has changed,” says Davis, on her process of publishing the new edition. “Both how much has changed and how little has changed.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our conversation with the legendary activist and academic Angela Davis. She has two new books out this week: Abolition. Feminism. Now., which she co-authored, and a new edition of her autobiography, which was first published and edited by Toni Morrison in 1974. The book details Angela Davis’s early life, from growing up in a section of Birmingham, Alabama, known as Dynamite Hill due to the frequency of bombings by the Ku Klux Klan, to her work with the Black Panther Party and the U.S. Communist Party. In 1970, the FBI named Angela Davis as one of the 10 most wanted fugitives. Once caught, she faced the death penalty in California. After being acquitted on all charges, she spent her life fighting to change the criminal justice system.

Angela Davis, before we ask you about this new edition of your autobiography, we want to go back over half a century to an interview you did from jail after you were arrested in 1970.

ANGELA DAVIS: There came a point where the revolutionary forces at work in the Black community began to express themselves in jails and prisons. However, unlike, say, the campuses, unlike any other area in the society, even the armed forces, the room for any kind of meaningful political activity is so narrow that obviously, as soon as the prison officials became aware of what was happening, they would confront these new developments with the most devastating kind of repression imaginable. And this is why, when I was involved in all of the problems at UCLA surrounding my membership in the Communist Party and when I was fighting for my job, I had just become aware of what was happening in the prisons, and I always insisted that people who were supporting me in my fight to retain my job, regardless of what my political beliefs and political activities were, had to look at the prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Angela Davis speaking from jail in 1970. Angela, in your new introduction to the updated edition of the book, you write, “When I decided to write the book after all, it was because I had come to envision it as a political autobiography that emphasized the people, the events and the forces in my life that propelled me to my present commitment.” It was the late great writer Toni Morrison who pushed you to do this. Can you talk about the vision you had together? I mean, you were in your twenties writing an autobiography.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah. I think that when Toni Morrison first raised the possibility of my writing an autobiography, I laughed, because it seemed that it was almost ridiculous to consider writing an autobiography in my twenties. However, we both came to the conclusion that it might be possible to write the kind of book that would be meaningful, that would not focus on me individually but would rather be more of a political autobiography. And I’m so thankful to Toni now, that she managed to convince me to write this book, not only because it helps to provide a historical record for the struggles that unfolded 50 years ago, but also because it allowed me to link the writing of this autobiography to other collective undertakings, such as the slave narrative.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Angela, I wanted to talk to you about this. You were, in essence, incubated or a product of what many call the Old Left, the Communist Party USA, but then moved more into the Black Panther Party and what would be called, I guess, the New Left of the radical revolutionaries within the African American community. Could you talk about that change in your life and the impact that the Panther Party had at that time in the African American community? I recall back then a report coming out that the FBI had done a poll and found that over a quarter of all African Americans were supportive of the Black Panther Party at the time, and J. Edgar Hoover was almost catatonic about that.

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yeah, I don’t know that I would characterize my development as a move away from what is referred to as the Old Left and toward formations such as the Black Panther Party. I sort of grew up with the Communist Party as a part of my coming-of-age experience. My mother and father had very close friends who were Black leaders in the Communist Party. And I’m thankful for that experience of recognizing how important it was and continues to be to situate struggles for Black liberation within a larger international framework. You know, we talked about the internationalism of the book we just published together, Abolition. Feminism. Now. And I’m thankful for the internationalism that helped me to recognize how important it was to link Black struggles to struggles of the working class in this country and struggles for African liberation, struggles unfolding in Latin America. And so, I don’t know whether I moved from one point to another, but rather attempted to find points of connection and interconnections among the various perspectives.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela, as you updated your autobiography and wrote a new introduction, what struck you most, as you reflect on your life now, what, almost half a century later, writing that autobiography in your twenties?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, first of all, I realized I could not update it. And in rereading it, revisiting it, I always expressed a sense of relief that I had actually written the book in my twenties, because I don’t know whether I would be able to write such a book today. But what struck me was how much has changed, both how much has changed and how little has changed. And, of course, my first impulse was to revise those expressions and those ways of thinking and knowing that made me almost cringe in rereading the book. By the way, I narrated the autobiography for an audiobook, so I literally had to read every single word aloud. And there were things, of course, I would have wanted to change, and I indicate this in the preface.

But then it became apparent to me that I was also providing a record of how our struggles over time had shaped the ways we think about issues. I point out, for example, that, initially, the language that I used to describe what was happening in women’s prisons was very homophobic. And I was a product of my time. And it is very, I should say, inspiring to recognize how far we have come, not only in the way we talk about sexuality, but the way we talk about gender and the way we are constantly challenging binary notions of gender. And all of these transformations have happened as a consequence of the fact that people have dedicated themselves to struggle, to struggle for an end to racism, to imperialism, to war, an end to misogyny. And let me say that in rereading that text —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.

ANGELA DAVIS: — I became aware of the absolute importance of antiracist, anti-capitalist, abolitionist feminism.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Angela Y. Davis, a world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist, distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Two new books out this week: an updated edition of her autobiography, it’s called Angela Davis: An Autobiography, and Abolition. Feminism. Now.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

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