Notes on Angela Davis.
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
ANGELA DAVIS (1944-): Angela Davis is now a Professor Emerita at the University of California at Santa Cruz whose focus is the History of Consciousness (and so much more). Angela Davis, An Autobiography (Random House, 1974) is closely connected to the story of George Jackson as detailed in Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (Coward McCann, 1970). The note on George Jackson can’t help but overlap with the story of Angela Davis.
But first do yourself a favor and read James Baldwin’s “History is a Weapon: An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis,” dated November 19, 1970, and written from Europe, which ends:
If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.
If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
Note how Baldwin’s two quick paragraphs at the end of his letter echo the words of the German Protestant theologian Martin Niemöller (1892-1984):
First the Nazis went after the Jews, but I wasn’t a Jew, so I did not react. Then they went after the Catholics, but I wasn’t a Catholic, so I didn’t object. Then they went after the workers, so I didn’t stand up. Then they went after the Protestant clergy and by then it was too late for anybody to stand up. [Quoted by Stephen Jay Gould in “Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History” (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1983, p. 278).
Also note that Angela Davis’s Autobiography begins on August 9, 1970, two days before she will go into “hiding from the police and grieving over the death of someone I loved. Two days earlier, in the house [of her friend Helen] perched on a hill in Los Angeles’ Echo Park, I learned of the Marin County Courthouse revolt and the death of my friend Jonathan Jackson. Two days earlier I had never heard of Ruchell Magee, James McClain or William Christmas—the three San Quentin prisoners who, along with Jonathan, had been involved in the revolt which left him, McClain and William Christmas dead. But on that evening, it seemed as though I had known them a very long time” (3).
The next section begins eleven days later when she and a courageous friend, David Poindexter, are in New York, Angela having been “underground about two months.” She is wearing the wig that her friend Helen supplied for her in Los Angeles (wigs will become prominent before very long). As Angela Davis tells the story, they see a movie, then return to their motel. They ride the elevator up to the seventh floor. David goes ahead to check out the room. The moment when he turns the key in the lock, a door opens on the other side of the corridor. Now agents surround them. “Are you Angela Davis?” comes from all directions. The wig is ripped off of her head, guns come out. Remember, thanks to J. Edgar Hoover, she is on the “Ten Most Wanted” list. At the prison she is fingerprinted and learns she must submit to a rectal and vaginal examination. By one a.m. she is booked into the jail. The ordeal will last until June 4, 1971, almost seventeen months later.
Lastly, the Autobiography is more than the story of Angela Davis and George Jackson. It is also the vivid history of the young black girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, who knew as friends the four black girls who were killed in the September 1963 KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. That she learned from reading the International Herald Tribune while studying philosophy in Europe. She completed her degree from Brandeis University, graduating Magna Cum Laude, and going on to a distinguished career which culminated in the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It’s a fascinating side note that, in the Acknowledgments that precede Davis’s autobiography, the first person mentioned is an editor at Random House whom Davis got “to work with and get to know,” and who is “a magnificent writer and inspiring Black woman,” whose name happens to be Toni Morrison.