When Angela Davis appears before an audience today, something special happens. Perhaps it’s that the author, activist and longtime public intellectual seems to step out of time, out of our Afro-ed and fist-pumped collective memories of her, to join us now, ever searching and evolving.
Much has happened to Davis, and us, since Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s blood began to dry, Panther Power’s hour had begun to fade, and Toni Morrison edited Davis’s now-classic autobiography. She has politically voyaged from the Communist Party to the Peace and Freedom Party to the Green Party. Her personal identity has evolved from mid-20th century symbol of youthful resistance to 21st century retired professor pushing 70. Her legendary fight for imprisoned revolutionary writer George Jackson, killed by prison authorities 41 years ago this very month, has echoes in her constant support of the no-longer-on-Death-Row imprisoned revolutionary writer Mumia Abu-Jamal. And, in her newest book The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues (City Lights, 2012), a collection of speeches spanning from 1994 to 2009, she pilots her radical intellectual ship from the conservative reality of centrist President Bill Clinton, through the terror tunnel of the early 2000s and arriving at the early euphoria of centrist President Barack Obama.
Davis’s thoughts are important to absorb and not just because she’s proving she’s not at all trapped on our t-shirts. They engage in a very powerful way; delivered in her professorial monotone, they read (and are “heard”) in stark contrast to the pop-oriented infotainment roadshows of talking-head intellectuals Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry. Davis connects the ideological dots of racism, anti-immigration, corporate power, the prison industrial complex and gay rights from the last two decades into the disturbing portraits we now see on 24-hour cable news. “We speak today,” she explains, “about a crisis in contemporary social movements. The crisis has been produced in part by our failure to develop a meaningful and collective historical consciousness.” Not exactly the kind of sound-bite CNN would be fiending for in-between commercials.
The only fault of this work is that is stops three years too soon. What does Davis think of President Obama’s first term? How much does she think Obama is both a major victory for progressives and a major disappointment like Clinton? (Her 1994 comments on Black leadership’s muteness—“Black people play a major role in immunizing the Clinton presidency against mass critique”—scream for a 2012 Barack remix.) Is the price of the ticket—a Nobel Peace-laureate approving mechanized drones waging videogame-like war on citizens of Pakistan—worth the healthcare bill and the pieces of a DREAM-ACT? All unanswered, reminding us that a book, now more than ever, is the beginning of a discussion, not its end. That difficult dialogue is sorely missed, leaving an intellectual vortex; her complex quest for freedom should have steered her right into the haze of this election year.
This document of contemporary thought by a major world-historical figure, Davis' first full-length book in almost a decade, makes it timelessly clear that while no freedom fight will ever be easy—“We can’t rely on simple categories”—every real triumph, however small and short-lived, will always be worth it.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., a Lecturer in the Communication Studies Department of Morgan State University, is the co-editor with Jared Ball of “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” (Black Classic Press), which will be published next month.