Angela Y. Davis & Frederick Douglass: Political Literacy

Van Jones wasn’t the first outspoken black American to get derailed by fearful right-wingers. Forty years ago this month, a young, African-American woman scholar was fired from her teaching job at UCLA before classes even began. She wasn’t an internationally recognized black leader, author, or public speaker yet, but she soon would be—Angela Y. Davis. Defying her termination, she lectured anyway, and the texts of her talks are being published in book form for the first time in Narrative of a Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave, a New Critical Edition by Angela Y. Davis by City Lights Books. This essay is adapted from the book’s editor’s note. 

“The challenge of the twenty-first century,” writes Angela Y. Davis, “is not to demand equal opportunity to participate in the machinery of oppression. Rather, it is to identify and dismantle those structures in which racism continues to be embedded. This is the only way the promise of freedom can be extended to the masses of people.” Identifying and dismantling structures of institutional racism has been at the heart of Angela Davis’s activism, writing, and public speaking for over forty years, and her ceaseless analysis and advocacy to build networks of resistance is as timely, provocative, and inspired today as it was when she was writing insurgent essays from the Marin County jail. Her radical vision continues to inspire debate wherever and whenever she speaks—as when she spoke at Cornell last week, an event covered in the Oct. 21, 2009 edition of the Cornell Daily Sun.  


In her talks and writings, Angela has frequently referred to the spirit of resistance in the work of Frederick Douglass, and while researching a forthcoming book of her speeches I discovered a reference to a rare, out-of-print pamphlet by her about Douglass published in 1971 by the NY Committee to Free Angela Davis. Titled Lectures on Liberation, the pamphlet was originally sold for fifty cents a copy to raise funds for Angela’s legal defense; I purchased it online for forty dollars. When the slim, red staple-bound pamphlet arrived, I was riveted from the first lines:


The idea of freedom has justifiably been a dominating theme in the history of Western ideas. Man has been repeatedly defined in terms of his inalienable freedom. One of the most acute paradoxes present in the history of Western society is that while on a philosophical plane freedom has been delineated in the most lofty and sublime fashion, concrete reality has always been permeated with the most brutal forms of unfreedom, of enslavement. In ancient Greece where, so we are taught, democracy had its source, it cannot be overlooked that in spite of all the philosophical assertions of man’s freedom, in spite of the demand that man realize himself through exercising his freedom as a citizen of the polis, the majority of the people in Athens were not free. Women were not citizens and slavery was an accepted institution. Moreover, there was definitely a form of racism present in Greek society, for only Greeks were suited for the benefits of freedom: all non-Greeks were called barbarians and by their very nature could not be deserving or even capable of freedom.  


In this context, one cannot fail to conjure up the image of Thomas Jefferson and the other so-called Founding Fathers formulating the noble concepts of the Constitution of the United States while their slaves were living in misery. In order not to mar the beauty of the Constitution and at the same time to protect the institution of slavery, they wrote about “persons held to service or labor,” a euphemism for the word slavery, as being exceptional types of human beings, persons who do not merit the guarantees and rights of the Constitution. 


Is man free or is he not? Ought he be free or ought not he be free? The history of Black Literature provides, in my opinion, a much more illuminating account of the nature of freedom, its extent and limits, than all the philosophical discourses on this theme in the history of Western society. Why? For a number of reasons. First of all, because Black literature in this country and throughout the world projects the consciousness of a people who have been denied entrance into the real world of freedom. [1] 



As an editor, I became inspired by the possibility of publishing Lectures on Liberation alongside Frederick Douglass. What better political moment could there be to publish Angela Davis and Frederick Douglass together—two of the most important abolitionist intellectuals in U.S. history—to a new generation of activists and educators? I called Angela to share my excitement at having read the pamphlet and during conversation the idea clicked to publish her Lectures on Liberation together with Narrative of a Life of a Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave.  


The original Lectures on Liberation pamphlet contains three texts—two lectures on Frederick Douglass that Davis delivered 40 years ago this semester, and a letter of support signed by over two dozen of her fellow faculty at UCLA one year later when Angela was in jail and fighting not for her job but for her life. Her colleagues’ inspired introduction describes the political context in which the lectures were delivered and their broader significance: “It was,” they write, “a vindication of academic freedom and democratic education. For the lectures are a part of an attempt to bring to light the forbidden history of the enslavement and oppression of black people, and to place that history in an illuminating philosophical context. At the same time, they are sensitive, original and incisive; the work of an excellent teacher and a truly fine scholar.” [2] 


At the time Richard Nixon was president of the United States and Ronald Reagan was governor of California. Angela Davis was in her twenties. She was a young, multi-lingual scholar who had graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University, and while studying under Herbert Marcuse to earn her doctorate she had accepted a two-year teaching gig in the philosophy department at the University of California in Los Angeles. On July 1, 1969, William T. Divale, an undercover agent of the F.B.I., published a statement in the Daily Bruin that the UCLA philosophy department has just hired an assistant professor who was a Communist, and on July 9, 1969 the San Francisco Examiner identified the professor to be Angela Y. Davis. [3] When the news reached Ronald Reagan and the Board of Regents, they fired Davis before the semester had begun. Her termination sparked considerable controversy and protest. Historic television coverage from that time can be seen on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AI4U-q2o2cg  


As can be seen in the YouTube clip, Davis publicly resisted, and in an act of defiance showed up to teach her course “Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature” despite the fact that her termination had not been overturned. [4] What we can’t see in the clip is that although 166 students had enrolled for her class, when Angela arrived at Royce Hall she found it packed with 2,000 members of the UCLA student body and faculty assembled to support her. The lecture she delivered that day is one of two talks on Frederick Douglass in her Lectures on Liberation pamphlet and is presented in book form for the first time in her new edition of Douglass’s Narrative published in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books.  


As soon as the idea for this book was born, one of the first people with whom I discussed it was Mumia Abu-Jamal. At the time I was working with him on his book, Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners vs. The USA (City Lights, 2009), for which Davis had written an introduction. Mumia would call me collect from Death Row, and we’d just as often spend most our fifteen-minute conversations [5] discussing politics, race, and Obama as we would talk about the book. Could Obama win? What would it mean for liberation struggle?  


In a written interview I conducted with Mumia that was posted on Z-Net after the election, he wrote:


Social movements open up the eyes of the people, and present them with new ways of looking at the world, and hopefully moving in the world. Think about this. Everybody (esp. in the so-called left) is hyped about Obama’s election. As I wrote in a commentary last year, Mexico had a Black president over a century ago. If the abolition movement didn’t fold their tents after the Civil War, and instead fought for broader, deeper social change, why couldn’t Frederick Douglass have been elected president in 1870? To be sure, he was among the most brilliant men in the country; with eloquence, and erudition far beyond most men. He was financially and socially stable, and was one of the most respected men in the English world. As an ex-slave, his election would’ve set the lock and death-knell to slavery (instead of the hidden legalization of it thru the prison-industrial-complex), and made the Reconstruction Amendments real. Social movements have to have the ability to see beyond today’s horizon, and have to have the stamina to work for social change. With social movements, everything is possible; without them, nothing is possible. [6].  



Angela Davis, like Mumia Abu-Jamal, is more concerned with the people whose work drives social movements than the elected leaders and the legal system. In a public talk she delivered in Denver on February 15, 2008 she said:


I’m always very cautious when it comes to electoral politics. I think that particularly here in this country we have a tendency to invest our own collective power in individuals. We have what I sometimes call a messiah complex. This is why, when we think of the Civil Rights movement, we think of Martin Luther King. We can’t imagine that that movement could have been created by huge numbers of people whose names we do not even know. We can’t imagine that. 


I often emphasize that the Montgomery bus boycott, which for many people is a defining moment of the Civil Rights movement, would not have been possible had it not been for black women domestic workers. These are the people we never think about. They are totally invisible, invisible in history, but those are the women who refused to ride the bus. Those are the black people who were riding the bus because they were riding from black communities to white communities because they were cleaning up white people’s houses and cooking white people’s food and doing their laundry. But we can’t imagine that they were the agents of history that gave us this amazing civil rights movement. 


All of which is to say this enthusiasm, this incredible enthusiasm that’s been generated over the last period that has been called a movement, and Obama has specifically referred to what’s happening around his campaign as a movement. If it is to be a movement, it has to demand much more than the election of a single individual, no matter what that individual may represent. [7] 



It is in that spirit that the new edition of Narrative of a Life is being published—to increase our political literacy as a step toward demanding more of our current political moment. I use the word literacy intentionally because of the primary role that learning to read played in Frederick Douglass’s learning to resist. In his passage on the subject in Narrative we see that it is through the defiant act of teaching himself to read that Douglass underwent an inner shift that empowered him to think independently of—and ultimately break free from—his white enslavers:


Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. [8] 


Throughout her more than forty years as an activist, author and educator, Angela Davis has worked ceaselessly to further understand and clear the pathways from slavery to freedom. She has written about Douglass both as a way of better understanding the impact and limitations of his work and as a way of analyzing how institutional racism enforced by legal slavery continued after the passage of Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. 


In her pioneering and critically acclaimed study published in 1981, Women, Race & Class, Davis discusses the historic role Douglass played in the nineteenth-century movement for women’s liberation and his achievement of “officially introducing the issue of women’s rights to the Black Liberation movement, where it was enthusiastically welcomed.” “Frederick Douglass,” she writes, “the country’s leading Black abolitionist, was also the most prominent male advocate of women’s emancipation in his time.” [9] She describes the impact he had at the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848: 


Among the approximately three hundred women and men attending the Seneca Falls Convention, the issue of electoral power for women was the only major point of contention: the suffrage resolution alone was not unanimously endorsed. That the controversial proposal was presented at all, however, was due to Frederick Douglass’s willingness to second [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton’s motion and to employ his oratorical abilities in defense of women’s right to vote. 


During those early days when women’s rights was not yet a legitimate cause, when woman suffrage was unfamiliar and unpopular as a demand, Frederick Douglass publicly agitated for the political equality of women. In the immediate aftermath of the Seneca Falls Convention, he published an editorial in his newspaper, the North Star. Entitled “The Rights of Women,” its content was quite radical for the times:


In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for men. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for woman. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman, and if that government only is just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. [7] 


In her studies of the prison-industrial-complex and her advocacy for the abolition of prisons, Davis closely analyzes the unbroken continuum between the slavery Douglass experienced in the nineteenth century, the racist terrorism she survived growing up in segregated Alabama, [11] and today’s interconnected problems of economic and political subjugation, prisons, capital punishment, police brutality, and the women, immigrants, and communities of color most impacted by them. One hundred and fifty years after Frederick Douglass fearlessly organized social movements and personally lobbied a reluctant President Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery, [12] Angela Y. Davis continues the tradition and describes her work today as “forging a twenty–first century abolitionist movement.” In constructing her model of abolitionism, Davis draws deeply from W.E.B. DuBois and his concept of “abolition democracy”—the idea that U.S. democracy is inauthentic and compromised, and will continue to be until all institutions that perpetrate injustice and domination are replaced because “democracy for blacks had been withheld at the very moment it had been promised: upon the abolition of slavery.” [13] In her book with Eduardo Mendieta, Abolition Democracy, she writes:


DuBois pointed out that in order to fully abolish the oppressive conditions produced by slavery, new democratic institutions would have to be created. Because this did not occur; black people encountered new forms of slavery—from debt peonage and the convict lease system [14] to segregated and second-class education. The prison system continues to carry out this terrible legacy. It has become a receptacle for all of those human beings who bear the inheritance of the failure to create abolition democracy in the aftermath of slavery. And this inheritance is not only born by black prisoners, but by poor Latino, Native American, Asians, and white prisoners. Moreover, its use as such a receptacle for people who are deemed the detritus of society is on the rise throughout the world. [15] 



Angela Davis continues to write, to agitate, to educate and to speak out in solidarity with global movements against racism, sexism, and political repression. As forms of oppression dating back to slavery still manifest today, so too do networks of resistance. She urges us to join them. She urges us—with Douglass as a metaphor—to continue the work of the oppressed women and men whose struggles precede us. She urges us to increase our own levels of political literacy and critical engagement as defiant steps toward demanding—and winning—that “the promise of freedom be extended to the masses of people.”  



Greg Ruggiero is editor for City Lights Books and founder and director of the Open Media Series, a movement-oriented publishing project that has been producing critically acclaimed pamphlets and books since 1991.  




1. Angela Y. Davis and Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself; A New Critical Edition, (Open Media Series/ City Lights Books, 2009), page 45. 


2. Ibid, p. 12. 


3. See UCLA Web page here: http://www.english.ucla.edu/ucla1960s/7071/watkins2.htm 


4. It wasn’t until October 20, 1969 that the Superior Court of Los Angeles issued a decision that Regents’ anti-communist policy is unconstitutional. However, the Regents again formally fired Angela on June 20, 1970 claiming that she was indoctrinating students, that her political activities were interfering with her teaching, and that her off-campus speeches were “irresponsible.” See: http://www.english.ucla.edu/ucla1960s/7071/watkins2.htm 


5. Mumia Abu-Jamal’s collect calls from Death Row are always fifteen minutes in length. The conversations are repeatedly interrupted by recorded messages from the prison and at the fifteenth minute the state automatically disconnects the call. 


6. Written exchange between Mumia Abu-Jamal and Greg Ruggiero dated February 25, 2009. Full text posted to Znet here: http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/20677 


7. Transcript of a talk by Angela Y. Davis given on February 15, 2008, at Metropolitan State College, Denver, CO. An audio recording of the talk is available from Alternative Radio, www.alternativeradio.org. Text of the talk will appear in the book by Angela Y. Davis, The Meaning of Freedom, forthcoming from City Lights Books. 


8. Angela Y. Davis and Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself; A New Critical Edition, (Open Media Series/ City Lights Books, 2009), page 142.  


9. Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class, (Random House: New York, 1981) p. 30. 


10. Ibid, p. 51. 


11. Davis grew up in a neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama called “Dynamite Hill” so named because of the frequency of bombings there by white terrorists against the neighborhood’s black residents. She also personally knew Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and the two other girls who were murdered by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, September 15, 1963. 


12. Lincoln believed that the primary directive of the North was to preserve the Union and not to end slavery. During the heat of the Civil War he wrote a letter to the New York Tribune saying, “If I could save the Union, without freeing the slaves, I would do it. If I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the coloured race, I do because I believe it would help to save the Union.” 


13. Angela Y. Davis and Eduardo Mendieta, Abolition Democracy, Beyond Empire Prisons, and Torture (Open Media Series/ Seven Stories Press, 2005). Quotation is from the introduction by Eduardo Mendieta, page 12. 


14. For her in-depth critique of Douglass and the absence of protest and references to the convict lease system in his writings and speeches, see “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison; Frederick Douglass and the Convict Lease System” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, edited by Joy James, (Blackwell publishers: Malden, Mass., 1998). 


15. Abolition Democracy, Beyond Empire Prisons, and Torture, pp. 73–74. 




Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself


A New Critical Edition by Angela Y. Davis


Open Media Series / City Lights Books


ISBN: 9780872865273




Educators interested in ordering desk or exam copies please fax City Lights Books at (415) 362-4921; for inquiries email stacey@citylights.com 

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