A New Home for Angela Davis’ Papers (and Her ‘Wanted’ Poster)
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Few people have experienced as dramatic a life as Angela Davis.Posted — Updated
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Few people have experienced as dramatic a life as Angela Davis.
Nearly 50 years ago, she was transformed from an obscure 26-year-old philosophy instructor into one of the world’s most famous activists, an instantly recognizable icon of the global left whose image, complete with her signature full Afro, was emblazoned on T-shirts, buttons and banners.
Now she has achieved canonization of a more scholarly sort. The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study announced Tuesday that it had acquired her personal archive, more than 150 boxes of papers, photographs, pamphlets and other material that spans her entire life.
The acquisition comes as scholars are telling a less male-dominated, top-down story about the Black Power movement and the left in general. It also sheds light on the rise of intersectional feminism (which takes into account women’s overlapping identities) and the campaign against mass incarceration, to name two causes Davis helped pioneer before there were quite words for them.
“Angela Davis is at the intersection of feminism, American political radicalism and global political radicalism,” Jane Kamensky, a professor at Harvard and the director of the Schlesinger, said. “Everything from the rise of black feminism to the fall of communism is in this collection.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, which contributed half the funds for the purchase, called Davis “one of the major political theorists of the second half of the 20th century.”
“Whether one agrees with her opinions or not, there’s no gainsaying her prominent place in the history of American political thought,” he said. “And her critique of the prison system, and its effects on the African-American community, was prophetic.”
The Schlesinger, founded in 1943, is one of leading archives of women’s history, home to papers from pioneers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Betty Friedan and Julia Child, as well as from organizations such as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, creators of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
Kamensky said the Davis acquisition grew out of a push to broaden the library’s collections — which she described as largely reflecting an upper-middle-class, liberal, “Acela Corridor” perspective — to encompass a “more complete” history of women.
In 2016, the library hired its first curator for race and ethnicity, Kenvi Phillips. It has also pushed to acquire material from grass-roots conservative activist women and others left out of the dominant liberal-feminist narrative of women’s history. (Kamensky is writing a biography of porn actress turned women’s erotica director Candida Royalle, whose papers the Schlesinger acquired in 2016.) Davis, who retired from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2008, said other institutions had approached her over the years. But she liked the idea of having her papers housed near those of friends such as African-American poets June Jordan and Pat Parker and legal scholar Patricia Williams, as well as the records of lesser-known women who powered various social movements.
“As a scholar and activist, I’ve always worked with others,” she said in a telephone interview. “I have so much respect for many of the women who have chosen to put their papers here.”
Davis’ archive ranges from her childhood in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, where she was born in 1944 to activist parents; to her studies with the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse (who recalled her as his most brilliant student); to her more recent activism with groups such as Critical Resistance, the prison-abolition advocacy group she helped found in 1997. (The library is not disclosing the price of the archive, which it said it bought directly from Davis, who had stored much of the material in her home in Oakland.)
Its richest vein concerns the tumultuous period that began in 1969, when then Gov. Ronald Reagan ordered her fired from her teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles because of her Communist Party membership, before she had even taught her first class. Her case drew broad attention, but it was her activism on behalf of the Soledad Brothers, three California inmates accused of killing a white prison guard, that made her internationally famous.
In 1970, she was charged with murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges after guns she had purchased were used in an attack on the Marin County Courthouse that was aimed at liberating the Soledad Brothers, but instead left four people, including the attacker, dead. The trial that followed — in which Davis participated in her own defense — sparked an international campaign, turning “Free Angela” into a global rallying cry.
Davis had not been present at the courthouse, and witnesses testified that the guns had been bought to guard the Soledad Brothers’ defense headquarters. In 1972, after spending 16 months in prison, she was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.
On a recent afternoon at the library, Phillips and two archivists, Amber Moore and Jehan Sinclair, laid out a sampling from the collection, including an FBI “Wanted” poster from the eight weeks Davis spent underground before her arrest at a New York City motel.
On the corner of the table sat what Kamensky called the collection’s major literary “fetish object”: a yellowed typescript of Davis’ 1974 autobiography, complete with neatly handwritten queries and comments from her editor, Toni Morrison. But much of the material spoke to the galvanizing effect her trial had on others. There were buttons, pamphlets and hand-painted “Free Angela” banners from marches around the world. There was also a box containing some of the thousands of letters of support sent to the courthouse, which was discovered in the house of Harvey Teague, a court officer, after his death several years ago and returned to Davis. Many are decorated with hand-drawn flowers, as part of a “Million Roses for Angela” campaign organized by East German youth. “If Jesus can’t save Angelica,” one correspondent wrote, slightly mangling her name, “who can save Jesus?”
But not all the mail was sympathetic. “As a silent majority, I demand Angela be dealt with as a traitor to our country,” another person wrote. “She should not be granted privileges just because she is black.”
Other items spoke to Davis’ friendships with other prominent figures, such as a “Free Angela” pamphlet from Cuba bearing a Post-it note from writer Alice Walker, who had picked it up on a trip to that island some years later.
Other material in the archive documents the decades of scholarship and activism at home and abroad that followed the trial, including notes for books such as “Women, Race and Class,” published in 1981, and material relating to her two runs for vice president in the 1980s on the Communist Party USA ticket. (Davis left the party in 1991.)
The collection includes some material Davis said she had entirely forgotten, such as a roughly 120-page diary that she seemingly kept during her trial. But there is little personal correspondence, which she attributes to a house fire years ago and to the fact that so many of her papers were seized by the FBI at the time of the trial, or scattered during a life spent on the move.
In a 1988 preface to a new edition of her autobiography, Davis recalls her suspicion of the mainstream feminist credo “The personal is political.” And for all her celebrity, she continues to emphasize, she herself is not the point. “If people should pay attention to me long after I’m gone, it’s because the movements I’ve been involved with need to be remembered,” she said. “Future generations need to recognize that organizing masses of people for justice can indeed make a difference.”
Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.