Angela Davis: Rebel With a Cause

When discussing the beginning of the women’s rights movement, most would think of Susan B. Anthony, Seneca Falls, and the suffragette movement. However, there is another layer to this story that needs to be told: the influence of African American women on the women’s rights movement. Angela Davis is one contemporary example, spanning several layers of this movement from author and academic scholar to activist and politician. As her University of California Santa Cruz bio page describes, “she is a living witness to the historical struggles of the contemporary era” [1].

Angela Davis Wanted Poster (Collectorsweekly)
Angela Davis’ Wanted Poster (Photo credit: Collector’s Weekly)

Although she grew up amidst racial strife, violence, and segregation, Davis was spurred into activism after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, which killed two of her childhood friends. She first joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but eventually turned to the Black Panther Party. The next year, she was hired by UCLA as an assistant professor of philosophy, but was soon fired for her active involvement in the Communist Party. Shortly after, she was accused of having a supporting role in a courtroom kidnapping that resulted in four deaths leading to her placement on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and an intense police search that drove her underground. All of this culminated in one of the most famous trials in recent U.S. history, and a sixteen-month incarceration which spurred the massive international “Free Angela Davis” campaign, culminating in her acquittal in 1972 [3].

Free Angela (Elle France)
The “Free Angela Davis” campaign spread across the world, as this picture of a protest in France illustrates. (Photo credit: Elle France)

Despite the fact that Ronald Reagan once vowed Angela Davis would never again teach in the University of California system, she is now the Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  She even took the fight to the political field when she ran for Vice President on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. She has lectured all over the world, including all of the fifty United States, as well as in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the former Soviet Union and has written nine books.

In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Davis details the feminist ideology representing working-class black communities of these women blues singers. In this newest addition to the history of black feminism, she argues that women’s blues, while not being what we may call feminist by today’s standard, certainly displayed feminist qualities and picked away at the traditional patriarchal ideology. The blues stretched gender relationships to their limits, and even beyond, challenging the often contradictory stereotypes, particularly about women. The blues combat these views with strong women who not only break the mold, but also show the reality of working-class black women.

These blues songs challenged the traditional patriarchal views of women as simply mothers and wives, showing strong, assertive women who were not afraid of their sexuality. “The representations of love and sexuality in women’s blues often blatantly contradicted mainstream ideological assumptions regarding women and being in love. They also challenged the notion that women’s ‘place’ was in the domestic sphere” [3]. Davis points out that these stereotypical views were only true in middle-class white women’s lives, and yet were applied to women of all classes and races. Davis also expands heavily on the absence of the mother figure in women’s blues, which was not a rejection of motherhood. “Blues women found the mainstream cult of motherhood irrelevant to the realities of their lives. The female figures evoked in women’s blues are independent women free of the domestic orthodoxy of the prevailing representations of womanhood through which female subjects of the era were constructed” [4].  Therefore, these blues songs redefined what it meant to be a black female, creating forms of oral histories of what working-class black women were like at this time.

Finally, the women’s blues portrayed the world with fearless, unadorned realism and named many of the problems that women’s rights activists fight for, most notably abusive relationships. The blues named the issue of violence against women, often using the distinctly African American use of humor, satire, and irony, making these songs similar to work songs denouncing the oppression of slavery through these means. However, this style has also caused many music scholars to misunderstand the meaning behind these songs, often seeing them as masochistic. Davis argues “Women’s blues suggest emergent feminist insurgency in that they unabashedly name the problem of male violence and so usher it out of the shadows of domestic life where society had kept it hidden and beyond public or political scrutiny” [5].

Angela Davis has fought for restorative justice on many different fronts for many different identities (black, female, even prisoners). She has fought in the streets in rallies, in the courtroom, and in the world of academia, arguing for equal rights and justice. She and others have made their mark on history and now it is up to the writers of history to remember them, both in the history books, as well as in the courtroom and society.

[1] University of California Santa Cruz, “Angela Y Davis,” University of California Santa Cruz Feminist Studies Department, accessed February 20, 2016.

[2] Sarah van Gelder, “The Radical Work of Healing, Fania and Angela Davis on a New Kind of Civil Rights Activism,” Truthout, published February 21, 2016, accessed February 22, 2016.

[3] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 11

[4] Davis, Blues Legacies, 13

[5] Davis, Blues Legacies, 29-30

15 thoughts on “Angela Davis: Rebel With a Cause

  1. I really like that you give us a little bit of background on Angela Davis, it really helped me put her writing into perspective. Like you say, I think it’s really important that these stories of feminism be told more frequently, in addition to the ever common Seneca Falls story. It’s interesting that you point out that music scholars have misinterpreted many songs as masochistic, despite the fact that they were merely shining light on injustices of the world.

  2. I found the work by Angela Davis fascinating and inspiring. The 1920s were are hard time to be both black and a woman. I cannot imagine the difficulties black women faced, but I have a lot of respect for the blues singers. After listening to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (well, reading about their songs, anyway), I was impressed by how candid they were about their desire for sexual liberation. Wonderful read, I really like how you tied in Angela Davis’s political and activist activities into your post!

  3. I agree with Emily, I appreciated the background on Davis, I had no idea about her political work or legal battles. I really your discussion about how blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, used the blues to represent many objectives such as sexual liberation or to break down stereotypes. I also found it an important point, both in the reading and in your blog, that these artists were able to use the blues as a public platform to speak out against domestic/sexual violence; a vital step in raising awareness about an immense and often silenced issue.

  4. Angela Davis’s story is incredibly powerful, and her work is a testament to the struggles of early black feminists. She is a true educator, and has the perfect background for her subject matter. Davis is also a great example of how historians can also serve as activists.

  5. Wow! I never imagined that Angela Davis had such a background. It is clear that she has a lot of first-hand experience fighting for the rights of black women and raising awareness. Angela Davis reminds me of the women she wrote about in “Blues Legacies,” in a way. All of these women were taking huge risks in their fight for equality. The singers risked their careers and livelihoods by singing about “scandalous” issues and raising awareness about them. Angela Davis has risked her career by taking part in political groups also striving for equality. In both cases, the women have also been successful, the singers leading ongoing careers in the music industry, and Davis regaining her career in education.

  6. Sarah, this is an awesome blog post. I love how you tied in a lot of the main themes from our reading into your post and the information on Angela Davis is eye-opening. Her work to create a better understanding of what black women were working to achieve through their blues music is incredible.

  7. As stated this is a wonderful blog post combining the history of Angela Davis and how that has influenced her own activism, and the activism of others. I especially like how in your conclusion you connect to the fact that not only did Davis fight for feminism, but also fought for the rights of other groups. Fighting for the rights of black women is a noble enough cause but she has gone the extra mile to also fight for the rights of prisoners and other minority groups.

  8. One of the things I liked about Angela Davis’s book is her focus on Blues music as consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising was a large part of the feminist movement in the 1960s, and Davis uses it well in her discussion of blues songs. In this way and others, I think her background and experiences helped the explorations in this book.

  9. Rebel for sure! I agree with Julia that Angela Davis is a lot like the women she wrote about it her book. She publicly challenged stereotypes and has actively fought for justice and civil rights. In many ways, she is a feminist icon in her own right. Thanks for filling us in on her background. It certainly adds a whole new layer to writing.

  10. Sarah, this is a beautifully written blog post. You highlight all the important aspects of Angela Davis’ book, and like others have stated, the background you provide really help shape my understanding of the importance of this book. I like how you commented on the fact that these songs challenged the ideals of women’s sexuality and the expected gendered roles of women.

  11. I find female blues singers be standing at a crossroads. They stand between the image of strong, talented, independent women but are juxtaposed with the societal ideal of beholden to male society. I think blues music can teach us a lot about the goals and dreams that some women aspired to.

  12. I had never known that about Angela Davis. It makes me think of the Black Panthers documentary we saw recently, and wonder how COINTELPRO played into her case. I’ll have to read up on this more.

  13. In reading this blog post, and having expanded my knowledge of Angela Davis, I find myself slightly embarrassed of the understanding I initially had of Angela Davis, an impression made without context. Initially, my understanding of Davis was informed by comments calling her a dangerous radical and borderline terrorist, an view informed by misinformation and biased views from others. Now, with a contextualized perspective, I see Davis as not only courageous stands at a contentious time, but as an academic who has done so much to open up new perspectives of a more nuanced and complex view of the experiences of women and African-Americans. Her writing on blues music was eye-opening, most of all how its sexual content represents a form of empowerment within a limited social context, while misinterpreted themes were actually a platform to raise difficult issues. Indeed, I feel Davis’ piece, and my reading of it, speaks to the value of coming to something with a new perspective and new contexts to correct and protect against misinformation.

  14. As some that has looked to Davis’ life, i really like how you tie in her life within the writings. This is a really well worded piece and definitely makes a strong argument for her ideas. She is such a major figure in not only in activism, but also as an incredible historian. Many people forget she was a professor starting at a young age considering and her writings are well written and with such passion it is hard to consider anything short of brilliant.

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