February 12, 2010

Just because a pairing seems natural does not mean it’s been done before. Long overdue, the newly released Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself: A New Critical Edition (City Lights Books) brings together two of the great philosophical writers and racial justice activists of the last two centuries and combines the deeply personal writings of Frederick Douglass with several politically charged lectures given by Angela Y. Davis in the early 1970s.

The new collection begins with Davis’s Lectures on Liberation, first published as pamphlets by the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis during her incarceration in 1970 and out of print until now. Setting the stage for Douglass’s timeless writing, two of the lecture transcripts recount the importance of Douglass’s work as a reflection of Davis’s own political struggles. The third piece included with the lectures is a letter of support written by two dozen of Davis’s colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall of 1969.

“Outed” as a member of the Communist Party by an undercover FBI agent, Davis was subsequently fired from her first position at UCLA before her first course even began. More than 1,500 students and faculty showed up on the first day of her scheduled class, “Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature,” to express their solidarity for her political and academic freedom and deliver their written support. The astounding turnout was not in vain; Davis arrived to teach the course anyway as a matter of political resistance and was later vindicated when her position was reinstated.

Even for those who have never studied either writer in depth, Davis explores the many ways we can interpret Douglass’s anti-slavery writing today and draws parallels between the continued oppression of women and prisoners. In her introduction, Davis is also quick to point out the gendered nature of slavery narratives. Ever the analytical feminist, she points out that few have been penned by women, and Douglass’s own writing has been marred by his conflation of “freedom” and “manhood.”

Davis even acknowledges that her lectures on Douglass from the 1970s still uphold what she refers to as “masculinist notions.” Yet, younger generations of feminists have long fixated on “intersections” and have noted that Douglass’ work has offered significant inspiration to women’s liberation movements. Many, for example, have utilized Douglass’s understanding of white men’s oppression of Black men and women to critically engage in dismantling gender disparities and sexual discrimination. Davis noted this important contribution in 1981’s Women, Race, and Class, explaining that in a time when women’s rights were generally viewed in a negative light, allies like Douglass crossed the aisle to build a broader coalition of activists fighting for civil rights.

In a 2008 lecture, excerpted in the book’s introduction by City Lights series editor Greg Ruggiero, Davis warns against putting too much faith in social movement leaders. Speaking about the Rev. Dr. King, she invokes memories of the civil rights movement and applies the same logic today.

“We have what I sometimes call a messiah complex,” she stated. “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.” And in light of the criticism currently being thrown at President Obama, who inspired so much hope in voters less than two years ago and often referred to Douglass’ writing during campaign speeches, Davis’s warning remains salient.

The breadth of Davis’s work in the past two decades is an inspiring example of bridge-building across causes and generations. That her contemporary activism can be coupled so flawlessly with Douglass’s historic writings and powerful legacy speaks to the importance of their combined influence spanning centuries. Davis is among the preeminent Black philosophers and scholars of our time, and her ability to further illuminate Douglass’s profound and historic work speaks to not only her mastery of Black intellectualism but of her continued contribution to politics in the age of Obama. At a time when the freedoms once granted by the Fourteenth Amendment are now being applied to corporate entities, cannabilizing the legacy of freed slaves in the United States, this book—Davis’s call for a more engaged electorate—is wonderfully timely and deeply engaging.


Brittany Shoot is s frequent contributor to ColorLines.

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