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Prison Memoirs: The New York Women’s House of Detention

On October 13, 1970, the FBI ar­rested Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder stemming from her alleged role in the Mann County courthouse shootout. Before being extradited to California — where she was subsequently acquitted of all the charges — Ms. Davis was imprisoned for nine weeks in New York’s Women’s House of Detention. The following excerpts from her forth­coming autobiography describe some of her experiences in the city’s prison.

When the wailing of the sirens tapered off and the caravan began to slow down, I realized that I was somewhere in Greenwich Village. As the car turned into a dark driveway, a corrugated aluminum door began to rise and once again, crowds of photographers with flashing lights jumped out of the shadows. The red brick wall surrounding this tall ar­chaic structure looked very familiar, but it took me a few moments to locate in my memory. Of course; it was the mysterious place I had seen so often during the years I attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, not too far from there. It was the New York Women’s House of Detention, which stood there at the main intersection in the Village, at Greenwich and Sixth avenues.

While the car was rolling into the prisoners’ entrance, a flock of mem­ories fought for my attention. Walk­ing to the subway station after school, I used to look up at this building almost every day, trying not to listen to the terrible noises spilling from the windows. They were coming from the women locked behind bars, looking down on the people passing in the streets, and screaming incomprehensible words.

At age fifteen I accepted some of the myths surrounding prisoners. I did not see them as quite the crimi­nals society said they were, but they did seem aliens in the world I inha­bited. I never knew what to do when I saw the outlines of women’s heads through the almost opaque windows of the jail. I could never understand what they were saying — whether they were crying out for help, whether they were calling for some­one in particular, or whether they simply wanted to talk to anyone who was “free.” My mind was now filled with the specters of those faceless women whom I had not answered. Would I scream out at the people passing in the streets, only to have them pretend not to hear me as I once pretended not to hear those women?

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The women did not even notice that a new prisoner had been thrown in with them. Except for the woman who continued to pace, they each found places at the table in the day room and sat separate from one another, as if there were a mutual agreement that they would all re­frain from invading the others’ turf.

Later I learned that these women received Thorazine with their meals each day and, even if they were completely sane, the tranquilizers would always make them uncommu­nicative and detached from their surroundings. After a few hours of watching them gaze silently into space, I felt as though I had been thrown into a nightmare.

I had loudly protested being kept in 4b (the mental ward) from the very first day. I didn’t belong there — or had I been judged a mental case? The officer said I had been placed in 4b not because I was psychologically unsound, but for my own safety and to keep me from disrupting the life of the jail. I was not persuaded. At last the call came announcing the arrival of the lawyers. Going to meet them was my first opportunity to walk through any part of the jail at a normal hour — when the prisoners were not locked in or sleeping.

When the iron door was opened, sounds peculiar to jails and prisons poured into my ears — the screams, the metallic clanging, officers’ keys clinking. Some of the women noticed me and smiled warmly or threw up their fists in gestures of solidarity. The elevator stopped on the third floor, where the commissary was located. The women who were wait­ing for the elevator recognized me and told me in a cordial, sisterly way, their words sometimes reinforced with their fists, that they were on my side. These were the “dangerous women” who might attack me because they didn’t like “Communists,” had I not been hidden away in 4b.

Regardless of why the women in 4b had been placed there, they were all being horribly damaged. Whatever problems they had had initially were not solved, but rather systematically aggravated. I could see the erosion of their will taking place even during the short time I spent there.

In the cell next to me lived a white woman somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old who had lost all contact with reality. Each night before she fell asleep the cell-bloc shook with her screams. Sometimes her rantings and ravings filled the air long after midnight. Her vile language, her weird imagery be-speckled with the most vulgar kind or racial epithets made me so angry that it was all I could do to prevent myself from trying to break through the steel and concrete that separated her cell from mine. I was convinced that she had been placed there inten­tionally as a part of the jailers’ efforts to break me.

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When I saw this pitiful figure the next morning, it was clear that her sickness was so far advanced — some stage of schizophrenia — that she was beyond the reach of argument. Her illness had become a convenient ve­hicle for the expression of the racism which had grown like maggots in her unconscious. Each night, and even morning before breakfast came, she went through a prolonged ritual which took the form of a violent argument with some invisible figure in her cell. More often than not, this figure would be a Black man, and he would be attacking her with a kind of sexual perversity which would have been inconceivable had not her own verbal imagery been so vivid. She would purge this figure from her cell with a series of incantations. When her imagined attacker assumed some other position, it brought about a corresponding change in her incantations.

One morning in the day room, Barbara, the young Black woman from the cell directly across from mine, broke her habitual silence to tell me she had refused her daily dose of Thorazine. It was very sim­ple: she was tired of feeling like a vegetable all the time. She was going to resist the Thorazine and was going to get out of 4b. She knew about my own attempts to get out, and if we were both transferred she said she would like very much to be my “cellie” in the main population.

In the cell next to Barbara’s was a very young white woman who ap­peared to receive larger doses of Thorazine than any of the others. One day when she was not so spaced out, she wanted to know if I could help her with her case. (She was back from court and evidently had not been drugged so she would look more or less normal for the judge.) When I asked her about her charges, tears streamed down her face as she said repeatedly, “I could never do anything like that. I couldn’t kill my own baby.”

She didn’t understand where she was and had no comprehension whatever of the judicial system. Who were her friends, she wanted me to tell her, and who were the ones who wanted to put her away? She had been afraid to talk to her lawyer, for fear he would tell the judge. Now she was thoroughly crushed because a doctor who had sworn himself to secrecy had just taken the stand and divulged everything she had told him. All she wanted now was just a little Thorazine. She wanted to get away, forget, get high.

Perhaps the most tragic or them all was Sandra — the teenager charged with arson. She was one of the women who had been in the receiving room the night I was ar­rested. I had noticed then that her hair was coming out in patches and had assumed that she had ringworm. My first day in 4b, she came out of the cell for meals. The second day, she ignored the key unlocking her cell gate at mealtimes. She silently and systematically pulled her hair out by the roots. From that day on, whenever I saw her, she was sitting quietly on her bed, yanking her hair by the handful. By the time I left, she was as thin as a wishbone, and all that was left of her natural was a few clumps of hair on one side of her pitiful hairless head.

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A little more than a week had passed when the warden informed Margaret (Margaret Burnham, one of Ms. Davis’ lawyers) that I was to be moved. Sure enough, the very next day I was told that I was about to be transferred to another part of the jail. I protested being bounced back and forth like a Ping Pong ball; but actually I didn’t mind the move, thinking that I was going into the regular population. I had no idea that my longing for some degree of seclu­sion was about to be overfulfilled. The main population I thought I was ­about to enter turned out to be a hurriedly improvised special isolation room separated from all the corridors on the sixth floor.

I decided to dramatize the situation by declaring myself on a hunger ­strike for as long as I was kept in isolation — I would hold my own on this side of the walls while things got rolling on the other side. Through the grapevine I learned that there were women all over the jail who were carrying out a hunger strike in sympathy with mine.

On the tenth day of the hunger strike, at a time when I had per­suaded myself that I could continue indefinitely without eating, the Federal Court handed down a ruling enjoining the jail administration from holding me any longer in isolation and under maximum security conditions. They had decided — under pressure, of course — that this unwarranted punishment was meted out to me because of my political beliefs and affiliation.

There was little time to learn my way about (the main part of the prison) before all the cell gates were locked, but some of my neighbors gave me a guided tour of my 8 foot by 5 foot cell. Because mine was the corner cell — the one which could be easily spied on from the officer’s desk in the main hallway — it was also the smallest one on the corridor; the double bunk made it appear even smaller. The fixtures — the bed, the tiny sink, the toilet — were all ar­ranged in a straight line, leaving no more than a width of two feet of floor at any point in the cell.

The sisters helped me improvise a curtain in front of the toilet and sink so they could not be seen from the corridor. They showed me how to use newspaper wrapped in scrap cloth to make a seat cover so the toilet could be turned into a chair to be used at the iron table that folded down from the wall in front of it. I laughed out loud at the thought of doing all my writing while sitting on the toilet stool.

Lock-in time was approaching; a sister remembered that she had forgotten to warn me about one of the dangers of night life in the House of D. “‘Mickey’ will be trying to get into your cell tonight,” she said, and I would have to take precautionary steps to “keep him out.” “Mickey?” Was there some man­iac the jailers let loose at night to pester the women?

The sister laughingly told me she was referring to the mice which scampered about in the darkness of the corridors looking for cell doors not securely stuffed with newspa­pers.

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It became a nightly ritual: placing meticulously folded newspapers in the little space between the gate and the floor and halfway up the gate along the wall. Despite the preven­tive measures we took, Mickey could always chew through the barricade in at least one cell, and we were often awakened by the shouts of a woman calling the officer to get the mouse out. One night Mickey joined me in the top bunk. When I felt him crawling around my neck, I brushed him away thinking that it was roaches. When I finally realized what it was, I called for the broom — our only weapon against him. Apparently mousetraps were too expensive, and they were not going to exterminate.

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo­ obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other. In response, imprisoned men and women will invent and continually invoke various and sundry defenses. Consequently, two layers of existence can be encountered within almost every jail or prison. The first layer consists of the routines and behavior prescribed by the governing penal hierarchy. The second layer is the prisoner culture itself: the rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives in order to shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits.

In an elemental way, this culture is one of resistance, but a resistance of desperation. It is, therefore, incapable of striking a significant blow against the system. All its elements are based on an assumption that the prison system will continue to survive. Precisely for this reason, the system does not move to crush it. (In fact, it sometimes happens that there is an under-the-table encouragement of the prisoners’ subculture.) I was continually astonished by the infinite details of the social regions which the women in the House of Detention considered their exclusive domain. This culture was contemptuously closed to the keepers. I sometimes wandered innocently through the doors and found myself thoroughly disoriented. A telling example happened on my second day in population. A sister asked me, “What did you think of my grandfather? He said he saw you this morning.” I was sure I had misheard her question, but when she repeated it, I told her she must be mistaken, because I had no idea who her grandfather was. Besides, I hadn’t had any visitors that day. But the joke was on me. I was in a foreign country and hadn’t learned the language. I discovered from her that a woman prisoner who had come by my cell earlier in the day was the “grandfather” to whom she was referring. Because she didn’t seem eager to answer any questions, I contained my curiosity until I found someone who could explain to me what the hell was going on.

A woman a few cells down gave me a fascinating description of a whole system through which the women could adopt their jail friends as relatives. I was bewildered and awed by the way in which the vast majority of the jail population had neatly organized itself into genera­tions of families: mothers/wives, fathers/husbands, sons and daughters, even aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. The family sys­tem served as a defense against the fact of being no more than a number. It humanized the environment and allowed an identification with others within a familiar framework.

In spite of its strong element of escapism and fantasy, the family system could solve certain immedi­ate problems. Family duties and responsibilities were a way in which sharing was institutionalized. Pa­rents were expected to provide for their children, particularly the young ones, if they could not afford “luxury items” from commissary.

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Like filial relationships outside, some sons and daughters had, or developed, ulterior motives. Quite a few of them joined certain families because the material benefits were greater there.

What struck me most about this family system was the homosexua­lity at its core. But while there was certainly an overabundance of ho­mosexual relationships within this improvised kinship structure, it was nevertheless not closed to “straight” women. There were straight daugh­ters and husbandless, i.e., straight, mothers.

Since the majority of the prisoners seemed to be at least casually in­volved in the family structure, there had to be a great number of lesbians throughout the jail. Homosexuality is bound to occur on a relatively large scale in any place of sexually segregated confinement. I knew this before I was arrested. I was not prepared, however, for the shock of seeing it so thoroughly entrenched in jail life. There were the masculine and feminine role-playing women: the former, the butches, were called “he.” During the entire six weeks I spent on the seventh floor, I could not bring myself to refer to any woman with a masculine pronoun, although some of them, if they hadn’t been wearing the mandatory dresses, would never have been taken for women.

Many or them — both the butches and the femmes — had obviously decided to take up homosexuality during their jail terms in order to make that time a little more exciting, in order to forget the squalor and degradation around them. When they returned to the streets they would rejoin their men and quickly forget their jail husbands and wives.

An important part of the family system was the marriages. Some of them were extremely elaborate — with invitations, a formal ceremony, and some third person acting as the “minister.” The “bride” would prepare for the occasion as if for a real wedding.

With all the marriages, the seeking or trysting places, the scheming which went on by one woman to catch another, the conflicts and jea­lousies — with all this — homosexua­lity emerged as one of the centers around which life in the House of Detention revolved. Certainly, it was a way to counteract some of the pain of jail life; but objectively, it served to perpetuate all the bad things about the House of Detention. “The Gay Life” was all-consuming; it prevent­ed many of the women from devel­oping their personal dissatisfaction with the conditions around them into a political dissatisfaction, because the homosexual fantasy life provided an easy and attractive channel for escape.

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On a cold Sunday afternoon a massive demonstration took place down on Greenwich Avenue. It was spearheaded by the bail fund coali­tion and the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. So enthusiastic was the crowd that we felt compelled to organize some kind of reciprocal display of strength. We got together in our corridor, deciding on the slogans we would shout and how to make them come out in unison — even though we were going to be spread down the corridor in different cells, screaming from different windows. I had never dreamed that such powerful feeling of pride and confidence could develop among the sisters in this jail.

Chants thundered on the outside: “One, two, three, four, the House of D. has got to go!” “Free our Sisters. Free Ourselves,” and other political chants that were popular at the time. After a while, we decided to try out our chants. It was far easier for us to be heard through the windows by the people outside than it was for us to be heard by ourselves, separated as we were by the thick concrete walls dividing the cells. Although our slogans may not have been transmitted in the most harmonious style, we managed to get our message across: “Free the Soledad Brothers,” “Free Erika,” “Free Bobby,” “Long Live Jonathan Jackson.”

While the chants of “Free Angela” filled me with excitement, I was concerned that an overabundance of such chants might set me apart from the rest or my sisters. I shouted one by one the names of all the sisters on the floor participating in the demon­stration. “Free Vernell! Free Helen! Free Amy! Free Joann! Free Laura! Free Minnie!” I was hoarse for the next week.

As the demonstration moved into full swing, an officer unlocked the gate to our corridor and shouted to us to stop all the noise. We refused. They sent a captain to try to halt the demonstration. She approached me in my cell to say there would be sanctions for all of us if we did not calm down. Our exchange was heat­ed. Within a matter of minutes, a confrontation had brewed. Shouts began to come from across the hall — the sisters in the next corridor had decided to join. There was noth­ing this captain could do to make us acquiesce; every word she uttered kindled our combativeness. The more militant we became, the less confident she became, and finally she left the corridor in defeat.

As long as there were demonstra­tors outside, we continued our chants. Even after they left, the floor was throbbing with excitement. We were proud of the staunch position we had taken vis-a-vis the bureau­cracy. In this atmosphere of triumph, it was a cruel letdown for us to discover that the Supreme Court in Washington had just denied our appeal, and that I would soon be extradited to California.

That night, still hot with the ardor of the demonstration, locked up in the darkness of their cells, the women staged a spontaneous de­monstration of support. “One, two, three, four. We won’t let Angela go!’ Five, six, seven, eight. We won’t let them through the gate!” Shoes were banging on the cell bars; chants grew louder. An officer tried meekly to calm them down but had no success. A very vocal sister who was in one of the adolescent corridors was told to keep it quiet, but when she refused and all the sisters came vociferously to her aid, the officers hit her, knowing that all we could do was scream. They dragged her away to 4a — the punitive isolation unit. Frustrated by our inability to help her, we called out threats and beat even more loudly on the bars of our cells.

Someone noticed a sympathetic-looking white couple on Greenwich Avenue staring up in wonderment at the building, which was shaking with the clamor of protests from our floor. We called down to them that a sister had just been beaten and was proba­bly being put through the third de­gree down in the hole. We were bold that evening. We shouted out loud and clear the names and ranks of the officers who had pulled her from her cell. We asked the couple to call the underground press and as many Left organizations as they could to let them know that we were expecting an even more severe crackdown. (I later discovered that they had spent the evening contacting everyone they felt could help us.)

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With the receptionist on one side and the librarian on the other, I walked slowly through the prisoners’ gate onto the cold cobblestones of the courtyard. My anger gave way to pangs of regret at having to leave behind all my friends locked up in that filth. Vernell … Would they drop that phony murder charge? Helen … Would she go home? Amy … so old, so warm … What would happen to her? Pat … Would she write her book exposing the House of D.? And the organizing for the bail fund … Would it continue? Harriet … So committed to the struggle — would they continue to try to break her will?

The police van was waiting in the courtyard, the same van they had used to take me to court. Through the heavy grill on the windows, I could see nothing in the darkness. But suddenly, as the van rolled through the courtyard gates, I heard a thun­derous burst of shouts of support. I could not figure out how so many people had learned I was being taken away that night. Later I found out they had come in response to the calls made by the white couple on Greenwich Avenue. Not a single light illuminated the gigantic courtyard of the Tombs. All I could see was the outline of a collection of cars parked in the center, and the shadows of human figures moving back and forth between the vehicles. The atmosphere was reminiscent of postwar spy movies. A dozen white men swarming around their unmarked police cars, nervously awaiting the end of this transaction, this histrionic ceremony of repression unfolding under the dim glow of flashlights.

New York removed its handcuffs and California produced theirs and locked them around my wrists. ❖

Copyright 1974 by Angela Davis. From the book ANGELA DAVIS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY Random House, Inc. A Bernard Geis Associates Book


Angela Davis on Trial in Marin

Angela Davis & Ruchell Magee: Of love and money and the shoot-out at Marin

SAN RAFAEL, California — This is what it means to be well off in California. It has nothing to do with driving the right car or living in the right kind of house or receiving the right invitations and answering them the right way. Being well off in California means sun and space, a tender ideology, and plenty of padding so the crowded people and the criminals — especially the criminals — can’t possibly intrude.

This metaphor of class and space seems most apparent to me whenever I come west from New York, where crowding is endemic and the same fumes strangle all. In Marin, the hills roll and tumble like a calm Van Gogh, and the sun shines in calculated brightness, and I’m left feeling as though I’ve been living with a pair of sooty windows for eyes. Marin is full of good places to get stoned in; easy to feel transformed amid all that sequestered ease. And though these places are accessible by freeway — even by bus — you seldom see a man who isn’t living well on the street. The niggers of Marin are country hippies. They stay, for the most part, in their own wooded enclaves, and they too are busy being well off.

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I’ve often wondered why crowded people don’t come pouring down from the slopes of San Francisco, and out of the baked Chicano flats? Why not a general invasion of the green zone — even for a day? But it seems to be part of the deal that crowded people stay put. The country pro­tects itself from the city, and soon the city becomes an idea, like ecology, to be studied and directed and reformed by remote control. Crowded people are ac­knowledged with bumper stickers and benefits, and its sympathy for the devil as long as they keep their distance. But whenever a crowded man passes through, it makes a little niche. Sometimes it makes a hole, an explosive hole in the green shield. Some of the pad­ding gets ripped away, and then the cops come in. And you can always tell how serious tbe rip is by how long it takes the locals to settle down to being mellow again.

Last August 7, a young man with tawny skin walked into the Marin County Civic Center with three guns inside his coat. He walked into court. He said, “This is it.” He gave the guns away. Three crowded men held them over five country people: the judge, the assistant district at­torney, and three female jurors. They walked into the sunlight. They climbed inside a yellow van. They started the motor up. There was some confusion. The Judge died in his robes. The young man died in his tawny skin. Two con­victs died in their courtroom fatigues. The jurors lived. The young D. A. lived, his spine severed. The third con, shot bad in the stomach, lived to be ac­cused.

And that evening the people of Marin took to their happy trails to find that someone had ripped a nasty hole in the shield. Since then, they have lived with these apprehensions: that the hole is only a beginning, that there are more moths in the closet than camphor can kill, and that. by some genetic quirk, the moths have developed a taste for silk.

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The Civic Center of Marin must be the most mellow courthouse in the world. There is no rhetoric in its function or its design. It sits nestled in the sunny side of a hill a few green miles from San Rafael, a concrete cylinder in pink and blue and gold. To reach its gates you pass through landscaped gardens and clusters of trees in bloom. A smell of sweet manure hangs over the lawn, a smell of tended earth. Inside, there are sub-tropical gardens under plastic arches open to the sky, and the floors are earthen red, and the bathrooms smell faintly of evergreen.

“Beauty is the moving cause of nearly every issue worth the civi­lization we have,” Frank Lloyd Wright told the people of Marin back in 1957, when he first presented his plans for the new Civic Center. Seldom has one man’s sense of beauty been more insidiously applied. In this Hall of Justice, form absolves function; everything possible has been done to detoxify the business of dispensing punishment. Bureaus and offices sit off the main arcade like booths at a bazaar. There is a lending library on the top floor and a cafeteria on the third. Hidden springs and fountains along the terraces. An exhibit of paintings by local artists on the walls. Even those who have the most to fear from this building have contributed (though not by choice) to its success. Every piece of walnut furniture in every court or office has been carved and polished by an inmate at the California pens.

Jacques Ellul tells us one dif­ference between fascism and the technological state is that fascism is visible. If this is so, Wright must be counted among the archi­tects of the current tyranny, in which dominance is intangible, even to those who rule. His Civic Center is a graceful cabana of slopes and arches. Every detail, from door knobs to ceiling fix­tures, is a fully realized curve. Every structural chord has been resolved. There are no flags or emblems within the building, no quotes from Jefferson in raised letters over the door. These symbols of a punitive past have given way to a lushness so profound that it seems impossible to equate the power in its purpose with the beauty in its line. You walk down its corridors filled with a sense of fluid harmony. I am gentle, smiling, curving like these walls, pink and earthy and at ease.

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Of course, the jail is a mite less lush. But even here, all that is possible has been done to spare the rod from those who live out­side. Like the rest of the Civic Center, it is functionally invisible. There are no bars because no cell contains a window; only nubbly concrete walls, painted tan. The rooftop exercise yard (four walls with wire strung across the top) is invisible from the ground. The prison has its own lobby, its own elevators, and its own video sur­veillance system. Each prisoner may be observed on closed circuit television. Each courtroom con­tains a corridor which leads directly to the cell block, so that suspects may be transferred in complete isolation.

(It is the state’s determination to isolate its criminals from its citizens which facilitated the shoot-out itself. Louis P. Moun­tanos, the sheriff of Marin, claims he gave his guards orders not to open fire on the yellow van. Ap­parently, radio signals were crossed and the order never reached those guards who had been assigned to the case from San Quentin, where the three con­victs were serving time. It was those guards, indoctrinated to prevent fugitives from escaping into the community, even when they hold hostages. who opened fire on the van.)

In Marin, each prisoner lives in isolated neutrality. He is denied the privilege of impact, either as an individual or as a class. No one can see him or hear him or feel him unless the state consents. Or unless the prisoner breaks the shield.

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Dig it:

Cat bops into court carrying three guns. One sawed-off, all right on! “This is it,” he says. Defiling the presumption of im­munity (Lenny Bruce used to call that “pissing on the velvet”). Judge and jurors, jive D. A., marched under the intemperate eyes of reporters, tourists, and pigs. Through the parking lot. Into the yellow van. BAM. BAMBAM.

Dig it:


Judge Calm
Before Death

“Christmas put his left arm around me and in his right hand he had a gun pointed at me and two flares, but he said they were dynamite. 

“I believed everything he said and he had the gun pointed at my head and he kind of ducked behind me as we left the court­ room.

“In the truck, the judge, he was sitting in the right rear corner, he said he was sorry us jurors had to go through what we had to go through. And I was thinking, not out loud but to myself, well, if you’re going to torture me, just shoot me now. I don’t want to be tortured.

“Seconds later, the shotgun blast killed Judge Haley.

“And you know what? When I got home, there was a tooth in my hair and some glass in the tooth.

“This was my first experience on a jury, and believe me, my last.” 

 — from the San Francisco Examiner, August 16, 1970

Things have changed since the shoot-out. The Marin County Civic Center now looks like a luxury liner doubling as a battleship. Guards and bailiffs are armed; one judge admits to carrying a gun under his robes. A row of bars has been constructed along the corridor which runs beside the courtrooms. Employees and visi­tors are pat-searched and passed through a metal-detector at the gates. Townspeople can no longer return their library books in the slot outside the Hall of Justice. And reporters who wish to cover trials within the building must be especially accredited by the county, a process which involves being photographed and fin­gerprinted, one finger at a time.

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There has been talk among the more intemperate of staging trials involving convicted felons behind prison walls. ”It is time to rise up, people of Marin,” writes Mrs. D. C. Ely, in the Indepen­dent-Journal of San Rafael. “Why can’t we have a small but attrac­tive court area or room inside the walls of all our penal institutions for felons who have stabbed or abused other unfortunates inside the walls of said institutions? The courtroom could be well aired, sunny, and even a few potted plants may help the morale of all present.”

Since the shooting, and the bombing which demolished a courtroom last October, every visitor to the Civic Center has had some inkling of what it means to live under guard. The people who work inside the building seem bewildered by all that has hap­pened to them since August 7. Of course there is security in a metal-detector and an armed guard, but the fact remains: if you need to be protected, you need to feel afraid.

The District Attorney, Bruce Bales, seems uneasy at his desk, surrounded by golf and tennis trophies, a stunning view of the Pacific to his right. He is a small man with a face like an earnest airedale, easy to like and even to believe. As he sat talking to me two weeks ago, I felt as though I had come up against a man whose moral precepts simply could not encompass politics outside the voting booth, or violence outside the arena of crime.

“I don’t understand why people are calling this a political trial,” he told me. “From what I’ve seen and studied, a political trial is when someone is put on trial for holding certain political beliefs, and that’s far from the case here. Nowhere in the indictment is any­one charged with being a Communist.”

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Normally, Bales himself would be the prosecuting attorney in the trial of Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee, who are charged with conspiring to kidnap and murder Judge Haley. But last December, he withdrew from the case and the state appointed Albert W. Harris, Jr., an assistant attorney general, in his place. Bales was a close friend of the murdered judge — Haley had been his first employer — and remains close to Gary Thomas, his assistant, who was paralyzed during the break and who claims to have shot three of the escapees.

“Judge Haley was a real gentle­man. That’s the irony of it. Of all the judges in the county, he was the most courteous. Conscientious in the extreme. He would extend civil rights to everyone, despite rebukes and … oh, things you would never expect to hear inside a courtroom. He was certainly not a tough judge in the sense of pil­ing on punishments. You’d never hear him swear or anything like that. He was a gentleman. Some judges, hell, you can tell if they’re former prosecutors, ’cause they’re tougher than any cop. Or a legal defender if they’re overly lenient. But sitting on the bench, you couldn’t tell what his back­ground was. He was a gentleman. But I’m biased. I really liked the guy.”

The county would breathe easy with a change of venue, though it cannot legally request one. Re­moving the trial from Marin would save every taxpayer about $20, but more than money is in­volved. Moving the trial would give the county time to regain its battered equilibrium, to get back, to being mellow again. Bales, too, could use a cooling out. Even now that he has removed himself from the case, reporters monitor his opinions, and every black man in the state knows him as the man who went to New York to bring Angela Davis back.

“I could have tried it,” Bales muses, looking out into his view. “I don’t know. I’m glad I got out. For many reasons. For a long time, I still thought I was gonna do it. I couldn’t have done it im­partially, but … I don’t know.”

“Did the shooting change your head around?”

He looks me in the eye for the first and only time.


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”We are not alone. We have allies everywhere. We find our comrades wherever in the world we hear the oppressor’s whip. People all over the world are rising up; the tide of revolution is about sweep the shores of  America. A picture is worth a thousand words but action is  supreme.”

— Huey P. Newton, from his eulogy at the funeral of Jonathan Jackson and William A. Christmas, August 12, 1970

“What of the convicts who died in their attempt to escape, and what of the teenage boy, also killed, who smuggled the guns which made the whole tragic epi­sode possible?

“Surely the Lord God himself challenges us all to say, as Christ did on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.‘ “

   — from an editorial in the Independent Journal, San Rafael, August 12, 1970


First I show my press card to a guard who checks me off on his list. Then I empty my pockets into a plastic container. Then remove my watch, my ring, my shoes, my belt, and anything else which is likely to show up on a metal-de­tector. Once through the machine, I stand in the middle of the corri­dor with my arms and legs spread apart, while a deputy pats my shoulders and pockets and crotch, with a deferential touch not unlike a handshake. I’m reminded of my draft physical, especially the he­morrhoid check, and that pros­pect is so unpleasant that I flash on being a felon, naked against the wall while pigs patrol my in­nards and fishermen hold flowers. The fantasy is exciting (you think I’d bring guns in there?) until I re­alize that I am suspect. The guard searches my hair for weapons. A photographer snaps my picture as I fumble with my belongings, trying to detach my ring from my pen without dropping my shoes. Finally I stagger into court, drag­ging my belt along the carpet.

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The courtroom, like the rest of the building, is sinister in its infor­mality. The judge sits behind a simple wooden desk; you don’t rise when he walks into the room. The defendants, their lawyers, and the prosecutor’s staff are ar­ranged around a semi-circular table which runs the length of the room. The jurors (when there is a jury) sit in nine bucket seats, a short rise above the defense. There is no docket, no banister be­tween the jury and the accused, only a low partition between spec­tators and officers of the court.

This room seems well equipped to handle a seminar or a minor convocation, but surely not a murder trial, not inside this tepid chamber. Think of the courts in New York. Think of the room where the hearing to extradite Angela Davis took place: high ceiling, Flash Gordon chande­liers, the Honorable Thomas Dickens presiding in his robes, like the driver of some decaying hansom cab. What has happened to our sense of justice as a vengeful father? It has evolved into this verdant baggie, in which the law can only be perceived as an organic process, a hyacinth. In the California tradition of being­-there-first, this is truly the court­room of the future: with a decor so neutral and a procedure so in­formal that it’s hard to think of death as anything more than an inconvenience, meted out by common consent as the only rea­sonable alternative to life outside.

I strike up a conversation with a young free-lance reporter. We talk about Laing and Hesse and schizophrenia as a vanguard ex­perience. But our reverie is inter­rupted by the appearance of two armed deputies, one holding a three-foot length of chain, similar to the one I use when walking my dog. The chain is a restorative, and also the first sign that a black man convicted of kidnapping and robbery and attempted rape is about to enter the room. He walks in, already chained at the waist. A thick flat man with shoulders like a stump. He shoots a smile and a half-raised fist at the audience, and sits in a chair which has been bolted to the floor. The guards wind the chain around his waist. Then they fluff his shirt over the chain so that it is invisible to the court. All you see if you look at Ruchell Magee is a man sitting calmly in his bucket seat, hands resting on his lap, his shoulders slightly hunched. That, you might assume, would be the natural pos­ture of a man who has spent his lion years as a con.

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Then Angela Davis walks in, unencumbered, and takes a seat at the other end of the room. A smile and a raised clenched fist. Scattered applause. Reporters start to snip. “I heard she had some work done on those teeth of hers.” And “I wonder where she found the time to go shopping for that dress.” This is envy-patter, but it is delivered with such audible venom that a brief scuffle ensues, with members of the “committed press” demanding respect, or at least silence from the straights. Earl Caldwell, the young black reporter from the Times, smiles into his lapels.

The judge walks in. A slender clear-faced man with shoulders like a steam iron. He smiles. He introduces himself. “I’m Judge Alan Lindsay from Alameda County, over here on assign­ment.” He introduces the prose­cutor. He smiles again. He speaks softly, almost in a whisper, defer­ential as the guard who searched me on the way in. Think of him as the perfect dinner guest: atten­tive, respectable, and more than willing to remain invisible beyond the etiquette of the occasion.

He addresses Ruchell Magee, who is attempting to file another writ demanding the removal of his case into federal court. This document, like all the others Magee has filed in the eight years since his last conviction, is written in a stiff hand on prison stationery, and contains the basis of what Magee regards as his defense: that he is being railroaded by court-appointed lawyers and the “flagrant rac­ism” of the system itself; that the state is attempting to suppress ev­idence which he intends to use in his own behalf; that an attorney, A. Leonard Bjorklund, offered him immunity (if he would testify that Angela Davis provided him with the gun he held during the escape) and threatened him with the death penalty when he refused to cooperate; that he is being ”criminally oppressed, harassed, and tormented in prison.”

The right to conduct your own defense is, in fact, a privilege which may be conveyed upon a defendant at the court’s discre­tion. Magee’s motions, with their alien, forceful style, have not disposed the bench to grant his request. And though it was a writ by Magee which helped Judge John P. McMurray decide to remove himself from the case, Al­bert Harris, the prosecuting at­torney, has said: “The defend­ant’s below average intelligence, subnormal education, inexperi­ence, and indisposition toward courts of law do not adequately equip him to save his life.”

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Judge Lindsay smiles. He ac­cepts Magee’s motion, although the defendant cannot move his arms away from his lap to present it. “We’re having some difficulty with the chains,” says Robert Bell, a court-appointed lawyer for Magee.

“I understand,” the judge replies. “Would you furnish Mr. Magee with all necessary assis­tance?”

I remember the time I spent in Judge Julius Hoffman’s court during the pre-trial hearings of the Chicago Seven. I remember Hoffman’s craning presence on the bench. I remember his syntax, the way he chewed at­torneys’ names like tough meat. And I remember thinking then, this petulant old man will make the perfect foil for these people, and will secretly enjoy their disobedience and his own power to keep their anger in check. Judge Hoffman was prairie jus­tice: he was energetic and arbi­trary, and when he hit, he hurt.

Alan Lindsay is as well-tem­pered as Julius Hoffman was spiteful. Yet, if anything is appar­ent from the way he runs his court, it is how little it matters what tone the judge maintains. The effect of courtesy is nil: as in Chicago, a man is chained to his seat and denied the right to choose his own representation. As in Chicago, circumstantial evi­dence is applied to a political in­tent. Anyone who doubts that this is a political trial should consider the indictment against Angela Davis which mentions, as “overt acts” to be regarded as evidence of criminal intent, specific speeches and activities on behalf of the Soledad Brothers. The defense should have little trouble establishing — if it is permitted to — that Angela Davis was regarded as a criminal before Jon Jackson ever handled any guns.

She sits at the hemispheric table, looking as she always does in court: alert, assured, and pro­vocative. The judge takes note of her behind his smile, and the guards take note behind their guns, and the reporters take note behind their notes. Sex and race hang in the soft air, contradicting the structural intent of the room and turning the gentle little meet­ing hall with its placid judge irre­vocably into a court of law.

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As its major business, the defense files a 27-page statement accusing Judge Lindsay of “biases and prejudices … that impede his ability to conduct a fair trial.” As evidence, the defense cites his prior association with enforcement agencies, his term as an assistant district at­torney in Alameda County, his membership in the Oakland school board during the NAACP’s intensive campaign against that city’s districting policies, and his pressured loyalty to Ronald Reagan, who appointed Judge Lindsay to the Superior Court in 1967. The defense concludes: “The racism inherent in the American judicial political system is clearly manifested in Judge Lindsay’s career, a classic of our time.”

It would be 10 days before Judge Lindsay responded to the charges by denying he was prejudiced and insisting he had done nothing in his career to fur­ther segregation or racism. It would be another two weeks until a hearing before another judge could be convened. At that hearing, the charge of bias was rejected. With an appeal pending on that charge, Judge Lindsay has scheduled a hearing this Wednesday to rule on a petition by Ruchell Magee’s lawyers, who want to withdraw from the case. Still to be argued are pre-trial mo­tions for dismissal of the indict­ment, for bail, and for the right of Angela Davis to act as co-counsel in her own defense (an arrange­ment which is rare in American courtrooms, though not in other judicial systems — the Soviet one, for example).

It is unlikely that Judge Lindsay will react with much enthusiasm to the prospect of a series of hearings which could last longer than some trials, but neither is he likely to rush things un­ceremoniously. Not this judge, who has said, in the tradition of the green shield: “Everybody involved in this matter must not only receive a fair trial, but they must also have the feeling that the trial has been fair.”

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Today, the only day Judge Lindsay has actually encountered Angela Davis and Ruchell Magee he adjourns the morning session after 12 minutes. In the afternoon, he returns to announce that he will take the Davis challenge under consideration. He assures Magee that his hand-written mo­tion will also receive its due. He smiles. Then he turns to face the press.

“Indicating we are going to ad­journ in a few minutes,” he purrs, “everyone will remain with the exception of those necessary to escort Miss Davis and Mr. Magee from the courtroom.” Guards as­sume their places, first undoing Magee and then accompanying Davis out the door. The judge departs, and so do the rest of us — reporters and spectators, artists with sketches of Angela (and none of Magee) which invariably make her look huskier and swarthier than she seems, ministers and defense committee types, a cou­ple in overalls.

Outside in the hall, I watch Howard Moore, chief counsel for the defense, cornered by the press.

“People call Alan Lindsay ‘The Smiling Judge.’ What do you think of that?”

“I wouldn’t want to comment on his teeth.”

Afterward, I ask who calls Lindsay the smiling judge, and a reporter answers: “I do. Me and the lady sitting behind me.”

I take the elevator up to the caf­eteria for a cup of coffee and fruit salad. I sit looking out on the ter­race with its fountains and gardens. I watch a young mother hold her baby up near the edge of the terrace, looking out over the hilltops into the still-green Pacific and the still-blue sky. She’s wearing a poncho and print bells. Her cheeks are the color of the walls around me. So are her breasts, I imagine and her hips. I fancy she is happy, with space enough to move and time to be. I fancy she is free.

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Listen, lady:

“Flowers, guitar music, and a priest speaking words of joy con­trasted today with the quiet of the mourners at the funeral of Judge Harold J. Haley. 

“Reverend John P. Tierney, pastor of St. Sylvester’s Catholic Church, urged hundreds of persons who had jammed inside for a funeral mass to rejoice with Judge Haley ‘on his entrance into eternal life.’

“The bells in the tower of the First Presbyterian Church across the street from Keaton’s Mortu­ary in San Rafael tolled as the hearse pulled slowly away­ — preceded down Fifth Avenue by a line of 25 police cars, their flashing red lights emphasizing the silence of their sirens.   

“A policeman armed with a rifle stood watch atop San Rafael’s City Hall, which was closed to traffic until the funeral procession had passed.

“Judge Haley’s parish church in Peacock Gap was already crowded as the hearse and line of cars made their way out of San Pedro Road, through the hills, and along the bay the Judge has known all his life.”  

— from the Independent-Journal, August 10, 1970


Sisters Under the Skin: Confronting Race and Sex

Recently, at a feminist meeting, a black woman argued that in American society race is a more absolute divi­sion than sex, a more basic determi­nant of social identity. This started an intense discussion: if someone shook us out of a deep sleep and demanded that we define ourselves, what would we blurt out first? The black woman said “black woman.” Most of the white women said “woman”; some said “lesbian.” No one said “white person” or “white woman.”

I’m not sure it makes sense to say that one social division is more absolute than another. I wonder if it isn’t more a matter of different kinds of division. Most blacks and whites live in separate communities, in dif­ferent social, cultural, and economic worlds, while most women and men share each other’s daily, intimate lives and cooperate, even if unequally, in such elemental activities as fucking, procreating, and keeping a household going. On the other hand, a man and a woman can spend their lives to­gether and have such disparate ver­sions of their “common” experience that they might as well live on different planets. Do I feel more distant from black women than from white men? Everything else (class) being equal? (Except that it usually isn’t.) In some ways yes, in some ways no. But whatever the objective truth, my sex feels more basic to my identity than my race. This is not surprising: in a sexist society it’s impossible to take one’s femaleness for granted; in a racist society whiteness is sim­ply generic humanness, entirely un­remarkable. Suppose, though, that a black revolution were to seriously challenge my racial privileges? Suppose I had to confront every day, every hour, the question of which side I’m on?

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Such questions excite and disturb me. Like talk about sexuality, discussions of the racial­-sexual nexus radiate danger and taboo — a sign that the participants are on to some­thing. Lately such discussions, mostly in­itiated by black women, are happening more often. They raise the heartening possibility of connecting, and in the process revitalizing, the unhappily divergent discourses of feminism and black liberation. This could be the first step toward creating a new feminist radicalism, whose interracial, interclass bonds go deeper than lowest-common-denominator coalition politics.

One of the women at the meeting suggested that I read Sally Hemings, Barbara Chase­-Riboud’s controversial historical novel about Thomas Jefferson’s black mistress. I found it a devastating study of the psychology of mas­ters and slaves, the politics of romantic love, the relations between black and white women, and the institution of the family. Much of its power lies in the way the author merges the race and sex of each character into a seamless whole, bringing home the point that to abstract these categories is al­ready to falsify experience. So long as white­ness and maleness remain the norm, white women can think of themselves as “women,” black men as “blacks”; but black women, doubly the Other, must be constantly aware of their dual identity at the same time that they suffer from both racial and sexual in­visibility. In forcing the rest of us to see them, they also present us with new and far less tidy pictures of ourselves.

This suggests that confronting the op­pression of black women means more than taking in new information or taking up new issues. It also means questioning the intellec­tual frameworks that the (male-dominated) black and (white-dominated) feminist move­ments have set up. If race and sex are ex­perientially inseparable, can we (should we) still analyze them separately? If all women are subject to male supremacy yet black and white women play out their relations with men (both inside and outside their own communities) in different ways — do they still have a common core of female experience, a common political oppression as women? Theoretically, the different situations of black women and black men should raise the same sort of question. But in practice black women single out their relation to white women and feminism as the more painful, problematic issue. This subject is now bursting through a decade’s sediment of sloganeer­ing, ritualistic condemnations, and liberal apologies to inform some provocative new writing.

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But first, I feel I have to say something about Angela Davis. Women, Race and Class may have been inspired by all this ferment, but the kindest judgment I can make is that it misses the point. From Davis’s orthodox Marxist perspective (still CP after all these years!), in which economic relations determine all, while sexual relations have no material status and sexism is merely a set of bad attitudes, the question of how racial and sexual politics interact loses its meaning. Da­vis strips racism of its psychocultural dimension and treats it strictly as a form of economic exploitation; she tends to ignore sexism altogether, except when invoking it as an excuse for white bourgeois feminists to undermine the struggles of black and work­ing people. (For instance, she rightly condemns the racism of white suffragists outraged at the prospect that black men would get the vote before white women — but rationalizes the sexism that prompted black men to sell out women of both races by agreeing that the black male vote should have priority. Black men’s “sexist attitudes,” Da­vis argues, were “hardly a sound reason for arresting the progress of the overall struggle for Black liberation” — and never mind the effect on that struggle of denying the vote to half the black population.) Still, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Davis’s book as an anachronism. In more subtle and am­biguous forms, its brand of left antifeminism continues to influence women’s thinking. Besides, Angela Davis is a public figure, and Women, Race and Class will undoubtedly outsell both the books I’m about to discuss.

Gloria I. Joseph is black; Jill Lewis is white. In Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, they attempt to explore their separate his­tories, confront misunderstandings, and move toward “collaborative struggle.” The book has the flavor of an open-ended political conversation; for the most part the authors write separate chapters, each commenting from her own perspective on various aspects of sexual politics. The result is uneven, full of intellectual loose ends and contradictions, and both writers have an unfortunate penchant for clotted, obfuscatory prose. But Common Differences does help to clarify touchy areas of black-white conflict. Joseph’s, chapters — which taught me a lot, especially about black mothers and daughters — are a valuable counterweight (and an implicit re­buke) to the tendency of white feminist theo­rists to base their generalizations about the female condition on white women’s experi­ence. In discussing black women’s lives, Jo­seph uses a time-honored feminist method: she records group discussions and individual comments, picks out common themes and contradictions, and tries to draw conclusions. The immediacy of this material exposes white feminist parochialism more effectively than any abstract argument.

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Without denying the movement’s short­comings, Lewis sets out to debunk the stere­otype of the spoiled, elitist “women’s libber.” The feminist movement, she maintains, de­serves recognition as the only social move­ment to challenge the status of women as women. She argues that white feminists have been struggling toward a deeper understand­ing of race and class, and that even those sectors of the movement most narrowly ori­ented to white middle-class concerns “have engaged in and won concrete struggles that potentially open up new terrain for all women.”

In their introduction, Joseph and Lewis agree that “as a political movement, women’s liberation did and does touch on questions which in different ways affect all women’s lives.” But Common Differences is much more about difference than about commonality. In Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism Bell Hooks strides boldly be­yond pluralism to the rockier ground of synthesis. While Hooks also stresses the uniqueness of black women’s experience and the ways it has been discounted, her aim is to enlarge the theoretical framework of feminism. To this end she analyzes black women’s condition in a historical context, tracing the basic patterns of black-female oppression to slavery and developing three intertwined themes: black men’s sexism, white women’s racism, and the effect of white men’s racial-sexual politics on the relations between black and white women. Hooks is a contentious writer, and I don’t always agree with her contentions, but Ain’t I a Woman has an intellectual vitality and daring that should set new standards for the discussion of race and sex.

The central political question these books raise is why the contemporary feminist move­ment has been so white. Most critics of the movement have offered a simple answer: white feminists’ racism has driven black women away. This indictment is true as far as it goes, but it already takes for granted facts that need explaining. Why, in the first place,­was it primarily white women, rather than black women or both groups simultaneously, who felt impelled to mobilize against sexism? And why did so many politically conscious black women reject the movement (in some cases the very idea of feminism) out of hand, rather than insisting that it purge its theory and practice of racism, or organizing groups committed to a nonracist feminist politics? Antifeminist leftists have typically argued that sexual politics are inherently a white middle-class crotchet, irrelevant to women, who are “really” — i.e., economically and racially — oppressed. Or else (this is Angela Da­vis’s main strategy) they redefine feminism to mean women fighting together against ra­cism and capitalism, and conclude that black and white working class women have been the leaders of the real feminist struggle. Ei­ther way they imply that sexism is not a problem for black women, if indeed it is a problem at all.

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Hooks, Joseph, and Lewis reject this idea. They assume that black women have a stake in women’s liberation, and see white feminists’ racism as part of a complex social history that has shaped black women’s politics. Bell Hooks argues that estrangement between black and white women goes all the way back to slavery. The terms of the conflict, as she sees it, were defined by white men who applied racism to a Victorian sexual (and class) ideology that divided women into two categories: good (chaste, delicate, to be pro­tected and idealized) and bad (licentious, unrefined, to be exploited and punished). While the white upper-class southern woman represented the feminine ideal, black female slaves were stigmatized, in schizoid fashion, both as bad women — therefore deserving to be raped and beaten — and as nonwomen: in doing the same work as men, black women threatened the ideology of female inferiority, a contradiction resolved by def ming them as neuter beasts of burden.

At the same time, the white woman’s power to collaborate in oppressing blacks softened and obscured the realism of her own inferior position. She exercised this power most directly over female slaves, whom she often treated with the special viciousness of the insecure. No doubt the degraded status of black women also reminded her, subconsciously at least, of what can happen to any female who provokes men into drop­ping the mask of patriarchal benevolence. As Hooks observes, the manifest cruelty of white women’s own husbands, fathers, and broth­ers “served as a warning of what might be their fate should they not maintain a passive stance. Surely, it must have occurred to white women that were enslaved black women not available to bear the brunt of such intense antiwoman aggression, they themselves might have been the victims.” As a result, the very identification that might have led white women to black women’s defense probably had the opposite effect. White men’s sexual pursuit of black women also exposed white women’s humiliating position: they could neither prevent their husbands’ behavior nor claim a comparable freedom for themselves. Instead they expressed their anger, salvaged their pride, and defended their own good­-woman status by vilifying black women as seducers and sluts.

Hooks shows that what she calls the “dev­aluation of black womanhood” did not end with slavery but remains a potent source of black women’s rage. Her account of how black women are systematically disparaged as whores, castrating matriarchs, and sexless mammies explains a crucial ingredient of black female hostility to the women’s move­ment. Clearly, when white feminists ignored black female experience and in effect equated “woman” with “white woman,” the result had a double meaning for black women: it suggested that we were not only enforcing white supremacy but trying to have it both ways by preserving our mono­poly on femininity and its rewards (respect, status, financial support) while demanding the option of rejecting it. This perception of bad faith fueled the angry denunciations of feminism as “white women’s business.”

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But envying white women’s “femininity” is a trap for black women, as Hooks is well aware. Idealization of the white woman’s status has tended to divert black women from demanding sexual justice to attacking black men for their inability to support stay-at­-home wives. Many black women have en­dorsed black male demands for female subservience in the hope that at last they would get a crack at the pedestal. At the same time, their envy of white women has been mixed with contempt, an emotion that led some black women to insist they didn’t need a movement because they were already liberated. Another illusion in Hooks’s relentless catalogue: strength in adversity and the need to make a living are not the same thing as freedom.

Gloria Joseph emphasizes the painful col­lisions of black and female identity. As she says, “an individual cannot be two separate entities. Yet black women suffer from two modes of oppression and so are implicated, like it or not, in two social movements at once. At best this involves a double burden, at worst a continuing conflict of loyalties and priorities. Joseph shows that deep ambivalences permeate black women’s think­ing — on black men (distrust and antagonism mixed with solidarity, affection, and protectiveness), on sex (“a desirable no-no,’ an ‘attractive nuisance'”), on feminism itself (most of Joseph’s respondents reject the movement but endorse its goals). Her argu­ment suggests that black women have been slow to commit themselves to feminism — especially the more radical aspects of sexual politics — for fear of weakening their ties with the black community and the black struggle. Jill Lewis points out that white middle-class women could focus single-mindedly on feminism because “they did not have the stakes of racial unity or solidarity with White men that the Black women had with Black men” and because their privileges left them “free of the survival struggles that are prior­ities for minority and working-class women.” If anything, class and racial privileges (par­ticularly education) spurred their conscious­ness of sexual injustice by raising expectations that were thwarted purely because they were women.

Ironically, Joseph exemplifies the dilemma she describes: like many other black women who define themselves as feminists, she draws the line at calling black men op­pressors. While Joseph and Lewis agree that black and white women are oppressed as women, they uncritically assume that male supremacy is a product of white culture, and that the concept does not really apply to male-female relations among blacks, except insofar as all white institutions and values shape black life. Lewis asserts that institutionalized sexism in America was imported by European immigrants, as if Native Ameri­can, African, and other nonwhite cultures were free of male dominance. In fact, no anthropologist, feminist or otherwise, has ever come up with convincing evidence of a culture in which some form of male domi­nance does not exist.

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Lewis and Joseph argue that because black men do not have the same worldly power as white men, “Male dominance as a salient problematic factor in male-female sexual re­lationships cannot be considered as a univer­sal trait applicable to all men.” But Joseph’s own descriptions of black women’s attitudes toward sex, men, and marriage — not to men­tion their struggles to bring up children alone — belie this view. Rather, her evidence confirms that despite black men’s economic and social subordination to whites they share with all men certain male supremacist prerogatives, including physical and sexual aggression, the assumption of male superior­ity, and refusal to share responsibility for child rearing and housework. Joseph and Lewis also make the puzzling claim that ex­ist repression is more severe for white women because “Black women can be kept in their places via racism alone.” Does racism alone account for black women’s oppression as mothers, workers (including domestic work­ers), welfare recipients, prostitutes, victims of rape and sexual exploitation?

All this adds up to a bad case of conceptual confusion. You can’t simultaneously agree that black women need feminism and deny the basic premise of feminism — that men have power over women. Women who engage in this form of doublethink still have a toe or two in the camp of left antifeminism; while rejecting crude economism of the Angela Da­vis variety, they assume that sexism is perpetuated not by men in general but by a white capitalist ruling class.

Hooks insists on the reality of black male sexism. Discussing the experience of female slaves, she angrily refute the cliché that “the most cruel and dehumanizing impact of slavery … was that black men were stripped of their masculinity. This idea, she argues, merely reflects the sexist assumption that men’s experience is more important than women’s and that “the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman.” In fact, though all slaves suffered brutal oppression, “black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role.” Not­ing that American blacks came from African patriarchal cultures, Hooks rejects the idea that black men learned sexism from whites and the myth (repeated once again by Angela Davis) that within the slave community men and women were equal. On the contrary, the slaves accepted the concept of male superior­ity, and black families maintained a sexual division of labor, with women doing the cook­ing, cleaning, and child care. Nor did slaveholders assign black men “women’s work.” Black women, however, were forced by their white masters to perform both “masculine” and “feminine” functions, work­ing alongside black men at backbreaking la­bor in the fields, while also serving as house­workers, breeders, and sexual objects.

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Hooks implicitly links what she sees as black women’s false consciousness about sex­ism with their political isolation: while the sexism of black male activists has forced black women to choose between asserting themselves as women and maintaining racial solidarity, the racism of white feminists has reinforced and justified that split. Ain’t I a Woman describes how this combination of pressures undermined black women’s efforts to participate in both 19th and 20th century feminist movements. In dissecting the rhetoric of the contemporary black and women’s movements, Hooks shows how sex­ism has been promoted as a cure for racism, sisterhood as a rationale for ignoring it. Black power advocates, confusing liberation with the assertion of their “manhood,” embraced a white man’s contention that a black matriarchy was the cause of their problems, and called on black women to advance the black cause by being submissive; some even suggested that sexual equality was a white racist idea, indicative of the white man’s effeteness and decadence. Black Muslims tried to reverse the racist Victorian para­digm, defining black women as the feminine ideal and white women as devils (and estab­lishing rigid patriarchal families).

Meanwhile the early radical feminists were claiming that the division between men and women was the most basic social hierarchy, and that since men had ruled every known political system, racism was basically a male problem (“men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest” — Redstockings Man­ifesto). This analysis, which I and most of my political cohorts then subscribed to, has had a good deal of influence on the movement as a whole. It has two erroneous implications: that it’s impossible for white women to op­press black men, and that racial conflict be­tween black women and white women has no objective basis, but is (on both sides) an inauthentic antagonism that only serves the interests of men. Radical feminists under­stood, theoretically, that to build female unity white women had to oppose racism and change their own racist attitudes and behav­ior. We were sharply critical of liberal feminists who defined women’s freedom in terms of professional careers and formal equality within a racist, class-stratified social system. Yet emotionally our belief that sex as a more basic division than race allowed us to evade responsibility for racism. It is tempting to imagine that simply by doing what we wanted most passionately to do — build a radical feminist movement — we would also be fighting racism; tempting, too, to play down how much we benefited from being white. For while feminism seemed a way out of the classic bind of white middle­-class radicals: we no longer had to see ourselves as privileged people wondering where we fit into the revolutionary struggle; we too were part of an oppressed class with a historic destiny.

Hooks’s anger at this refusal to be accountable is well-deserved. But when she gets down to specifics, she tends to oversimplify and at times rewrite history. In her indict­ment of “white upper and middle class feminists” (Abby Rockefeller aside, who are these upper-class feminists I keep hearing about?), the movement becomes a monolith. The political difference between liberals and radicals, the social conditions that al­lowed the former to co-opt snd isolate the latter, the fierce intramovement debates about race and class are ignored or dismissed. White feminists’ main aim, Hooks charges, has been to join the male power structure; the movement has posed no threat to the system.

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This is silly. The women’s movement has been no more or less opportunistic than the black movement, the labor movement, or any other mass movement successful enough to attract power mongers. Feminists have not succeeded in making a revolution (neither, I believe, has the rest of the left), but — as Jill Lewis ably argues — we did create a new polit­ical arena and set a revolutionary process in motion. (Among other things, we established the political context in which a book like Ain’t I a Woman can be written and read.) The best measure of our threat to the system is the virulence of the reaction against us.

Hooks also indulges in overkill when she tries to explain white feminists’ appropria­tion of female experience in term of two different, even contradictory forms of racism. My own view is that the right explanation is the obvious one: we were acting on the un­conscious racist assumption that our experi­ence was representative, along with the im­pulse to gloss over racial specificities so as to keep the “complication” of racism from mar­ring our vision of female unity. Hook makes these points, but she also argues that white feminists have shared the racist/sexist perception of black women as nonwomen. In the process she accuses white feminists of claiming that black women are oppressed only by racism, not sexism, and denying that black men can be oppressive. These charges are, to put it mildly, befuddling. If there was any point radical feminists insisted on it was that all women were oppressed because of their sex, and that all men had the power to oppress women. In response, antifeminist black women (along with black and white male leftists) made the arguments Hooks now puts in our mouths, and denounced us as racists for attributing a “white problem” to black people. Inevitably, many white women have echoed these arguments, but it’s perverse to blame feminists for them.

In fact, white feminists have generally been quite conscious of black women as women; it’s their blackness we’ve had trouble with. Straightforward reactionary racism ex­aggerates differences and denies common­alities; liberal racism, more typical of white feminists, does the opposite. Since the denial of black women’s “femininity” is such a central issue for Hooks, she mistakenly assumes that protecting an exclusive claim to femininity is equally an issue for all white women. On the contrary, white feminists felt free to challenge received definition of femininity because we took for granted our right to be considered women. And it was precisely because our claim to womanhood was not an issue for us that we were in­sensitive to black women’s pain at being de­nied it by racial fiat. Many white feminists recognized that the division between white women and black women had something to do with good girls and bad girls. (Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex, discusses this idea at length.) What we didn’t see was the asymmetry: we could decide to be bad, or play at being bad; black women had no choice.

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Hooks’s misperception of white feminists’ psychology also leads her to argue that their analogies between women and blacks were designed “to evoke in the minds of racist white men an image of white womanhood being degraded” by association with black people, especially black men. Again, the “im­age of white womanhood” had much less resonance than Hooks imagines, either for white feminists or for the white liberal and leftist men who were our immediate targets. The main reason that ’60s feminists relied so heavily on comparisons between sexism and racism is that white male politicos recognized the race issue as morally legitimate, while dismissing feminism as “a bunch of chicks with personal problems.” If anything, we were trying to evoke in these men the same guilt about sexism that they already felt about racism; since we hadn’t yet ex­perienced the drawbacks of liberal guilt, we craved its validation. We also hoped, naively enough, to convince black men to renounce their sexism and identify with the feminist cause.

Hooks takes a hard line on analogies be­tween women and blacks. She argues that they always imply a comparison between white women and black men, that they make black women invisible, obscure the issue of white women’s racial privilege, and divert attention from racism to white women’s problems. Certainly racial-sexual analogies have been misused in all the ways Hooks cites, but I don’t see these misuses as either invariable or necessary. Many feminists have made analogies between women and blacks in full awareness that they are talking about two overlapping groups; what they mean to com­pare is two sets of oppressive relations, male­-female and white-black. And though the dynamics and effects of racism and sexism differ in important ways, the parallels — legal, social, ideological — do exist. Which is why antiracist movements have been so instrumental in stimulating feminist consciousness and revolt.

Hooks refuses to recognize this. Scoffing at the idea that abolitionism inspired the first feminist wave, she says, “No 19th century white woman could grow to maturity without an awareness of institutionalized sexism.” But of course 19th century white women — ­and for that matter my generation of white women — did exactly that. It is the essence of institutionalized sexism to pose as the natu­ral order; to experience male dominance is one thing, to understand that it is political, therefore changeable, is quite another. For me and most feminists I know, that politicizing process was very much influenced by the civil rights and black power movements. Conversely, though feminism was not a mirac­ulous antidote to our racist impulses and illusions, it did increase our understanding of racism.

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Surely, the answer to exploitative com­parisons between women and blacks is not to deny the organic link between antisexist and antiracist politics. Here Hooks, too, gets trapped in contradictory thinking. She ar­gues that the issues of racism and sexism cannot really be separated, yet she re­peatedly singles out racism as an issue that is not only separate from sexism but prior to it. According to Hooks, “American society is one in which racial imperialism supersedes sexual imperialism,” and all black people, black men included, are absolutely lower on the social scale than any white woman. In other words, it is illegitimate for feminists to regard sexism as a category that can, at least theo­retically, be abstracted from (and compared to) racism; but no comparable stricture applies to black liberationists.

Gloria Joseph agrees that “In the end, it is a question of priorities, and given the nature of racism in this country, it should be obvious that the Black liberation struggle claims first priority.” Most black feminists whose views I know about take a similar position. It is easy to see why: because racism is intertwined with, and in part defined by class oppression, black people as a group suffer an excruciating combination of economic hardship and social indignity that white middle-class women and even most white working-class women es­cape. (Of course this does not necessarily hold true for individuals — it can be argued that a middle-class educated black man is a lot better off than a white welfare mother from an Appalachian rural slum.) Besides, as Hooks points out, women without the insula­tion of racial or class privilege are also the most vulnerable to sexist oppression: a white professional woman can buy liberation from housework by hiring a black maid; she can also (for the time being) buy the legal abor­tion Medicaid patients are denied.

Left antifeminists have often used this line of reasoning to suggest that sexual issues should wait until racism and poverty are abolished. Black feminists, by definition, have rejected that idea. But what then does it mean, in practical political terms, to say that despite the irreducibly dual character of black women’s oppression, their sex is less immediate an issue than their race? Specifi­cally, what does this imply for the prospect of an antiracist feminist movement, or, more modestly, “collaborative struggle” between black and white women?

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While Hooks never really focuses on strategic questions, Joseph and Lewis often write as if black and white women are on fundamentally separate tracks. They refer, for instance, to “White feminism,” a concept as self-contradictory as, say, “male socialism”; while one can speak of a feminism limited and flawed by white racist bias, it is feminism only to the extent that it challenges the subjection of women as a group. (The mechanical pluralism underlying the notion of separate-but-equal “White” and “Black” feminisms also impels the authors to capital­ize “White.” Though capitalizing “Black” may make sense as a polemical device for asserting black pride, racial self-assertion by white people is something else again.) But in discussing abortion, Jill Lewis endorses a specific approach to integrating feminism with race and class struggle. The strategy she describes has developed as a response to the abortion backlash, but the basic idea could be applied to almost any feminist issue. Since I think it’s both appealing and fallacious, I want to discuss it in some detail.

Lewis argues that to “isolate” abortion as an issue and defend it in terms of freedom for women betrays a white middle-class bias: since black women suffer not only from being denied safe abortions but from sterilization abuse, inadequate health care, and poverty — ­all of which impinge on their reproductive choices — a radical approach to “reproductive rights” must address all these concerns. The trouble with this logic is that abortion is not just one of many medical or social services being rolled back by Reaganism; nor does the present opposition to abortion stem from the same sources or political motives as pressure toward sterilization. Abortion is first of all the key issue of the new right’s antifeminist campaign, the ground on which a larger bat­tle over the very idea of women’s liberation is being fought. In essence, the antiabortionists are arguing that women who assert their free agency and refuse to be defined by their childbearing capacity are immoral. (In con­trast, no one defends poverty or forced sterilization on principle.) So long as this moral attack on women is gaining ground, present­ing abortion primarily as a health or social welfare measure is ineffective because it evades the underlying issue. Our choice right now is to defend abortion as a pivotal issue of women’s freedom, or lose the battle by de­fault. This is not to belittle the urgency of opposing sterilization abuse (which is, among other things, another expression of contempt for black femaleness) or demanding better health care. Nor is it to deny that all these issues are linked in important ways. My point is only that the reproductive rights strategy does not resolve the touchy question of priorities. Rather, while purporting to cover all bases, it submerges sexual politics in an economic and social welfare program.

Is this good for black women? Gloria Jo­seph points out that on the issue of abortion rights, “Black women have even more at stake, since it is they who suffer more from illegal and abusive abortions.” They also suf­fer more from having unwanted children un­der horrendous conditions. If a sexual-politi­cal strategy offers the only real chance to preserve legal abortion and restore public funding, it is clearly in black women’s inter­est. Since black women are faced with so many urgent problems, they may well have other priorities, but it doesn’t follow that white women who concentrate on abortion are indulging a racist bias. On the contrary, they’re doing a crucial job that will benefit all women in the end.

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All this suggests that the question of whether racism is worse (or more basic, or more pressing) than sexism matters less than the fact that both are intolerable. Not that I agree with the white feminists Bell Hooks castigates for dismissing racial differences on the grounds that “oppression cannot be measured.” It’s clear to me that in demon­strable ways, some oppressed people are worse off than others. But I do question whose interests are really served by the meas­uring. Once it’s established that black women are the most victimized group, and that most black men are more victimized than most white women — then what?

In my experience, this kind of ranking does not lead to a politics of genuine liberation, based on mutual respect and cooperation among oppressed groups, but instead pro­vokes a politics of ressentiment, competition, and guilt. Black men tend to react not by recognizing the sexual oppression of black women but by rationalizing their anti­feminism as a legitimate response to white women’s privilege. White women who are sensitive to the imputation of racism tend to become hesitant and apologetic about assert­ing feminist grievances. As for white women who can’t see beyond their own immediate interests, attempts to demote them in the ranks of the oppressed do nothing but make them feel unjustly attacked and confirmed in their belief that sexual and racial equality are separate, competing causes. The ultimate re­sults are to reinforce left antifeminism, weaken feminist militance, widen the split between the black and feminist movements, and play into the divide and conquer tactics of white men (“We can do something for blacks or for women, but not both, so you folks fight it out”). Black women, caught in the racial-sexual crossfire, stand to lose the most.

Insistence on a hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic. Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than some­one else’s. Its appeal is that it allows people at the bottom of social hierarchies to turn the tables and rule over a moral hierarchy of suffering and powerlessness. But whatever the emotional comfort of righteousness, it’s a poor substitute for real change. And we ought to know by now that effective radical move­ments are not based on self-abnegation; rather, they emerge from the understanding that unless we heal the divisions among us, none of us can win.

The logic of competing oppressions does not heal divisions but intensifies them, since it invites endless and absurd extension — for every person who has no shoes, there is al­ways someone who has no feet. (One might ask, by this logic, what Bell Hooks has to complain about next to a woman from a dirt­-poor third world country who was sold to her husband and had her clitoris cut off at age four.) White women will not become com­mitted allies of black women because they’re told that their own suffering is unimportant. What white women must be convinced of is that it’s impossible to have it both ways — ­that the privileges we cling to are an insuperable obstacle to the freedom and equal­ity we long for. We need to learn this lesson again and again. Good books help. ■

By Angela Davis
Random House, $13.50

COMMON DIFFERENCES: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives
By Gloria I. Joseph & Jill Lewis
Doubleday/Anchor, $8.95 paper 

AIN’T I A WOMAN: Black Women and Feminism
By Bell Hooks
South End Press, $7 paper


Free Angela Davis Director Shola Lynch: “Our history is being held hostage by corporations”

Director Shola Lynch has been mining the rich terrain of black American history for a while now, notably in the award-winning 2004 documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, about the 1972 presidential campaign by the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American and the first woman to mount a serious, credible run for the office, and most recently with last year’s Free Angela Davis and all Political Prisoners, her soulful, illuminating documentary about the activist icon’s notorious 1971 trial on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. (The DVD was just released this week.)

Where much official history (even that of radical movements) still places men at the locus of celebration and inquiry, Lynch’s ongoing artistic/journalistic project is the reclamation of the contributions black women have made to struggles for freedom. In a recent conversation, she spoke about black female agency, struggles to get her films made, and why Harriet Tubman deserves so much better than the tasteless caricaturing she recently received via Russell Simmons’s YouTube channel, All Def Digital.

Have you been able to follow any of the social media conversations sparked by #solidarityisforwhitewomen or #blackpowerisforblackmen? If so, what is your take on those hashtag conversations, the fact that they’re still even necessary in the wake of the work and activism of people like Ms. Chisolm, Ms. Davis, and countless others?

Actually, I’ve been more in tune with the recent Russell Simmons controversy over the parody Harriet Tubman “sex tape.” I guess that is the only way he could imagine Ms. Tubman being empowered to be an antislavery freedom-fighter–that sex, in the end, is a woman’s best and only weapon. The good news is that he’s now talking about putting funds into a Harriet Tubman movie–and I’ve been developing one. How about it, @UncleRUSH?

But to answer your question more directly, I think these types of discussions will always be necessary as long as we are divorced from the powerful stories in our past. Each generation tends to think they have a leg up on the previous one. In some ways that’s true, with technological changes especially. In other ways, it is just not. We have so much to learn from reclaiming our history through the lens of our agency. Things have changed, but as the lessons are lost, we have to re-remember them. I definitely feel that way about both Chisholm and Davis. I was drawn to those stories because they erase some of the perceived invisibility of my group: black women. What I admire about both of them is that their lack of agency by their race and gender station didn’t even occur to them–well, at least not enough to stop them.

Given the research you did for both your films, I’m wondering what you might have learned about organizing, strategic vision, coalition-building, and weathering political and legal setbacks that can be applied to activism now in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, Stand Your Ground Laws, stop-and-frisk policies, statistics that show that every 28 hours a black person is murdered by a policeman or vigilante

That you have to be strategic and meet people where they are in their mindset. The tragedy of the Zimmerman verdict is that it was more of an indictment of Trayvon Martin. Martin was on trial, too. The prosecution did not address that well for the jury; in other words, [they] did not meet the jury where its mindset was regarding race and class as opposed to where it should have been. It is like me making a film that confuses people and then blaming racism or the audience for its confusion, when in fact I would be responsible for not doing my job well.

How do  you, as a filmmaker whose content is about politics and political figures, and whose films are therefore political, define your work and yourself in relationship to the kind of work you do? I ask because I realize that I opened the interview with questions that are somewhat presumptuous–that because your films thus far have strong political content and social commentary and are centered on iconic black women activists/politicians, that you could be a political analyst in a larger sense, when that may have nothing to do with how you see yourself.

I’m an armchair commentator, like any good New Yorker/Harlemite, but only when I know the facts. With my films, my job is to unearth as much of the truth as I can. I like facts. I like investigating. Which brings up one of my pet peeves about Free Angela: I’ve had reporters assume–as in, not ask me–or accuse me of making some kind of Angela Davis puff piece. Come on. While I realize that it’s inconvenient to be a black woman who makes a film about a black woman–who turns out in the end to be innocent–immediately I become suspect, as though I can’t be objective. Come on, people!


I read that it took you ten years to get  Free Angela  made. Is it true that it took that long? How much time was necessary just for the research, and how much for filming and actually putting the film together?

It took eight years to make Free Angela. My husband and children have never known me not working on the film. This has been a hard film to make for so many reasons. One, funding. A third of the budget came from France raised through producers there, De Films en Aiguille. And believe it or not, BET put in a significant amount, specifically Loretha Jones, who came in when I had half the budget raised to give us what I thought would be enough to finish. That was 2010. At that point, I could be in production in earnest. In January of 2012, when the cut was nearly locked, we realized we needed to raise even more to cover the cost of licensing the archival footage. While the archives worked with us on rates–I can say with certainty that our history is being held hostage by corporations–our partners gave more, the Ford Foundation and Canal Plus especially, but it was still not enough. I started sending what I called the “Hail Mary” e-mails to anyone who had ever said, “I can help you raise funds for Free Angela.” A friend from around the way in Harlem answered the call. She connected the project with her friend Jada Pinkett Smith. She contributed some finishing funds and really helped promote the theatrical release.

Or to answer your question another way: If I had been fully funded from the beginning, the doc would have taken four to five years.

How much time was spent convincing Ms. Davis to participate in the film? What finally won her over?

It took nearly a year to talk Angela into it. What finally convinced her? Not me, but my work. She finally saw Chisholm ’72 and said, “I thought I knew that story.” But she said it in a way that made me realize that there was so much about [Chisholm’s] story she couldn’t know, and finally wanted to know.

I’m really interested in the construction of  Free Angela, because I think one of the reasons it works so powerfully is that it almost plays like a fiction thriller. Even folks familiar with the case are on the edge of their seats as the trial unfolds. Can you talk a bit about how you chose to construct the film’s narrative?

First of all, I believe the narrative element is important in docs, too, especially historical docs, because if I say “historical doc” you’re probably already tuning out or falling asleep. There is extreme prejudice that a doc will be important but boring. The best ones never are. They are also tremendously well-told stories. More specifically, for Free Angela, the construction works because the story is actually a political crime drama, and that is how the people that lived the story experienced it. The construction works because it’s authentic.

The use of Max Roach’s music in  Free Angela was a subtle but masterful stroke of commentary. How did you come to choose it? Was it difficult securing the rights?

The music is a really important part of the storytelling. Every time I start a project, I pick a song to listen to obsessively when doing the conceptual work. For Free Angela, it was “Triptych” from the album Freedom Now Suite. It’s something about Max Roach’s drums and also Abbey Lincoln’s voice–and that scream. That musical, melodic, horrifying, painful scream captures the social, political, and cultural turmoil of the times, which are manifested in the crime that happens on August 7, 1970. It is painful and confusing for everyone involved. Lincoln’s voice captures that perfectly.

The Max Roach estate was amazingly kind to us. I cannot thank the family enough for sharing the song with Free Angela.

It is also important to note that “Angela’s Theme Song” and the rest of the music were composed by Vernon Reid especially for the doc. His guitar hits all the notes of her personality, from the hard to the soft. In fact, Vernon helped me find Angela’s sweetness. He is a tough-guy rock star, but also extremely intellectual and surprisingly sentimental. Sorry, Vernon! I hope I’m not ruining your rep. I think he nailed the music.

Watching  Chisholm ’72  and Free Angela back-to-back recently, I was struck by the overlap of the moments when they were each breaking down barriers and rewriting the rules of possibility for not only people of color, women of color, but for the country itself. In your opinion, what are the similarities in their characters, politics, and approaches to political life?


The similarity is their strength. I don’t mean the typical strength assigned to black women, to endure victimization. It is the exact opposite. Chisholm and Davis share the ability to never see themselves as victims. They only exist to themselves as active agents in their lives, and as a result history. Whether we agree with their politics, seeing this dynamic at work in the context of nuanced storytelling is, I hope, inspiring.

What did you learn about each woman that you didn’t already know?

Their sense of humor. Both Chisholm and Davis have a great sense of humor. In fact, it wasn’t until the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival that I realized how funny, as in absurd, some parts of Free Angela are. The audience laughed out loud. I hesitate to say this because the doc is definitely not a comedy.

What would you want viewers to take away from the films–about the women, about the eras in which they were doing such risky and dangerous work?

I don’t think either Chisholm or Davis saw their actions as risky or dangerous, just necessary. They were called by a situation to stand up or shut-up. They both chose to stand up. 

As Free Angela made its way in the world, what surprised you or caught you off guard in conversation about the film? What annoyed you?

I didn’t know how funny parts of the film are, as I already mentioned. I’m annoyed that some reporters assume that, as a black woman, I can’t be objective about telling the story of another black woman. One reporter even accused me of hiding a critical fact around the guns. That is just nuts. It would be far better for my career if all my research unearthed that she was guilty; it just didn’t turn out that way.

Are you working on anything right now? Are you at liberty to talk about it?

I’d like to get the Free Angela book project off the ground. There are so many newly unearthed facts that I’d like to add to the narrative. But don’t worry–it’s nothing that changes the narrative or outcome of the doc, but only makes [things] more clear.

My next movie project will be re-imaging Harriet Tubman. I’ll make a short experimental doc to research and write the script for the action movie, which I’ll direct. Tubman’s power is that she could cloak herself in invisibility. In other words, she literally used others’ low expectations of her against them. She used her powers to liberate herself but then also thousands of others from bondage. She was truly a legendary antislavery freedom-fighter. We should remember her that way. Incidentally, there is a love story in there, too.

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Humanzing Angela Davis in Free Angela and All Political Prisoners

In the stirring, soulful Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, director Shola Lynch mixes original interview footage and archival clips with the agility of a master turntablist, syncing images and ideas with precision and focus. Lynch and her film tackle a lot: humanizing Angela Davis; retrieving from modern history’s remainder bin one of the most important episodes in the civil rights struggle; and subtly underscoring both how far we’ve come on issues of race, class, gender, and injustice—and how far there still is to go. The amount of information doled out may seem daunting, but it never overwhelms; none is superfluous. And thanks to Lynch’s expert pacing and modulation of narrative tension, even viewers who already know the outcome of the film’s central incident will likely be pulled to the edges of their seats.

Prisoners‘ primary focus is Davis’s infamous 1971 trial. In October 1970, she was arrested and charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder following the botched execution of a plan to free Black Panther George Jackson. In August of that year, Jackson’s 17-year-old brother Jonathan had taken guns from Davis’s home without her knowledge. He used them to burst into a packed courtroom, free three prisoners, and seize hostages that he intended to barter for his brother’s freedom. A hail of bullets later, Jonathan, two of the prisoners, and a judge were dead. Once her connection to the guns was discovered, Davis, already a controversial figure, became the third woman to make the FBI’s Most Wanted list. She grew into something of a mythic figure as she went underground, crisscrossing the country while fleeing authorities. Once arrested, she faced the death penalty.

Lynch’s film doesn’t only reveal what happened while Davis was on the run (both in her life and on the volatile political landscape). It shears away mythologies while demonstrating why Davis and other activists of the time became, for many, enduringly romantic figures: the Black Panthers, whose sexism and nationalism were anathema to the larger political vision Davis was formulating, and under-sung heroes like Franklin and Kendra Alexander, with whom Davis formed close personal and political relationships. “I needed a collective,” Davis says today. “I didn’t see myself accomplishing anything important as an individual.”

Nearly every frame of the archival footage could be extracted for a stunning still or poster, and watching Davis, George Jackson, and others move and speak is a swoon-inducing experience. There’s droll humor when Davis observes, “It’s very interesting that white people have been called radical for a very long time, and black people have been called militant.” The ebullience in her voice and the playfulness on her face, the wry humor black Americans have often used to deal with this country’s racial realities, do nothing to detract from her point. But those qualities temper her steely image to reveal her (no less fierce) human dimensions.

Prisoners is captivating from start to finish. Lynch offers extraordinary clips of activists and friends of Davis’s. Jean Genet blasts President Richard Nixon in a press conference: “Nixon, I’m speaking directly to you,” he says. “Once you discerned that black Americans surpassed you in revolutionary spirit, you were determined to destroy them.”

For all that, much of the film’s power lies in its subtleties. Twice we hear brief, unidentified snippets of Max Roach’s “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” from his landmark 1960 jazz album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. On that three-part track, the late Abbey Lincoln’s wordless vocalizing moves from soothing, prayer-like crooning to bloodcurdling screams and yelps. Language simply isn’t up to the tasks of illustrating the beauty and spirit that black folks have held on to in the face of the unspeakable, nor can it capture the horrors—and concomitant sorrow and fury—that stretch from the Middle Passage to Trayvon Martin’s grave. The film is an investigation into Davis’s courtroom victory, a map from her days as an embattled professor and fugitive to her present incarnation as a tireless prison reform activist, and a loving nod to all those freedom fighters of yore. But what it most powerfully captures is the way Davis and others in the struggle, drawing on the political theory of Herbert Marcuse, the tenets of Marxism, and bluntly spoken down-home truths, pushed through the impotence of language not just to speak truth to power but for once, at least briefly, to force power to listen.


“The Black Power Mixtape” + Christopher D’Arcangelo + Fluxus

It has been said that the ’60s were about revolution and the ’70s about anarchy. You could make the case for this, based on British pop songs—say, the Beatles’ “Revolution” (1968) and the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” (1976). But politics aren’t so easily generalized. Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution and George Woodcock’s seminal Anarchism were both published in 1962, and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” appeared in 1970.

Radical politics are kind of a favored subject in the art world, however. And as Arab Spring wanes and fall hits New York, there seems to be an uptick of shows that sift through the ’60s and ’70s, suggesting, perhaps, some parallels with our own shaky moment.

On the revolution front, the exhibition “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” at Third Streaming started with a film (currently showing at Lincoln Plaza and IFC) of the same title, made with footage discovered in the archives of the Swedish National Broadcast Company. The film includes a scorching interview with Angela Davis in California State Prison, Stokely Carmichael on a speaking tour in Europe, and a weird scene on a Swedish tour bus driving through Harlem. The exhibition includes FBI film clips, more Swedish footage, and ephemera such as Swedish-language versions of Angela Davis’s 1974 autobiography (Självbiografi) and Carmichael’s and Charles Hamilton’s 1967 Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (a/k/a Svartmakt).

Why would the Swedes take an interest in the black power movement—aside from charges of exoticism or cultural voyeurism? Part of it is the pan-Western youth-revolution spirit of the ’60s. But Sweden was also a haven for political dissidents and disaffected jazzmen escaping racism, and it opposed the Vietnam War so vehemently that the U.S. froze diplomatic ties with Sweden in 1972. Both the film and the installation at Third Streaming offer versions of how revolution went viral in the ’60s, creating surprising sympathies and alliances.

Anarchy is on the roster at Artists Space, though it’s confined to the art world. In 1975, Christopher D’Arcangelo chained himself to the front door of the Whitney Museum with a message written on his back in magic marker: “When I state that I am an anarchist, I must also state that I am not an anarchist in order to be in keeping with the (_ _ _ _) idea of anarchism. Long live anarchism.”

The exhibition is suitably anarchistic, in an inside-art kind of way. There are no objects, only video interviews with artists including Daniel Buren (D’Arcangelo was his assistant), Lawrence Weiner, Ben Kinmont, and Peter Nadin, and art historian Benjamin Buchloh. The speakers hold up photos and documents and describe D’Arcangelo’s work, which includes anything from the Whitney action to artful records of his day job renovating downtown lofts.

The catalog has a quotation from Brian O’Doherty’s famous tract “Inside the White Cube” (1976) that sums up the reception of D’Arcangelo’s career: “Anarchic gestures in America do not do well. They tend to refute the official optimism born of hope. Accumulating below the threshold of good form and acceptable style, they tend to be forgotten.” Except that O’Doherty is a little like Karl Marx, who imagined capitalism would collapse without foreseeing how outsourcing cheap labor would extend it into the next millennium.

In the art world, if you’re in the right company to start with, you have a good chance of being remembered. D’Arcangelo worked at John Weber Gallery with Jeffrey Deitch, longtime Soho gallerist and now director of MoCA in L.A., and he was included in a 1978 show at Artists Space curated by Metro Pictures’ Janelle Reiring. So, anarchy with an asterisk: confined to art and renamed Institutional Critique. (Although D’Arcangelo’s “career” itself feels somewhat anarchistic: Active only a few years, he committed suicide at the age of 24.)

Fluxus, which is being celebrated all over the New York region on the 50th anniversary of its first New York event, eschewed distinct political alliances or exhortations. But the catalog for the Grey Art Gallery show links Fluxus with Duchamp’s idea of the “anartist,” which carries obvious anarchist overtones.

Duchamp’s stamp is all over the objects and non-objects here, particularly the absurdist boxes that recall his portable mini-museum, Boîte-en-valise (1935-1941). Standouts include Fluxus principal George Maciunas’s Burglary Fluxkit (1971) with keys and Excreta Fluxorum (1973) with various types of animal shit cataloged in little compartments; Larry Miller’s Orifice Flux Plugs (1974), with glass eyeball, crayon, and corncob pipe; and Ben Vautier’s A Flux Suicide Kit (1963), with razor blade, fish hook, and rope (shades of D’Arcangelo, who’s in an adjunct exhibition downstairs).

More menacing objects recall Black Power Mixtape, as Angela Davis’s interview was framed around the question of violence. The most striking example here is the actual door from Maciunas’s Soho loft, which has huge metal cutting blades bolted to its surface. It evokes safe houses and hideouts but also recent work by artists such as Claire Fontaine or the Invisible Committee’s incendiary 2007 text The Coming Insurrection, which was embraced by some art-world types and influenced contemporary anarchist groups.

Which raises the question: What does this mean for the contemporary moment? Some writers describe anarchy as the consequence of revolution. And despite Arab Spring, popular rhetoric in this country leans more toward anarchy: pulp TV shows such as Sons of Anarchy or an upcoming exhibition at the Whitney, “David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy.” (Some have suggested the Tea Party as a right-wing anarchist movement.)

Or maybe, like the simultaneous appearance of Arendt’s and Woodcock’s books—or Marx and Mikhail Bakunin—revolution and anarchy can coexist. In the art world, where theory and practice get blurred—along with reality and fantasy, past and present, and a few other things—this is a distinct possibility.


Angela’s Mixtape and Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

Neither Angela’s Mixtape nor Beo-wulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage bills itself as a musical: Beowulf, by Banana Bag & Bodice, dubs itself a “songplay,” and Angela’s Mixtape, an autobiographical work by Eisa Davis, arrives without any generic cue. Yet Beo-wulf includes 20 tunes—”Ripped Him Up Good” among them—and scarcely a minute goes by in Angela’s Mixtape without someone in the cast breaking into an anthem, a cheer, or a chant. Perhaps the plays want to avoid the stylistic connotations that a musical suggests: the conventional, the earnest, the cheery. But both works—Angela’s Mixtape, most effectively—suggest how song can surpass and circumvent the limits of spoken dialogue.

Angela’s Mixtape, produced by New Georges, is a 122-beats-per-minute bildungsroman, a hectic and moving evocation of Davis’s unconventional Oakland upbringing and relationships with her family—which includes her notorious aunt, the professor and political activist Angela Davis. Eisa Davis plays herself, from girlhood to the present, while four other actors embody her kith and kin.

At times, Angela’s Mixtape resembles a one-woman show that outgrew itself. Though Davis’s script and director Liesl Tommy demand much of every cast member, the play sometimes seems simply a lively justification for Davis’s ample skills—singing, dancing, acting, and playing concert piano. Though Davis dovetails her story with her aunt’s, she often relegates Angela (the excellent Linda Powell) to a desk at the rear of the stage. Toward the play’s end, Angela says to Eisa, “So, this mixtape wasn’t for me at all.”

But the form of the mixtape elevates the play out of indulgence: The short scenes slip by, sliding into new selections, with themes and motifs occasionally recurring, as if sampled from another track. As for the songs themselves, Whodini rubs up against a Hare Krishna chant, Human League are backed with a protest song. A teenaged Eisa insists, “Music is my refuge”—it’s also her salve, her celebration, her bulwark against loneliness, her handiest shortcut to an ever-retreating past. Davis finds, as she raps in her first speech, “tunes to play the part of my memories, linked-up reveries—synch ’em up, press Record, and start.”

The sprightly, punky songs of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage do not play the part of memories. Instead, writer Jason Craig and composer David Malloy deploy them to disconnect their play from dreary high school recollections of the epic. Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Craig aims to divest the eighth-century poem from centuries of academic scrutiny.

Yet it doesn’t begin that way: Three affectless, bespectacled professors sit at a conference table and welcome us to a talk on Beowulf. Soon, Beowulf (Craig) himself arrives to contrast their pallid speech with his violent action and song. He challenges the academics, singing, “You have never had blood on your hands.” Yet one by one, the scholars transform into the three monsters—Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the dragon. Beowulf slays each in turn.

Often the songs, though rambunctious, seem ancillary—a percussive rehash of what we’ve already seen. As to Craig’s premise—have academics really harmed the poem? Does Beowulf require so much intervention to render it exciting? Yet Craig’s script is engaging and far less willfully abstruse than his previous efforts (The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, Oh What War). Most contemporary translations don’t include anything so profane and spirited as Craig’s defense of Grendel’s murders. His monster explains, “I’m just a fun guy havin’ some fuckin’ fun.”



In his newest book, Jailhouse Lawyers, journalist and death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal tells the stories of fellow prisoners turned advocates who have learned how to represent other less educated prisoners in court, and even help them win their freedom. At this book-release party, hear from Angela Davis (via video)—who describes Abu-Jamal as “one of the most important public intellectuals of our time” in the book’s foreword—as well as former death-row prisoner Harold Wilson and Paul Wright (Prison Legal News), among others. You’ll also likely learn more about the latest news on the case of Abu-Jamal, who’s been in prison for nearly 30 years for murdering a police officer, and whose appeal for a new trial was rejected by the United States Supreme Court earlier this month. (The event takes place at Riverside Church in Room 411).

Sat., April 25, 4 p.m., 2009



Eisa Davis will provoke jealousy in all but the best-adjusted of stage professionals. In addition to her Pulitzer nomination, the staggeringly lovely playwright has won acclaim for her acting, singing, songwriting, and musicianship. And, apparently, she can dance, too: In her latest play, Angela’s Mixtape, she’ll reveal several of these talents and the women who inspired them. Davis styles her autobiographical show as a “musical memoir,” which centers on her girlhood in Berkeley and Oakland, California, and her relationship with her aunt, the famed activist Angela Davis (played by Linda Powell, daughter of Colin Powell). If this family reminiscence sounds at all soporific, Davis warns in the script’s introduction, “The pace rarely, if ever, drops below 100 beats per minute.”

Mondays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: April 6. Continues through May 2, 2009



This summer, as part of artist Mark Tribe’s Port Huron Project, performers across the country have been re-enacting the radical speeches delivered by legendary activists of the ’60s and ’70s in the same places they were heard nearly 40 years ago. For instance, in Los Angeles, it appeared that César Chávez had come back from the dead to inspire farm workers to fight for economic change, while in Oakland, a performer playing Angela Davis fired up a crowd with her 1969 speech on civil liberties and human rights in occupied nations. Today, at Port Huron Project 6: Let Another World Be Born, hear the speech given in 1967 by the late Stokely Carmichael at the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, in which he called for civil-rights organizations to oppose war and genocide. And when he says, “There is a higher law than the law of the buffoon Lyndon Baines Johnson,” just think “George W. Bush” and it should feel as timely as ever.

Sat., Sept. 6, noon, 2008