History and Historiography

Angela Davis’s Legacy

New York Review of Books

Fifty years ago this past June, Angela Davis was acquitted of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy charges in a trial that catapulted her to worldwide fame. A young professor at UCLA who had recently been fired for being (unapologetically) a member of the Communist Party, Davis became a celebrated symbol of Black radicalism, emancipated womanhood, and academic freedom. Still, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues in an essay from our Fall Books Issue, her “contributions, observations, experience, and originality…have often been overlooked even as her male contemporaries from the 1960s have been exhaustively examined.” Why?

Taylor is determined to bring those contributions to light. She asserts that Davis’s influence is stronger now than perhaps ever before:

From the uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, to the outpouring of protests in the summer of 2020, the past decade has been not a period of Black pragmatism and obeisance…but an era of Black rebellion. The relentlessness of recent demonstrations, the glow of burning buildings, and the sheer brutality of police in response provoked memories of the Black radicalism of the 1960s. And the debates these protests inspired have thus also been debates over how to remember an earlier era of Black activism and political thought—and how best to continue that tradition.

Below, we have collected several essays from the Review’s archives that demonstrate the reach of Davis’s anticapitalist, antiracist thought, including, from our January 7, 1971, issue, James Baldwin’s open letter to Davis, who was at the time three months into what would be a sixteen-month incarceration while she awaited trial. “What has happened, it seems to me,” Baldwin observed, “is that a whole new generation of people have assessed and absorbed their history, and, in that tremendous action, have freed themselves of it and will never be victims again.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
‘Hell, Yes, We Are Subversive’

For all her influence as an activist, intellectual, and writer, Angela Davis has not always been taken as seriously as her peers. Why not?

James Baldwin
An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis

“The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America. Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation.”

Angela Davis demonstrates for the Soledad Brothers outside the California State Building; photograph by Ray Graham

Francis Carney
George Jackson and His Legend

For Angela Davis the legal order is simply a tool of racism and capitalist exploitation, incapable even in limited ways of protecting the rights of persons.

Anakwa Dwamena
Closing Rikers: Competing Visions for the Future of New York City’s Jails

With the future of New York City’s correctional system at stake, the overwhelming feeling among activists and community members is disappointment and frustration.

Brandon M. Terry
Malcolm’s Ministry

Malcolm X’s dramatic life, and his insistence that the most disadvantaged play a part in their own emancipation, exert a strong pull on his many biographers.

Brandon M. Terry
What Dignity Demands

A new book persuasively places Malcolm X and Martin Luther King at the center of each other’s most dramatic transformations.

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