Prisons, Torture, Race: On Angela Y. Davis's Abolitionism

By Mendieta, Eduardo | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Prisons, Torture, Race: On Angela Y. Davis's Abolitionism


Mendieta, Eduardo, Philosophy Today


Angela Y. Davis is known by many as the face on t-shirts metonymically, and iconically through her afro, standing in for a whole oppositional and generational attitude. Some even remember her as one of the top ten enemies of the state, hunted by FBI throughout the United States for her alleged participation in the killing of some cops. Others know her as the former vice-presidential candidate of the Communist Party of the United States, while others known her as a major feminist thinker who has written some of the most transformative and enduring texts of feminist thinking of the last quarter of a century. Few, however, recognize in Angela Y. Davis one of the most original philosophers in the United States during the last four decades. As a philosopher, Davis bridges Marxist inspired historical materialism, through the mediation of Marcusian critical theory, Foucauldian genealogies of punishment and confinement, Black feminist analysis, the intersectionality of race, gender, and class, and a century old American autochthonous Black critical political philosophy.

Few also know that Angela Davis has been a long time prison activist, and that one of the most important and constant themes in her work has been prisons, imprisonment and racialized punishment. Vladimir I. Lenin claimed that prisons are the universities of revolutionaries, and while Angela Davis was already a revolutionary by the time she became an inmate in US prisons and was labeled a terrorist and an "enemy of the state," her work was indelibly marked by her experience of imprisonment.1 Some of Davis's earliest published works were written while she was held prisoner at the Marin County Jail. Already in these writings from the early seventies, Davis establishes the link between surplus repression and punishment with the racial violence at the heart of white supremacy in the United States. Her activism around the "prison industrial complex" has also made her one of the most important public intellectuals of the last two decades.

When one turns directly to Davis's work on punishment, prisons, and penality, one is immediately struck by its sources. There we find critical engagements with the pioneering work of Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer, two Frankfurt School associates, Michel Foucault's own classic Discipline and Punish, as well as the more recent internationally generated literature on prisons. Yet, one of the most evident sources of Davis's concern with prisons is her own experience as a Black Woman political prisoner. Another salient source is her continuous engagement with the canonical figures in what one can call a tradition of Black critical political philosophy that has found two towering figures in Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois. This engagement in fact harkens back to her early seventies Lectures on Liberation, in which we find a neo-Marxist, or Frankfurt School engagement with the thought of Douglass.2 In one of the essays that Davis wrote while she was in the Marin County Jail, she turned to DuBois, for it is in him that she found the most severe and explicit critique of the prison system in the United States. It is in DuBois, furthermore, that she discerned the historical links between slavery, the failed reconstruction, the turn of the century lynchings, the emergence of the KKK, Jim Crow, the riots of the post-civil war period, and the rise of the racial ghettos in all major US cities.

It is extremely important to underscore Davis's engagement with Douglass and DuBois's work. These thinkers and public intellectuals stand in for two philosophical approaches in Davis's work, approaches that must be juxtaposed against one another. On the one hand, Douglass represents a phenomenological-existential concern with freedom that easily translates into a gospel of deference to political liberty in terms of voting rights. Indeed, in a 1995 essay entitled "From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the Convict Lease System,"3 Davis developed a devastating critique of Douglass's myopia and inability to both speak out and mobilize around what was obviously a betrayal of the political freedom won by Blacks.

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