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Cultural Icon: Angela Yvonne Davis


Angela Davis

I decided that each week I will spotlight one person in mainstream culture who embodies all of the characteristics of an icon: someone whose visibility has helped to develop a political, critical consciousness in mainstream culture, someone who stands out as a true leader. I think it’s necessary to highlight people and groups who make it their mission to combat systems of domination.

For this week, I’ve decided to pick Angela Davis who has been an inspiration to me since I was 17. While it is common to hear about her accomplishments as a young lady, she continues to sculpt mainstream cultural thought through her political views.

Davis is a political figure, author, activist, and educator. She was a leader in the Communist Party USA and had ties with the Black Panther Party in the 60s. In 1969, Ronald Reagan had Davis removed and banned from teaching at any university in California because she was a communist.

In 1970, 17 year old Jonathan Jackson stormed into a Marin County Courtroom with firearms out of frustration with a racist justice system that sentenced his brother George from one year to life for stealing $70 from a gas station. Jon took hostages [including a judge] from the courthouse and left in a van. Police shot at the van and killed everyone in the vehicle.  The gun that Jon used was registred in Angela Davis’ name and therefore made her involved with the crime.

jon jackson

Jon Jackson hijacking the court.

Davis was placed on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list [she was the third woman in history to be on the list], and a massive attempt to attain Davis was in place. She fled California and stayed with friends who helped her remain out of the spotlight. Eventually Davis was captured.


angela davis caught

Angela Davis caught in 1970

She was segregated from the rest of the general population in prison out of fear that she would spread her ideas to other inmates.

While she was in prison, a liberation movement started called Black People in Defense of Angela Davis. Thousands of supporters championed for her freedom. Popular icons like John Lennon and Yoko Ono even wrote a song her for her called, “Angela.” The Rolling Stones featured a song called, “Sweet Black Angel” which was dedicated to Davis.

She was tried and found not-guilty by an all-white jury.

To this day, she is very outspoken about abolishing prisons and she calls the US prison system the prison-industrial-complex. According to Critical Resistance [an organization against prisons that Davis helped create]:

The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.

 Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. 

The prison-industrial-complex relies on bodies to consistently be in prison because it’s a lucrative business. Prisoners are forced to work with practically no wages. According to Mother Jones:

Each month, California inmates process more than 680,000 pounds of beef, 400,000 pounds of chicken products, 450,000 gallons of milk, 280,000 loaves of bread, and 2.9 million eggs (from 160,000 inmate-raised hens). Starbucks subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions has hired Washington prisoners to package holiday coffees (as well as NintendoGame Boys).

Texas and California inmates make dorm furniture and lockers, diploma covers, binders, logbooks, library book carts, locker room benches, and juice boxes.

In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear forVictoria’s Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to replace “Made in Honduras” labels on garments with “Made in the USA.”

Some scholars  like Davis and Michelle Alexander argue that mass incarceration functions as a new form of racism where brown people disproportionately make up the incarcerated population. Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness details this phenomenon further.

Davis is staunchly opposed to the death penalty. In 2011 she was awarded the Blue Planet award because of her contirbutions to humanity and the planet. In 1997, she came out as a lesbian and also identifies as a vegan. She is also featured in the Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975

Angela Davis has truly been a figure who has changed my life and has visibly demonstrated how to resist systems of domination that seemingly appear to be invisible.  To this day, Davis gives lectures all across the nation to continue the mission of promoting equality and fighting for justice.

angela davis 2

Here is a list featuring some of her books that you should check out. Seriously, her literature will change your life:

[This is in no particular order]:

Angela Davis: An Autobiography

Are Prisons Obsolete?

Women, Race, & Class

Women, Culture & Politics

The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues

If They Come in the Morning

Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday


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