Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


Reading and Discussion Questions
Joy James, ed., The Angela Davis Reader


Excerpts from Davis, An Autobiography
1. What do you think Angela Davis’s goal was in describing her experience in jail? Why did she make a point of saying that she resisted individualizing her circumstances and guarded against self-pity, even while in solitary confinement?

2. What is a political prisoner? Why did Davis consider herself one?

"Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation"

1. Davis argues that individual law-breaking is quite different than law-breaking in the name of a people or a group? What examples does she have in mind? Do you agree?

2. Why are criminals and revolutionaries confused in the United States, according to Davis?

3. "Crimes are profound but suppressed social needs which express themselves in anti-social modes of action" (45). Explain.

4. Why does she draw a parallel between the social function of police in urban ghettos in the U.S. and that of colonial police forces around the world?

5. What do you think she means when she refers to "the threat of fascism" (51, 52)?

"Unfinished Lecture on Liberation — II"

1. In exploring the idea of liberation (or freedom), Davis contrasts the experiences of slaves and slave-owners. Her point is not simply that the latter are free and the former are not. What else is she trying to convey?

"Race and Criminalization: Black Americans and the Punishment Industry"

1. What does Davis mean when she points out that the punishment industry produces crime?

"From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the Convict Lease System"

1. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, but Davis concentrates on the one exception singled out in the text of that amendment. What is it and why is it important?

2. What were the Black Codes? What role does Davis argue they played in moving from slavery to prison?

3. What was the convict lease system?

4. Davis details the views of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois about black labor in the post-Emancipation era. What are those views? What does Davis think about them?

5. What does Davis mean when she writes that "to take on convict leasing would have required Douglass to relinquish some of his major Enlightenment principles"? (84)

"Racialized Punishment and Prison Abolition"

1. "During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, southern criminal justice systems were profoundly transformed by their role as a totalitarian means of controlling black labor in the post-Emancipation era." Explain.

2. Why does Davis object to the consistent linkage of crime and punishment in both popular and academic profiles of prisons and prisoners?


"Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves"
1. Why did Davis argue so forcefully against the idea that black women were “matriarchs” during the era of slavery while also insisting that “the black woman was assigned the mission of promoting the consciousness and practice of resistance”?

2. What was it about domestic life that Davis thinks allowed women to assert their humanity, and the humanity of their families, in the face of a dehumanizing system?

3. What role does labor play in her analysis?

4. Why is it ironic that female slaves were not bound to the ideology of femininity? What kind of equality did female and male slaves have? What do you think of calling this “equality”?

5. What evidence does Davis offer of slave resistance and punishment? Would you interpret this evidence as she does, or differently?

6. Do you agree that the material conditions of slavery made for a “greater objective equality between the black man and the black women”?

"JoAnne Little: The Dialectics of Rape"
1. Who was JoAnne Little? Why did her story become public in 1974?

2. Why does Davis invoke history to understand her story? Do you agree that institutionalized rape has been a constant feature of the racial subordination of African-American women and the idea of the black male rapist has played a corresponding role in the history of African-American men?

3. What does she mean by suggesting that racism and male supremacy exist in a dialectical relationship? What “larger system” drives both of these, according to Davis?

"Women and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation"
1. In this piece, Davis self-consciously utilizes the marxist tradition to analyze the social position of women. What does she hope to gain from this exercise? What other approaches to the social position of women is she trying to displace? What does she mean by “bourgeois” feminism?

2. What examples of the capitalist organization of labor does Davis use to reinforce her point that women’s subordination is a product of historical forces rather than “nature”?

3. Do you agree that the oppression of women and the potential for their liberation are both exaggerated in market societies?

4. What general course of action does Davis recommend for the women’s movement?

"Black Women and the Academy"
1. Davis addressed a conference on “Black Women in the Academy” with a speech about sexual violence, ethnocentrism, immigration, and prisons. Why? Are academic concerns inevitably tied to urgent social questions? Should they be?

2. What does she mean by suggesting “that we theorize–and organize–a new abolitionism”?

Appendix: Opening Defense Statement, March 29, 1972
1. What strategy does Davis pursue in defending herself in court?

2. Do you think such a statement would be convincing to a jury? Then? Now?