Airbrushing Revolution for the Sake of Abolition

Photo: Free Angela Button, (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library)

In their July 2020, post “Was Angela Davis a Panther?” the Black Revolutionary Guard (BRG) asks and answers a query raised as a pretext for dismissing harsh critiques of an important progressive ally. They note that Davis was not a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP), but the Panthers considered her “a comrade and fellow traveler.”

BRG rightly notes that Davis is not “an enemy of the people.” No progressive Black intellectuals/pundits seek to function as such. Yet contradictions exist. Van Jones’s funding from the Koch Brothers and later stealth editing of police reform policy for Jared Kushner reflect a “Sammy Davis, Jr. Conundrum” —where a performer can do benefits for radical causes—Angela Davis’s legal defense—and reactionary causes—Richard Nixon’s re-election—while seeking progress. Dual relationships in abolition politics have existed for centuries as “pragmatic compromises.” Complex critiques of current pragmatic compromises exist but they are rare.

BRG errs in referencing Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power to explain why Davis did not join the BPP. Davis states that male chauvinism is the reason why as a graduate student she did not join Karenga’s US; and the Black Panther Political Party (BPPP), a SNCC study group. She worked closely with and advocated for California Panthers. She also toured US universities as the translator for Jean Genet to fundraise for bail and legal fees for Panthers targeted by Cointelpro. The public thought of her as a Panther, partly because she alluded to herself as such.

Teaching women’s studies in the 1990s, I raved over Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power as a model of Black feminist leadership to academic Kit Kim Holder, a Harlem Panther trained by Assata Shakur. When asked what I thought of Brown having Black women bullwhipped for disobeying orders, I stopped raving. I had missed detail in A Taste of Power and airbrushed it out of my teaching. A Taste of Power identifies Jay Richard Kennedy, a FBI/CIA agent who spied on the civil rights movement until Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, as Brown’s lover. Yet, Davis’s favorable New York Times review of Brown’s memoir depicts Kennedy as merely an older white male mentor who supported her during a lengthy affair, and introduced her to Black radicalism. Cointelpro is disappeared.

BRG’s concerns are partly addressed in the June 2020 Panther letter. BRG castigates (comrades’?) assertions that academics/pundits would “turn against” or “provide information to the State regarding its activists.” Elite academics are not a revolutionary cadre; they rarely personally know revolutionaries (unless [former] political prisoners). On-the-ground activists work with considerable risk and no wealth. Elites offer more peer-recognition to progressive (or conservative) associates than to working class militants. The political economy of social justice produces employment, honoraria, royalties, and stellar salaries, generating personal wealth or portfolio management with low risk of surveillance and repression. Progressive academics performed for Obama the labor that Van Jones provided to Trump: Airbrush to transform revolutionary demands for power and community-defense into “non-reformist reforms” or “revolutionary reforms” (oxymorons). Before abolitionism, there was revolutionary struggle. Alliances between the two exist: Panther free breakfast programs—mutual aid— created a model that now serves public schools.

Academic Abolitionism

Elaine Brown attempted to sue me in March 1998 when I organized an abolitionist conference at CU-Boulder, at the request of Angela Davis, as a prototype for Critical Resistance (CritResist) held at UC-Berkeley that September. “Unfinished Liberation”— named after one of Davis’s UCLA lectures— was CU’s largest, most expensive conference at the time. Its leadership collective accompanied Davis to Boulder. I invited Black Panthers and former political prisoners: Holder, Safiya Bukhari, Gabriel Torres and Panther Lee Lew-Lee a Panther who screened his documentary All Power to the People!: The Black Panther Party and Beyond.

With a small coalition of Black and white undergrads who dedicated unpaid labor, I too was exhausted by tasks and a demanding funder (faculty senate) commanding meetings to justify the budget, with the lack of discussion about incarceration and the sidelining of local activists (as an assistant professor I did not fight vigorously enough to include them). The Ethnic Studies chair’s skittish rejection of Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, who I proposed as an additional keynote, was disappointing. His wealth of knowledge about incarceration, after twenty-seven years of imprisonment, and legal experiences with his attorneys Johnnie Cochrane, Kathleen Cleaver, and Stuart Hanlon was not desirable. As a working-class militant Panther and Vietnam veteran, Pratt lacked academic credentials and celebrity status.

Days before the conference, Davis warned me in a late night call that Elaine Brown would sue me if I did not withdraw Lew-Lee’s documentary from the conference and essentially oust him from the forum. The nearly two-hour film, dominated by male voices but also featuring Safiya Bukhari, Kathleen Cleaver, Yuri Kochiyama, and Sarah McClendon, included a brief clip of a former male Panther political prisoner disparaging Elaine Brown’s relationship with Jay Richard Kennedy. The threat to airbrush from “Unfinished Liberation” knowledge of the CIA’s impressive reach into Black radical politics was rudely rebuffed (but later accepted for The Angela Y. Davis Reader when I agreed to delete any reference to Gloria Steinem’s work with the CIA as she was raising funds for CritResist). The all Black CPUSA club Davis joined, Che-Lumumba Club, was named after Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba— revolutionary leaders assassinated with the assistance of the CIA. When FedEx delivered the legal cease-and-desist papers, I delivered and explained them to the vice provost’s office exiting as white male administrators received them with laughter.

Some 2000 participated in Unfinished Liberation. The documentary was well received. On the final day of the conference, Davis’s keynote publicly chastised Lee Lew-Lee, without naming him. She denounced the “old trope” of blaming enslaved Black women for sleeping with white slave masters and betraying slave rebellions. The keynote was instructive. Davis inverted her 1971 The Black Scholar article “The Role of the Black Woman in a Community of Slaves,” which is dedicated to George Jackson (whom she considered her husband) following his assassination (Michel Foucault’s terminology). Repurposed, the article was no longer an analysis of how Black women fought alongside Black men in family/community for freedom. It became a Black feminist manifesto, castigating the Moynihan report on “black matriarchy” and highlighting the centrality and indispensability of Black feminist leadership. (Both could have been simultaneously possible.) Davis would state that the article was always about Black feminism but she did not realize this when she wrote it in her jail cell. Insurrection faded. (Jackson maintained from the site of prison that the US was proto-fascist; from the site of the university, Davis asserted it was not.) Struggle became conflict not War. The defense of Brown foreshadowed the future of disciplinarian acts against public critiques of Black feminist leadership.

Defended by Powerful Allies

The BRG asserts that Davis’s legal defense could be replicated with more unity on the “left”:

We should also note the worldwide solidarity campaigns led on Davis’ behalf — much can be learned from this today. Campaigns like this require tabling non-antagonistic ideological differences and realizing that quarreling is in the interests of the ruling class particularly when a high-profile activist is under attack from that class.”

National United Committee to Free Angela Davis (NUCFAD) was stabilized by the bourgeoisie, white liberal hegemony, and global communist parties during a Cold War with competing “empires.” The USSR professed itself to be an alternative to the racist capitalist empire of the US. The CPUSA had first debated whether to defend Davis (some considered her an “adventuress” for allowing seventeen-year old Jonathan Jackson access to her guns—although a prison guard and DA hostage inside the van fired the shots that killed and injured on August 7, 1970). The CPUSA helped to structure and fund Davis’s six-member legal team. Alongside Black communities, white university students and (law) faculty fought to protect one of their own. Gloria Steinem was asked to head fundraising for Davis’s defense—three years after the 1967 Ramparts exposé forced Steinem to acknowledge that she worked with “liberal” elements of the CIA. Steinem, whose personal friends included war hawks in the Nixon Administration, was effective in raising funds and de-demonizing Davis to non-radical whites. Davis’s global solidarity campaigns also included “interest convergence” noted by Derrick Bell as a catalyst for change when the interests of the dispossessed and elites align. President Nixon shifted from publicly declaring Davis’s “guilt” to offering prominent Soviet scientists seats at her trial so that they could verify US justice. Davis was acquitted by an all-white jury. Few working class/imprisoned Black revolutionaries received such levels of support. The 1972 exoneration was a “Win-Win.” Conservatives bragged the US was not a gulag. The left declared a rare “people’s victory.” Nixon was re-elected.

Davis and Pratt were on trial at the same time. Her trial was an international media spectacle; the press largely ignored Pratt’s and abandoned investigative reporting into the FBI and LAPD framing him for murder. Cointelpro targeted revolutionary capacity. The year before Davis and Pratt were arrested, in a predawn Chicago raid, the FBI/CPD assassinated Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Hampton gifted us with revolution as the Rainbow Coalition: white power to white people, brown power to brown people, yellow power to yellow people, red power to red people, Black power to Black people: All power to the people, none to police, or (petit) bourgeois politicians aligned with the state

BRG writes “as a Maoist,” that Davis’s “politics have been rightist for decades.” Davis’s politics are not rightist. They reflect civil/human rights mandates that are well funded and increasingly popular in the network built within academia. Those politics include pragmatic compromises. In a 2014 interview, Davis asserted that President Barack Obama was part of the “Black radical tradition”—a tradition shaped by Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Robert Williams, Rosa Parks and Assata Shakur (Obama’s DOJ placed Shakur on an international terrorist list with Al Qaeda). The radical tradition opposed capitalism and imperialism. For POTUS 44, “Black success” under capitalism equals “Black power” (akin to Nixon’s “Black capitalism equals Black power”). In a 1997 interview , Kathleen Cleaver described affluent Blacks’ paternalistic relationships towards impoverished/working class Blacks, and ideological animus against dissidents among their own class. The romantic search for “Black unity,” Cleaver argues, required ignoring class divisions and public posturing of a Black united front, despite anti-communism and elites’ disproportionate gains from mass struggles.

“War” Is Not a Metaphor

BRG raises the imperative to save global political prisoners (e.g., in India and the Philippines). Popularized abolitionism tends to minimize the agency of US political prisoners —those imprisoned/disappeared in recent rebellions who largely remain anonymous and in historical ones (noted in the Panther letter). Airbrushing erases Cointelpro’s role in creating conditions for political repression and imprisonment, and state violence. Concerns about alienating police/parole boards, funders, and a sympathetic public promote airbrushing as a “responsible” task as activists note the urgency of freeing all people given that the pandemic functions as a death sentence in prison.

In his 19th century treatise On War, General Carl von Clausewitz describes War as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” Black/African and indigenous peoples were terrorized as slaves, colonized, and opponents. Conquest was war. Slavery was War. Convict prison leasing was War. Sharecropping was War. Cointelpro was War. The “War on Drugs” criminalized anti-war protestors as “pothead hippies” and Black radicals as “junkies” in a counter-insurrectionist War. Mass incarceration—where deaths classified as “suicide” or “natural” include police murders and medical neglect and life spans shortened and disfigured—is War. At a NYC library lecture, Black survivors of Attica described their bullet wounds and scars from torture after the government waged War against a human rights rebellion from captives. Their anguished narrative claimed that they took hostages, weeks after George Jackson’s 1971 death in San Quentin, igniting a rebellion seen around the world, yet academics airbrushed them out of history.

Essential for intellectual and political development, alliances between abolitionists and revolutionaries are destabilized by the airbrushing of revolutionary struggles.

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Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Joy James

Joy James is the Ebenezer Fitch Professor of the Humanities at Williams College and author of Resisting State Violence; Transcending the Talented Tenth; Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics; Seeking the 'Beloved Community'. The editor of the Angela Y. Davis Reader and co-editor of The Black Feminist Reader, James's anthologies on incarceration and political imprisonment include: States of Confinement; The New Abolitionists; Imprisoned Intellectuals; Warfare in the American Homeland She is completing a book titled "The Captive Maternal Leverages Democracy" James advocates for political prisoners and works with the Abolition Collective BIUs Blog. Follow her on Twitter @DrJoyJames.

Comments on “Airbrushing Revolution for the Sake of Abolition

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    What a cliffhanger! This is a great article, but it lacks an alternative solution. I appreciate Dr. James’ critiques on the role The Academy, via folks like Davis, has functioned to “airbrush” the struggle, but I never find her alternative to pragmatism. Is James ready for THE REVOLUTION? Ready for the inevitable bloodshed and collapse, while Davis has been positioned to stave it off? These are thoughts whenever I see James discuss how Davis
    functions, basically, as anti-revolutionary.

    Davis has enjoyed a long and lucrative career of criticizing the ills of the world. I appreciate Davis and others because that work has a place. From my perspective, it’s who she always was, middle-class kid dipping herself in an experience that wasn’t hers. Based on her autobiography, she was looking to be in the struggle. That she is not REVOLUTIONARY is not surprising or hard to see. She was an intellectual and continues to be that. Society has helped to superimpose an identity on her, that maybe at this point, she has accepted. Our society doesn’t do homework. She was nearly 30 during her ordeal, it makes sense to alter her path for survival, especially considering the world we live in. Revolution belongs to the youth.

    It seems to me that James has a constant stream of smoke for Davis and I wonder why she ever did the AYD reader. James nor Davis agree on reparations for American Descendants of Slavery, which is necessary for our survival in this country. It has nothing to do with Native Americans, or anyone else on Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition. America owes a debt and class solidarity won’t get us what we need when most groups are rooted in anti-blackness.

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      Angela Davis has (like the rest of us) made do with what was possible given her circumstances, she could neither bring about nor stop a revolution and as I understand the post it is about the business of setting the record straight for future uses whatever the possibilities at hand may afford future audiences.

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    Both Angela Davis and Elaine Brown wrote compelling autobiographies that provide a lasting record for black women and feminist readers, their thoughts and actions in THEIR own words. Required reading.

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    Dr. Joy James & AAIHS, thank you for publishing such a fearless and timely article. We must mature beyond our praise of aesthetics and critically engage the many ideological and strategic differences between us.

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    Bold essay. Thank you Dr. Joy James, you are doing the work of an intellect: to say the things that are unpopular. A luta continua.

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