Angela Y. Davis: Abolitionism, Democracy, Freedom

Neil Roberts | Chair and Professor of Africana Studies, Williams College

Friday, April 16, 2021 11:00 AM to 12:30 PM


The essay begins with a discussion of the movements, texts, and figures—notably Herbert Marcuse—both central to the intellectual development of Angela Y. Davis and most representative of Davis’s political thought. It frames Davis’s body of work as a form of fugitive theory and practice whose nineteenth-century intellectual roots provide a unique vista only partially mined by contemporary theorists frequently associated with fugitive thought. It turns next to an examination of three concepts foundational to the work of Davis: abolitionism, democracy, and freedom. Davis’s analyses of W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass are vital to elucidating these notions. The chapter argues that the understanding of abolitionism Davis marshals mediates her articulations of democracy and freedom in late modernity. Inclusion of Davis’s views on resistance and liberation reinforces this reading. Davis does not claim to invent all or even most of the categories and terms integral to her thought. It is the way she integrates older and new concepts into a defined political system concerned with actors and institutional arrangements that distinguishes her. Deciphering how Davis arrives at her core tripartite ideals challenges us to refashion facile, sanitized origin narratives of the contours of African American political thought.