Reading Women, Race & Class 40 years on

The Bristol rs21 reading group has recently been meeting to discuss Women, Race & Class by Angela Davis, which turned 40 this year. Rose Whitehorn reflects on some of the key themes conveyed by Davis and why this work is still so significant during the Covid-19 pandemic and resurgences in anti-racist and feminist organising.  

A black and white photograph of Angela Davis (right hand side) speaking to a large, assembled crowd into a microphone.

Angela Davis is a revolutionary civil rights activist, author and scholar whose reputation truly precedes her. Her name is referenced and lauded in all fields of activism and socialist circles. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd last summer led to video clips of her early interviews being shared countless times over social media, with her quote ‘It is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist’ becoming the unofficial tagline of the movement. Despite this, there may be many who are still to read anything from Davis’ prolific collection of work, and as one of her most acclaimed books, Women, Race & Class is an excellent place to start. 

Davis’ experiences as a black woman, alongside her Marxist studies and activism, ensure a unique insight into the connection between racism, sexism and classism in the United States. She wrote the book in 1981, less than 10 years after she was wrongfully charged with murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy due to her connections with the Black Panthers and the Communist Party. She was acquitted of all the charges in 1972, but the 16 months that she spent in jail gave her a deeper understanding of the racist prison industrial complex and further solidified her socialist beliefs and commitment to black liberation.

The book is a powerful study of the specific intersection of oppressions that black women experience in the imperialist United States, a country built on slavery, as well as the fundamental role that black women have played in spurring on the movement for black liberation. Davis demonstrates how white supremacy, male supremacy and class exploitation interact with each other and create a triad of dominion that upholds and reinforces the global system of oppression and social inequality to this day. She shows these systems to be so intrinsically linked that one cannot be ended without simultaneously fighting for the fall of the others. The book’s core arguments are backed by Davis’ extensive research. The inclusion of personal stories from slaves and key figures from the movement give a human face to some of the victims of these atrocities, and provides the emotional weight that runs through the book, in a way other historical accounts don’t. Davis’ writing style is eloquent, clear and concise, making it an enjoyable and accessible read. The book manages to sew a thread through the colossal history of black struggle and tie it up into a comprehensible bow for the reader.

Across the 13 chapters of the book, Davis takes us on a journey through time starting with the slavery abolitionist movement and covering a vast variety of topics including the fight for black suffrage and women’s suffrage; working class black women and domestic labour; the strong ties between the long history of falsely accusing black men of rape and the history of lynching and incarceration of black men; reproductive rights and the appropriation of birth control by eugenicists. 

A theme throughout is white women’s repeated failure to recognise or empathise with the trauma and violence that black women have faced. This is demonstrated clearly by Davis as we learn of the once promising union between the black suffrage and women’s suffrage movements, which arose together but were driven apart in a saga of betrayal and villainy worthy of any silver screen. Davis highlights the excellent advocacy work of such figures as Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth, whose infamous ‘Ain’t I a woman speech’ at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, served as an impassioned plea for solidarity from white women. Davis simultaneously exposes the problematic flaws of revered feminist icons, such as Susan B. Anthony, and uncovers a side of the suffrage movement that is often left out of the narrative, in which the white middle class suffragists exposed their white supremacist beliefs as they vied to win the vote before black men in an attempt to retain their own privilege in the racial hierarchy. Davis teaches us that the liberal feminist movement has traditionally always accepted the conditions of capitalism and racism. There was too often a false notion that it had to be one or the other, us or them. It is interesting to contemplate what might have happened had the union between the two movements never dissolved and envision what advancements might have been achieved together.

One of the more impactful aspects of the book is how relevant the examples Davis gives are to more recent events. For instance, when Davis writes about the Scottsboro Nine, a group of black teenage boys who were falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death without a shred of evidence in 1931, the story is instantly reminiscent of the Central Park Five case of 1989. Likewise, when confronted with the extensive and painful history of forced sterilisation carried out on women of colour in targeted programs, used by the U.S. government as a way to control the populations of the Black and Latinx working class, it immediately brings to mind the recent and horrifying revelation that mass hysterectomies have been imposed upon migrant women in an ICE detention facility. The legacy of racist eugenics persists today. The thread of the struggle is continuous and challenges us to draw ties between our present and our past in order to identify these patterns of oppression. If we fail to learn and pay attention, then history is always doomed to repeat itself.

Ultimately, Women, Race & Class provides a lesson in the importance of solidarity. With the pandemic and oncoming recession further entrenching the deep disparities in society, socialists must always be vigilant in fighting for justice for all oppressed groups. To falter in our commitment to solidarity is a betrayal of the whole socialist movement. The ruling class will always attempt to use our differences to create divisions and mistrust amongst ourselves in order to weaken the movement. We must develop the skills to identify and fight back against these falsehoods and media-driven culture wars. 

Just as Davis has pointed out the ways in which the feminist movement has been co-opted by racism and eugenic thinking in the past, more recently, feminism has been used as a guise to attempt to justify blatant transphobia. Socialism must always build alliances and connections; it is through understanding our common oppressions that we can unify and triumph. In this book, Angela Davis shows us that much like being anti-racist, being on the right side of history needs to involve action, not just thoughts. If you haven’t already, please read this brilliant book and learn from its messages; but most importantly, take action. To quote another of her books, Davis states ‘Freedom is a constant struggle’ – and as that struggle continues, not so far from now, people might look back at this significant juncture in history and wonder, what more could have been achieved?

A version of this review was originally published in the Socialist Lawyer magazine, the publication of the Haldane Society, in 2020.

 

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