If you look at a bestseller list at this particular moment, it’s stacked top-to-bottom with black writers and white antiracist educators. That’s good, it shows that white Americans want to learn how to identify their racism and eradicate it.
However, I’ve heard from multiple black people and other antiracist educators some frustration that Angela Davis’ work hasn’t been centered more. Most of the books purchased have come out in the last few years, while Dr. Davis has been doing antiracism work for five decades. Her influence has reached all corners of the movement for black lives.
Chastened by this having never read her work, I picked up this slim volume. I’m trying to learn more about prison abolition as my sympathies lie in that direction. And she was the original voice on it.
What’s amazing is this book came out in 2003. The conversation has shifted so much the last 10 years around mass incarceration. And yet, Davis’ arguments are really the seeds for the movement, as she effectively breaks down the history of prisons in the western world, connects them to slavery and the post-slavery impact of Jim Crow and argues both their ineffectiveness and inhumanity. She also makes the links between the explosion of private prisons from the 80s on to the capitalist expansion effort which birthed the prison industrial complex and outsourced itself to the rest of the world. And while people of all races are victimized by it, Davis shows that because it has roots in slavery, mass incarceration is inseparable from anti-blackness, fomented in the States and globally spread.
A lot of folks will turn to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, as well they should, but Angela Davis has been involved in this kind of prison abolition work since the 60s and she’s able to draw from her own experience having been incarcerated to talk about the necessity for ending the system. This really feels like it should be required reading for anyone looking at criminal justice reform.
I do wish she had gone longer into what actual abolition would look like. She’s absolutely right that the difficulty is imagining a world without prisons. I’m so used to a law-and-order justice system that I have a hard time imagining what restorative and reparative justice would look like in practice. So it’s maybe not her fault but I would have liked some more examples. She also doesn’t touch on the struggle of transfolk in prison, which has only recently become a concern of cisfolk but is still unique and important.
Nevertheless, this is a monumental work from a leading voice who has been here this whole time. If you have yet to read her work, I imagine this is as good of a place as any to start.