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Ed. Angela Y. Davis. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself: A New Critical Edition.

Ed. Angela Y. Davis. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself: A New Critical Edition. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009. 256 pp. $12.95.

In his "Editor's Note," Greg Ruggiero describes this book as an exciting and most timely way to reintroduce Angela Davis and Frederick Douglass together as "two of the most important abolitionist intellectuals in U. S. history." Many younger readers will be familiar with Douglass's role in the mid-nineteenth century as a leader of the movement to abolish African American chattel slavery, but some may be puzzled by the reference to Davis as a twenty-first-century "abolitionist." What, they may wonder, is she trying to abolish? Just as Douglass was dedicated to abolishing the institution that imprisoned him and his people, Davis is dedicated to abolishing the institution that imprisoned her and still imprisons millions of Americans, mostly people of color: the modern American prison system. This volume suggests how these two heroic figures embody a continuum of struggle for freedom, from the America of the slave plantation through the America of the prison-industrial complex.

A mainly rural society with a political economy based on slavery, the America of the 1840s was also a hodgepodge of ex-colonies with no sense of a national literature and a kind of cultural inferiority complex in relation to England and Europe. But then came the discovery that the United States was actually contributing a new genre to world literature: the slave narrative. As the Reverend Ephraim Peabody put it in 1849: "America has the mournful honor of adding a new department to the literature of civilization--the autobiographies of escaped slaves." Preeminent among the hundreds of these works was the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Douglass went on to become a major figure in nineteenthcentury American life and letters.

But during the 1940s and 1950s, Frederick Douglass was expunged from the pages of American literary history. Even as late as the 1970s, despite his growing rediscovery in the 1960s, the multi-volume standard Bibliography of American Literature listed none of his works and his name did not even appear in the 1,555 pages of the 1974 fourth edition of the standard Literary History of the United States, which devoted three chapters to the literature produced in the South through the Civil War, all by white men. Today, however, the 1845 Narrative is available in dozens of editions and formats, not to mention SparkNotes and CliffsNotes. What brought Douglass back to us?

One of the lasting achievements of the liberation movements that emerged in the 1960s was the rediscovery of their antecedents and reconnection with these historic struggles for freedom, which had been wiped from memory by Cold War culture and politics. When Angela Davis in 1969 was denounced as a communist and fired from her appointment in the philosophy department of UCLA, the responses showed how far we had marched from the swamps of the 1950s. As Ruggerio describes, Davis fought back, with vast support from UCLA colleagues and students: "In an act of resistance, she showed up for the first day of her course, 'Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature.' Expecting to deliver a lecture to the 166 students who had enrolled in the class, she instead found more than 1,500 members of the UCLA student body and faculty." Her lecture that day and in the next meeting of the course were about the profound significance and contemporary relevance of Frederick Douglass's writing. In the present volume these two historic lectures by Davis form both an apt introduction to the Douglass Narrative and an electrifying connection between the struggles of two epochs.

The following year, Davis herself literally embodied the continuum between nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American experience as she was incarcerated for almost two years, much of the time in solitary confinement, on bogus charges of murder and kidnap. To raise money for her legal defense, the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis published in 1970 a pamphlet consisting of her two lectures on Douglass together with a letter of support from dozens of her UCLA colleagues. It sold for fifty cents. In 2008, Ruggerio found a copy selling on the Internet for forty dollars. Hence the present volume, which allows us twenty-first-century readers to reconnect with Douglass through the twentieth-century struggles that led to his rediscovery.

Angela Davis's introduction to this edition makes the most explicit interconnections among the liberation struggles of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Looking backward to her 1969 lectures, she simultaneously finds it "somewhat embarrassing" to glimpse their reliance on "an implicitly masculinist notion of freedom" and exciting because they show "how much we have matured with respect to feminist analysis since that period." Much of her introduction projects a complex dialectic between Douglass's vanguard role in the fight for women's liberation and what she perceives as the masculinist assumptions of his own fight for freedom as presented in the Narrative. She goes on to suggest that the Narrative can help us comprehend relations between "modes of institutional violence--such as that inflicted on women in prison--and the pandemic of intimate, domestic, individual violence against women."

Surprisingly, Davis does not here discuss--as she has so eloquently done elsewhere how the antebellum system of African American chattel slavery transformed after the Civil War into a political economy based on the criminalization and incarceration of the freed slaves, and how the prison plantations and prison factories of that postwar period eventually developed into today's prison-industrial complex. Her 1969 lectures, like Douglass's Narrative, explore the ideology that legitimized, justified, and rationalized slavery on the basis that Africans and their descendants were subhuman. As George Frederickson showed in his 1971 The Black Image in the White Mind, this ideology arose in the 1830s and became dominant in the 1840s as a necessary corollary of industrialization of cotton production to feed the textile factories of England and New England. Throughout the entire history of slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War, there was never an ideological attempt to legitimize slavery on the basis that African Americans were criminals. That came in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment, which supposedly abolished slavery but actually, for the first time, wrote it into the Constitution: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." From then on, the legal and cultural criminalization of African American people would become a normal and functional component of the U. S. political economy.

Although by 1969 the fundamentally racist nature of the U. S. criminal justice system was blatantly obvious, Davis in her lectures could not very well foresee the next stage. Even as late as 1975 there were "only" 360,000 people incarcerated in the nation's prisons and jails. For the next quarter of a century, the United States would build on average a new prison each week. Today there are 3.4 million imprisoned Americans, mostly people of color, and national and state elections are decided by the felony disenfranchisement of 5.3 million American citizens. (The Supreme Court in 2000 was able to give George W. Bush the White House only because 827,000 citizens of Florida, mostly black, were stripped of their vote by felony disenfranchisement.) Angela Davis has indeed been a leader in the movement to abolish this contemporary version of enslavement. She was co-founder of Critical Resistance, the principal organization working to demolish the prison-industrial complex, and her speeches and writings have provided some of our most valuable tools in these efforts. If the present volume could have included at least one of these documents, readers would have been able to see that abolitionism is as vital for freedom today as it was in 1845 and that this crucial struggle has much to learn from both Frederick Douglass and Angela Davis.

Reviewed by H. Bruce Franklin, Rutgers University-Newark
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Author:Franklin, H. Bruce
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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