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Analyzing the Speeches of Angela Y. Davis Essay

Pages:7 (2294 words)



Topic:Angela Davis

Document Type:Essay


Racism and Gender Oppression

In the speeches of Angela Y. Davis, black female activist of the 20th century, one sees a remarkable discernment of the underbelly of the U.S.—or what she calls the US Organization.[footnoteRef:1] Her experience growing up as a minority in a world where segregation was accepted by the majority of the population, and the education she received from her parents, helped her to realize that just because society was ordered in a certain way did not mean that that way was necessarily right. This paper will analyze the speeches of Angela Y. Davis and discuss some of the themes that emerge in them so as to better understand the role that minorities have played in the history of the U.S., and how the “organizers” of US society have continuously used underhanded methods to marginalize and oppress these minorities. The perspectives of Alan Gomez, Vijay Prashad and Julia Sudbury will be used to help shed light on these themes. [1: Angela Y. Davis, The Meaning of Freedom (San Francisco, CA: City Light Books, 2012), 196.]

The Rise of the Prison-Industrial Complex according to Davis

Angela Davis describes the rise of the prison-industrial complex as being “accompanied by an ideological campaign to persuade us once again…that race is a marker of criminality.”[footnoteRef:2] In other words, the prison complex is there to herd blacks into a system, whereby they are branded like cattle—marked as being lowlifes, degenerates, trouble makers—and then re-introduced into society among the “civilized” set. Upon re-introduction into society, they are marginalized even more than they were before they were arrested; at which point they are now doubly repulsive to “civilized” society: they are both black and ex-convicts. Thus, the prison complex is there to serve a purpose: it is there to oppress and marginalize a racial minority. Slavery is no longer permitted thanks to the Great Emancipator, but that does not mean the elite rulers of the country had to allow blacks to rise up: no, they just developed a new form of slavery and oppression: the prison-industrial system—and then they began arresting blacks for “crimes” that in any real, civilized society would never have been considered criminal in the first place. [2: Angela Y. Davis, The Meaning of Freedom (San Francisco, CA: City Light Books, 2012), 38.]

This notion is supported by Alan Eladio Gomez, who describes the inmates’ treatment at Marion Federal Penitentiary in 1972 as another form of oppression and controlled practiced by the rulers in order to further change and subvert the minorities they wanted to oppress: “Designed to ‘cure’ deviants, the behavior-modification programs at Marion functioned to control and forcefully change inmate behavior, beliefs, and thoughts. Including practices as varied as brainwashing, the use of snitches and rumors, pornography, sensory deprivation, arbitrary beatings and sanctions, and complete physical, emotional, and intellectual isolation, prison authorities implemented such techniques to control, dehumanize, coerce and, as one prisoner described it, ‘legally assassinate’ the rebellious—including writ writers—black Muslims, and suspected militants.”[footnoteRef:3] The descriptive passage is worth quoting in full because it describes the exact nature of the prison system. This was not a place where delinquents were sent to be reformed. It was a place where adversaries of the rulers’ regime where sent in order to be thought-policed and brainwashed into being passive servants in a system designed to support the interests of the rulers. It was like the Gulag in Soviet Russia, where the dissidents were sent—those who dared to criticize Stalin and his repressive and oppressive policies. [3: Alan Gómez, “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary, 1972,” Radical History Review 96 (2006), 59.]

Racism, Gender Oppression, the Regulation of Sexuality, and Global Capitalism

Davis’s interpretation of the prison-industrial complex and of the order of the U.S. as a whole is filtered through the lens of racism and gender oppression. Linked to these concepts are the regulation of sexuality and the issue of global capitalism—the unregulated pursuit of market dominance, materialistic conquest, and material gain in a zero sum game. She identified all of these things as coming from a “patriarchal structure of the cultural nationalist US Organization” which “left no space for contestation” from women, especially from black women.[footnoteRef:4] Julia Sudbury supports this interpretation, arguing that “we need to challenge the tendency for discussions about the global economy and state violence to lose site of the intimate ways in which gender and sexuality are inscribed in macro-level processes of exploitation and violence….”[footnoteRef:5] In short, gender oppression…

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…for Scholars and Activists Seeking Democratic Alternatives to Mass Incarceration

Lessons for scholars and activists who seek democratic alternatives to mass incarceration can be found in Davis’s speech on the need for a new abolitionist movement. In it she states that “when abolitionists raise the possibility of living without prisons, a common reaction is fear—fear provoked by the prospect of criminals pouring out of prisons and returning to communities where they may violently assault people and their property.”[footnoteRef:14] This fear has to be eradicated. One should go about this issue with calmness and equanimity. Then one can arrive at positive and practical solutions—such as the one that Davis suggests: the decarceration of women as a way of beginning the process. Since the majority of women in prison are there for nonviolent offenses, removing them from the criminal justice system and putting them into a program designed to address their actual needs (many of them are involved with drugs or prostitution and thus likely require economic and/or psychological support), would help to reduce the prison-industrial complex. It would allow funds to be redistributed so as to address the needs of males in prison and begin a similar approach of decarceration for men who are jailed for nonviolent crimes. Going about this issue calmly is thus the first step to finding utilitarian solutions. [14: Angela Y. Davis, The Meaning of Freedom (San Francisco, CA: City Light Books, 2012), 29.]


Angela Davis takes a hard, pragmatic look at American society and finds that what is problematic about it is the way that people accept the herd mentality forced upon them by their rulers. The prison system today is no different from the old plantation system during the times of slavery. The ends are the same—to subjugate and exploit the minorities. Racism, gender oppression, capitalism—all of these are tools of the states’ rulers: they use them to marginalize, oppress and divide—to keep the community from actually becoming a community, because if it did it might actually then stand up and take back ownership for itself. Analysis of Davis’s speeches, supported by the perspectives of other writers like Alan Gomez, Vijay Prashad and Julia Sudbury helps to show that the reality of oppression in the U.S. is…

Sample Source(s) Used


Davis, Angela. The Meaning of Freedom. San Francisco, CA: City Light Books, 2012.

Gomez, Alan. “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary, 1972,” Radical History Review 96 (2006): 58–86.

Prashad, Vijay. “Second-Hand Dreams,” Social Analysis 49: 2 (Summer 2005): 191-198.

Sudbury, Julia. “A World Without Prisons: Resisting Militarism, Globalized Punishment, and Empire,” Social Justice 31.2 (2004): 9-28.

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