Last night, I asked Angela Davis how she felt about the way her image has been used over the years. "Capitalism!" someone in the audience said dryly. Her answer was a little more nuanced.
Davis was sharing the stage of the New York Public Library with Toni Morrison for a meandering conversation about libraries, slavery, and freedom. An older woman with purple hair had apologized at the mic for her cell phone ringing aloud; she said it was from death row in Pennsylvania, and it wasn't clear if she was talking about Mumia Abu-Jamal. Someone asked Morrison and Davis whether they thought internal slavery was worse than physical slavery. And Amiri Baraka and Charlene Mitchell were in the audience.
When it was my turn, I asked Davis about the way her image has become the generic symbol of black female liberation, or of any kind of liberation really. Did she feel like it was her when she saw herself on a t-shirt? Did it mean anything? Or was it just co-opting her original message?
"I'll tell you a story," she said, grinning. "Because it did begin to bother me — it's so easy to create the possibilities of proliferating images. Anyone can do a t-shirt, and then it goes on the Internet. And I was pretty disturbed by that.
"I asked a young woman who was a high school student, who had one of these t-shirts: 'What's the whole point? Why are you wearing that?' In the Seventies, there was a reason. The reason was to help to free me!" (Davis had been charged as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide — because firearms she owned were used in the murder of a judge. Davis became a fugitive, landing her on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list until her eventual capture. She was imprisoned briefly before being found not guilty at trial.)
"So I said, 'But this is the twenty-first century.' And she says, 'Well, I wear this t-shirt because it makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel like I can do anything I want to do.'
"And I don't know what she knew — whether she knew anything about me. But that made me recognize that people bring their own interpretations to it. And that image is an image not so much of me as an individual as it is an image of an era during which millions of people came together, all over the world, and demanded my freedom."
"I can't stop it. So, why not see what might be a possible productive and positive interpretation.
"I do get kind of upset that people think I'm the only black woman who only wore a natural! I can remember when I was a high school student in New York and I saw Miriam Makeba... And then later of course Toni had a beautiful natural! So why are they picking on me?"