Angela Davis: Activist, Terrorist, Saint … Brand Strategist?

Angela Davis is an unlikely model for developing a brand, yet her often reluctant and always eventful rise to prominence in the US Civil Rights movement and beyond embodies valuable lessons for keeping yourself and your brand real, relevant, and sustainable.

Angela Davis did not seek fame. She wanted to change America through reasoned argument and teaching. Reasoned argument got her fired from her position at the University of California at the behest of then Governor, Ronald Reagan. A courtroom shooting at which she was not present put her on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, pursued by J. Edgar Hoover’s detectives, and labelled a “dangerous terrorist” by President Richard Nixon.

Her arrest, incarceration, and acquittal made her an international cause célèbre with songs by Yoko Ono and John Lennon as well as The Rolling Stones. Afterwards, she was feted by leaders in the Soviet Union, the countries of the Warsaw Pact, and Communist countries in Africa, the Caribbean and South America. At the request of Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, she reluctantly wrote her autobiography as a guest of Fidel Castro in Cuba. She was thirty.

She returned to academic life, ultimately back at the University of California, but despite long insisting that she is not the message and speaking out against the commodification of personality of modern capitalism, she has become an icon of the Civil Rights movement, notably in the Occupy movement of the early 2010s, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March on Washington of 2017.

Today, her image can be seen on walls from Madrid to Oakland, T-shirts, some made by Black Power Clothing, others made by Prada, on campuses across America, and projections at U2 concerts. She was recently on the covers of both Vanity Fair and the New York Times Style Magazine. She is the subject of two exhibitions, one in Dresden, Germany, the other in Oakland, California. In 2017, a school was named after her in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis (It was controversially renamed after Rosa Parks last year). You can watch a lecture about her transformation from celebrity to saint given at the University of British Columbia. She even has a Facebook page, albeit one that is maintained by her publisher.

“Free Angela Davis Now!” (1971).
Image Credit: Library of Congress, Washington DC.
Davis in the California prison during an interview with Swedish television in 1971.
Image Credit: Film still from the Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 (2011).

These are measures of success, but it is highly doubtful that Davis cares for them. Certainly, hers is not a path a brand strategist would advocate. But more than her public and political story, it is Davis’ personal story, from unwilling icon to accepting that her image has power, that holds lessons for branding, both personal and corporate. Behind this story and success are the values of humility, humour and honesty.

There is no denying that Davis’ journey has been extreme, but it is a journey we all undertake, if only in part, as we navigate a world where our images and reputations precede us. In her story we see how with a combination of intellect and good humour Davis has overcome personal anxieties about her image in the world to have a clear social impact through her image.

More generally, the values of humility, humour, and honesty that she embodies are essential if we are to reflect on how our professional goals and personal ideas of success align. They let us clearly see both our achievements and failures, to learn from them, and to create and communicate ourselves with renewed relevance. 

Lesson 1: Humility – It’s not about you

Angela Davis with the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the cosmonaut and politician Valentina Tereshkova in the Concepción Feminist Mural on Calle José del Hierro in Madrid (2018). Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Humility is a paradoxical virtue to find in someone engaged in an activity as egotistical as branding. But branding, even personal branding, is rarely about the person. Even Instagram influencers must think about how their self-regard and actions align with the brands they work with and how their choices today create or limit opportunities for further work. It is not about them, but about a product, or, in Davis’ case, a message and a cause.

Davis has frequently expressed misgivings about her life and image being used to communicate a message and a cause, even when she herself is using her image. Whether it is the decision to write an autobiography, being remembered for her hairstyle, or meeting her image on a T-shirt, she seems to have taken stock of herself and the situation, voiced her misgivings, and decided that not to share would be as egotistical as oversharing. It’s as if she has said to herself, “it’s not about me, and if my story is of use then so be it.”

We see this discomfort and thought process in the preface to the first edition of her autobiography (published in 1974). She is neither special nor is she the product. She does not wish to be seen as either.

To write a biography seemed “presumptuous … would require a posture of difference, an assumption that [she] was not like other women – other Black women”. Rather, her life is the product of “the very same forces that have shaped millions of [her] people” and her response, her message of social critique, “has been unexceptional … a natural, logical way to defend our embattled humanity.

When Davis decides to put these anxieties aside and write the book, she speaks about it in terms that amount to a communication strategy.

  • The book will have a clear message: “a political autobiography that [emphasizes] the people, the events and forces in my life that propelled me to my present commitment”.
  • It has a clear goal: that “more people … understand why so many of us have no alternative but to offer our lives – our bodies our knowledge, our will – to the cause of our oppressed people”.
  • In that goal, there are implied markets: one group of people who are oppressed but who are uncomfortable taking action against that oppression, and a second group of people who benefit from that oppression, see it, and are uncomfortable with that fact.
  • There is a measure by which the book can be judged a success. If it brings those groups into a movement for change, then it has served its “practical and important purpose”.

This “communication strategy” is directly related to Davis’ reluctance to write about her life and part of her decision to do so. If the book had no benefit for something or someone other than Davis, it would not have been written. It would have been egotistical as well as compromising Davis’ privacy. But understanding that book might have a real benefit, it would have been equally as egotistical to retreat into privacy and not to write it. Putting those anxieties and a personal preference for privacy aside takes humility.

Because of that humility, and the intellectual and emotional wrestling that goes with it, Angela Davis: An Autobiography is, unlike many autobiographies, neither narcissistic self-promotion nor a settling of scores. Nor is it really about Angela Davis, but a carefully strategized account of the experiences and possibilities that one Black woman in the US shares with millions of others, a document of a time and place, and evidence for why change was and continues to be needed.

Lesson 2: Humour – “”I am remembered as a hairdo,”

T-shirt showing Angela Davis. From Black Power Clothing, costing $55.
Image Credit: Black Power Clothing.
From Prada, costing $500.
Image Credit: Prada via Nylon.

There isn’t much humour in Davis’ Autobiography. It describes events that no sane person would wish for. It must also be said that politically engaged thirty-year-olds are not known for taking themselves or the issues they care about lightly.

Twenty years on, we get a glimpse of Davis’ humour. That glimpse became much wider in later years, but it was always there. It had to be for Davis to set her anxieties aside and say the book was necessary, not for her but for others. That alone teaches us that humour, in its broadest sense of generosity of spirit and the ability to laugh at oneself, if only in private, is essential to humility. It also shows an acceptance that in a ridiculous world we are sometimes required to be ridiculous.

In 1994, humour was not what Davis was remembered for, but nor was she remembered for the events leading up to her arrest. In 1994, eighteen months after the Rodney King Riots, Davis was remembered for her hairstyle.

“I am remembered as a hairdo,” Ms. Davis said. “It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.”

Ms. Davis said she does not like being known as “The Afro” and blamed ” ’70s fashion nostalgia” for obfuscating the importance of learning from her political struggle.

“The pertinent history of my legal case is empty of all content so it can be [made into a commodity] for the advertising industry,” said Ms. Davis.

– Brad Snyder, “Angela Davis laments her legacy as a ‘hairdo’”, Baltimore Sun, 4 December 1994

On the page, this does not offer much in the way of humour either. Yet, there Davis is, swallowing her pride to speak to a packed house at Baltimore’s Center Stage Theater. The occasion was the launch of a long-running programme to engage the young people most engaged with the politics of fashion and ‘70s nostalgia. Suffice it to say, it’s unlikely that she was giving a lecture on the vapidness of “young people today”, much less telling them to stop using her image.

We see why Davis might have been playing to her audience in 1994 when, in 2022, she speaks about being intimidated by having become an icon for a younger generation of activists and coming to the realisation, once again, that it’s not about her.

“I felt that there was no way that I, as an individual, could actually live up to the expectations incorporated in that image. There came a point when I realized I didn’t have to. The image does not reflect who I am as an individual, it reflects the work of the movement.”

Angela Davis quoted in Nelson George, “Angela Davis Still Believes America Can Change”, New York Times Style Magazine, 25 October 2022

What is especially intriguing about this realisation is that it is liberating. Davis does not have to live up to the image because the image is not of Angela Davis, but a symbol for a set of values. In the same article, she speaks about meeting a young woman wearing a T-shirt with her image on it.

“My usual stance had been, whenever I would see people wearing T-shirts with my image, I didn’t really know how to act. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to respond. But this time, I asked her, ‘Why are you wearing that T-shirt? What does that image mean to you?’ She didn’t know a great deal about me at all, but she said, ‘Whenever I wear this, I feel like I can accomplish anything. It makes me feel empowered.’

– Angela Davis quoted in Nelson George, “Angela Davis Still Believes America Can Change”, New York Times Style Magazine, 25 October 2020

Let’s go back to “humiliating”, the word Davis used in Baltimore. It is a strong word, and one which is usually reserved for people. Davis might find it humiliating, but can the politics? It is an especially odd word to use concerning the politics of liberation. The politics of liberation are almost by definition a politics of protest, and protest is unthinkable without its images and iconography, its T-shirts and posters, its heroes and heroines.

Replace “humiliating” with “ridiculous” and we see Davis’ humour more clearly. It is ridiculous to see your image on T-shirts and murals around the world. It is ridiculous to see your image on wanted posters in police stations across the United States for a crime you did not commit. One is certainly less traumatic, but that makes it no less ridiculous or absurd.

It takes good humour to accept that the world is often ridiculous: that it makes use of our image as it sees fit, especially after we have stepped onto the stage of public life; that it may demand we behave in ways we find uncomfortable, even humiliating if we want to further our goals. For some, accepting our images, using them, and them being used by others comes easily. For others though, it is a constant struggle.

Recall Davis’ sense of liberation when she realises she doesn’t have to live up to the expectations of her image, and it is worth noting that for Davis, who wrote a political book titled “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”, that the personal sense of liberation came after fifty years.

Lesson 3: Honesty – Mistakes Were Made

Davis standing with Erich Honecker, leader of the DDR (East Germany) on a visit to Berlin after her acquittal in 1972.
Image Credit: DPA/ Picture Alliance; Rayna Breur, “Comrade Angela Davis’: an icon in East Germany,” Deutsche Welt, 10 December 2020.

The Civil Rights activist who is not controversial has yet to be born. That is as true within the currents of progressive activism as in the mainstream. It is susceptible to utopian thinking tempered by a quest for ideological purity. As Davis puts it in the preface to the third edition of her Autobiography (published in 2022) conflicts on the left are “internecine”.

It is inevitable that having survived a fifty-year career in leftist politics that Davis has made mistakes. What is important is how she honestly admits them so that they can be addressed and the conversation can move on.

In the same 2022 preface, Davis confronts the contradictions and “political naïveté” of the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. One contradiction was relying on existing political systems to address problems created by those same systems. That meant relying on the judicial system for prosecutions in the US and looking at states outside the US for a sense of solidarity.

“No one could have convinced us that the immediate future of the globe resided outside existing possibilities of socialism”. A “sense of connectedness to larger revolutionary struggles” – in Africa, South America, Vietnam and China as well as the Soviet Union and countries of the Warsaw Pact. “… generated the kind of collective passion [in the US] that could only thrive in such a [global] context”.

But this solidarity blinded Davis to the faults of those regimes. In the aftermath of her acquittal, Davis, labelled as a terrorist on one side of the Atlantic, was hailed as a “heroine of the other America”, a sign of freedom and resistance to capitalist oppression on the other. The exchange of support between Davis and Erich Honecker of East Germany as well as the wider Soviet Union was conspicuous.

The moment resonates today. The former East Germany’s continuing love affair with Davis meant that it was not Oakland, California, but Dresden, Germany, that saw the first exhibition on Davis in 2020. More excruciating for the former Communist, soon after her visit to East Germany in 1972, current Russian President, Vladimir Putin was appointed as KGB liaison officer with Stasi in that city.

In retrospect, the naïevité and contradiction of thinking that the struggle for radical change could be better served by states supported by the Stasi and KGB than by a state supported by the FBI and CIA, was, as Davis says, “obvious”. Worse, it had consequences for Davis herself, not least by making her and her image useful pieces of propaganda for both sides of the Cold War.

Pre-addressed postcard to the Marin County Courthouse, part of the GDR’s “Millionen Rosen für Angela”.
Image Credit: Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Dresden.
Poster for the 2020 exhibition at the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau in Dresden. Image Credit: Goethe Institut-USA.

Rather than pretending that these intellectual contradictions and missteps do not exist, Davis honestly admits them. By doing this, she is able to remain relevant and participate credibly in the struggles of the early twenty-first century. The past and its mistakes are things to learn from, not things to defend and repeat.

The lesson for branding is that the ability to honestly reflect on mistakes is vital to continued relevance in the real world. Without honest reflection, a brand is at best disconnected from its audience. At worst, it appears not simply nostalgic, but delusional, not simply conjuring the world of the past, but trapped in it.  

“If I’m acquitted, I’m going to run for Sheriff”

Angela Davis with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at the Colonial Repercussions event series hosted by the Akademie der Künste, Berlin (2018). Image Credit: YouTube.

We have seen how Davis has come to terms with her image in the world in various ways – in the pages of her autobiography, through interviews – and how humility, humour, and honesty have kept her real, relevant, and sustainable (and sane). Let’s end with a look at the woman in the flesh, not in Dresden, Oakland, or Baltimore, but in Berlin in 2018.

Given her prominence in the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March, Davis is already something of a YouTube star. Here though, she is not rallying the crowd, but participating in a discussion at an academic conference with her friend and fellow-academic, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

The point of the discussion returns us to the dilemma Davis faced in the 70s – how to work within the structures of the nation-state and political parties while imagining and fighting for radical alternatives to them. Davis’s answer is not only academic and leftist, as one would expect, but also shows her humour about her situation in America, her run for Vice-President, and her humility and honesty when Spivak gently tells her to “check her privilege” as an American.

Not everyone will agree with Davis. Many will not even pay her attention, but despite the seriousness of the topic and the injustices they are discussing, one cannot fail to see the joyousness of two, now elderly, women putting the world to rights with fun, playfulness, and intellect. Further, without her humility, humour, and honesty, the conversation in Berlin could not continue and Davis would have no attention at all.

These are the same values that have helped Davis survive some of the great spectacles of American history: its lynchings, its assassinations (and who can doubt that she has received death threats), its use of the death penalty, and the recriminations and acrimony of its left-wing politics.

Today, Davis, her privacy, her image, and, most importantly, her message, are not only surviving the left’s cancel-culture and a reactionary right, but thriving in the “humiliating” world that turned her into a terrorist of the American state, a heroine for the Soviet Union, a commodity for the advertising industry, and a saint for progressives.

Davis, of course, is none of these things, and despite her fears, neither she nor her image is devoid of content. Far from it, they haven’t had more meaning since the early 1970s. That makes her a brilliant if accidental brand strategist. The survival and success of her “brand”, vital to her message being heard, is her ability to reflect on what success means to her, where she’s been, and where she’s going. 

So, with the lessons of Davis in mind, follow Egle’s advice. Periodically revisit Bloomerang. What is your work about? Is it about you or something larger than you? What are the recent achievements and mistakes? Can you put your ego to one side, laugh at the mistakes, and not be defined by yesterday’s successes? If you find yourself defending mistakes, why were they misunderstood? Only by answering these questions honestly to ourselves can we learn, create, and move the conversation on.

Davis with her intellectual mentor, Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School, author of the One-Dimensional Man.
Image Credit: Pluto Press, and someone, somewhere in California or the Bundesrepublick (BRD).

Sources

Major sources for this post are below with links. Minor sources are indicated and/or linked to in the text and image captions.