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The Search for Angela Davis


In which our persistent scribe relentlessly attempts to pin down the famous feminist right in her own neck of the journalistic woods

By Christina Waters

SHE WAS RIGHT HERE, somewhere close. Angela Davis, the hip intellectual provocateur, was in my back yard. The former femme fatale of the Black Panther power struggle, whose very existence--especially after her arrest in conjunction with George Jackson and that 1970 shootout at the San Rafael courthouse--was an in-your-face affront to the white male power establishment, actually had been hired by that very same, very white power establishment.

The Marxist agitator was suddenly enjoying a gig in academia. Oh sure, she'd briefly taught philosophy at UCLA back in her radical youth, but this was a serious, full-professor thing. Hired by the History of Consciousness board, she'd acquired an office on the UCSC campus just down the road from mine.

If I didn't throw like a girl, I could have lobbed a rock right through her window from my office. Imagine, me and Angela, both working for The Man. Suddenly my head was filled with delusions of discussing the finer points of Hegelian phenomenology with the oft-arrested celebrity. We could reminisce about the heyday of Marxist guru Herbert Marcuse. At the very least, we could swap hilarious anecdotes about the meisters of angst, Sartre and Camus. And if I got lucky, surely she'd have time to grant me a lengthy, in-depth interview.

Yes, that was it. I would manage to casually encounter Ms. Davis, charm the socks off her in a matter of moments with a few well-placed Derridian deconstructions and, once I'd become her new best friend, A.D. would grant me that career-making exclusive. (For the record, I never once even thought of Professor Davis as "Angie.")

I'm not sure exactly when a disturbing awareness began to cloud my fantasies. The awareness that others also might see the radical academic as fuel for award-winning copy. That she might be a hot property, journalistically speaking. That she would be bombarded by media groupies hungry for the definitive Angela Davis exposé. Maybe it was when I was told by a secretary that Ms. Davis might be able to discuss a possible interview with me--sometime "next year." Or perhaps it was when I discovered that cinema babe and Emmy-winning actress Lynn Whitfield had optioned Davis' life story for a big screen biopic to be produced any minute now by Castle Rock. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Between a Cheese Puff and a Pulitzer

MY FIRST ANGELA DAVIS sighting was at a reception for new UCSC humanities faculty held at the Cowell Provost house in the fall of 1991. La Davis was only one of several new hires in the historic heart of the campus that autumn. But she was easily the most famous, and the high and mighty had turned out to schmooze, sample appetizers a cut above your basic junior faculty fare and discreetly gawk at the former badass madam noire.

Between a cheese puff, a crunchy delivery system for sun-dried tomatoes, and a dainty sip of locally made chardonnay, I literally ran into her. There she was. Right there. Angela. Smiling and munching away. She was smaller than I'd planned, pretty, with yards of cornrows cascading down her back and clothed in enough native African textile to supply a Zimbabwe craft fair. She looked right at me as she murmured approval of the hors d'oeuvres. Didn't I agree that the sun-dried tomatoes were delicious?

I was so stoked, I couldn't maintain our intense eye contact and had to pretend to be concerned with finding just the right broccoli floret from the crudités tray. Obviously moved by our brief contact, Angela managed to maintain her queenly bearing as she accepted sound bites of adoration from a steady flow of admirers.

As I drove home that day, I though about how great we hit it off, recalling my rapid-fire barrage of bon mots--how I was only working temporarily at Humanities and was really a journalist and wouldn't it be great if we could do lunch sometime and I could interview her about how she'd acquiesced to bourgeois reality and gotten a respectable day job within the UC system. I even followed up the next day with a daring email message summarizing our momentous first encounter, hoping to reinforce what I envisioned as a lifelong electronic network with my future interviewee.

Six months later, Angela got back to me.

Yes, it was an intriguing idea, having a local story written about her, her life, times and university appointment. No, we couldn't actually schedule a meeting. Someone else did that. And I was referred to her secretary in San Francisco. Okay. No problem. I could accept the sobering fact that even though she was sitting a mere two minutes from me, I had to ask someone in San Francisco for an appointment.

Angela Davis cannot possibly be expected to keep track of all the commitments lined up on her historic plate. Think of all those hats. The Agit Prop Angela. The Celebrity Angela. The Academic Angela. By the time I actually got a call back from the secretary in San Francisco, there was the Split Pppointment Dividing Her Time Between UC-Santa Barbara and UCSC Angela.

On the Road Warrior

AFTER MUCH VOICE MAIL thrusting and parrying, I actually spoke with the Woman Who Schedules Angela's Appointments. No, Angela would not be doing any interviews this year. Yes, it was true that Lynn Whitfield was planning an Angela Davis movie. Yes, I could have Whitfield's Hollywood number.

Down but not out, I called the Lynn Whitfield number, hoping to somehow get Lynn to make Angela talk with me. Whitfield's people didn't take kindly to what they interpreted as prying harassment by a provincial rube. No date had been set for any Angela Davis movie, and if it had been I still wouldn't have been able to talk with Ms. Whitfield, who was every bit as busy as Ms. Davis.

This wasn't exactly working. Instead of having someone across the road from me tell me she couldn't meet with me, I was having to call San Francisco and Hollywood in order to be blown off with a sangfroid that would have impressed Leona Helmsley.

But hey, she was here, and so was I. How hard could this be? I would just sort of hang out, without really being invasive, in her space. We would just sort of bump into each other again. We would laugh about how difficult it had been to get together and we'd just start pouring out our hearts to each other right there on the spot.

The spot, in my overly researched opinion, would be in the hallways outside her Oakes College office. I cruised those hallways looking for signs of her arrival. Of her presence. Anything. After several weeks of asking board assistants and leaving phone messages for her, I grew desperate. In a pathetic cry for attention, I actually penciled in my name on a signup sheet for graduate students seeking 10-minute audiences with the popular author and teacher.

When my time and date finally rolled around two months later, I knocked expectantly on her door. I poised myself for her inevitable warm greeting. But no. No "Oh, Christina, I'm so glad you're here!" No enthusiastic "Come in! Where have you been?" No nothing.

Only after several long moments of silence did I see the note explaining that Professor Davis would be unable to keep her appointments that day.

My search for Angela Davis isn't over. After all, she's right here in Santa Cruz. Just up the road.

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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