Jamele Watkins
Drama and the Archive: Solidarity Campaigns in Europe

Postcards from the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis collection (M0262)
Postcards from the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis collection (M0262) | Photo (detail): © Courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Stanford Libraries

During an April 2018 lecture in San Francisco, Angela Davis said that the solidarity campaigns saved her life.  [1]   Solidarity campaigns took place across the globe while Davis was on trial from 1971 to 1972, including various countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa.  [2]   As a Germanist, my focus is Europe, and there, many solidarity campaigns took place. This essay analyzes the large-scale campaigning for solidarity and how it materially manifests. Through previous archival theory, I contemplate questions surrounding the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners Archive at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California in addition to the materials it contains. Lisa Lowe’s argument to read across archives encouraged me to consider the archive in Palo Alto within the context of other archives and to recognize the ways cataloguing and organization reflect power dynamics.  [3]   In so doing, I have interviewed others involved to obtain a fuller picture of the archive instead of seeing it as a complete source. Ultimately, the questions we pose of the archive must not only challenge its materials, but also the power structures that made these materials come into being and how they constituted the shape of our present.

By Jamele Watkins

These archive materials exist because of Fania Davis’ work in Europe. As Davis’ sister, she was instrumental in mobilizing support on her behalf in numerous countries. This archive is the radical proof that other people believed that they could save an oppressed individual across the globe. Such social activism allowed participants to reimagine themselves as saviors of “dear Angela.” Through its negotiations, orientations, and re-assembly performed in and through the materials it preserves, the archive is as full of drama as the trial itself.

European solidarity with Black women in the United States is nothing new. In 1904, the feminist, education activist, and anti-lynching activist Mary Church Terrell spoke at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin. She gave a speech in French and German in which she explained how the lives of Black women were not reported on and the lack of an archive to document these advances further contributed to silencing Black voices and the stereotyping of Black people. Terrell concluded her speech by saying that if only a few women began to care about the lives of African American women, then the trip was worth it.  [4]   Church Terrell came from a wealthy family, but not all African American activists were so well off. Rural Tennessean Ada Wright  [5]   campaigned in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the 1930s on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys.  [6]   In this same tradition of Black feminist intervention, Fania Davis spoke at rallies across Europe urging people to write and send petitions for her sister’s case in California. Like Terrell, Fania Davis searched for allies to mobilize and care about a Black woman in the United States. The images of Fania Davis’ arrest while protesting in Palo Alto gave the cause more momentum.  [7]   It is important to remember that this archive began as an act of familial and feminist intervention. From the beginning, the archive was assembled to perform radical resistance to the precarious status quo granted to Black lives in the United States past and present.

Because of Fania Davis’ work in Europe for six weeks in 1971,  [8]   materials from Europe poured into San Jose, where Angela Davis was held in jail, and were collected by her team. Letters, petitions, gifts, drawings, and pictures arrived from the places where Fania Davis spoke, which included Rome, Paris, Moscow, London, Warsaw, Helsinki. These citizens saw themselves on the side of justice and participated in the campaign in a variety of ways. Parades and rallies were another way people responded to Fania Davis’ call to action for her sister. “6,000 people had demonstrated in Florence for Angela’s freedom,” she claimed, “7,000 in Bologna, 4,000 in Frankfurt, 3,000 in Hanover, 3,000 in London, and tens of thousands more in Berlin, Moscow, Leningrad, Sofia, Budapest.”  [9]   In Austria, the letters are primarily from communists (individuals, groups, and chapter presidents) and women’s groups. Davis received birthday cards and Christmas greetings from Switzerland, including a noteworthy group of letters from middle school students from Zollikofen. The letters range from one to three pages and contained questions for her about Bobby Seale, how her ideas intersect with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, guns, and how she is treated in jail. The Swedish letters include two different postcard campaigns (one being the Arbetsgruppen för Angela Davis in Stockholm). Only three letters came from Norway, but thirteen letters and postcards came from Denmark. The Netherlands sent cards with roses on the cover, many letters, and petitions regarding how the Angela Davis case is changing the country’s view of the United States. The letters from Italy fill an entire box. There are postcards that read “Salviamo la vita ad Angela Davis” [Let’s save the life of Angela Davis] and “Siamo con te Angela” [We are with you Angela]. There were also city postcards from various towns such as Nichelino, Rome, and Venice. Many of these postcards were addressed to Fania Davis’ home in Los Angeles, proving that these must have arrived after her rallies in Europe. In socialist East Germany, the “Free Angela Davis”-Campaign was performed on both national and local levels. Davis’ communist beliefs and membership in the communist Che-Lumumba Club helped with this and she quickly became a symbol of the “other” America, that is, a symbol of non-capitalistic America.  [10]  

The government used this opportunity to align with Davis as a way to also articulate an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist critique of West Germany and the United States. East Germans were encouraged to send in letters, postcards, gifts, petitions, and banners, making the East German materials the most substantial, followed by materials from the USSR. The state mandated the campaign “1 Million Roses for Angela” in which they aimed to send one million postcards to Davis for her birthday. Schoolchildren, adults, expats, factory workers, and even visitors to memorials of concentration camps like Sachsenhausen, all participated in the movement. The postcards sent from Sachsenhausen further play up its image as the camp for political dissidents (which were mainly Communists); an image that was crucial to East German identity formation after the Second World War (an image which downplayed the fact that Jews were murdered at this camp or transported to other camps to be murdered).  [11]   Additional documents in the archive include large posters and banners that require two people to hold. They take up tables and tables because of their size individually, and the sheer quantity of the materials is overwhelming. The material was initially thrown haphazardly into boxes, which makes more work for the current archivist and librarian who pour over the archive to bring everything in order. The Davis archive is annoying and unruly, like a teenager.

The West German letters also take up an entire box. In it, there are letters from communists, Christmas cards, and birthday greetings. In West Germany, there were two twenty-eighth birthday postcard campaigns with carnations. The Hamburg Komitee zur Wahrung demokratischer Rechte [Hamburg Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights] was behind one of the postcard campaigns. Individual postcards were also sent from Tübingen, Reutlingen, Hattingen-Ruhr, Solingen, Düsseldorf, Wuppertal, and Frankfurt am Main. Davis was even sent cards after her acquittal. Interestingly, some of the letters request that Davis write back, send an autograph or pictures, or come to visit.

The Angela Davis archive at Stanford University, which contains the correspondence described above, is certainly an archive in progress, containing approximately 210 boxes of materials from across the world. The archive facility is offcampus separate from the Special Collections (which is on campus in the library). Every time I visit the archive, a new stack of boxes sits on the existing materials. Things change rapidly in the archive because various people work on it. My job is to sift through these boxes and find new and distinct materials. During periods of my research, parts of the collection have rested in piles on tables: banners, objects and gifts, letters from East Germany, letters from elsewhere, petitions, Black Panther Party materials, posters, and artwork from children. The sheer volume of the archive is intimidating and anxiety-provoking, which stems from wanting to do justice to the project, and most importantly, to Davis herself. Moreover, neoliberal temporality causes anxiety regarding the amount of time that is needed to examine each letter and object in the collection, many of the which remain unopened today. Typically, the archivist or student worker would open the letters in order to catalogue them or organize them, but because I have been welcomed into this processing space, despite this archival work normally being closed off to the public, I open many of these letters for the first time.

Although I am not the target audience, indeed I am not Angela Davis and I am fifty years removed from the event, I open and read the content of these letters. I have a unique experience reading letters that no one has read before. They elicit a reaction from me; I gasp or laugh reading the contents of material that was meant for Davis decades ago. In an office building in Redwood City in the present, I glimpse at intimate details that were truly never meant for me. It would possibly disappoint the letter writers that Davis did not open the letter; still, the letters bear meaning outside of their original purpose. The archive, once intended to free Davis from prison, acts as a relic of another era. It is proof of mobilization for Davis, but can also be seen as a missed opportunity to continue the fight for justice Davis called for; the campaign was to free all political prisoners, yet ended shortly after Davis’ release. While viewing these items in 2020, I know that this type of solidarity movement is not possible today. Movements have become more localized and within the confines of nations. In 1971, the archive is proof of transnational solidarity bonded by communist ideology (albeit with some white savior tendencies). While we must take into account the forced nature of some of this archive, the sheer number of letters, gifts, and postcards show that there was genuine love and care beyond the state-mandated campaign.

The archive came to Stanford University in 1974, mostly from historian Bettina Aptheker’s basement in San Jose.  [12]   Aptheker, a Women and Gender Studies professor at University of California Santa Cruz, kept all the materials. She explained, “It wasn’t mine to throw away.”  [13]   At Stanford, this collection has gathered dust. After being abandoned for over forty years, the archive is finally being processed today. It is currently undergoing a process of assortment, organization, curation, and cataloging so that items within the collection will be searchable for researchers and laypersons alike. This is an archive that is coming into being, manifesting itself in ways that complicate the archive, the subject, and the researcher.

More and more, researchers are discussing not only the materials found in the archive, but also the embodied experience of the archive.  [14]   For example, Tina Campt discusses her experiences visiting archives in a basement in her book, Listening to Images. Campt includes conversations with archivists, which some scholars would choose to leave out; she further discusses her worries and fears in the space. This embodied experience inspired me to make my archival visits more transparent. In the Davis archive, there is flexibility in how I can act, behave, and just be myself, in my body, in all ways. I realize that I have this freedom because I am a trusted scholar. My positionality is one of privilege, although Davis’ materials were not privileged for so long. For me, I have freedom in this archival processing space that I wouldn’t be granted in a traditional Special Collections viewing space in the library: I take up all the space I need. I stand, lie, and squat. I am not watched; I do not have to leave my possessions in a locker; I am trusted and left alone. No other scholars look at me or shush me. I can write on my own paper (!) in pen (!). My archival experience is unique, as I witness the evolution of the archive until it is fully processed.

Texture and sound play a role in the archive. I revel in all of the sounds within this space—the noise my feet make on the ground, the rustling of the posters, and even the sounds I make while reading the contents of the letters. The white floor squeaks as I walk on the non-slip textured linoleum. The materiality of the large fabric posters vary, ranging from soft and sheer to paper to a rough woven wicker. The wicker posters creak and hollow as I lift them to look at the stacks of posters beneath. Paper posters erupt as I carefully move them to the side because I fear for the preservation of the piece. The sheer fabric posters float like ghosts; I think about the patience of the people who drew portraits of Davis and signatures on this godforsaken fabric, and wonder what they were thinking. These sounds and textures make my archival experience meaningful and memorable.

The archival process (the cataloging) happens simultaneously as I evaluate the significance of these materials. I consider what it means to dig through archives, and what these materials mean as the archive itself is being sorted and processed. Luckily, I experience things in their entirety laid out in front of me before papers are curated and anything is thrown away. I insert myself into this archive, and it resists me in its size and in how it reveals itself to me over and over again. The archivist decides the order and materials to pull from the warehouse facility, but along with them, I collaborate in creating it anew in its reorganization. My work documents the various shapes the archive has taken, literally and figuratively. Being in the space and accounting for the outpouring of compassion from around the globe, I can’t help but reflect upon this legacy of transnational solidarity. The archive shows how influential Davis was to people whom she never met, and the quantity of material reveals the demands it places on archivists’ time and energy.

This archive is an endless journey of discovering. Librarians have found misplaced boxes in random places. The archive literally “shows up” so that it is not forgotten. As I visited the archive, I noticed how many different sides there are to this large collection. The size of the archive makes it seem unmanageable in a variety of ways. It is not only the sheer number of items in the archive, but also their materials that cause irritation due to their large scale, unusual shapes, or unique packaging. Things like cylinders, which were certainly annoying for the courthouse to receive, make processing it difficult for the archivists today as a number of the objects do not fit easily into the predefined units for archiving. This uncomfortable and unruly material refuses to simply “fit in” and forbids easy categorization. The archive performs disobedience today, just as its materials did in its time.

This is definitive of the drama of the Angela Davis archive. In their allyship, Europeans—divided by the ideology of the Cold War—performed solidarity through letter writing, sending postcards, marching in parades, and attending rallies. These supporters saw themselves on the side of justice. Furthermore, the materials of the archive caused legislative change—it was because of these materials that Davis was released on bail. The archive’s ongoing re-assembly pushes the bounds of what it can be in the future. The archival materials upset the space and the people in it. This archive has been full of ups and downs, twists and turns, calling me to witness, participate, and sometimes even be a spectator. The word “drama” communicates the attention the archive commands, the interaction of others within the archive, and the special nature of this Davis prison archive. Because even after years, the archive is still as nebulous as ever. The drama of this archive commands attention—and for me, the drama continues to unfold.


Portrait Jamele Watkins
Portrait Jamele Watkins | Foto (Ausschnitt): privat
Jamele Watkins is a Post-doctoral Fellow in German Studies at Stanford University and an incoming Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She engages in intersections of race and gender in Germany in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Her current book project, Roses for Angela, examinest East German transnational solidarity with Angela Davis. Her dissertation, “The Drama of Race,” examined the ways in which Black Germans make their stories visible on stage. Her interests include visual culture, feminism, and transnational activism.