The “Black Power Heals” series exploring how our Southern Black freedom fighters from both past and present found peace and joy. You can click here to read more about how Black Southern women incorporated self-care techniques like yoga and meditation into their activism. Also, take a minute to check out and join the Black Magic Project’s Facebook page where we celebrate and discuss Black culture and community.
Death and danger of fighting racism are woven throughout Angela Davis’ 77 years of life. An academic, abolitionist and activist, Davis’ upbringing in Birmingham, Ala., activated her lifelong fight for racial justice, women’s rights and prison reform.
She grew up in a neighborhood known as “Dynamite Hill,” where the Ku Klux Klan retaliated against the Black families attempting to cross Birmingham’s racial divide by bombing their homes. Davis was also friends with Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson who were murdered along with Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins after the KKK bombed 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.
Discrimination and political violence followed Davis after she left the South. She was fired from her job at the University of California, Los Angeles because of her affiliation with an all-Black branch of the Communist Party. She eventually got her job back after a legal battle, but left the university in 1970. Soon after, the FBI placed her on its most wanted list when she was accused of kidnapping, murder and criminal conspiracy for her suspected role in an inmate escape attempt outside a California courthouse and shootout. Davis wasn’t present during the shootout, but the government accused her of purchasing the guns and she was jailed in 1971.
While she was acquitted of the charges in 1972, Davis suffered from migraines during her 18-month imprisonment, according to Dr. Stephanie Y. Evans, professor and director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University. Evans noted in chapter seven of her book “Black Women’s Yoga History: Memoirs of Inner Peace” that a doctor suggested meditation to Davis to relieve her pain. This became Davis’ introduction into yoga.
Evans stressed that Davis didn’t embrace yoga as a way to make prison life more tolerable, but to keep Davis from become devoured by the dehumanizing practices of incarceration. After reading Davis’ autobiography, Evans learned that yoga became Davis’ act of resistance as she often practiced yoga when she knew she was being watched.
“(Davis) notes that, though the guards attempted to control every aspect of her day, yoga was the one activity that she could do anywhere, usurping the prison’s attempt to deny her control of productive or sustaining activities, like eating, sleeping, or writing, which she was forced to do in separate spaces,” Evans wrote.
After Davis’ release, Evans said that Davis started to share her wellness story, which she used to educate others on how to build sustainable social justice movements. Davis’ 1987 Bennett College speech titled “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: The Politics of Black Women’s Health” stressed how poverty and politics played a role in health disparities, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Evans notes that during this speech, Davis names physical, mental and spiritual health and social, economic and political emancipation as the six fundamentals of Black women’s experience.
The relationship between one’s mind, body and spirit is also important in yoga as well, meaning that self-care is also an act of radical self-liberation for Black women due to their social and political placement in the world where they face health disparities due to stress as well as political and racial violence – which Davis experienced throughout her life.
Evans writes Black women don’t have to become martyrs of their own liberation.
“The struggle for human rights is a marathon, not a sprint,” Evans wrote. “Self-care and inner peace are imperative if the fight for justice and global peace is to be sustainable. Fortunately, there are several models, paradigms, and examples of how Black women are able to do good and be well.”