Biography 24.3 (2001) 591-593
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Margo V. Perkins's Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties is an excellent study of the autobiographies of Angela Davis (Angela Davis: An Autobiography), Elaine Brown (A Taste of Power), and Assata Shakur (Assata). Perkins perceptively analyzes the problematic nature of autobiography as a genre, the purposes of political autobiography and its link to resistance literature (for example, the "slave" or "emancipation" narrative), [End Page 591] and the similarities and differences among the three women's autobiographies. Moreover, Autobiography as Activism is both an incisive and concise introduction to key figures of the black revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and an informative look at how the three women's autobiographies contrast with and/or fill in the gaps in works by black men of the era, such as Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and George Jackson's Soledad Brother. For those interested in female activists, the militancy of the 1960s and 1970s, gender issues, and the genre of autobiography, Autobiography as Activism will provide an intriguing and worthwhile reading experience.
Perkins's book is enlightening in charting certain characteristic features and concerns of autobiographies by black activists reflected in the books by Davis, Brown, and Shakur. Clearly, autobiographies by such former slaves as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs are some of the foremost examples of the tradition of protest literature, which is a main component of the African American literary tradition. In Autobiography as Activism, Perkins's reflections on this tradition in connection with the three women's autobiographies make one think deeply about what it means for one's life to be presented as a literary argument which critiques oppression, racism, and sexism. As Davis, Brown, and Shakur chart the growth of their consciousness and commitment to helping to bring about social change, Perkins makes evident that their autobiographies have a "pedagogical" element, enlightening the reader to the wrongs in American society which altered the women's lives and against which they decided to fight. Particularly interesting in this regard is that Perkins's analysis recalls implicitly some of the ideas expressed by Maulana Ron Karenga on the black aesthetic, that black cultural production should be "collective, committed, and committing"--that is, it should reflect the issues confronting the black community, be grounded in social engagement, and spur the audience to greater enlightenment, and possibly action. Perkins also makes valid points about the motivations of the three women's autobiographies to reshape and reclaim their public identity (or image) from overblown controversy and distortion. This is especially true in the cases of Davis and Shakur, who garnered much publicity for seemingly unjust (and certainly abusive, if one believes their recollections of the conditions in the jails) imprisonments related to their connections to militant politics. (Davis was jailed for the fact that the guns used in Jonathan Jackson's ill-fated takeover of a Marin county courtroom were registered in her name; Shakur for allegedly killing a New Jersey state trooper, among other charges.) By reading Autobiography as Activism, one learns much about the controversial women themselves, and also about some of the motivations for politically engaged autobiography as a genre. [End Page 592]
Especially impressive is Perkins's use of theoretical methods in order to illuminate the texts she discusses. In a talk, the important critic Barbara Christian once stated that critical theory often consists of critics talking about criticism and failing to illuminate works of literature. Autobiography as Activism provides an excellent argument against this often valid criticism. For instance, Perkins deconstructs the three women's autobiographies by analyzing their silences, gaps, and contradictions on such key issues in the women's lives as parenting, relations with the people who supported them in their fight against the justice system, and the internal problems within black militant organizations--a central topic in Brown's A Taste of Power, which at times conflicts...