I told Helen that we would leave as soon as it got dark. But night would not shake off the day that kept clinging to its edges. We waited. Silently. Hidden behind drawn curtains, we listened to the street noises coming through the slightly opened balcony window. Each time a car slowed down or stopped, each time footsteps tapped the pavement outside, I held my breath — wondering whether we might have waited too long.
They all explained that they had been driven by necessity to apply for this kind of job. Apparently it was one of the highest-paying jobs in New York that did not require a college education. In a way, these officers were prisoners themselves, and some of them were keenly aware that they were treading ambiguous waters. Like their predecessors, the Black overseers, they were guarding their sisters in exchange for a few bits of bread. And like the overseers, they too would discover that part of the payment for their work was their own oppression. For example, overtime was compulsory. And because of the military discipline to which they were forced to submit, failure to work overtime was punishable as insubordination. Sixteen-hour workdays, a few times a week, were never out of the ordinary for the young officers who held no seniority, and for the older ones who weren't well-liked in the top echelons of the jail hierarchy.
One evening, after lock-up, a loud question broke the silence. It came from a sister who was reading a book I had lent her.
"Angela, what does 'imperialism' mean?"
I called out, "The ruling class of one country conquers the people of another in order to rob them of their land, their resources, and to exploit their labor."
Another voice shouted, "You mean treating people in other countries the way Black people are treated here?"
This Booker T. Washington syndrome permeated every aspect of the education I received in Birmingham. Work hard and you will be rewarded. A corollary of this principle was that the road would be harder and rockier for Black people than for their white counterparts. Our teachers warned us that we would have to steel ourselves for hard labor and more hard labor, sacrifices and more sacrifices. Only this would prove that we were serious about overcoming all the obstacles before us. It often struck me they were speaking of these obstacles as if they would always be there, part of the natural order of things, rather than the product of a system of racism, which we could eventually overturn.
It hurt to see us folding in on ourselves, using ourselves as whipping posts because we did not yet know how to struggle against the real cause of our misery.
The Communist Manifesto hit me like a bolt of lightning. I read it avidly, finding in it answers to many of the seemingly unanswerable dilemmas which had plagued me. I read it over and over again, not completely understanding every passage or every idea, but enthralled nevertheless by the possibility of a communist revolution here. I began to see the problems of Black people within the context of a large working-class movement. My ideas about Black liberation were imprecise, and I could not find the right concepts to articulate them; still, I was acquiring some understanding about how capitalism could be abolished.
What struck me so emphatically was the idea that once the emancipation of the proletariat became a reality, the foundation was laid for the emancipation of all oppressed groups in the society. Images surged up in my mind of Black workers in Birmingham trekking every morning to the steel mills or descending into the mines. Like an expert surgeon, this document cut away cataracts from my eyes. The eyes heavy with hatred on Dynamite Hill; the roar of explosives, the fear, the hidden guns, the weeping Black woman at our door, the children without lunches, the schoolyard bloodshed, the social games of the Black middle class, Shack I/Shack II, the back of the bus, police searches — it all fell into place. What had seemed a personal hatred of me, an inexplicable refusal of Southern whites to confront their own emotions, and a stubborn willingness of Blacks to acquiesce, became the inevitable consequence of a ruthless system which kept itself alive and well by encouraging spite, competition and the oppression of one group by another. Profit was the word: the cold and constant motive for the behavior, the contempt and the despair I had seen.
During that first semester, I didn't study very much. I told myself that the courses I was compelled to take were irrelevant anyway. I stayed out of the social life of the school, or would wander into a formal dance in the blue jeans I wore all the time — just for the sake of making a point. I called myself a communist, but refused to be drawn into the small campus movement because I felt that the politicos had approached me in an obviously patronizing manner. It seemed as if they were determined to help the "poor, wretched Negroes" become equal to them, and I simply didn't think they were worth becoming equal to.
Although I was on the verge of receiving a degree in French Literature, what I really wanted to study was philosophy. I was interested in Marx, his predecessors and his successors. Over the last years, whenever I could find the time, I read philosophy on the side. I didn't really know what I was doing, except that it gave me a feeling of security and comfort to read what people had to say about such formidable things as the universe, history, human beings, knowledge.
Adorno had readily agreed to direct my work on a doctoral dissertation. But now I felt it would be impossible for me to stay in Germany any longer. Two years was enough. I arranged for an appointment with Adorno at the Institute and explained to him that I had to go home. In my correspondence with Marcuse, he had already agreed to work with me at the University of California in San Diego, where he had accepted a position after having been practically pushed out of Brandeis for political reasons. I wanted to continue my academic work, but I knew I could not do it unless I was politically involved. The struggle was a life-nerve; our only hope for survival. I made up my mind. The journey was on.
From this point forward I tried to acquire the information I needed in order to decide whether I wanted to become a member of the Communist Party. At this stage in my life and my political evolution — even more than during the San Diego days — I needed to become a part of a serious revolutionary party. I wanted an anchor, a base, a mooring. I needed comrades with whom I could share a common ideology. I was tired of ephemeral ad-hoc groups that fell apart when faced with the slightest difficulty; tired of men who measured their sexual height by women's intellectual genuflection. It wasn't that I was fearless, but I knew that to win, we had to fight and the fight that would win was the one collectively waged by the masses of our people and working people in general. I knew that this fight had to be led by a group, a party with more permanence in its membership and structure and more substance in its ideology. Confrontations were opportunities to be met; problems were entanglements to be sorted out with the right approach, the correct ideas. And I needed to know and respect what I was doing. Until now all our actions seemed to end, finally, in an ellipsis — three dots of irresolution, inconsistency and ineffectiveness.