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The Globe and Mail

Stop giving Angela Davis T-shirts of herself

Professor and political activist Angela Davis attends a news conference to promote the film Free Angela & All Political Prisoners during the 37th Toronto International Film Festival, September 10, 2012.

Fred Thornhill/Reuters

You'd think there is no point in giving someone a T-shirt with a picture of her own face on it. But this happens to Angela Davis more often than one might imagine.

The former Black Panther figurehead has many times been presented with shirts emblazoned with pictures of her from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Featuring Davis's trademark afro, they are immediately recognizable images, like that ubiquitous Che Guevara portrait.

But a cultural-historic figure can't wear his or her own T-shirt.

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"Why are you giving them to me? I'm never going to wear them!" Davis remembers telling the misguided fans, laughing at a press conference for the documentary Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, a gala film at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Davis said she has been reluctant throughout her life to be an icon – the face for political activism.

"Because I'm putatively the subject of the image, I have a more complicated relationship to it. It took me quite a long time to feel comfortable in my relationship with that image, because I have always insisted that it's really not me. It's an image that has been produced and that circulates in a certain way. But I'm not all that is ascribed to that image."

But a few years ago, she encountered a young woman wearing an Angela Davis T-shirt. Normally, Davis said she'd be embarrassed and try to steal away without being noticed. But this time she asked the woman why she was wearing it. She told Davis that she felt empowered by the shirt, even though she knew little about Davis's history.

"It makes me feel as if I can do anything I want to do," Davis remembers the woman saying. "And so at that point, I reconciled myself to the work that the image performs. And at the same time, I have to recognize that the work is not me. It is a constructed and created image that does have an enormous amount of power."

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