The Archivist and the Activist: Behind a New Book About Angela Davis

Lisbet Tellefsen and Angela Davis wear masks to protect from COVID-19 as they pose for a photo while holding a copy of the book, 'Seize the Time.'
Lisbet Tellefsen and Angela Davis wear masks to protect from COVID-19 while holding a copy of the book 'Seize the Time.' (Lisbet Tellefsen)

Archivist Lisbet Tellefsen collects Black cultural artifacts like kids used to collect baseball cards back in the day.

Lucky for us, she shares her collection with the world. Dozens of pieces from her personal archive are housed at museums across the country, including the Oakland Musuem of California and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The archives of the now-defunct publication that she co-founded in the late '80s, Aché, which focused on stories of Black lesbians and featured the work of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, and Barbara Smith, are housed at Yale. Tellefsen provided archival research for Stanley Nelson’s documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Shola Lynch's Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.

Five years ago, when I wrote about the history of the Black Panther school, Tellefsen sent me photos of Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou inside the school's former site in East Oakland.

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And now Tellefsen has included over 100 pieces from her archive of the famed scholar and prison abolitionist Angela Davis in the 192-page book Seize The Time (published September 2020 by the University of Chicago Press; $45). With a mix of archival photos, contemporary art, essays and interviews, Seize the Time paints a picture of Davis' life—at a time when her work couldn't be more important.

A collage of Angela Davis posters from the Lisbet Tellefsen collection
A collage of Angela Davis posters from the Lisbet Tellefsen collection. (Lisbet Tellefsen)

A centerpiece of the Seize the Time is a timeline of Davis' life, starting with her childhood in the racially segregated "Dynamite Hill" neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama, a place that earned its nickname from white people using explosives to attack Black residents. Along the way, Tellefsen fits many of the details of Davis' life into the timeline's 12-page spread—her professorship at UCLA, her involvement with the Black Panthers, her 16-month incarceration and acquittal, her work in Eastern Bloc countries and other political activism—ending with Davis' induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Sceneca Falls, New York, in 2019.

The book is both a piece of history and a piece of art. Posters of Davis' face are accompanied by messages written in German, French and Spanish, as well as mugshots and courtroom renderings. And in a bridge to the new generation, images from artist Sadie Barnette's project Dear 1968—her "My Father's FBI Files" piece—are included.

Some of the same archival items are currently showing in the exhibit that Tellefsen co-curated, called OUTspoken, hosted virtually by the GLBT Historical Society.

Three photos of Angela Davis: the first as a child, the second as a professor at UCLA and the third is taken at the time of her arrest
Three photos of Angela Davis: the first as a child, the second as a professor at UCLA and the third is taken at the time of her arrest. (Lisbet Tellefsen)

The artistic aspect of the book fits. "I think that I feel the most free when I'm in the presence of great art with others," says Davis, in a transcribed conversation with the Oakland Museum of California's senior curator René de Guzman. "I think art teaches us how to feel free, how to feel free even as we are compelled to live under conditions of un-freedom."

One of the book's essays comes from historian and professor Gerry Beegan (who co-edited the book with Donna Gustafson), focusing on the role graphic arts and mixed media played in the spread of Davis' story. There's also a piece from writer and professor Nicole R. Fleetwood about the significance of Davis' "fearless activism" in spite of the oppressive forces Black women face in America.

A black and white cartoon illustration of Angela Davis on the cover of Black News in 1970
A black and white cartoon illustration of Angela Davis on the cover of Black News in 1970. (Lisbet Tellefsen)

"I was writing for an audience of one," says Tellefsen, who despite knowing Davis for years says she was still very mindful to properly represent her. At one point, she tells me, she asked Davis if she preferred to be labeled as queer or lesbian. "She’s like, 'I don’t mind it,'" Tellefsen recalls her saying, "I’d prefer anti-racist, anti-capitalist."

Tellefsen had to get over the notion of "protecting Davis' privacy," as once was the code. Now it was about showing Davis in bold brightness, as suggested by the cover—a profile image created by Felix Bertrán of Davis peering to her right, her stop-sign red face and black afro standing out against a blue background.

"When I see that front cover," says Tellefsen, "I see the linkage between Cuba, communism, graphic design, Angela Davis—you know—the era, and where graphics were at that time."

Meanwhile, I was caught by the image on the back of the book: a contorted map showing the connections between some well-known freedom fighters, elected officials, and liberation groups. It's a piece called "Black Liberation and Socialism in America" (2017), created by Keith Walsh.

Tellefsen says that although it's a little light on mentioning women involved in liberation efforts, she's a fan of the piece for its attempt to show all the connections, like a mind map or a puzzle.

“Black Liberation and Socialism in America” by Keith Walsh
'Black Liberation and Socialism in America' by Keith Walsh. (Keith Walsh)

Never classically trained as an archivist, Tellefsen "flirted with internships," studied under the tutelage of a mentor from the UC Berkeley School of Theology, and is part of the Society of American Archivists. But she says she's developed her own methods of maintaining and organizing her materials.

She has notepads showing the evolution of her file-naming conventions. She's used the Dewey Decimal system and digital memory cards. And she explains that her evolving methods of organization are coupled with tangible "external artifacts," and the practice of piecing them together to tell life stories.

When it came to Angela Davis' story, Tellefsen says, "Once I began that process of reconstruction, it was like the little kid in me doing a 50,000-piece jigsaw puzzle."

Free Angela, Free Women by Faith Ringgold (1971)
'Free Angela, Free Women' by Faith Ringgold (1971). (Lisbet Tellefsen)

If everything goes according to plan, Tellefsen tells me, the finished "puzzle" will not only be this "exhibition catalog" of a book, but an actual exhibition shown at Rutgers University's Zimmerli Art Museum in the fall. After that, fingers crossed, it will come to the Oakland Musuem of California.

“To me," says Tellefsen, "that’s the big moment: when this comes home to Oakland. That will be the crowning achievement for me.”

Seize the Time is being published just as Davis experiences a resurgence, brought on by conversations about abolishing the current criminal justice system. In June of last year, Davis joined a rally to shut down the Port of Oakland in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

"Sister: You Are Welcome Here" reads the caption that accompanies an image of Angela Davis on the cover of the alternative weekly newspaper, Leviathan.
"Sister: You Are Welcome Here" reads the caption that accompanies an image of Angela Davis on the cover of the alternative weekly newspaper, 'Leviathan.' (Lisbet Tellefsen)

And as a speaker, Davis, who celebrates her 77th birthday on Jan. 26, is still very active. She's scheduled to be in discussion with Alicia Garza on Monday, Jan. 18, as a part of the Madam Walker Legacy Center and University of Indiana’s virtual MLK Day event.

"It’s like something has aligned, where her words are being heard in the mainstream. Not the 'radical fringe,' or whatever they call her outside of the activist and academic bubble," says Tellefsen.

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"When she got out of jail, and said, 'You freed me, now it’s time to free all political prisoners and advocate for social justice, anticapitalist, antiracist practices,' she never wavered once."