On Rereading Soledad Bother: George Jackson 40 Years later 8/21/11
August 21, 2011 is the 40th anniversary of George Jackson’s death. It is likely not an event that will be noted in any place but obscure left and African American blogs. I am not aware of any public celebration of his life. Weirdly, I was at the Wilmot Public Library for a used book sale and there was a copy of Soledad Brother. I was curious to see how it would read after so many years so I bought it and read it again.
It certainly did evoke a different period. Soledad Brother is a collection of prison letters George Jackson wrote in the period 1964-1970. Most of the letters are to family members but there are also letters to his attorneys and also to Angela Davis.
For those who do not know about George Jackson, at age 18 in 1961 he was convicted of armed robbery of a gas station in which he stole $70. His ridiculous sentence was one year to life. Jackson never got out of prison. Prison officials piled on the disciplinary infractions and the time he served had no relation to the original crime of which he was convicted. Once in jail, he became politically aware. He studied Marxist political thought and later he joined the Black Panther Party.
Jackson had been in San Quentin and in January 1969 he was transferred to Soledad prison. I will not go into the events surrounding his death. Jackson died in an escape attempt. He was shot dead in the prison yard. This event happened after George’s brother Jonathan took a judge, the D.A.., several prisoners and several jurors hostage in an effort to release Soledad brothers. Jonathan, the judge, and two other hostages ended up dead. They were all killed as they attempted to drive away from the courthouse.
No one really knows what happened the day George Jackson died and whether he was set up and assassinated by prison officials. At the time, James Baldwin wrote, “No Black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.”
In writing this piece, I thought it would be more interesting to highlight impressions of Soledad Brother now rather than covering the contested terrain of what happened in 1971.
My strongest reactions to the book were two fold. First, Jackson was an incredibly stand up guy. He wrote cleanly and well, called it like he saw it, and he did not back down. In a manner reminiscent of Malcolm X, he purged himself of what he called slave mentality.
” Although I would very much like to get out of here in order to develop a few ideas that have occurred to me – although I would not like to leave my bones here on the hill – if it is a choice between that and surrendering the things that make me a man, the things that allow me to hold my head erect and unbowed, then the hill can have my bones. Many times in the history of our past – I speak of the African here in the U.S. – many times we were presented with this choice, too many times, too many of us choose to live the crippled existence of the near-man, the half-man. Well, I don’t care how long I live. Over this I have no control, but I do care about what kind of life I live, and I can control this. I may not live another five minutes but it will be five minutes definitely on my terms.” (Soledad Brother p. 84)
“For us it is always tomorrow: tomorrow we’ll have enough money to eat better; tomorrow we’ll be able to buy this necessary article of clothing, to pay that debt. Tomorrow, it never really gets here. “To every one who has will more be given…but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” I don’t like this life, I can never reconcile myself to it, or rationalize the fact that I have been basely used, hated and repressed as if it were the natural order of things. Life is at best a nebulous shadow, a vague contingency, the merest of possibilities to begin with.” (Soledad Brother p.65)
“Forget the Westernized backward stuff about god. I curse god, the whole idea of a benevolent supreme being is the product of a tortured, demented mind. It is a labored, mindless attempt to explain away ignorance, a tool to keep people of low mentality and no means of production in line. How could there be a benevolent superman controlling a world like this. He would have to be malevolent, not benevolent. Look around you, evil rules supreme. God would be my enemy. The theory of a good, just god is a false idea, a thing for imbeciles and old women, and, of course, Negroes. It is a relic of the past when men made words and mindless defenses for such things as sea serpents, magic and flat earths.” (Soledad Brother p. 151)
My other strong reaction is sadness at the tragedy of his life (as well as his brother Jonathan). George did not make it to 30. While he was an inspiration to many, his death was a waste of an intellectually gifted, courageous man who could have made other great contributions. It is hard not to think his political views were profoundly mistaken even if understandable. I expect this will not be a popular thing to say for hero-worshippers on the left but the military adventurism, the fanaticism, and the failure to understand the United States are also part of the Jackson picture. I can say that, looking back, the revolution of the era had something of an hallucinatory quality. Without in any way belittling the activism, the energy, and the originality of the Movement, revolution, actual socialist revolution, was a fantasy. The masses of American people were not and have not been persuaded that socialism is preferable to capitalism. That is a necessary precondition to a successful transition to socialism.
Social change must be about persuasion, persuasion of the majority, not the few. While very imperfect and while disproportionately representing the financial upper 1% of the population, our democracy must be preserved. The experiences of the 20th century, Hitler and Stalin, clearly demonstrate the dangers of both right wing and left wing authoritarianism. Only true believers can think that their particular brand of armed revolution would result in a qualitative improvement in the lives of the majority of Americans.
Jackson’s personal circumstances were desperate and it led him to embrace a desperate world view which got him killed. It did not have to be that way. While Jackson denigrates MLK, I think MLK had a better grasp of American politics. The American people quite legitimately were not ready for the brand of politics espoused by the Black Panther Party of that era. Of particular importance, American working people lacked then and still lack political class consciousness. Unlike our class conscious ruling class, working people do not see their destinies as tied together. Individualism reigns. There is not even a broad-based social democratic party in America, let alone a socialist party.
Serious liberals, leftists, progressives, radicals, whatever you call them, have to be about building political alternatives based on democracy, voting, rationality, and persuasion. There are no shortcuts. While Jackson mocked non-violence, I would argue his brand of violence did not serve him or the Movement well. Among other things it got him killed. It created a justification for the unconstitutional Cointelpro program which resulted in vicious attacks on the Panthers, AIM, and other Movement activists. America’s history is drenched in violence. Non-violence is the moral, high ground perspective for a social change movement to advance the interests of poor and working people.
There are a number of other things that deserve criticism in Soledad Brother. The hyperbole about fascism in America, the dehumanized pig language, the cartoonish black and white view of the world, the homophobia – all are wrong. That said, I think a balanced view of George Jackson must honor his bravery in the face of extreme racism and injustice. I will leave the last word to Jackson:
“…I dig people, righteous people. I always have found it hard to really hate anyone. I loved people. I understood from the beginning that the end purpose of life was simply to live, experience, contribute, connect, to gratify body and mind.”