December 7, 2015 | by Max Nelson
George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, forty years later.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on the French revolutionary Madame Roland, here.
On August 21, 1971, George Jackson pulled a pistol on his wardens at San Quentin, the notoriously racist maximum-security prison to which he’d recently been relocated. When the news broke that he’d freed several of his fellow inmates, presided over the slashing of eight prison officials’ throats (six guards and two trustees), and then died under heavy gunfire while sprinting to freedom, it provoked a strange mixture of shock, anger, revulsion, and grief. Gregory Armstrong, Jackson’s editor at Bantam, would later confess to a reporter how relieved he was that he hadn’t followed through on his offer to help the younger man escape. Bob Dylan wrote a protest song in Jackson’s praise. (“He wouldn’t take shit from no one / He wouldn’t bow down or kneel / Authorities they hated him / Because he was just too real.”) Jackson’s attorney, Stephen Bingham, under suspicion of having smuggled in the escape weapon, fled the country for thirteen years. Huey Newton gave Jackson a long, effusive eulogy (“he lived the life that we must praise”). A group of Black Panthers imprisoned in Folsom advised his parents to “take pride in the fact that you have a large strong family of budding warriors.”
Since the 1970 publication of Soledad Brother, his ferocious, disquieting collection of letters from prison, Jackson had been an international celebrity. In his introduction to the book’s first printing, Jean Genet insisted that the collection “must be read as a manifesto, as a tract, as a call to rebellion, since it is that first of all.” Abdellatif Laâbi read the letters admiringly during his own imprisonment; they let “one follow,” he told his wife in 1975, “the transformation of a man who challenges a new kind of slavery, strips its mechanisms down, and keeps his dignity intact throughout the worst kind of ordeal.” The day before Jackson’s death in 1971, Derrida wrote Genet a long letter worrying that the introduction hadn’t done justice to the dire situation Jackson’s writing was meant to expose. “With the best intentions in the world,” he cautioned, “with the most sincere moral indignation in the face of what, in effect, remains unbearable and inadmissible, one could then lock up again that which one says one wants to liberate.”
Like Jackson’s writings themselves, Derrida’s hand-wringing letter is dated in some respects and eerily prophetic in others. During his life, Jackson often aroused the “sincere moral indignation” of white supporters who never, he knew, understood how radical and transformative his political project was meant to be. In addition to Armstrong and Bingham, there was Joan Hammer, a financially comfortable middle-aged activist, and Fay Stender, the civil rights lawyer who guided Soledad Brother to publication only to fall out with Jackson shortly after the book’s release. She committed suicide in 1980 after having been shot in her home by an intruder demanding vengeance for Jackson’s death.
Since 1971, Jackson has been vilified and mythologized in equal measure. He would have had little patience for the sympathetic accounts of his death that cast him as a passive victim. (The Road to Hell, an exposé by the crime reporter Paul Liberatore that recounts the murders committed during Jackson’s revolt in stomach-churning detail, perhaps over-corrects this mistake.) Jackson aspired to lead nothing less than an armed revolution against America’s white ruling class. “Pure nonviolence as a political ideal … is absurd,” he wrote Stender in 1970. “If this agitation that we term as nonviolent is to have any meaning at all we must force the fascist to taste the bitterness of our wrath.” His letters were vigilance exercises; didactic monologues; purification rituals; preparations for the violent emergence of a new order.
In 1956, four years before the eighteen-year-old Jackson was convicted for robbing a convenience store of seventy dollars, his family moved from Chicago to LA. One of five siblings, he was precocious, restless, and unruly. The moment his father, a postal worker, left him alone with the family’s ’49 Hudson, he remembers in the first letter in Soledad Brother, he took the car for a joyride and crashed it into the window of the barbershop down the street. “My father fixed the brother’s shop with his own hands,” he wrote admiringly. “He never said a word to me about it.”
Soon after his family’s move—and already burdened with an arrest record from various thefts, muggings, and pettier offenses in Chicago—Jackson did time in the tank of a California county jail for having attempted to hold up a department store. (He was shot twice during the arrest.) A few years later, he found himself in court again; “I agreed to confess,” he later wrote, “and spare the county court costs in return for a light county jail sentence.” Instead, he was sent to the state penitentiary for a year to life. The next eleven years, which he spent primarily in Soledad and then San Quentin, were a long string of disciplinary infractions, parole refusals, and—on Jackson’s part—indignant, violent outbursts. He kept a clean record for a stretch of eight months, having been promised parole in return, only to end up before a board that overturned the earlier members’ word.
His early letters are lost; he’d later describe them as “extremely bitter.” Soledad Brother picks up the sequence in June 1964, and the letters that comprise its first half are nearly all to Jackson’s parents. Reading them, however, you might think they were from a teacher to a slow or stubborn pupil. “Now I have arrived at a state of awareness that (because of the education system) few Negroes reach in the U.S.,” he wrote his father in a particularly irate mood after the older man warned the prison wardens that he might be difficult. “In my concern for you, I try to share the benefits of my experience and my observations, but am rewarded by being called a madman.” For Jackson, his father embodied a generation of nominally free black men who existed in a state of constant economic slavery, cowed into acquiescence by low wages and repetitive labor. (“You have worked hard, hard, and obeyed the laws of our masters but you still have nothing.”) With his mother, he was capable of sincere gestures of affection as well as accusations it would chill a parent to hear. “I feel that you have failed me Mama,” he wrote in an early letter. “I know that you have failed me. I also know that Robert”—he almost always called his parents by their first names—“has never held an opinion of his own. You have always had the running of things … You are a woman, you think like a bourgeois woman. This is a predatory man’s world.”
In the social hierarchy Jackson had by this point developed, men were Spartan warriors and women their obliging assistants. “Women like to be dominated, love being strong-armed, need an overseer to supplement their weakness,” he wrote Robert in 1967. “For this reason we should never allow women to express any opinions on the subject, but just to sit, listen to us, and attempt to understand.” Passages like this come up throughout Jackson’s letters, which have a way of veering suddenly from the noxious to the stirring, the searchingly open-minded to the ruthlessly doctrinaire. The longer he was left to smolder in Soledad, and the more firmly he attached himself to Maoism, the more the latter tone started to win out over the former. On January 1, 1966, he wrote Robert:
To have lived through the period of your early youth is in itself a qualifier for respect … All the honor that you are due I freely give. However, we, the humble representatives of the future generations, have at our disposal all the accumulated knowledge and experiences of all past generations to build our thoughts. I have made no mark as yet to be sure, but why is it that we cannot communicate? What is it that bars our efforts to exchange thoughts and ideas? The fault could lie in my presentation. If so, I will make every effort to correct my deficiency because it is to the interest of us both that we meet on the same level.
Two years later, he was writing in a less hopeful key. “You have misjudged the depth of my feeling on these matters,” he told Robert in November 1967. “They mean everything to me … I anticipated failure in this from the start, so I am not shocked or surprised now that the last has been said and we find ourselves poles apart.”
“These matters” overlapped up to a point with the party program of the Black Panthers, with whom Jackson was powerfully but somewhat uneasily associated for the last years of his life. That America’s black underclass was a colonized people; that the country’s institutions depended on their continued enslavement and subjugation; and that this state of affairs could only be reversed by an armed, violent revolution: in his core political commitments, Jackson didn’t stray far from the Panther’s central course. What set him apart was the rigor, focus, and monkish self-discipline with which he applied himself to the job of bringing that revolution about. He gave himself a punishing daily push-up routine, taught himself karate and slept, he claims, for three hours a night.
In the twenty-three and a half hours he spent alone in his cell each day, he educated himself in Marxist-Leninist thought. He fell particularly, disastrously hard for Mao. “No one starves in China,” he describes having told one of his high school teachers. “Is it possible that you are ignorant enough to think that people starve in China still, because they were starving in such great numbers when you were there in the forties serving the fascist-military establishment?” It’s one of Jackson’s many contradictions that he could accept one dogma so uncritically and spend his every waking moment steeling himself against the effects of another. “I have completely restrained myself and my thinking to the point now that I think and dream of one thing only,” he wrote in the summer of 1967. “I have no habits, no ego, no name, no face. I feel no love, no tenderness, for anyone who does not think as I do.” This is the tone of Jackson’s later writing: taut, toned, aspiring to a total absence of weakness or flab. “I’m not a very nice person,” he wrote Angela Davis during their first, flushed exchange of love letters in 1970. “I’ve been forced to adopt a set of responses, reflexes, attitudes that have made me more kin to the cat than anything else, the big black one.”
By this time, he had become one of the most feared and respected inmates in Soledad’s infamous O Wing, where guards were widely known to put their support behind all-white gangs. In at least one notorious instance of official racism, a tower guard broke up a fight on the yard by shooting down the darker-skinned combatants, killing three. After a grand jury cleared the officer, an uninvolved guard was thrown to his death from a cell-block railing. Jackson’s publishers named his collection of letters after the media’s phrase for the group of three men—Jackson included—who went to trial for the crime.
As one of the Soledad Brothers, Jackson began to attract the attention of white activists and sympathizers. He made no effort to conceal his convictions when he wrote figures like Joan Hammer—to whom he once claimed that “we must move along two lines in concert, instruction of the unrighteous and destruction of the unrighteous”—but he did subtly soften his tone. “When I think of the very lovely people, the innocent, when I read your descriptions and some others, my mind strays momentarily from the fact that I’ll never be safe,” he wrote her in the summer of 1970 with a strange mixture of diplomacy and candor:
At these moments I feel a thrill of promise, but that’s only for a moment, the rest of the day is elevated to the pledge I made to myself, a compact that I would never live at ease as long as there was or is one man who would restrict my and your self-determination.
If the struggle to meet his parents on the same level was the drama of Jackson’s earlier letters, here is the drama of his later ones. Jackson became famous as a writer at precisely the time he had come to see writing as a kind of ancillary activity to the more pressing business of marshaling a guerilla-war campaign. He asked his closest supporters insistently to smuggle him weapons and explosives. At the end of a long letter to Fay Stender in 1970, several months before his younger brother Jonathan died making a kidnapping attempt to negotiate his freedom, he wrote that “I have a young courageous brother whom I love more than I love myself, but I have given him up to the revolution … I accept the possibility of his eventual death as I accept the possibility of my own.”
Even then, he was no less capable of magisterial expressions of tenderness or love—for Jonathan, for his parents, and most often for Davis. His letters to her show him palpably more relaxed and unguarded, worrying about the public literary performances he’d locked himself into keeping up. He kept them up, but not without doubts. “The question is,” he wrote her about two years before Derrida’s letter to Genet, “do these nice people really want to hear what I have to say—as a victim of the first order—will they mistake it—as extreme—can these wonderful people understand that some situations call for extreme remedies?”
Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1, Film Comment, and The Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.
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