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.” Read More