George Jackson. Soledad Brother; The prison letters of George Jackson. (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1969). 340 pages.
Reflections on the book
What I am doing here is not a book review in the traditional sense of that enterprise. If you desire such an enterprise, I suggest that you read Jean Genet’s introduction to the book, Soledad Brother; I do not see how anyone can write better than that masterful review of the book. My objective here is to simply reflect on aspects of the book that interest me.
George Jackson (1941-1971) was born in Illinois, USA. From his account of his early years, his economic situation was not particularly different from what one finds in African Americans, even of today: poverty, but not starving from lack of food. His father worked for the US Postal Service (which was the highest kind of jobs Black folks used to get in the land). He grew up in the ghettos; he attended a Catholic Nuns run school for ghetto kids.
From the get-go of his life, he was into petty stealing. I am tempted to say that he had youth conduct disorder, in adults called anti-social personality disorder except that that is not going to help matters. Let us just say that he got into trouble from an early age, mostly from stealing.
His father recognized that he is what in contemporary American schools is called “Prison Pile,” a school kid who is heading to prison. To prevent it he asked for transfer, from Chicago to Los Angeles, California, hoping that the West Coast atmosphere would prevent his boy from wounding up in prison. He got permission to move to California and bought his first car and in 1956, with George as his passenger, he drove to California. He found a place to live at the Watts area of Los Angeles.
The man drove his car to and from work. A few days after they got to the LA area, when the man was not around, George, who had not learned to drive, simply tried driving the car and wound up smashing it into a barber’s shop. The barber did not call the police or press charges but told his father about the accident and the father came and did the repair work on the damage done to the shop.
That was not enough encounter with the law for George. He continued stealing and was arrested several times. He was sent by the judicial system to the California Youth Authority, what today is called youth correction facilities (Juvey). He was fifteen years old. From there on, his life was one of been in and out of youth jails.
At age 18 (1960), he was accused of hitting-up a gas station and stealing $70 dollars; he denied the theft. But because he is now considered an adult, and given his numerous negative encounters with the law, the judge gave him one year to a lifetime in prison.
Really, you sentenced him to life in prison because he stole seventy dollars. Listen, I am not soft on crime, I do not believe in stealing, but having said that, what kind of justice system sentences an 18-year-old to life in prison because he allegedly stole seventy dollars?
Of course, if he stole even a dollar, he had to pay a price for it but lifetime in prison, which is excessive punishment. What kind of judge would do such a dastardly thing to a teenager?
That was the way America was in 1960. George, from 1960 to 1971 when a prison guard, warden gunned him to death, spent his life in prison.
While in prison, he discovered reading, as Malcolm X did. Malcolm read up on religion, specifically the Nation of Islam of Elijah Mohammad, whereas George rejected the Judeo-Christian religion and discovered radical politics. He said that he read up on socialism and communism; in his letters, he freely quoted from Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the other leading revolutionary Marxists of his 1960s era.
Like Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale (of the Black Panthers) who had similar “in and out of jails experience,” he became a committed socialist revolutionary. He tried to organize the prison inmates and turn their attention to socialism; he submitted suggestions on how to make changes in their prison life to the prison authorities; apparently, some of his ideas led to making some changes in America’s penal colonies!
The man simply read and wrote letters to his father, mother, siblings, his publicly appointed public defenders (attorneys), and comrades in the struggle against what he called the capitalist prison, such as Angela Davies.
I am not a writer and, as such, not in a position to ascertain what is good or bad writing; nevertheless, I would say that George Jackson was a natural writer; in fact, he was a poet of sorts. You not only sensed his anger and bitterness from his missiles but lovely language. He found his voice through letter writing. Who said that good literature cannot be conveyed through the epistolary method?
Some of his letters were published in 1969 as Soledad Brother. He authored another book, Blood in my eyes, in which he articulated his socialist political ideology, and his hatred for American capitalism and all things white American, including its Christian religion; he saw Christianity as a devilish means of oppressing Black folks.
He believed that capitalism is the cause of all the ills of America and the entire world. As he saw it, a few capitalists own the capital, and the workplaces of America; with their money they buy the politicians, judges, police, buy those who rule America. These fat cats transformed America into a kind of slave plantation where all people work for them. If you step out of line, they will initially harass you and if you do not mend your ways and support the system they set up, they have their paid for police, for some trumped out charge, arrest you and their paid for judges imprison you; these agents of the system know that once you have prison record it becomes almost impossible for you to obtain a decent job in the land, so you have no option but to engage in a life of crimes.
(I observed the academic situation up close; what are called professors are actually the errand boys of the ruling class; they dare not write what is not system supportive; the gate keepers of academia, in fact, would not hire them in the first place if they are perceived to write what does not support the political system; if perchance they made a mistake and one anti-capitalist slipped in, they will find a way to get rid of him, quick, including denying him tenure on the basis that his scholarship is not up to par with what is expected. America rewards those who have sold their minds to the rulers of Baal; every person knows it. However, before we become emotional and sentimental, let it be said that what is done in the USA is replicated in all the countries of the world. If independence is what you value, then operate as an outsider and leave the slaves of whatever plantation operates in your country to work for their owners.)
The American political system blackmails those who are opposed to the capitalist political economy and eventually cancel culture them (read the FBI files on Martin Luther King, they knew who he had sex with and threatened to reveal it to the public and thus destroy his bourgeois moralism).
They make sure that those opposed to the system become nonentities, and for all practical purposes that non system supporting folks do not exist. They control schools and teach what is only system maintaining; any alternative views are not taught. One can go through American high schools and not learn that black folks were brought to America as slaves, beginning in 1619, and have lived as either slaves or third class citizens, and are randomly abused by the system; if one tried to talk about it one is accused of Wokeism, of trying to get the people to become aware of the evils of the system, evils, the rulers would like to sweep under the rug, and pretend that they do not exist,
As we talk, School Boards all over America are fighting what they call Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project. which are nothing but attempts to include in American history the teaching of the discriminated status of African Americans. Apparently, that knowledge must be kept out, for it has the potential of making white kids feel guilty from the crimes their ancestors committed and from that realistic guilt change their country’s racist trajectory.
Whatever does not glorify America must be kept out of schools and the media. Do you read about such matters in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and other system supporting newspapers? How about the broadcast media, such as NBC, CBS and ABC, do you hear about black matters? Of course, not; issues black is whited out. Indeed, Fox Broadcasting outfit is devoted to telling Americans that the country is heaven on earth even as the cities are filled with homeless men and women, black and white (of course it is their fault that they are poor in the land of billionaires and millionaires, we are told).
Fox broadcasting rag tells us that Donald Trump, who is as racist as racist can be, is more Christian than Jesus Christ himself! White Evangelical Christians buy billboards and extol the virtue of a man who has had sex with several women, especially with pornography actors, such as Stormy Daniel.
America lives on lies. It calls itself God’s own country when Satan’s own country would seem more appropriate. The people have been so brainwashed that they no longer know the difference between truth and lies.
Truth is loving all people as you love you; lies is to be self-centered and not love all people.
The prison letters of George Jackson delineated the ills of American society and tell the reader that capitalism is inherently oppressive and has oppressed black folks; capitalism nearly killed off Native Americans and stole their lands and is all over the world carting wealth from other people and bringing it to the USA, so that folks live well at the expense of third world people.
Consider, Ghana produces cocoa for Americans to drink but the average Ghanaian can hardly afford a cup of cocoa.
Given his negative experience in the USA, George Jackson hated all things capitalist and white American; he imagined that the socialist or communist alternative would be Eldorado. You cannot blame him for that belief, after all, he was gunned down at age thirty and did not live long enough to realize that the issue is human proclivity to evil; evil is not restricted to white Americans only!
In the real world, we know how communism turned out. In Russia, the Bolsheviks formed the most brutal and oppressive political system in the world; they literally transformed Russians to modern day slaves. They formed an authoritarian, totalitarian, monolithic dictatorship; if you said a word against them you were carted to Siberia and frozen to death. Vladimir Putin is continuing that brutal dictatorship; this time, one man’s dictatorship supported by the oligarchs with whom he loots the Russian treasury. The average Russian is reduced to a powerless creature who finds refuge in alcohol.
In China, the communists repressed any form of individual expression of opinions.
In Cuba and North Korea, the communist leaders transformed the political system into a family business and either killed or imprisoned whoever opposed their family rule.
Communism is as guilty as capitalism. Both economic systems, of course, have good aspects to them; folks in Scandinavia are trying to implement what is good in either economic system. A robust mixed capitalist and socialist economy and a social democratic polity has made the Scandinavian countries the best governed place in the world.
George Jackson’s prison letters ought to be read by contemporary folks because they give us great insight into how racist the American polity was and largely still is. Why send a kid to lifetime in prison because he stole seventy dollars? Is that justice or abuse? One would have counselled him on the need to not engage in sociopathic activities but to, instead, fight to bring about social and economic justice in the land and in the entire world.
Our world certainly needs change; consider what is going on in extant youth scene in the USA and Nigeria.
Most contemporary white American youth have accepted the basic parameters of their society; they have accepted the capitalist economic system. They go through grade schools and at college acquire technical skills that would get them reasonable jobs.
In contemporary America, if you want to get a job, right from college, you had better study electrical engineering, and computer related subjects (and or become a medical doctor and allied fields); if you graduate in the social sciences and humanities, you are looking at prolonged unemployment before you obtain a job that pays you survival wage.
White Middle Class America are ensconced in good paying jobs, but are they happy?
They drink excessive alcohol, engage in all kinds of addicted sex, and some do drugs. They are like sheep and go along with their owners’ wishes; they are cowardly in the sense that they do not pause to ask, is this society right and if it is not right what can be done to make it right?
The conservative element of American youth simply do whatever they can to preserve the political economy, including through violence; generally, they attribute most problems in the political system to black people and blame them and want to harm them; violence towards black folks can be physical or take on more subtle overtures, such as not giving them good jobs, discriminating against them and the police easily arresting them for minor offenses and the judges throwing their legal books at them, give them life sentences from stealing a few dollars and the prison wardens satisfy their proclivity to sadism by torturing the inmates.
Liberals do not really want to change the mess that Republicans make but make it more tolerable; they do not fight to bring about what would amount to social justice, social democracy, as in the Scandinavian countries where the public provides all people with education at all levels and health insurance for all and does a few other things and otherwise allow the capitalist economy to exist because it is productive.
Nigerian youth are not yet politically conscious. They are, as it were, sleeping through life while mouthing nonsense that they take to be reasonable. Most of them are cowards because they go along with the criminals that govern their hell on earth country called Nigeria. They all know that their so-called leaders are thieves who go into politics to loot the national treasury, but they keep quiet.
Seeing how luxuriously the political thieves live, they want to live like them. They seek wealth by any means necessary, including criminal activities, especially Internet scamming of people all over the world (so-called Yahoo Boys).
They are invested only in egoistic lifestyle, to be rich, to live well, to drive luxury cars; they seek personal glory and could care less for the over 70% of the population living in abject poverty, making less than a dollar a day, and living worse than stray dogs.
These young people do not understand that all over the world it is youth (20-40) who fight and die for social and economic justice; and where necessary conduct revolutions to radically change their societies. Instead, they live pointless existence characterized by hedonistic lifestyles. They are irrelevant to history, for not one of them would be remembered a generation after they died.
It would be nice if some of these nihilistic youth in the USA and Africa could read George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and other books written by youths who lived purposeful lives, people who tried to transform our world into a just place where all children have access to high quality education through university and or technical colleges and health care is provided for all citizens.
May 5, 2022
- As usual, you are welcome to call Dr Osuji, in the evenings, if you want to chat with him on any subject he wrote on, including the tumultuous 1960s, as captured in the lives of Rosa Park, Malcolm X, Stockley Carmichael, Dr Martin Luther King, George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.