I remember years ago when I was a member of ACT-UP, a woman who joined the group reviewed our direct action plans and said something along the lines of, “All this militant stuff must make you feel manly, and I guess that feels good since you’re hated partly because people think gay men are like women. But, um, how’s that supposed to make me feel?”
I got the message, though I still struggle to live up to it. It made me look askance at the texts of the 1960s and 70s that, indirectly but nonetheless effectively, led me to the belief that flexing my masculinity was a means of laying claim to my humanity. But lately I’ve been going back to those old texts, written by the role models of my youth, and have found them to be, still, the clearest expression of militant opposition to unjust state power in the American literary canon.
Even with their flaws, which via 20/20 hindsight are clearly many and profound, those words were the stuff dreams were made of for millions of young people of color. Intellectuals involved in the project of winning racial justice have never since spoken in such a popular voice and with such clarity and reach. I guess that comes from writing to and within a movement.
Among the books I’m revisiting from that era is Soledad Brother, a collection of letters written between 1964 and 1970 by Black, communist revolutionary George Jackson while serving a prison sentence in California. Jackson was incarcerated for stealing $70 from a gas station, an offense for which the then 18 year old was sentenced to one-year to life. I first read Soledad Brother as a teenager, struggling to understand the profound alienation that enveloped me, and the deep longing I felt for something that seemed out of reach – a life different from the one I appeared headed toward, cutting cane and picking fruit for minimum wage plus crate bonuses.
Here’s a taste of the tone and spirit of Jackson’s letters, from the dedication…
To the Man-Child,
Tall, evil, graceful, brighteyed, black man-child-Jonathan Peter Jackson-who died on August 7, 1970, courage in one hand, assault rifle in the other; my brother, comrade, friend-the true revolutionary, the black communist guerrilla in the highest state of development, he died on the trigger, scourge of the unrighteous, soldier of the people; to this terrible man-child and his wonderful mother Georgia Bea, to Angela Y. Davis, my tender experience, I dedicate this collection of letters; to the destruction of their enemies I dedicate my life…
Reading Soledad Brother reminds me of the person I once was, not that long ago – confident, frightening, self-righteous, a political romantic full of arrogance, anger, and steely belief. It seems to me that we need more of that kind of belief in the validity and potency of protest, and in the possibility of change, especially now in these urgent times, when crises of the magnitude of climate change and the privatization and capitalization of nearly everything loom over us. It’s times like these when dreams of liberation, as quixotic as they may seem, matter most of all.
I won’t say I was at my best back in the days I first read George Jackson. I’m not sure kindness found it’s way through the rage that enveloped me, at least not with much frequency. And the impulse toward humility, the legacy of my upbringing in a family of humble means and Buddhist values, was something I actively fought against, believing humility to be the twin of humiliation. But I was excited, full of anticipation, believing that radical visions of a better future were less acts of imagination than predictions, based in evidence and bound to come true.
Most days now, I’m not sure what I believe. And while I think that mass protest is necessary, and immediately, in order to slow down or stop the runaway train of capital, I think that uncertainty about where we should be headed is just right for our times. This is a time for strategic realignment and reflection, for conjuring a new vision of struggle and (r)evolution, even as we stare down fear of an uncertain future.
But even as we reflect on what defines now, as opposed to then, in order to make ourselves relevant in the struggle over what will be, we ought never forget our history – the good, bad, ugly, and achingly beautiful of it. A plaintiff, soul bearing slice of that history as lived by one man, recorded in a prison cell as he was held captive by an unjust regime, is captured in Jackson’s letters.
I won’t share bits of his letters here. They should be understood in context, not just of the many letters he wrote, but of the time in which they were written. Understood in this way, the letters tell a story about the left in the U.S. in an era when we were deeply flawed (sexist without doubt), and arrogantly overreaching, having underestimated the opposition by a magnitude that can be measured most poignantly in the number of political prisoners, exiles, and extrajudicial killings of that time.
But in that overreach, we allowed our absolute disgust with the violence and injustice that surrounded us free rein. We were clear, cogent, direct, and magnetic. Damn did the left have charisma back then! We may not have had all the right answers, strategies, and tactics. We may, perhaps, have been somewhat self-indulgent. But we were real. We were authentic.
Read it and remember.