Review of “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson”

Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson are selected letters written by a Black Panther’s Party member who was not involved with the group on the streets of Oakland or elsewhere but one who nevertheless contributed to the group through his articles published through the Party paper. Jackson was convicted of stealing $70 from a gas station and was given a prison sentence of one-year-to-life of which he served eleven years.

The letters cover a five-year period and are addressed to people such as his mother and father as well as radical luminaries such as Angela Davis. In them he describes the psychological effects of being imprisoned by corrections officers that openly voice racist views and encourage violence between the inmates, how he has kept his spirit alive despite almost eight years being in solitary confinement, his views on Amerikan society, education, black culture and the affairs of the third-world. Throughout these letters he displays cutting insights gleaned from reflection on his experience as well as his prodigious reading.

In these letters we Jackson states familiarity with the works of Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, Franz Fanon, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and others. These thinkers helped Jackson form a critical analysis of politics, economics, history, and psychology such that he believes that the current struggles for community patrols and armed self-defense from police action will one day turn into a more intensified militant struggle by linking the plight of the poor blacks in the USA to the colonized people abroad.

Making these connections between American military involvement in Indochina with police repression domestically is, he recognizes, incredibly dangerous to the status quo political establishment. He goes so far as to presciently state that t’s likely that he will be killed for stating his views through the articles smuggled out of prison and publicized through the Black Panther Party newspaper. Ten months after the publication of these letters, Jackson was killed allegedly trying to escape.

Despite the above statements about the content of the letters, the majority of them are not short essays by any means. A number of them deal with Jackson trying to proselytize to his father to adopt a more activist, militant stance for how he carries himself in the white world. His intentions are good, Jackson states, but he still defers to white cultural values of how to act proper rather than be assertive. This is considered preferable to the “niggerism” which Jackson decries, which is the replication of white predatory behavior by blacks upon blacks but it still, according to Jackson, perpetuates white supremacist thinking and action. When addressing himself to his mother Jackson is more gentle with in his imprecations

Jackson, like his hero Malcolm X, came to a viewpoint that advocated for black power, but not out of a sense of racial superiority but from a sense of radical revolutionary solidarity with those oppressed in the world. It is perhaps not surprising that he, like so many others that advocated this position in the 60s and were considered leaders of some sort, was murdered but through these at times banal and at times beautiful letters, we get a greater insight into a great soul.