For George Jackson, like many Black revolutionaries, prison was a place of both political captivity and radical education.
During the 11 years Jackson spent in prison following a one-year-to-life sentence for his alleged role in a gas station robbery, he amassed a library of more than 99 books with which he used to educate himself and which he shared among his fellow prisoners.
Jackson, a Black Panther and an author, was one of the Soledad Brothers, three African Americans charged with the murder of a white guard at Soledad Prison, California, in 1970. The incident occurred shortly after a marksman who had shot dead three Black men in the prison’s recreation yard was exonerated in a “justifiable homicide” ruling.
Less well-known is the fact that Jackson also turned to the Palestinian struggle for inspiration during this time, and that the Palestinian prisoner writings that influenced him would continue to have an impact in the US Black community for decades to come.
That encounter has now inspired a new exhibition in a Jerusalem museum that highlights the historic and continuing kinship between the Palestinian and Black American prisoners’ movements.
Curated by Tufts University’s English and Africana studies professor Greg Thomas, George Jackson in the Sun of Palestine features international book covers, woodcuts, paintings, political posters and other works tied to Jackson’s life and the US prisoners movement.
Presented by Al-Quds University’s Abu Jihad Museum in Abu Dis, the exhibition also includes the coverage of Jackson’s slaying by a prison guard and its aftermath by the Black Panther Party’s official newspaper and prints signed in solidarity with Palestine by Emory Douglas, the former Black Panther minister of culture and graphic artist.
Thomas points to a common language shared by Black Americans and Palestinians, for whom widespread incarceration of their communities is not an issue of crime and punishment, but the result of a system designed to punish them for their very presence.
Language of captivity
“When I’m reading [Palestinian] literature it’s not just the language of the prisoner that’s used, there’s the language of the captive — it’s understood as political captivity,” Thomas said in an interview with The Electronic Intifada. “In George Jackson’s writing, he’s writing about neo-slavery, and he’s using the language of captivity.”
The name of the Jerusalem exhibit is derived from Enemy of the Sun, a collection of Palestinian poetry removed from Jackson’s cell by prison authorities after his death.
The anthology, published by US Black radical printers Drum and Spear Press, was part of a list of 99 books recovered among Jackson’s possessions that was made public in 2009 by the socialist paper Liberation News.
These books served as both a lending library for the prison population and part of what Thomas calls Jackson’s “study of US colonial fascism” while writing Blood in My Eye, one of the two books of letters that saw him lauded as one of the most important Black American voices of his generation.
Handwritten copies of two poems from the collection, “Enemy of the Sun” and “I Defy” by Samih al-Qasim, were also found in Jackson’s cell and were published as a single poem under his name in the Black Panther Party newspaper.
Thomas ascribes this to a “mistake of radical kinship” and suggested Jackson hand-copied these poems for the purpose of sharing as contraband among prisoners. They have since had a “long Black life” and continue to be circulated under Jackson’s name to this day.
The exhibit is the first effort by the Abu Jihad Museum to highlight the struggle of political prisoners outside of Palestine, and will be on display indefinitely. The collection boasts a unique array of prisoner correspondences, including a previously unpublished letter from Jackson to his lawyers expressing anger over what he considered to be the watering down of his book Soledad Brother.
An additional display includes letters of solidarity between Palestinian and Black American prisoners such as Rasmea Odeh, Mumia Abu Jamal and California death row prisoner and author Adisa Kamara.
The letters aren’t the only nod to the US prison movement. The exhibit showcases photographs of Palestinian mural art from Israel’s wall around Bethlehem calling for solidarity with the historic 2013 California prisoner hunger strikes against solitary confinement, as well as a poster for Dying for Sunlight, an upcoming documentary film on the strikes.
Deeper than solidarity
The 20 October opening of the exhibition included a symposium featuring Thomas; Abu Jihad Museum’s Director Dr. Fayed Abu Al-Hajj; Sahar Francis, director of the Palestinian prisoners advocacy group Addameer and Issa Qaraqa, head of the Palestinian Authority’s committee on prisoners affairs.
Mahmoud Jiddah, an Afro-Palestinian community leader who attended the opening, said that he’d first heard of George Jackson during his time in an Israeli prison in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jiddah explained that the exhibit and broader solidarity efforts connecting Black Americans and the Palestinian struggle have a special significance for his community.
“As Black Palestinians we are discriminated against two times, once because we are Palestinian, and another because of our color. So I believe it is a good idea to create awareness between the two peoples,” he said.
Addameer’s Sahar Francis said that the ongoing boycott campaign against the British security firm G4S, which operates in both Israeli and US prisons, is a powerful example of the ways in which this solidarity strengthens each others’ communities.
Thomas said a tour of Palestinian educational institutions had revealed to him how readily the student body there connected with George Jackson’s story. At Al-Quds University, he recounted, one student had asked if Jackson’s family ever received his body, referencing Israel’s notorious “graveyard of numbers” where Palestinians are imprisoned even after death.
According to Thomas, who is working on a Jackson biography, Jackson had considered the possibility his body would not be returned to his family.
“There are all these passages in George’s work that address that, where he says ‘If there’s a choice between my dignity and my freedom from inside the prison, then the hill can have my bones,’“ he explained.
Thomas said this type of immediate identification with Jackson’s life was common and sees this as further evidence of the radical kinship between the two peoples.
“That’s why I think the word ‘solidarity’ is not quite enough,” Thomas said. “Because when it goes beyond physical death and it’s still there, that’s something so much deeper.”
George Jackson in the Sun of Palestine is expected to travel in Palestine starting with Birzeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Thomas also hopes to bring a version to the US with a focus on educating Americans about both Jackson’s revolutionary legacy and the Palestinian prisoners movement.
“We want it to travel,” Thomas said. “We want the exhibit itself to have a diaspora.”
Rebecca Pierce is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker with a focus on militarization, borders, prisons and policing. Her work has appeared in The Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss, Alternet and The Nation.Editor’s note: A correction has been made to this article since its publication. The list of 99 books recovered among George Jackson’s possessions was made public in 2009, rather than in the summer of 2015, as previously stated.