A Sense of the Uncanny: George Jackson In the Sun of Palestine
In 1971, San Quentin guards killed George Jackson - African-American revolutionary, Black Panther, writer, poet and prisoner - during a purported escape attempt of which James Baldwin wrote, "No black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did." Sentenced to one year to life for allegedly stealing $70 during a 1959 robbery, Jackson had become an eloquent spokesman for the black power movement in his 11 years of incarceration: He amassed an extensive library to educate both himself and fellow inmates about "US colonial fascism," led the Black Panthers inside prison, became one of the Soledad Brothers said to be unfairly charged with the murder of a white guard, and wrote two seminal books - Soledad Brother, dedicated to his brother Jonathan, killed while trying to free George, and the political treatise Blood In My Eye. In it, he described a black struggle for justice and equity from "the monster's heart" and insisted, "We have a momentous historical role to act out if we will."
After Jackson was gunned down, prison authorities stripping his cell and library of over 100 books found handwritten copies of two poems; they were published in the Black Panther Party newspaper as a single poem under Jackson's name, and praised by the militant paper Right On for reflecting the sensibility of black oppression in America. It was only later discovered Jackson had taken the poems, “Enemy of the Sun” and “I Defy,” from Enemy of the Sun, an anthology of Palestinian poets published by black radical printers Drum and Spear Press; the book was among 99 titles made public this summer by the Socialist Liberation News. Of the confusion over the source of the poems, which have since had "a long black life" and are still circulated under Jackson's name, one activist writes, "Perhaps it did not matter who composed the verses, for they bespoke of the same world, the same anguish and the same terrors....of human beings and their capacity to suffer, to endure, to survive and to fight."
It was that "magical mistake" of authorship, born of the "radical kinship" between Palestinian and black American prisoners' experience, that prompted the exhibit George Jackson in the Sun of Palestine. Created and curated by Greg Thomas, a black English and African studies professor at Tufts University, it opened in October at the Abu Jihad Museum on the campus of Al-quds University, a Palestinian university with campuses in Jerusalem, al-Bireh and Abu Dis, the site of the exhibit. The goal of the museum is to "reflect the willpower and the challenges of the Palestinian people... to tell the world about the suffering of Palestinian prisoners inside and outside Israeli jails. The Jackson exhibit is the first to highlight the struggle of political prisoners outside of Palestine. It includes drawings, woodcuts, political posters and other art tied to Jackson's life and the Palestinian and U.S. prisoners' movements, letters of solidarity between Palestinian and American prisoners, letters from Jackson and coverage of his life and death, photos of Palestinian art from the Apartheid Wall, and other artifacts tying the movements together.
Thomas, who has visited Palestine several times and is working on a Jackson biography, cites "the depth of solidarity" and the "(unimaginable) similarity in voice and situation" between two movements of people "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." Reading Palestinian literature, he says he hears "not just the language of the prisoner (but the) language of captivity.” The Jackson exhibit will travel in Palestine, starting with Birzeit University near Ramallah, and hopefully to this country: "We want the exhibit itself to have a diaspora.” George Jackson once wrote, "I don't want to die and leave a few sad songs and a hump in the ground as my only monument." Instead, he wanted to leave a world liberated from pollution, racism, nation-state wars, "a thousand different brands of untruth." So many years later, those who still labor on his behalf offer small, real solace.