Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Soledad Brother is a collection of George Jackson’s letters to relatives and friends, written from California prisons. At the age of eighteen, Jackson was given an indeterminate sentence of one year to life for stealing $71 from a gas station. Despite his two prior convictions for armed robbery, his rage at serving eleven years in prison for stealing only $71 is understandable. What made it worse was his belief that he might spend the rest of his life in prison. This real-life event has been compared with Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misérables (1862), in which the hero, Jean Valjean, serves nineteen years as a galley slave for stealing a loaf of bread.

While in Soledad Prison, Jackson incurred the enmity of prison guards because of his defiant spirit and his outspoken advocacy of Black Power politics. Eventually Jackson and two other black inmates were accused of murdering a white guard during an uprising. They came to be known as the Soledad Brothers. All were held in isolation cells awaiting trial. Conviction for murdering a prison guard would bring automatic death sentences.

Jackson undertook a grueling course of self-education in politics, economics, history, philosophy, languages, and other subjects. His letters reveal the evolution of a remarkable intelligence. He became an ardent Marxist-Leninist, advocating violent revolution as the only means of correcting the injustices of the capitalist system in the United States. He blamed all the problems of African Americans on capitalism.

Jackson was killed in a riot in San Quentin Prison in 1971, a riot in which three guards and two other inmates were also killed. Jackson’s many sympathizers claimed that he was deliberately murdered because he threatened to become too dangerous an insurrectionary leader. In many of his letters, he predicts that he will never leave prison alive.

All of Jackson’s incoming and outgoing letters were read by prison censors. He had to be circumspect in expressing himself because objectionable letters would not be delivered, and there was a danger of correspondence privileges being terminated for any individual who was considered a security threat. This makes it all the more extraordinary that the contents of Jackson’s letters are still so hostile and militant. Regardless of political sympathies, one is compelled to admire the strength of character of a helpless individual who refuses to bow his head in defeat and who realizes that anything he writes in his letters may be used against him at his parole hearings.

The reader can sense the much greater anger seething behind the words that appear on the printed page. Jackson’s rage at the mistreatment of African Americans for more than three hundred years provided the motivation for him to survive physical and mental abuse by guards and...

(The entire section is 1166 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Jackson was influenced by this autobiography of Cleaver, who became one of the leaders of the Black Panthers. Like Jackson, Cleaver found his identity and mission in life while in prison and became an articulate spokesman of Black Power principles through a strenuous process of self-education.

Davis, Angela Yvonne, et al. If They Come in the Morning. New York: Third Press, 1971. A collection of essays, letters, poetry, and articles dealing mainly with African Americans’ experiences with courts and prisons in the United States. A section of the book is devoted to the Soledad Brothers. The consensus of the articles is that the American prison system is racist and that Marxism can be used to explain the cause as well as to prescribe the cure for this social malady.

Jackson, George L. Blood in My Eye. New York: Random House, 1972. This posthumously published collection of letters and miscellaneous writings by Jackson focuses intensively on his ideas about history and politics, in contrast to most of the letters in Soledad Brother, which dealt more with personal relations and life in prison.

Jackson, Lester. “A Dialogue with My Soledad Son.” Ebony 27 (November, 1971): 72-74. The author describes his experiences visiting his son...

(The entire section is 504 words.)