The Break Sunday December 1, 2013 and Thursday January 9, 2014 It felt like water breaking. <Hi, my name is Talitha, and I can be dramatic.> Though premature, they say it happens around three months, then again at six, this…
Imagine if Black America set aside a period of time to reflect on and learn of its history, honor and mourn those we’ve lost violently and unjustly, like Mike Brown, and work to end mass incarceration and liberate those unjustly imprisoned. If observed with reverence rather than celebration, that could be a time of healing and transformation for Africans in America. It could be a time of community building and unifying. Considering the traumatic events the descendants of enslaved Africans in America have suffered, even as recent as the last few days and weeks, a consistent specified period of time to heal, reflect, and rebuild seems only essential and prudent.
Such a time has been designated as Black August. Not to be confused with the celebratory spirit of Black History Month, the one time in the year the country even remotely acknowledges the countless contributions of Black Americans, Black August strives to focus specifically on the acts of rebellion by the enslaved or imprisoned and historical moments that took place in August. In order to understand the relevance and meaning of Black August, we must first acknowledge and understand the Marin County incident. Yet, in order to understand the Marin County incident, we must first meet George Jackson.
In 1960, an 18-year-old Black male, George Jackson, was arrested in Los Angeles and convicted for allegedly stealing $70 from a gas station. After his court-appointed attorney convinced him to plead guilty despite his claim of innocence, he was sentenced to one year to life (for $70) in San Quentin for the conviction and served ten years, seven and a half in solitary confinement before being released to the general population. While imprisoned, he, along with fellow inmate W. L. Nolen, co-founded The Black Guerrilla Family, (BGF), a Marcus Garvey-inspired organization of imprisoned members with the stated goals of “eradicating racism, maintaining dignity in prison, and overthrowing the United States government, while continuing education to eliminate inexcusable ignorance and ending the destruction of the Black race.” BGF was and still is categorized as a “Terrorist Organization” and “street gang” by law enforcement authorities. It could be the whole “overthrowing the United States government” part or the alleged “gang-like” activity associated with BGF despite its otherwise nobel mission.
Having spent his entire adult life in prison, Jackson adapted to the hostile environment of San Quentin and self-educated as many other political prisoners have done. He became a prolific leader and author, penning Blood in My Eye and Soledad Brother, a compilation of his letters detailing his trials with the prison system as a tribute to his late younger brother, Jonathan Jackson. And, here is where Black August begins to unfold. There were several events that led to its creation and execution. Here’s a succinct occurrence of events.
In January 1969, George Jackson and BGF co-Founder, W.L. Nolen were transferred from San Quentin to Soledad Prison. Their reputations of being leaders in Black revolutionary movements and knowledge of Jackson’s membership in the Black Panther Party proceeded them and they were often in altercations with guards and inmates that were a part of the Aryan brotherhood because of their leadership of Black and Hispanic inmates and their Marxist and Maoist ideologies.
In the summer of 1969, Nolen began a petition against the prison’s superintendent charging that guards and officials at the facility knew of ‘existing social and racial conflicts’ and that they were arousing them through ‘direct harassment and in ways not actionable in court’, by submitting falsified disciplinary reports and purposely leaving cells of black inmates unlocked for vulnerability to assault. He noted that he feared for his life in prison. This made an enemy of the superintendent, guards, and officials of Soledad.
A year later, on January 13, 1970, Nolen and two other Black prisoners were shot without warning by a tower guard during a racially charged altercation among inmates in the prison yard. This was the first integrated gathering of inmates in the prison yard in months, and survivors of the incident, including Jackson, alleged that this was instigated by prison guards as a guise to assassinate Nolen. They demanded an investigation of the tower guard’s actions, but an internal committee found that the officer acted within reason.
Four days after Nolen’s death, a Soledad prison guard was beaten and thrown from three stories to his death. Jackson and two others, were charged with the murder and sent back to San Quentin to await trial. Because of Jackson’s membership in the Black Panther Party and his romantic relationship with Angela Davis, THE Queen, Black Panther, former UCLA Professor Angela Davis, a plan to aid in his prison escape was enacted by fellow member, Jonathan Jackson, his younger brother. This plan would be termed the Marin County incident where Jonathan Jackson entered the trial of Black Panther member James McClain with sawed-off shotguns purchased in the name of Angela Davis and took five hostages with the aid of McClain and three other prisoners present to testify. They left the courtroom with the hostages and demanded George Jackson’s release from prison by that afternoon, but were engaged in a shooting melee at a nearby roadblock that left one surviving kidnapper, Ruchell Magee, and one deceased hostage, Judge Harold Haley.
George Jackson remained in prison until August 21, 1971 when he, along with five other prisoners, began a revolt using a smuggled weapon that left five dead before trying to escape. Jackson was killed in his attempt to flee, and the revolters were dubbed the San Quentin Six.
There were many other smaller uprisings with casualties in different prisons in California and across the country. To honor the fallen and revolting prisoners, BGF, and Black Panther members, especially George and Jonathan Jackson, the San Quentin Six and the Marin County participants, a group of prisoners began participating in a time of reflection by fasting, studying, and abstaining from distractions such as television and vices to show self-discipline.
The fast is intended to promote a spirit of sacrifice as a tribute to those who sacrificed their lives as Freedom Fighters, as they are considered by participants. It also serves as a reminder of the historic and current oppression of Africans in America. The observance lasts throughout the month of August typically from 6:00 am to 8:00 pm daily, ending in a community feast on August 31st to collectively honor the fallen. Abstaining from other carnal desires and vices such as sex, drugs, and alcohol is also encouraged, as well as the refusal to listen to radio and watch television. Observers are also encouraged to only patronize Black-owned businesses for the entire month and to create groups to study the history of racial resistance and Freedom Fighters throughout the African Diaspora.
Despite the reasons for its inception, Black August, in its intent, serves as a time for Black America to come together peacefully and heal, learn, study, grow, and practice self-discipline. It is a designated time to reflect on all of the historical events of Africans that have occurred in August. Births of Dr. Mutulu Shakur and President Barack Obama as well as the deaths of W.E.B. DuBois, the Jackson brothers, and now Mike Brown and Korryn Gaines are recognized as they all fall in August. The first documented Africans were brought to Jamestown as enslaved people in August of 1619. Martyr Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, Henry Highland Garnett’s slave strike, the Underground Railroad, the March on Washington, and the Watts & Ferguson riots were all started in August as well and are points of reflection and study.
In this very volatile time where Black America’s faith in this country’s judicial system remains as strained as it was during the height of the political resistance aforementioned, a collective observance of reflection and self-discipline could be what we need to find the strength and focus to create solutions. Black August could serve as that much needed designated period.
“Black August is a month of divine meaning, of repression and radical resistance, of injustice and divine justice; of repression and righteous rebellion; of individual and collective efforts to free the slaves and break the chains that bind us.” -Mumia Abu-Jamal