A Love Letter to George Jackson

“When was the last time you hand wrote a personal letter?”

Twice a year, in the fall and spring semesters, for a number of years, Lawrence Mamiya, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Africana Studies at Vassar College, who passed away on September 15, 2019, invited me to his class to lecture on “prison literature.”  I began my lectures with that question to a classroom of approximately 40 students. One, maybe two hands, went up.

“Writing letters are important in the history of writing – Belles Lettres – and, for the most part, letter-writing is becoming a lost art.  Who writes letters?”

“Prisoners!” a couple of eager students would shout out as their hands went up.  They know this because Professor Mamiya had been bringing Vassar students into Green Haven prison for more than 25 years – the maximum sentence in New York for people convicted of class A-1 felonies – and all of these students have been to Green Haven!  At Green Haven, these students got an education that couldn’t be bought or taught at Vassar!  In fact, Professor Mamiya’s classes often changed students’ career trajectories, becoming lawyers, and even professors teaching for colleges that have/had higher education college courses at prisons.

“Right!  People in prison.”  I correct the language.  “I believe that the art of letter-writing is becoming a lost art, a lost art that people in prison, and people in the military, are keeping alive.”

Soledad Brother, this book of letters, is a classic, and it demonstrates the power of this “genre.”  Soledad Brother captures a moment in American history – the Decisive Decade – from behind prison walls.

George Jackson, a young Black man, was imprisoned nearly at the beginning of the Decisive Decade, 1961, for a $70 armed robbery, to which he was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of one year to life.  (This is off topic for now, but note this sentence, a sentence that could keep an individual involved in the criminal legal system for life!)  Ten years later, on August 21, 1971, Comrade George was assassinated, allegedly during an escape attempt.  He never made it out of this system!

Yesterday I posted about Angela Davis’ book, If They Come in the Morning, in which George Jackson has a piece.  In fact, in his book of letters, there are some to Angela.

This book, and The Count of Monte Cristo, were two books very important to my thinking – I also read this book as a teenager.

Since Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, I’m going to suggest that, in addition to whatever you are going to do for your love, write a love letter.  When I was courting my wife, I hand wrote her love letters.  Some I mailed to her.  No one had ever done this for her!  Well, I am a poet, and some of us are hopeful romantics.

I write these words and I’m going to send them home to you
I’m going to write a letter, send it home
First class, first class baby
Let them know where I’m going to be
I’m going to write a letter, send it home
Just as fast, as fast as you can mister postman
If you please.

                                  — Write a Letter, JJ Grey & Mofro


About William Eric Waters, aka Easy Waters

Award-winning poet, playwright and writer. Author of three books of poetry, "Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present"; "Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats"; "The Black Feminine Mystique," and a novel, "Streets of Rage." All four books are available on Amazon.com.
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5 Responses to A Love Letter to George Jackson

  1. Xtra Lenz says:

    Thank you sir!!


  2. Julia L says:

    After reading about George Jackson in my class, the Black Prison Experience, I am super excited to read George Jackson’s letters and get a peek inside the mind of George Jackson while he was in prison! Books like these give us a look into the harsh reality of prison in the 1960s & the continued oppression of black people in prison, while also teaching us the importance of diction (not prisoners, but people in prison or incarcerated persons)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Megan O says:

    I am currently taking Professor Mark Chapman’s class on the Black Prison Experience and we’ve just started reading about George Jackson and reading Soledad Brother. We have talked about the contention surrounding George Jackson’s image, including the ways that he felt his image and message were distorted and diluted by his editor and others publishing and promoting the anthology and the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee. I am looking forward to reading Jackson’s own voice in Soledad Brother as well as seeing how editing decisions shape that voice. As Julia mentioned in a previous comment, books like Jackson’s offer a look into the harsh realities of incarceration in the United States, but they can also be a resource for changing our language and perspective. There seems to be a tendency in broader society to dehumanize incarcerated people or to define them entirely by their incarceration but works such as Jackson’s promote understanding of incarcerated people as individuals who cannot be reduced to or defined by their status within the criminal legal system.

    Liked by 1 person

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