From the September-October 2020 issue of News & Letters
For many New Afrikan Revolutionaries August has a profound significance. Those of us who were there from the beginning of Black August have witnessed the development of that singular concept over 41 years. In 1978 a small collective of New Afrikan prisoners took inspiration from what we knew about Black history—the Civil Rights Movement and the many struggles for freedom worldwide. (See my essay “Black August, from 1971 to 2011-13,” Nov.-Dec. 2019 N&L.) We saw the prison struggle as a particular aspect of that general and ongoing upheaval.
George Jackson provided the opening for a new realization of the Idea of freedom when he said, “Settle your quarrels, come together…discover your humanity and your love in revolution.” What is the universality—the total nature, breadth and depth of the idea of freedom as our essential humanity? The spirit of it is cooperation, the place and time of human development which is each one’s voyage of discovery.
For example, the 2011 Pelican Bay hunger strike’s overall demand was to be validated as human and not as gang members to be locked away in perpetual solitary confinement. This was expressed in many forms. One of our demands was to get colored pencils while in solitary. Prisoners work to make themselves better people, always difficult when armed forces of the state use their power to run the brothers away from the idea of freedom. Many expressed their humanity through drawing, letting their spirit/imagination roam free beyond the walls.
I needed to understand what freedom is, what it looks like. When I was 15 or 16 I heard a song by The Last Poets about freedom. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about freedom. I was asking, why is it so unattainable? What is it we need to do? Black August was to liberate people from the racial oppression of capitalism.
For me Black August attempts to set forth a new humanism. It is about all forms of human relations. It is a platform to relate our own struggles to others’ struggles to be whole. Now my work takes me to the streets of San Francisco, where I see the multiple effects of capitalism’s anti-humanism. Everyone on my crew has at least two jobs primarily to make money. The cost of living in San Francisco is unbelievable. A small one-bedroom apartment is $2,500 per month. A room the size of two individual cells in prison is $1,000 per month.
I see many young people selling drugs all day and night to make a living. This is what capitalism reduces life to. When you can’t make a living from the land, in this country or in others, people are forced to migrate to cities or across borders. Without a job, they are forced to scratch out some level of existence.
Capitalism by its very nature denies many even the right to live. Capital’s enforcers murder people by the thousands every day. We see daily reports of migrants drowning in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. We see them die in the desert. Guards shoot people trying to cross the border into Hungary.
Anti-life is capital’s normal. There is no “return to normal” when human activity under capitalism’s commodity production is causing destruction of life on the planet in myriad ways. Deaths due to COVID-19 are announced every day. Capital restructuring has stripped the health system of much of its ability to deal with the crisis. The “essential” workers, in hospitals, in meat processing plants or in the fields, are dying from COVID-19 in huge numbers.
Yet we see health professionals, postal carriers, all sorts of delivery people and food preparation people fight to save the lives of others, even if it means putting their own lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk. Many of the brave nurses or cooks are women. Black women initiated the Black Lives Matter movement, which became a global movement even under these conditions.
Karl Marx talks about the man/woman relation as the most fundamental. As opposed to Stokely Carmichael’s statement that the position of women in the Black Liberation Movement is prone, Black freedom and women’s freedom are both aspects of the idea of freedom as well as the drive to make our life activity a creative expression of our humanity.