2. Theorizing Black Power in Prison: The Writings of George Jackson and Angela Davis
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39 2 Theorizing Black Power in Prison: The Writings of George Jackson and Angela Davis Lisa M. Corrigan Often we tend to ignore the immense power of language over our ability to perceive what is happening around us. We should all be aware that there exists an official language whose sole function is to deceive—to distort rather than reflect reality. People are trained to relate to the words of that language, rather than the realities hidden behind them. —Angela Davis, “Rhetoric vs. Reality: Angela Davis Tells Why Black People Should Not Be Deceived by Words” I n this quotation Angela Davis suggests that official language, particularly the legal language used by the judicial system, serves to mystify the legal system and those within it. Her words encourage the reader to think critically about the ways in which state narratives about crime and criminals deceived the public and serve as a reminder that citizens must be prepared make the state accountable for its actions. This chapter examines the publications of imprisoned intellectuals and black power advocates George Jackson and Angela Davis to explain how their prison writings demystified official narratives about law and order in precisely the manner that Davis does in the epigraph here. Beginning chronologically with the publication of Jackson’s Soledad Brother and other writings and continuing with an analysis of Davis’s An Autobiography, this chapter is concerned with the rhetorical strategies that both intellectuals employed to highlight the duplicity of state accounts of criminal behavior. In thinking about the constitutive dimensions of Jackson’s and Davis’s writings, I am interested in the rhetorical and historical resources that they marshal to place the prison at the center of their analysis of power, nationalism, resistance, and violence. SOCIAL CONTROVERSY AND PUBLIC ADDRESS IN THE 1960S AND EARLY 1970S 40 Rhetorical historians work to critically interrogate genre, form, rhetorical strategies , and personas in several ways that contribute to new knowledge in the fields of both rhetoric and history. Deeply informed by David Zarefsky’s “Four Senses of Rhetorical History,” this chapter is primarily concerned with the rhetorical study of historical events and the historical study of rhetorical events.1 Consequently, this chapter traces the rhetorical collaboration between Jackson and Davis, arguably the two highest-profile political prisoners in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to understand how they articulated the notion of the political prisoner as a strategy for tracing the history and rhetoric of white supremacy and violence through criminalization and incarceration. Jackson and Davis utilized multiple strategies of rhetorical reconstitution to counter assumptions about themselves and the black power movement via their prison writings. Suggesting that these writings make a major contribution to the social movement discourses of the 1960s and 1970s, I argue that by performing this rhetorical reformulation, Jackson and Davis influenced the rhetoric and politics of the black power movement as they challenged the structural conditions that made social repression so likely among urban black residents. Consequently, their tremendously powerful and popular books charted a narrative about prison repression that framed the black power movement and interpolated the black freedom struggle for new readers. As part of the rhetorical history of the 1960s and early 1970s, I suggest that Jackson and Davis are important rhetors who used prison writings and letters to propel the prison to the forefront of activist and scholarly investigation. Many of black America’s most vocal leaders, like Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., had no structural political power, making their rhetorical contributions even more significant. George Jackson and Angela Davis were not exceptions in this regard. While Jackson and Davis had a tremendous impact on black organizing after 1970, no scholarly work to date has looked at their intellectual collaboration as an essential relationship in the rhetorical history of black power activism. This chapter seeks to rectify that lack in the scholarship by discussing how both activists challenged public expectations through their use of “rhetorical reconstitution.” In doing so, this chapter argues that the rhetorical reconstitution of the political prisoner was a critical intervention into the discourse of the black power movement because it centered the prison as a space for confronting the limits of liberalism for civil rights activists in the United States and abroad. When Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in October 1970, George Jackson was already a familiar name throughout the world. Many of the letters published in Soledad Brother had previously been published in...


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