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  • Derrida and the Censorship of Literature
  • Tyler M. Williams (bio)

You say you got none of these recent letters? When they stop them, they usually send them back to me. I can't say exactly what happened, but I guess these things are to be expected.

—George Jackson, Soledad Brother

All of Jackson's correspondence had to pass through the rigors of prison censorship. Much of it was completely destroyed or mutilated. Only his last letters to his lawyer passed through uncensored.

—Editor's note, Soledad Brother


After accusing him of participating in the murder of guard John Vincent Mills in Soledad Prison on January 13, 1970, the state of California transferred [End Page 1] George Jackson to San Quentin State Penitentiary to serve the remainder of his life sentence. Jackson's collection of prison letters, Soledad Brother, had by then appeared in print and earned high and widespread acclaim. Combined with the media coverage of Mills's murder, the book's erudite portrayals of life as an American political prisoner and its compelling Marxist analyses of the entanglement of American capitalism and racism made Jackson an international sensation among intellectuals, revolutionaries, and laypeople alike. The writer and activist Jean Genet gathered signatures by French intellectuals to support Jackson in anticipation of his sentencing hearing, which was set for August 23, 1971. Those signatories, Genet planned, would also contribute essays to a book edited by Genet on Jackson, his struggle, and militant black revolution more generally. On August 21, 1971, two days before his hearing, prison guards at San Quentin shot and killed Jackson, who was allegedly in the midst of an armed revolt and escape attempt. As Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. point out, "the 'truth' of what actually happened is still contested" (2013, 374).

Genet's book project never came to fruition.

On August 20, 1971, the day before Jackson's death, Jacques Derrida wrote—but never sent—fragments of a letter to Genet. Jackson's death, or assassination, would nullify the letter's impetus, so it never saw the light of day until the letter appeared in print for the first time in 2002.1 Intended originally for publication, Derrida's fragmentary "open" letter responds to the public appeals Genet had made on behalf of Jackson. Derrida addresses in particular Genet's suggestion that he sign Genet's petition and contribute an essay to the planned book. By then, Genet had already written the preface to the French translation of Soledad Brother, which Gallimard published in March 1971. Due in no small part to Genet's influence, Jackson had become a literary celebrity in France, and his case a cause célèbre, catching the attention of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, and the Prison Information Group (Groupe d'information sur les prisons), among many others.2 In his preface, Genet describes Jackson as a poet and his letters as poetry put to the service of a "revolutionary morality" (1994, 338).

In his letter, Derrida lends his support to the spirit of Genet's activism. In fact, Derrida concludes his letter with a fragment in which he remarks, "One [End Page 2] must therefore struggle for Jackson's 'liberation.' Overlook nothing to accomplish it" (2002b, 45). However, despite his sympathies, Derrida hesitates to endorse the form of Genet's chosen intervention; he cautions Genet about the risk of calling for Jackson's liberation via petitions and edited books. Derrida worries that such a strategy would turn Jackson's struggle into a "case" or an "affair" and, in so doing, give Jackson's condition the "character of an exception" that would ultimately "serve the interest of the adversary" (2002b, 41). By singularizing his situation, by seeing it as a "fascination," the attention and focus paid uniquely to Jackson and his "case" risks treating the situation as the anomaly it is not. There are many "Jacksons," both in the United States and in France, who share the same circumstances as Jackson—and for the same reasons. There are many "Jacksons" who refuse to consider their condition a "case," because such a refusal aims to direct attention away from the individual and focus it instead...


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