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Revolutionary Icons and “Neoslave Narratives”

  • Joy James


Historically, African Americans have found themselves corralled into dual and conflictual roles, functioning as either happy or sullen slaves in compliant conformity with or happy or sullen rebels in radical resistance to racial dominance. The degree to which historical slave narratives continue to shape the voices of their progeny remains the object of some speculation.


Black Woman African National Congress Political Prisoner Black Panther Party Armed Struggle 
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  1. 1.
    Introduction, John Edgar Wideman, to Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live from Death Row: This Is Mumia Abu Jamal (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1995). Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 of the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The controversial nature under which he was tried (perjury by witnesses, police suppression of evidence that would assist the defense, inconsistencies in ballistics reports) has led to international calls for a new trial. Trial inconsistencies and prosecutorial misconduct are raised in the documentary Mumia Abu-Jamal: The Case for Reasonable Doubt. Other documentation has noted that Philadelphia is the only city to be investigated by the Justice Department for widespread and rampant police corruption that included coerced testimony and falsification of evidence against defendants.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (New York: Random House, 1977).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)Google Scholar
  4. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) (New York: Penguin Books, 1982). See Angela Davis’s critique of Douglass’s limited analysis of the use of incarceration in black oppression, “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the convict Prison Lease System,” in Joy James, ed., The Angela Y. Davis Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine, 1965).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (New York: Random House, 1972) and Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (New York: Random House, 1974).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See note 5, page 193, for information on this case. Support for Geronimo ji Jaga (Elmer Pratt) was likely difficult to mobilize, even among progressives given the stigma placed on Black Panthers. For as Bettina Aptheker notes, even the National Committee of the Communist Party USA was initially sharply divided over supporting Angela Davis in 1971 following Jonathan Jackson’s attempt to free incarcerated Panthers and Soledad Brothers. See Bettina Aptheker, The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), xv-xvi.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    According to Joanne Grant: “By 1974 the Panther Party had little influence, having been greatly weakened by internal splits and by government efforts to suppress it. Many Panthers were killed in gun battles with police, and scores were involved in long legal battles on various charges, including murder. Significantly, the government was unable to obtain convictions in most Panther trials as well as in other political trials of blacks in the early 70s. Partly this was because more blacks were serving on juries, and partly because jurors seemed to hold the view that many political trials had come about through the activities of agents provocateurs and police spies.” See Joanne Grant, Black Protest: History, Documents and Analyses 1619 to Present (New York: Ballantine, 1968) 513.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    For an analysis, see Angela Y. Davis, “The Making of a Revolutionary,” Review of Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, in Women’s Review of Books (June 1993).Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    The memoir’s depiction of black feminism seems strongly compatible with the cultural feminism of bourgeois white women described by Alice Echols’s Daring to Be Bad (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).Google Scholar
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    In a 1993 interview, Geronimo ji Jaga, at that time imprisoned for twenty-three years, made the following observations: “The Black bourgeoisie individualize a lot—they might take an Angela Davis because it is fashionable to get behind Angela Davis to help her get out of prison and then they feel as though they have contributed; but they turned away from Ruchell Magee, who was actually shot and almost killed. So, a few may get behind Geronimo ji-jaga, because he knows Danny Glover or he has been to Vietnam, but they might oppose Sundiata Acoli, who is a very beautiful brother who should be supported a thousand per cent and should be freed. They might get behind Dhoruba bin-Wahad and Mutulu Shakur and ignore Marilyn Buck and Laura Whitehorn. It is a matter of us trying to educate them to the reality, what is happening, so they could broaden their support and base their decisions on principles as opposed to personalities.” See Heike Kleffner, “The Black Panthers: interviews with Geronimo ji-jaga Pratt and Mumia Abu-Jamal,” Race dr Class, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1993); for additional information on political prisoners cited, see Churchill and Vander Wall, eds., Can’tjail the Spirit (Chicago: Editorial El Coqui, 1992).Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Quoted in John Kifner, “Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther Who Became G.O.P. Conservative, Is Dead at 62,” New York Times May 2, 1998, B8.Google Scholar
  13. 28.
    Joanne Grant refers to Black Panther attorney Charles Garry’s assertion that local police working in coordination with the FBI had executed twenty-eight Party members. COINTELPRO extended to the American Indian Movement; and is currently most active against the environmental movement. See Grant, Black Protest, Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1990)Google Scholar
  14. Judi Bari, Timber Wars (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  15. 29.
    Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Bantam Books, 1981).Google Scholar
  16. 30.
    See Alice Walker, “Black Panthers or Black Punks?,” New York Times May 5, 1991, A23.Google Scholar
  17. 31.
    Manning Marable’s “Along the Color Line” articles appear in scores of progressive publications. The New York Times ran an article the following month that was markedly opposite in tone to Marable’s April commentary. See James Dao, “Fugitive in Cuba Still Wounds Trenton: Chesimard Unrepentant at Trooper’s ‘73 Killing; Whitman Is Irate,” New York Times May 1, 1998, B1, B9.Google Scholar
  18. 32.
    Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1987), 242–243.Google Scholar
  19. 36.
    One of the few accounts of the Black Liberation Army that does not rely on mainstream media for its analysis is presented by Assata Shakur’s attorney and aunt, Evelyn Williams’s Inadmissible Evidence: The Story of the African American Trial Lauryer Who Defended the Black Liberation Army (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1993).Google Scholar
  20. For divergent views on the Black Liberation Army, compare Williams’s work and that of former police officer John Castelucci’s The Big Dance: The Untold Story of Kathy Boudin and the Terrorist Family That Committed the Brink’s Robbery Murders (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1986).Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    Jim Fletcher, Tanaquil Jones, and Sylvère Lotringer, Still Black, Still Strong-: Survivors of the War Against Black Revolutionaries (New York: Semiotext(e), 1993).Google Scholar
  22. 39.
    See Evelyn Williams, Inadmissible Evidence (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1993).Google Scholar
  23. 42.
    An Open Letter to New Jersey Governor Whitman, author’s papers. The writers continue by asking if Whitman’s actions are motivated by a desire for “national prominence or to retain” the governorship—Whitman at one time was considered by the Republican National Committee as an ideal candidate for national office yet has won state elections only by slight margins. See Jennifer Preston, “Whitman Praises New Jersey Vote as Major Victory,” New York Times November 6, 1997, Al.Google Scholar
  24. 45.
    T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting explores the constrictions of postmodernist discourse on progressive and black feminism. See T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, “Pitfalls, Postmodern Academic Feminist Consciousness, and U.S. Social Crises,” in Sharpley-Whiting, Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).Google Scholar

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© James Joy 1999

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  • Joy James

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