Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. This week marked the start of Black August, a month-long observance of Black resistance that's been around since the 1970s. This year, following weeks of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Black August is finding renewed popularity.
Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua: It's a time of reaffirmation and rededication to the movement for Black liberation with a special emphasis on political prisoners and prisoners of war. My name is Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua. I am an associate professor at the University of Illinois in the Department of African American Studies and History.
Tanzina: According to Sundiata, historically, there have been certain rituals associated with Black August, and that includes things like physical exercise and fasting.
Sundiata: It's a moment in which people do fast from sunup to sundown. It's a time at which there is intense study, particularly in fields of Black history and revolutionary writings with a special emphasis on the work of George Jackson.
Tanzina: George Jackson was a revolutionary author, field marshal of the Black Panther Party, and also the co-founder of the Black Guerrilla Family, a political group in California prisons at the time. Jackson spent more than a decade at San Quentin State Prison on charges of armed robbery until his death in August 1971.
Sundiata: Jackson and other politicized prisoners found themselves constantly at odds with guards, and the guards which supplied members of white supremacist groups with weapons such as knives to attack and kill highly political prisoners. In one such incident, there's a struggle on the yard, and Aryan Brotherhood is attacking people, and George Jackson makes a decision to use it as an effort to try and escape.
In the midst of that, he's shot and killed in the prison yard. Jackson then is a marker for the movement. The Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton eulogizes Jackson and the Black Guerrilla Family in the wake of having lost Jackson and his younger brother, Jonathan, a year before he was security for Angela Davis. They make a decision to memorialize Jackson and his teachings, and that's the birth of Black August.
Tanzina: Sundiata, many Americans have heard of Black History Month, but very few, including myself as I mentioned, had not heard about the tradition of Black August. Why do you think that is?
Sundiata: One, I think it's because it's recent. It begins in the early '70s, in 1971, after the assassination of George Jackson. Two, it comes out of the penal system, specifically in California. It doesn't really begin to hit the broader population, the people outside of prison, until 1979 or so. Unless one had a connection to a Black liberation organization that was concerned about political prisoners and prisoners of war, it's likely that one wouldn't have heard about it until we get to the late '90s, early 2000s. That's when the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement came up with a project inspired by Assata Shakur to use hip-hop as a way of publicizing the plight of African-American political prisoners.
Beginning in 1998, there was a concert. Malcolm X Grassroots took a series of artists coming; Dave Banner, Yasiin Bey, the former Mos Def, Black Star, artists like that, took them to Cuba, and subsequently then began to take these artists around the world; South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil, Venezuela, and, of course, concerts in the United States. That gave Black August a bit of publicity.
Black August is similar to Kwanzaa not just in form, but also in the fact that Kwanzaa was a celebration that was only in the Black community for several decades, and then it began to slowly spread into a much broader segment of the Black community and into mainstream America, and we see Black August as beginning to move in that same direction.
Tanzina: Sundiata, the month of August is also full of other major moments in the history of Black resistance. It's not just about the death of George Jackson and others at San Quentin, but it's also a month where many Black revolutionaries were born.
Sundiata: Either they were born or their most important activities occurred in the month of August. If we think really big picture, the major event that associates August with Black resistance, and that's why we refer to it as Black August Resistance Month would be the Haitian Revolution of 1791. That outbreak begins in August. Also, Gabriel Prosser, his conspiracy of 1800 in the area of Richmond, Virginia, that also begins in August, as does Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion, and a rebellion in New York in 1843.
It is also the month in which W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter formed the Niagara Movement. It's also the month in which Marcus Garvey; he was born in August, but more importantly, he created the Universal Negro Improvement Association also in the month of August. August is replete with rebellions, slave revolts, and the formation of organizations that sought to liberate Black people, either US and/or worldwide.
Tanzina: Are we seeing this Black August commemorated more in recent years, given particularly the racial justice uprising that we're seeing around the country after the death of George Floyd?
Sundiata: I think that's precisely what we're seeing. I think that it's because of the emphasis over the last six years since the death of Michael Brown; its emphasis on the injustice of the criminal justice system. This emphasis on police use of excessive and deadly force has also raised a question around Black political prisoners. One of the things that's happened in that six-year period is that there's been a number of high-profile cases in which people have gotten their freedom. They've been released and the charges have been proven false. There's been a situation in which these Black political prisoners' names have become much more popular.
All of these things have combined to make Black August a much more relevant holiday than it had been previously. So there's a kind of, what would you say, a perfect storm between this moment and Black August, what it represents, and what it advocates.
Tanzina: Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua is a professor of African American Studies and History at the University of Illinois. Thanks for joining us.
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