The Black Jacobins, Education and Redemption by Russell Maroon Shoatz
The ruling elites of societies use prisons both to punish those they label as law-breakers and at the same time to terrorize those “free” members of society they hold sway over. In these hellholes boredom and “nothingness” grips one, as you watch your life drift away.
To reverse that, early on during my decades in prison, I helped establish seminars where, prior to preparing and subsequently bringing their work to the floor, prisoners would choose the subjects to be presented. And we demanded excellence, even though many of the participants had very little formal education. That research and study served to defeat our captors’ objectives.
As the moderator of many of these sessions I was expected also to be fully prepared—and I always tried to live up to those expectations.
One seminar developed into a lively debate as to who did we believe should be considered the most impressive historical individual of African descent (seeing how the seminars were almost always made up of African-American prisoners). Even so, by that time many of the participants had read so deeply and so widely until I believe they could have received degrees in various fields.
Thus the prisoners vied for a chance to present their choices, while being allowed a brief biographical sketch, which was followed by a Q&A session. We heard of Queen Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania as well as Shaka of the Zulu’s, and so it went. We were in no rush, only having to periodically break for meals and other prison routines.
As moderator, and by then respected for my learning, I was looked to as the party who would guide the session to a satisfactory decision. Personally I was leaning towards the Shaka choice. Pontificating like a judge delivering a decision in a court of law, I summarized all the arguments I had kept notes on. Then I went on to highlight “why” Shaka of the Zulu’s was “obviously” the best choice. And while those hardened prisoners respectfully awaited what was by then clearly gonna be my judgment of Shaka as the most qualified individual, a low voice eight cells away interrupted by saying he had listened to everything, but with all due respect, we were all on the wrong wave-length. It was Moukie, a smallish, 30-something prisoner, who was also respected as a “thinker.”
When I finished, Moukie, in a quiet voice, one that forced the prisoners to strain to hear, said we all should recognize that Toussaint Louverture was clearly the most impressive individual of African descent. Dead silence followed…
I was stunned! We “were on the wrong wave-length!” By failing to consider individuals outside of the African continent, we had seriously erred. Moreover, I instantly knew Moukie’s choice was right. And by their continuing silence—no Q&A followed—it was clear that the other prisoners did also.
How could all of these otherwise opinionated prisoners be so quickly turned around? Because we had all read C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobin. In fact, it was so popular there until we could never keep copies on the cell block.
Prisoners would go to lengths to engineer ways to have borrowed copies packed with their other personal possessions when they were being transferred to other cell blocks. They would then swear to either return the book, or have a new copy mailed to the owner. Everybody loved that book!
Even so, that book often caused prisoners to fly into rages. Simply because James’s portrayal of pre and revolutionary Haiti can only be described as searing. The prisoners could vividly imagine the suffering their African ancestors had endured; although I’ve known white prisoners who were also deeply moved by that book—my comrade Nuno Pontes for instance, who was a Portuguese national.
The other side of the coin was the ability of The Black Jacobins to almost instantly begin to effect a change in the most anti-social prisoners; causing them to become hungry to learn what else remained hidden from them. Thus The Black Jacobins was one of our best educational and organizing tools.
So there I was, stunned and wordless. And like a judge who has to reverse a decision, my mind was furiously working to formulate a face-saving response, and all the time Moukie did not offer a word to bolster his Toussaint choice, although I have to imagine he felt satisfaction in having bested all of us in that protracted debate.
Bowing to the inevitable, I swallowed my pride and announced my judgment that Moukie had been right, then opened the floor to objections to which there remained only silence.
Consequently, we moved on to another seminar subject.
Here I need to say that the late C.L.R. James was loved by those prisoners for writing that book. Afterwards, his other writings and work were also highly respected, and also valued.
To those not in prison, if you want to help orient and educate those prisoners who will be returning to your communities I urge you to find a way to send copies of The Black Jacobins to them. That book is capable of speaking to all those of African descent or otherwise, who find themselves on the bottom rungs of society.
Transcribed by James on July 7th, 2013 – Thanks James!