The Nakba Files spoke with Greg Thomas, Associate Professor of English at Tufts University (USA) and curator of the traveling exhibit “George Jackson in the Sun of Palestine,” which will run at Haifa’s Khashabi Theater from 28 October 2016 to 14 January 2017. Thomas is writing a book about George Jackson (1941-1971), a prominent member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and a political prisoner who was assassinated by state authorities. The exhibit highlights connections between Palestinian and Black American experiences of captivity. Part 1 of the interview is below. Part 2 is here.
What was the origin of this exhibit?
My first visit to Palestine was in May 2014. At that point, I had been doing research for several years for a book on George Jackson, including a lot of archival research and interviews with his comrades. I had some idea of what kind of book I was trying not to write: I didn’t want to write another journalistic account of his life and death or something that reduced him to a mere icon, nor did I want to take a kind of bourgeois literary approach of simply reading his words on the page and pontificating. I wanted to engage George’s words not simply as beautiful writing, but as beautiful writing in the context of a revolutionary praxis.
During the course of this research, I came across a document that turned out to be an inventory of the items found in George Jackson’s cell in the wake of his assassination. Typically these lists contain miscellaneous items like pencils, bars of soap, and so on. But this was a list of 99 books, which was later supplemented with additional pages listing even more books. One of the books listed was Enemy of the Sun, a collection of Palestinian resistance poetry. This title rang a bell for me and upon further research I discovered that poems from this collection by the Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim were actually printed under George Jackson’s name in a Black Panther Party newspaper. This “mistake” is a powerful illustration of the kinship between their experiences – and ours.
When I told this story during that first visit to Palestine, the response I came across was both amazed and amazing. During a visit to the Abu Jihad Museum for Palestinian political prisoners in Abu Dis, someone suggested doing an exhibit there about George and Palestine and from that moment on, I basically thought of nothing other than how to make such an exhibit possible. I began to work on collecting images and materials and getting them to Palestine. It opened in October 2015, during a time of resurgence in popular resistance and Zionist backlash.
What have been the reactions to the exhibit?
The reactions have been striking. To give one example, when I landed in Palestine to set up the exhibit, I met two young women studying at al-Quds University who were busy helping to translate some of the materials into Arabic. They both told me, separately and in the same words, that everything they read from [George Jackson’s books] Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye was happening in the streets of Palestine at that moment. These young Palestinian women saw in George’s writings a mirror of what was happening in the West Bank.
On the morning that the exhibit opened, I found myself in Ramallah on the “Good Morning Palestine” television show alongside Fahd Abu al-Hajj, director of the Abu Jihad museum, to talk about the exhibit. So there I was, mic-ed up in the studio with a headset giving me Arabic in one ear and an English interpretation in the other. I watched as Dr. Abu al-Hajj retold the story of George Jackson that I had pieced together while working on the introduction to the exhibit. He was recapping the information in a way that totally indigenized it. It was an out-of-body experience to hear him tell these stories as if they were his own. Dr. Abu al-Hajj even quoted George Jackson’s mother, Mrs. Georgia Jackson, saying that she sounded like every Palestinian mother of a prisoner and that they can all identify with her and this story. This was an amazing experience.
To give another example: In the exhibit, I included a line by [BPP co-founder] Huey P. Newton: “If the penalty for the quest for freedom is death, then by death we escape to freedom.” This quote embodies both the spirit of marronage [escape from slavery] and martyrdom in one line and it comes from one of my favorite texts in the whole wide world, which was Newton’s eulogy for Jonathan Jackson [younger brother of George Jackson] and William Christmas. They were killed by the state after a courthouse rebellion in 1970, a year before George Jackson’s assassination. This quote was emblazoned across the cover of one issue of the BPP newspaper and we printed a copy of that cover to hang outside the exhibit. During the opening of the exhibit, as we made our way into the symposium, I made sure to point out this line and to have it translated to the Palestinian ex-prisoners who were there and they immediately groaned in recognition and approval. Issa Qaraka, the Minister of Prisoners’ Affairs, immediately scribbled it down on a piece of paper and incorporated it into his speech that night.
Since the opening in Abu Dis, the exhibition has traveled across Palestine. We have done events at Bir Zeit University, at al-Najah University, the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem, Bethlehem University, and Liwan café in Nazareth. Now we have the Khashabi theater event and a season-long exhibition, which I’m really excited about.
Part 2 of this interview is here.