The dog days of summer are here, marked by the rising of the star Sirius in the morning sky, “the star they give the name of Orion’s Dog, which is brightest among the stars, and yet is wrought as a sign of evil and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals.”¹ On August 13, Sylville Smith was killed by a Milwaukee police officer. In the following two nights, eight businesses and numerous cars were burned, rocks and bottles were thrown at the police, and guns were fired on multiple occasions, resulting in at least one hospitalization. Meanwhile, the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center has alleged that the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison gang may be planning “to kill correctional officers and Aryan Brotherhood gang members” in commemoration of Black August.
Black August originated in the 1970s following the August 7, 1970 deaths of Jonathan Jackson, James McClain and William Christmas during a prisoner liberation and hostage-taking at the Marin County Courthouse and the August 21, 1971 death of George Jackson during a prison rebellion in San Quentin.
Prisoners participating in Black August “wore black armbands on their left arm and studied revolutionary works, focusing on the works of George Jackson. The brothers did not listen to the radio or watch television in August. Additionally, they didn’t eat or drink anything from sun-up to sundown; and loud and boastful behavior was not allowed. The brothers did not support the prison’s canteen. The use of drugs and alcoholic beverages was prohibited and the brothers held daily exercises.”
Black August also commemorates numerous other significant moments in black history including but not limited to the Haitian Revolution, which began on August 21, 1791 and was preceded by the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on August 14, the slave rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser on August 30, 1800 and by Nat Turner on August 21, 1831, the founding of the Underground Railroad on August 2, 1850 and the Watts rebellions in August, 1965. In their article on Black August, the Malcolm X Grassroots movement writes, “if we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.” Like a flowering branch nourished by roots wrapped around the decaying bodies of the dead, the visible manifestations of revolt are supported by a vast invisible network of spirits and subterranean traditions.
A New Birth, At Once Into Life and Into Death
In his study of “The Traditional Chinese Mourning Categories,” anthropologist David K. Jordan notes that mourning is characterized by two indicators: “distinctive mourning clothing” and the requirement to “avoid normal activities, sometimes even subsistence activities.” We see the same two indicators in the black armbands worn by prisoners during Black August, and in their avoidance of a wide range of “normal activities,” including fasting.
The need to mourn the deaths of George and Jonathan Jackson was also seen clearly by both James Baldwin and Jean Genet. The friendship of the two writers and their writings about the Jacksons are analyzed in Bædan: journal of queer time travel. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin compared the grief of Georgia Jackson, Jonathan and George’s mother, to that of the Virgin Mary:
George Jackson has joined his beloved baby brother, Jon, in the royal fellowship of death. And one may say that Mrs. Georgia Jackson and the alleged mother of God have, at last, found something in common. Now, it is the Virgin, the alabaster Mary, who must embrace the despised black mother whose children are also the issue of the Holy Ghost.²
Jean Genet also wrote about Georgia Jackson, but in his “half-waking dream” that he experienced “a few hours after [George] Jackson’s death,” George and Jonathan were reborn from a different womb:
Jonathan and George violently came out of the prison, a stony womb, on waves of blood. […] It was not their mother who gave birth to them that night, for she was there, upright, impassive but alert, looking on. If it was a new birth, at once into life and into death, who but History was delivering the two black men covered, as with every birth, in blood.³
In a strange parallel, Baldwin declared that “an old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives.” He prophesied that “there will be bloody holding actions all over the world, for years to come: but the Western party is over, and the white man’s sun has set.” We are still seeing the “bloody holding actions” today, and we have indeed proven to be “exceedingly clumsy midwives,” but these struggles are nothing new.
Dance Groups or Associations Which Foster an Esprit de Corps
The Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman on August 14, 1791 also served as a kind of bloody Caesarean birth, for the Haitian Revolution began exactly one week later. The ceremony was first written about by Antoine Dalmas, a French doctor who fled to the United States and then wrote a report in 1794 based upon the interrogation of prisoners. That Dalmas’ portrayal of the ritual is unsympathetic is an understatement that should go without saying, but nonetheless, it is the first written account of the ceremony:
[They] celebrated a sort of feast or sacrifice in the middle of a wooded untilled plot on the Choiseul plantation, called le Caïman, where a very large number of Negroes assembled. An entirely black pig, surrounded by fetishes (fétiches), loaded with offerings each more bizarre than the other was the holocaust offered to the all-powerful spirit (génie) of the black race. The religious rituals that the negroes conducted while cutting its throat, the avidity with which they drank of his blood, the value they set in possessing a few of his bristles, a sort of talisman which, according to them, was to render them invulnerable, all serve to characterize Africans. That such an ignorant and besotted caste would make the superstitious rituals of an absurd and sanguinary religion serve as a prelude to the most frightful crimes was to be expected.4
Later accounts, such as that of the French abolitionist Civique de Gastine in 1819, would add further details such as the renunciation of Christianity as “the religion of their masters” and a collective oath “to perish rather than return to slavery,” but these writers were much further removed from the actual events in Haiti in 1791. It is, however, telling that “the second Haitian president, Alexandre Pétion, in 1814 prohibited the gathering of ‘all dance groups…or associations which foster an esprit de corps.’“5 In other words, it is indisputable that subaltern religious organizations were seen as a threat by those who gained power after the revolution, which speaks to their significance and power during the revolution itself.
A quick survey of cross-cultural and historical comparisons shows that rituals intended to grant invulnerability were also associated with the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, Chinese spirit mediums in general, the Native American Ghost Dance, and the mainads of Dionysos written about in Euripides’s Bakkhai: against the mainads, “sharpened weapons drew no blood at all.”6 While Euripides was a playwright and may be accused of poetic license, the historical record shows that Dionysian worship was seen as a serious threat in Rome. Like Pétion in 1814 CE, the Roman Senate in 186 BCE banned all Bacchic cults not approved by the praetor urbanus, declaring that “henceforth they shall not form conspiracies among themselves, stir up any disorder, make mutual promises or agreements, or interchange pledges; no one shall observe the sacred rites either in public or private or outside the city, unless he comes to the praetor urbanus.”
The fear of conspiracies, disorder and oaths is obvious in the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, and even more so in Livy. Just like Dalmas’s claim that Bois Caïman was a “prelude to the most frightful crimes,” Livy associated the Bacchic rites with criminality and violence:
With the added liberation of darkness, absolutely every crime and vice was performed there. The men had more sex with each other than with the women. Anyone who was less prepared for disgrace and slow to commit crimes was offered up as a sacrifice. To consider nothing wrong was the principal tenet of their religio. Men, as if insane, prophesied with wild convulsions of their bodies, married women in the dress of the Bacchants with streaming hair ran down to the Tiber carrying burning torches, which they dipped into the water and brought out still alight.
Like Dalmas, Livy was clearly an unsympathetic narrator, but the disapproval and disgust of these reactionary writers merely goes to show how seriously “dance groups or associations which foster an esprit de corps” have historically frightened the ruling classes.
The Chaplains Corps of the War on Slavery
Rebelliously-inclined religious organizations were present in the Antebellum Southern United States as well, some of which are written about in Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford’s Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. For example, one of the leaders in Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion testified at his trial that he was sent to recruit the “outlandish people” who were “supposed to deal with witches and wizards,”7 and thereby recruit the sorcerers as well.
Furthermore, the early black nationalist Martin Delany (1812–1885) wrote of a council of conjure men and women known as “the Head” located within the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The Head performed rituals in a cave in the swamp, where they also kept a large sacred serpent. The Head played a major role in the initiation of new conjure men and women: “in order to be ordained as conjure men or women, non-maroons were forced to (at least temporarily) escape their bondage and find the council.”8 This initiatory escape, even if temporary, served to forge ties between the maroons in the swamps and the rebels on the plantations.
The Head was involved in numerous slave insurrections and “considered themselves to be the chaplains corps of the war on slavery. The Head deeply revered the memory of Nat Turner, and claimed to have been associated with his effort. As young conjure men they had fought alongside General Gabriel and took pride in that action forty years later.”9 By venerating the ancestors of the struggle and keeping their memories alive, the Head contributed to future revolts as well.
Shirley and Stafford argue that the maroon communities that were rooted in the Great Dismal Swamp were crucial to the exceptionally high number of large uprisings that broke out in the Tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina, and that diverse and syncretic spiritual practices were an inherent and central part of maroon social organization.10 Like the Eolh-sedge of the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, the maroon community “is mostly to be found in a marsh; it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound, covering with blood every warrior who touches it.”
Let the Crops Rot, Betray the Whites
These are but a few of the stories and ancestors invoked by Black August. And even after August 31, the memory of previous uprisings guides the struggles of the present. On September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, prisoners are calling for a general strike of prison labor across the United States:
Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.
This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery, starting on September 9th, 2016. They cannot run these facilities without us.
While the prisoners address their fellow prisoners directly, solidarity actions proliferate outside the walls of the prisons. But the conditions of imprisonment extend beyond the facilities themselves, as Milwaukee demonstrates clearly. Jean Genet’s words after the death of George Jackson ring as true today as they did in 1971:
We must look closely…at all imprisoned blacks—whether in jail or the ghetto—who are in danger at every moment of being assassinated like George and Jonathan Jackson or of being wasted away by the white world. In fact, we must learn to betray the whites that we are.11
Genet, despite declaring George and Jonathan “two black Gemini,” eschewed the language of mythology and instead called this task a “human labor directed against the dense and sparkling mythology of the white world.” Nonetheless, I maintain that the war is waged on all fronts simultaneously, and that the spiritual realms are inseparable from the social and the material.
- Homer, Iliad 22.29-31, translated by Richmond Lattimore.
- Quoted in Bædan 110.
- Quoted in Bædan 111.
- Quoted in Elizabeth McAlister, “From Slave Revolt to a Blood Pact with Satan: The Evangelical Rewriting of Haitian History” 9.
- Ibid 8.
- Euripides, Bakkhai, translated by Anne Carson 40.
- Quoted in Dixie Be Damned 43.
- Ibid 44.
- Hugo Leaming, quoted in Dixie Be Damned 44.
- Ibid 21.
- Quoted in Bædan 111.
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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.