By Bernard E. Harcourt
I turned my cell into a university, a hall of debate, a law school.
Reading was my salvation…. I first gravitated to books and authors that dealt with politics and race—George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, J.A. Rogers’s From “Superman” to Man. We read anything we could find on slavery, communism, socialism, Marxism, anti-imperialism, the African independence movements, and independence movements from around the world…. Leaning against my wall in the cell, sitting on the floor, on my bed, or at my table, I read.
— Albert Woodfox, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement (2019)
Do you know (of course you do) the secret police (CIA, etc.) go to great lengths to murder and consequently silence every effective black person the moment he attempts to explain to the ghetto that our problems are historically and strategically tied to the problems of all colonial people.
— George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters (1970)
Albert Woodfox became a Black Panther at Angola—the infamous plantation-prison in Louisiana—and founded, along with another revolutionary, Herman Wallace, the very first official chapter of the Panthers behind bars. Reading the works of revolutionary thinkers moved Woodfox to political action and helped him survive four decades of the most torturous conditions of solitary confinement known to humanity. “I could lose myself in a book. Reading was a bright spot for me,” Woodfox writes in his remarkable memoir, Solitary. “Libraries and universities and schools from all over Louisiana donated books to Angola and for once, the willful ignorance of the prison administration paid off for us, because there were a lot of radical books in the prison library: Books we wouldn’t have been allowed to get through the mail. Books we never could have afforded to buy. Books we have never heard of.”
Woodfox recounts the authors and books he read at Angola: George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, Mao, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, Marx and Engels, Fidel, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko. His list reads like the bibliography for Revolution 13/13. Reading those works, Woodfox tells us, made him the person he is today. It also condemned him to four decades in solitary confinement—or rather, the racist state condemned him to four decades of solitary for reading those books. “I paid a heavy price,” Woodfox acknowledges. But he would not have had it any other way. When asked, as he often is, whether, looking back, he would have done anything different, Woodfox is adamant: “Not one thing.”
Reading, sharing, studying, discussing these prison writings and revolutionary books was formative as well for the members of the Short Corridor Collective at the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison —both in terms of personal transformation and political action. Reading George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver, Assata Shakur, but also Michel Foucault and Howard Zinn, transformed the men in the SHU—Sitawa Jamaa, Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Antonio Guillen, who formed the Collective and were joined by Paul Redd and other men—leading to prison hunger strikes and legal actions that sought to abolish solitary confinement. They also generated new prison writings, like the “Agreement to End Hostilities” released by a group of militant hunger strikers in the Short Corridor of Pelican Bay, an agreement that sought to formalize solidarity between racial groups engaged in the hunger strike in opposition to the state’s attempts to fracture the movement. Paul Redd, one of the original signatories of that document, has spoken extensively about those political actions, especially the hunger strikes.
Prison writing—works produced by authors while they themselves are incarcerated in jail or prison—have a special role and influence on readers, but perhaps especially on persons who are imprisoned. Professor Joy James, one of the world’s leading scholars and thinkers on prison writing, describes poignantly how contemporary insurrectionist prison writings “can question the very premises of rehabilitation, indicting the state and society, contextualizing or dismissing individual acts of criminality by nonelites, the poor and racialized, to emphasize state criminality or the crimes of elites.”
Many of the revolutionary authors who Woodfox and the Collective read wrote, themselves, from prison. Indeed, many of the worldly philosophers on our bibliography wrote from prison. Some, we have already discussed: Antonio Gramsci and his Prison Notebooks. Martin Luther King writing from the Birmingham city jail. Angela Davis’s letter from Marin County jail. Gandhi’s writings on Satyagraha. Other writers, we would like to read: Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison. Nelson Mandela and his writings from prison, Conversations with Myself. Régis Debray, who became an associate of Che Guevara and Fidel, and his Prison Writings. Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died: The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka, and others as well, such as Nehru. And there are many more to add to our bibliography—from contemporary prison writers going back in time: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live from Death Row. Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance. Oscar Wilde, De Profundis. Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers. Peter Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from a Dead House.
Those prison writings and readings continue to shape the way we think and view the world today—and the way we act. The writer Darryl Robertson, who himself has produced remarkable writings behind bars, traces how these writings and experiences continue to influence contemporary artists and thinkers like Tupac Shakur and Nas. They guide us in our praxis and our ambitions. They change who we are. They also shed light on what happens in the darkest corners of our society— the places where oppression and torture are most easily hidden. Paul Redd’s essay from Pelican Bay State Prison’s SHU Windowless Cell Dungeon exemplifies this, as he gives a first-hand account of the torturous conditions in the solitary confinement unit to counter the state’s distortions and advocate for change. As Joy James observes, “when they emanate from the site of the noncitizen, from men and women in cages, regardless of their outlaw and disreputable status, they illuminate past, present, and future possibilities for the reinvention of democracy.”
* * *
Prison writing. Prison reading. These are the focus of our seminar Revolution 7/13. They raise a set of questions: How do these revolutionary books, written from prison, work, motivate, and speak to us? What is the difference with other classical critical texts, insofar as these works emanate from behind bars? What is the experience like to read prison writings in particular? And what is the experience of reading in prison, in solitary, or in the collectivity of detention? What is it like to encounter, intellectually and politically, an author like George Jackson in the prison? These are some of the questions we will address at Revolution 7/13.
A History of Revolutionary Readings
A book. An imprint. There is, in Albert Woodfox’s Solitary, a history of the books he encountered—of the books that left an imprint on him. It is a remarkable journey.
A Different Drummer
The first book he recalls was A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley, given to him by a Panther when they were both incarcerated in the Tombs in New York City in 1971. “It opened my mind,” Woodfox writes.
A Different Drummer was a story of rebellion—rebellion against the legacies of slavery in the South and the way in which those histories clung onto the protagonist, who ultimately burns down his house in the South, kills his livestock, covers his land with salt, and moves up North—triggering a mass migration of Blacks who leave the state.
Woodfox was inspired by how the protagonist took action and had an effect on others. “Now I wanted to go as far as my humanity would allow me to go,” Woodfox writes. After reading A Different Drummer I started to believe, for the first time in my life, that one man could make a difference.”
At the time, Alfred Woodfox was in the Tombs, encountering, meeting, learning from members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense incarcerated by his side—including members of the Panther 21. Woodfox had first encountered Panthers on the streets of Harlem when he’d escaped from jail in New Orleans. What immediately attracted Woodfox to the Panthers was their confidence, their pride, the fact that they weren’t afraid. They weren’t intimidated. The next time he encountered the Panthers was in that jail in New York. “The same fearlessness, but there was also kindness.”
By this time, Albert Woodfox had spent several years incarcerated in the South—about two years at Angola, the plantation prison of Louisiana, and in and out of jail in New Orleans—and was now incarcerated in the North. Reading A Different Drummer was a transformative experience for Albert Woodfox. “It was as if a light went on in a room inside me that I hadn’t known existed.”
Mao’s Little Red Book
The second book Woodfox refers to is Mao’s Little Red Book. He gets a copy of that at the Orleans Parish Prison in 1971, also from a Panther—on his return to Louisiana, extradited from New York City after a not guilty verdict. He’d been put on the Panther tier. There, he met the cofounders of the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers and had access to copies of the Panther newspaper. Mao’s book, he received shortly after he’d taken an oath to be a member of the Black Panther Party, still at the Parish Prison.
George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X
Back at Angola, he kept Mao with him at all times. “I carried the Little Red Book with me wherever I went.” It’s also there that he read George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, and other revolutionary thinkers, and met Herman Wallace—who, like him, would become one of the Angola 3. Wallace had learned about the Panthers while incarcerated at the Orleans Parish Prison. His encounters too, with radical writers, were transformative. Woodfox recounts:
“In prison I met Chairman Mao, Marx and Engels, Chou En-lai, Fidel, Che, George Jackson, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, and especially Frantz Fanon,” Herman once wrote. “I learned a whole new mode of thinking.”
Together, Woodfox and Wallace set out to create a chapter of the Black Panther Party at Angola. The Panthers emphasized reading, two hours of reading a day—Woodfox got that from George Jackson. It was something Woodfox and Wallace spoke about all the time, and a practice that they inculcated. Woodfox made that part of his daily routine. Two hours of reading a day. It is, he writes, what helped save him in prison. “Reading was my salvation,” Woodfox says.
George Jackson, both the person and his writings, were transformative for Albert Woodfox. He returns to them throughout Solitary. They marked him:
When I read George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, I saw how even though he was fucked around by the system he never used that as an excuse not to step up. I was on D tier when I read that book in my cell. “The nature of life,” he wrote, “struggle, permanent revolution; that is the situation we were born into. There are other peoples on this earth. In denying their existence and turning inward in our misery and accepting any form of racism we are taking on the characteristic of our enemy. We are resigning ourselves to defeat…. History sweeps on, we must not let it escape our influence this time!!!!” 162
Woodfox opens the section of the book on the 1970s with a George Jackson quote:
Understanding that fascism is already here, that people are already dying who could be saved, that generations more will die or live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution…. Join us, give up your life for the people.
Woodfox opens the section of the book on the 1980s with a reference to George Jackson—as well as Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X—and what they taught him: “George Jackson taught me that if you’re not willing to die for what you believe in, you don’t believe in anything.”
Woodfox recalls the day that George Jackson was killed. It was the day he was released from the Red Hat (one isolation area), back to CRC. “After being locked in the stinking coffin of the Red Hat for three days I didn’t think my resolve to uphold the principles of the Black Panther Party could get any stronger,” Woodfox notes. He adds: “When I learned of George’s murder, my commitment only grew.”
Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X, and others were also particularly important to Woodfox. Fanon appears throughout the book Solitary. “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves, Frantz Fanon wrote, and we found that to be true,” Woodfox writes. About Fanon, Woodfox remarks:
I did a lot of soul-searching while reading. The words of the Vietnamese revolutionary communist leader Ho Chi Minh resonated with me when I read that he told the invading French army something like, “We are willing to die ten to one, are you?” That got me at my core, that willingness to sacrifice.
About Malcolm X: He “taught me how to think of the big picture, to connect the dots.
Another important book was Richard Wright’s Native Son, a book that Albert Woodfox gave Kenny Whitmore when he arrived on the tier—it was the D tier at the CCR (solitary) at Angola. There was a sign on the door to the tier: “PANTHER TIER: DANGER.” Soon after Kenny Whitmore got there, at first scared, he would tell Albert Woodfox “Man, you’re more like a professor than anything dangerous.”
* * *
These readings and prison writings were formative for Albert Woodfox, for the members of the Short Corridor Collective, and for so many other men and women around the world. They shape how we think. They move us to action. They are tools and weapons to survive, and to change the world.
We turn to prison writings and prison reading at our next seminar, joined by Albert Woodfox, Paul Redd, Professor Joy James, and the writer Darryl Robertson.
Welcome to Revolution 7/13!
 Albert Woodfox, Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement (New York: Grove Press, 2019), 91, 161.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 91, 161.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 413.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 413.
 Joy James, The New Abolitionists: (Neo)slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings (New York: SUNY Press, 2005), xxxii.
 James, The New Abolitionists, xxxii.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 64.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 65.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 58.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 63.
 Woodfox had originally been sentenced in 1965 to serve two years in Angola for joyriding in a stolen car and then escaping arrest. He was given two years’ time, but released on parole after having served a third of his sentence in February 1966. He gets violated from parole and sent back to Angola to serve out eight months, discharged in August 1967. From August 1967 to February 1968, he’s in and out of jail in New Orleans. He’s arrested for robbery at a bar, tried in New Orleans, held at the Orleans Parish prison, and on sentencing day, on October 9, 1969, escapes in an armed incident and heads to New York City. It’s in Harlem that he meets Black Panther members on the street first—and is deeply impressed. He gets arrested—for an alleged robbery he did not commit—and uses an alias, Charles Harris. That’s when he is detained at the Manhattan house of detention, the Tombs, and encounters Black Panther members—he’s placed on the floor where the Black Panthers are organized. These were members of the Panther 21. Woodfox, Solitary, 63.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 66.
 There were prison riots in the Tombs in August 1971. Woodfox was moved to the jail in Queens, then back to the Tombs. During all this time, he still operating under the false name of Charles Harris and is in New York custody, but fearing that he would get discovered and extradited back to Angola. He was found not guilty of the robbery, but then extradited back to New Orleans. It was on the plane back that he vowed to never be a criminal again. Woodfox, Solitary, 79.
 “On my last day there, one of the Panthers gave me a copy of the Little Red Book, a collection of quotations from Mao Tse-tung.” Woodfox, Solitary,83.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 86.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 91.
 “We formed the first official chapter of the Black Panther Party behind bars… We couldn’t require the men to read two hours a day, as the Panthers did on the street.” Woodfox, Solitary, 95. But they did everything to talk about the principles and ideals.
 Shortly thereafter, in May 1972, Woodfox and Wallace (and two others) were indicted for the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller. That was the beginning of the end—and what would become the “Angola 3.” He was placed in solitary and would remain there for 4 decades. He was 25 years old at the time. He knew why he was being charged: “prison authorities wanted to wipe out the Black Panther Party at Angola.” Woodfox, Solitary, 109.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 61.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 173.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 89.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 93.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 162.
 Woodfox, Solitary, 170.