Black August was an unfamiliar term in August 2020. I happened across the term on Twitter, which is not an unusual place for me to be introduced to new concepts. I have learned a lot on Twitter, so much so that the slang terms I’ve looked up based on people’s tweets make my search history varied and a bit scandalous. So, like many things on Twitter about which I’ve not heard before, I hopped onto Google and decided to do a little research.

The information about Black August is not as pervasive or easy to find as, say, Black History Month. After reading over what I could find and calling up what I learned from the movie 13th, the reasons became clear. Our nation has a history of incarcerating Black men, holding them for years in degrading and inhumane conditions, and using them as slave labor. Black August started in San Quentin, after years of Black activists – many of them in prison – became powerful, influential leaders and were killed.

Black August is an important month-long celebration that is still not well known. Here are four essential questions about Black August.

What is the Purpose of Black August?

The purpose of Black August is to celebrate Black freedom fighters and those who have sacrificed in the pursuit of freedom from oppression, historically and ongoing. In context of Black history, August is a busy month when it comes to Black resistance, observed not just for the deaths of both George and Jonathan Jackson, but also for the start of the Underground Railroad, the March on Washington, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, and the Watts Rebellion, among others. Emmett Till was also killed in the month of August.

What is the Story Behind Black August?

The story of Black August originated in the 1970’s with brothers George and Jonathan Jackson, along with other incarcerated Black men who fought for freedom from incarceration, white supremacy, and systemic racism. 

George Jackson was a Black man who received one year to life in prison for allegedly stealing $70 from a gas station. He became an activist, studying the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, among others. He was one of the most outspoken voices about systemic racism and the criminal justice system at the time. He was a highly respected and influential leader, writing letters that revealed the inhumane and degrading conditions in prison. These letters were collected and published as the book, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.

In August of 1970, Jonathan Jackson was killed in a shoot-out in Marin County when he took a judge hostage and demanded the freedom of Black political prisoners. On August 21, 1971, George Jackson held a prison guard hostage where he was held at San Quentin State Prison. He forced the guard to open several cells. George Jackson, two other inmates, and three prison guards were killed. When a group of prisoners at San Quentin came together to honor the death of George Jackson and other Black political prisoners and revolutionaries, it became known as Black August.

How Do People Celebrate Black August?

“Celebrate” is not the right word. This month-long commemoration is more solemn and intentional than that, encouraging reflection, study, and personal development, especially of the history of Black people in America. Self-discipline is an important tenet, and practices like conscious fasting are often part of the month-long commemoration. There is abstinence from intoxicating substances and limits on entertainment, such as television programs and movies. Participants wear black armbands on their left arms to honor those who have lost their lives in the pursuit of racial equality.

How is Black August Different From Black History Month? 

Black History Month is celebrated during the month of February each year, encouraging Americans to reflect on how Black people have shaped the history of the country. This federally recognized commemoration started in 1976, and what has been included has been largely whitewashed to fit a Euro-centric narrative.

While Black August also started in the 1970’s, its primary purpose is to honor the sacrifices of freedom fighters, political prisoners, and martyrs and become educated about the history of black resistance in the United States. 

As we live with the Covid-19 pandemic and take part in protests against the unjust killings of Black people and our foundation of white supremacy, it has become more important than ever to know our history. To study and reflect on the foundations of our country, what we have been taught, and our personal responsibilities for lasting change. 

Additional Reading:

  • Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson A collection of George Jackson’s letters about systemic racism and the criminal justice system.
  • The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement by Eric Cummins
  • Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s by Gerald Horne
  • Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
  • White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
  • Anything by Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Imbolo Mbue

 

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