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Imprisoned Intellectual: A Review of "Meditations on Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth"

Dan Berger
Date Published: 
December 1, 2010


Kersplebedeb and Spear and Shield Publications, 2010

For more than twenty years, James Yaki Sayles (also known as Atiba Shanna) was one of the most profound theorists writing from within US prisons. Yaki turned his decades of confinement into a time to theorize and a place to strategize, working to maintain connections between what was happening inside prisons and what was happening outside of them.

He initiated publications and built organizations (including the New Afrikan Prisoners Organization) from behind the walls of the Illinois prison where he spent almost forty years, on and off. Yaki was released in 2004 and continued to organize for prisoners’ rights. He was a leader in the campaign to free other long-term prisoners in Illinois until he died at age 60 in 2008, a few months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

His writings have never been gathered in one place, until now. Meditations on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth: New Afrikan Revolutionary Writings presents Yaki’s extended and sophisticated analysis of the Martinican philosopher Fanon’s classic 1961 book and its relevance for contemporary revolutionaries confronting neocolonialism. Meditations also brings together Yaki’s other writings—not all of them, but a sampling of some of his most significant contributions to political thought. In that, the subtitle is more accurate than the title.

In addition to the editors’ fascinating overview of his life and context, the anthology contains Yaki’s writings, all written in prison—about organizing inside, decolonizing our minds, policing and public housing, intergenerational organizing, and tips for countering state surveillance.

The essays showcase an engaged revolutionary—Yaki both demonstrates and calls for political clarity and organizational discipline. In describing Malcolm X as a “model of personal transformation,” Yaki writes that political clarity is a “way in which We can free ourselves, even though behind prison walls.” His writings are a study guide for the grassroots—people in public housing, in prison, and in struggle against the system.

Nationhood dreams

Yaki was a New Afrikan, a concept originated in the late 1960s that described the descendants of US slaves as, in his words, “a new people, forged through our collective oppression, by an emerging capitalism and a unique form of settler-colonialism.” He was briefly Minister of Information for the Republic of New Afrika, the organization that coined the term, and he was a consistent theorist of national oppression and national liberation. As a Marxist-influenced revolutionary nationalist, Yaki’s views on race were nuanced. He argued that while racism and capitalism are inseparable, racial ideology is a distraction from revolutionary work. For him, being New Afrikan was a question of thought and practice, not color.

He strongly identified with Che Guevara’s claim that socialism mandated that we transform ourselves into new people—Yaki preferred gender-neutral language to Che’s “new man”—in the process. He often wrote using an unspecified “We” (capitalized to celebrate collectivity) and “our.” He wrote for “New Afrikan Communists,” yet his ideas have a broad application for those locked in revolutionary confrontation with the state. Yaki described his goal as learning from the movement’s mistakes, in ideas and practice.

Given his concern with nation, armed struggle, and socialism, it was only logical that he turn to Frantz Fanon and his classic work, Wretched of the Earth. But Yaki was concerned with more than just Fanon. He engaged with a variety of revolutionary theorists and provides useful summaries of some of their main ideas throughout this collection. The editors supplement this by reprinting relevant sections from Fanon, which is useful, if sometimes repetitive.

Yaki turns to Fanon to unpack his arguments and suggest their applicability to radical praxis. His discussions of Fanon are divided into four parts: an overview; an assessment of violence (physical and mental, both of which Fanon held to be central to colonization); a critique of race; and a discussion of nationalist consciousness and socialist humanism. Sadly, the last section, which could have been the most provocative for the Obama era, is unfinished. Yaki was working on it when he got sick and was unable to complete it before he died. This chapter consists of fragments, his notes of things to explore.

As the editors note, changing political conditions require revisions or reconsiderations of Yaki’s analysis—work that must be done now without his strong analytical mind. (Given that the book was written well before Obama became president and so does not engage with what the editors dub “neocolonial multiculturalism,” the photo of the Obamas and Bushes on the book’s cover is out of place.) This collection of James Yaki Sayles’s writings offers a powerful example of the way prisoners and other organic intellectuals help set the terms for our movements.

—Dan Berger