When author and screenwriter Ronan Bennett was wrongfully imprisoned by the British in the infamous Long Kesh in Northern Ireland in the early ’70s, a number of books made the rounds among the Irish Republican prisoners. There was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which tells the story of a Bolshevik revolutionary imprisoned by the Soviet state he helped create, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s account of an ordinary prisoner in a Soviet labor camp. But the one that spoke to Bennett most urgently was Soledad Brother, the prison letters of black American militant George Jackson.
“The other books didn’t have the visceral impact, but Soledad Brother was just something I could relate to completely. I felt I knew the man,” Bennett recalls. “There were all kinds of recognizable elements in our struggle. The most powerful part was the way he conducted himself in the jail…. It was about dignity. Never, ever folding or letting threats from the jailers make you collapse…. It was about being principled, dignified and resistant. I tried as best as I could to replicate that attitude of no compromise, resistance and the emphasis they put on solidarity. Strong standing up for the weak.”
Bennett had never met a black person. Indeed, the only ones he’d ever seen had been those serving in the British army. Nonetheless, as an Irish Catholic in occupied Ulster, black America loomed large in his life. “From a very early age my family had supported Martin Luther King and civil rights,” he says. “We had this instinctive sympathy with black Americans. A lot of the iconography and even the anthems, like ‘We Shall Overcome,’ were taken from black America. By about ’71 or ’72, I was more interested in Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver than Martin Luther King.”
For most of the last century, progressives and the oppressed around the world have looked to black America as a beacon–the redemptive force that stood in permanent dissidence against racism at home and imperialism abroad. “No African came in freedom to the shores of the New World,” wrote nineteenth-century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville. “The Negro transmits to his descendants at birth the external mark of his ignominy. The law can abolish servitude, but only God can obliterate its traces.” That “external mark” has acted like a passport to an outside world that ostensibly distinguishes black America from the rest of the country and its policies.
When Kwame Nkrumah came to power in a newly independent Ghana, he sent for black American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois to edit the Encyclopedia Africana and Paul Robeson to take up the chair of music and drama at Accra University. Even as colonial France massacred Algerians by the score, it opened its arms wide to the likes of Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. For some time during the 1980s and ’90s, Jesse Jackson acted as a rogue ambassador, parachuting into trouble spots and freeing hostages.