Death of a Black Panther

Geronimo Ji-Jaga, affectionately known as G by friends/family or Geronimo by revolutionaries around globe, died in Arusha, Tanzania this past Friday. His death marks yet another loss of a committed social justice activist of an era that is gradually fading from our collective memory.

It saddens us to learn of Geronimo’s untimely passing. But what is even more disheartening is the lack of knowledge within Tanzania about the man and what he stood for. Some are asking, ‘Geronimo ni nani?’ and ‘Why did he choose to live in Tanzania?’ But these are questions that merely scratch the surface. History is a funny thing, often ignored by people who think it’s about rote memorization. Other times, the state takes an active role in its silencing, especially when it comes to histories of radicalism, that’s if it can’t be repackaged into a national narrative that makes the state look good. In either case, Geronimo Ji-Jaga has fallen within the cracks of historical amnesia, making his passing all the more devastating to those who knew him personally and to those who knew him through his written and spoken word.

First and foremost, Geronimo was a revolutionary who believed in self-determination and direct political action. A former Vietnam war veteran and Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party (BPP), Geronimo spent twenty-seven years (1970-97) in jail for a murder he never committed. In San Quentin, he spent eight of those years in solitary confinement for organizing prisoners.

Geronimo legally dropped his last name “Pratt” while in prison. According to a close extended family member, the name change was reflection of the culture of resistance he helped to create, “a way for African Americans to embrace an African identity and combat colonialism left over from slavery and having the names of slave masters and Europeans in general.”

Johnnie Cochran, the African American civil rights lawyer who passed in 2005, defended G from the mid-70s until his trial victory in 1997. G’s case was the most outstanding case for Cochran, more so than his infamous OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson and P. Diddy cases according to his autobiography.

After his freedom, Geronimo married Joju Cleaver, daughter of Panther leaders Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. He was also the Godfather of the late hip hop legend Tupac Shakur (2Pac).

When Mwalimu Nyerere and the TANU government passed the Arusha Declaration in 1967, setting the stage for the implementation of Ujamaa na Kujitegemea (Socialism and Self-Reliance), it captured the political imaginations of African Americans who believed that the principles laid out in this historic document provided an appropriate model for their fight against systemic racism inside an emergent imperial power. The pull of Tanzania was so strong that over eight hundred African Americans settled in the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Some left the United States with a sense of defeat that radical social change would ever occur in America, while others settled in Tanzania to experience and partake in the country’s ambitious nation-building project, seeing it as transnational extension of their domestic struggle against centuries of class and racial oppression. By the mid-60s, the struggle took a more radical turn, giving birth to one of the most militant black radical organization in the 20th century.

For Tanzanians, particularly those of the African left, the Black Panther Party represented the vanguard of the freedom movement in the U.S. because of its Marxist -Leninist-Maoist orientation. Tanzanian radicals like Abdul-Rahman Mohammed Babu and University of Dar es Salaam student organizations like the TANU Youth League and University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF), lauded the work and ideological trajectory of the BPP, finding that its emphasis on class struggle and international solidarity appealed to their own political sensibilities.

While the Panthers were critical of the kind of African Socialism being espoused in Tanzania, they couldn’t deny the fact that Tanzania’s foreign policy of pan-Africanism and Third World internationalism transformed the country into a key frontline state in the liberation of southern Africa and second home for a number of exiled activists, intellectuals and political organizations.

The BPP was short-lived. Its effectiveness was severely weakened by internal discord, police harassment, and a highly coordinated counter-intelligence program called COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was designed to carry out what FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the “biggest threat to the internal security” of the United States. And it carried this policy to “disrupt, discredit and destroy” the BPP through assassination and imprisonment with Geronimo being one of its many innocent victims. Once the Panthers began setting up international chapters in nonaligned countries such as Cuba and Algeria, the U. S. intensified its effort, ensuring the BPP’s demise by the mid-1970s.

Contrary to popular belief that the Panthers were all about criminal violence against the state and its citizens, it was their grassroots oriented approach to community organizing and people’s empowerment that set it apart from the host of civil rights organizations. Education, institution building, and, above all self-reliance remain the BPP principles that informed the tremendous work of the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC) led by the former Panthers Pete and Charlotte O’Neal, who have been living in Arusha, Tanzania since the early 1970s.

After his release from prison, the O’Neal’s invited G in 2000 to come visit them in Arusha, and he ended up buying land and settling in Imbaseni village, Maji ya Chai. Ever since, he has been doing a lot of community projects including initiatives revolving around the provision of water and solar power in the rural areas of Tanzania and Ghana. He spent his time between Tanzania, Ghana and Louisiana (USA) until his death.

To identify Geronimo’s and the Panther legacy today, one only need to look and listen to hip hop music in the United States and Tanzania. U.S. hip hop artists such as dead prez, Nas, Immortal Technique, Common, Black Star and, especially 2Pac, wrote songs and lyrics to honor and remember his contributions to the black freedom struggle. And Tanzania hip hop artists such as River Camp, Joe Makini, Nix Wapili (Watengwa), JCB, Nako 2 Nako, X-Plastas and even Bongo Flava star Nakaaya owe a great deal to the Panthers for their socially conscious music, serving as the major conduits through which the Panther’s have remained relevant.

Geronimo was once asked how he feels about being falsely imprisoned for close to three decades. He replied, “When you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you’ve come to realize that bitterness has no place in the heart of the human being.” Geronimo lived these words to fullest extent, known for being humble, open-minded and incredibly down-to-earth. He will be greatly missed and never forgotten.

Seth Markle is an Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at Trinity College (Hartford). He is currently working on two book projects, one that examines the impact of Tanzanian independence on the Black Power Movement in the United States during the 1960s/1970s, and the other on the history of Tanzanian hip-hop.

Mejah Mbuya is a community activist and independent entrepreneur.  He received his B.A. from the University of Dar es Salaam in Business Administration. In 2006, he became the founder and Chairman of Umma wa Wapanda Baisikeli Dar es Salaam (UWABA), a cyclists rights organization. He is also co-founder and co-owner of Afri Roots, an echo-tourism initiative dedicated to local business development and environmental justice.

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