A Black radical who matters for our time
Two years ago, the New York Times featured an illustrated article on the discovery of a manuscript penned by hand in a dank, 19th century cell by a Black prisoner, Austin Reed. Ignored in his lifetime, Reed’s memoir elicited great interest among contemporary historians, activists, scholars of African American literature, and the general public. The Yale professor who is editing the manuscript celebrated the singularity of Reed’s message and its “lyrical quality” in the American canon. But Reed’s text is also significant because it forms part of a body of searing Black prisoners’ narratives on freedom that destabilize, through their humanism, the demonization reserved for the “Black outlaw” in American history. Reed’s writing exemplifies what Cornel West calls the Black prophetic voice in American history—voices committed to illuminating the truth about Black oppression and its systemic causes, and to advancing the project of justice and freedom without compromise.
Because they speak uncomfortable truths, Black prophetic voices, while they are alive, are vilified and violently persecuted by repressive agents of the state. And they are swept under the rug by those who, in West’s words, are “well-adjusted to injustice.” This hard reality has defined the lives of those we celebrate today during Black History Month, from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to Angela Davis and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In our lifetime one American, not unlike Austin Reed, articulates uncomfortable truths—about the centrality of Black oppression to the project of American capitalism and empire, the unbridled racism of the U.S. justice system, the unfinished project of American democracy, the horrors produced by war, and the possibilities of a liberated society not just for Black people at home, but for everyone, everywhere. He seeks to give ordinary people a sense of their own power and to inspire those on the margins of society to stand up and fight. From the solitude of a prison cell, he has dedicated thousands of hours contributing to the Black prophetic tradition and enriching the canon of African American literature with his writings. The conditions under which he has written seven books and produced thousands of short, incisive and elegantly rendered commentaries are likely not much better than the abysmal setting under which Austin Reed penned his memoir 150 years ago.
This man is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Mumia is a former Black Panther and imprisoned radio journalist who was framed by the Philadelphia police, railroaded in the courts and wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of Daniel Faulkner, a white police officer in Philadelphia. In the 1990s, he came dangerously close to execution, first on August 17, 1995 and again on December 2, 1999. Had it not been for the mass international movement that mobilized in the streets to save his life, we would know less of the quiet power behind the person that the world knows, simply, as Mumia.
In his essay “The Meaning of Ferguson,” Mumia quotes the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Illich Lenin: “There are decades when nothing happens, there are weeks when decades happen.” In that piece he describes how government repression sowed the seeds of a deeper understanding of the relations of power and a deeper rebellion. “The government responded with the tools and weapons of war,” writes Mumia, “they attacked them as if Ferguson were Fallujah, in Iraq.” In struggle, the people of Ferguson “learned the wages of Black protest...the limits of their so-called ‘leaders,’ who called for ‘peace’ and ‘calm’ while armed troops trained submachine guns and sniper rifles on unarmed men, women and children.” He concludes his ode to the heirs of the Black radical tradition with a call to build independent, radical organizations: “Ferguson may prove a wake-up call. A call for youth to build social, radical, revolutionary movements for change.”
The clarity and humanity emanating from Mumia’s voice shatters the official narrative of him as monster and unrepentant cop-killer. And in a society that views the incarcerated as both depraved and disposable, his sober critiques of the nation and his voice’s warm temperament raise questions about the entire apparatus that has imprisoned not just him, but the more than two million mostly Black and Brown others in the sprawling U.S. prison system.
Mumia’s voice is quiet and defiant and his message has always been dangerous to those in power. Today, in this moment of renewed upsurge against racist state violence, his voice is more dangerous than ever.
The main entity seeking Mumia’s execution, the Fraternal Order of the Police (FOP), has historically marshaled the law, lobbied the Department of Corrections and the courts, and manipulated public fears to enact rules designed to stifle his voice. In October 2014, when the FOP failed to prevent Mumia from giving a pre-recorded commencement speech at his alma mater, Goddard College, the Pennsylvania State legislature passed a vindictive gag law, the Revictimization Relief Act. The unconstitutional law threatens to dramatically curtail the free speech of all Pennsylvania prisoners and sue those who help amplify their voices under the pretextual claim that such speech produces “mental anguish” among crime victims and their families. The Abolitionist Law Project and the ACLU have each filed challenges; their plaintiffs include prisoners, university professors, journalists, newspapers, and advocacy groups.
Since his incarceration, 33 years ago, Mumia has authored seven books and produced thousands of written commentaries. His critically acclaimed best seller, Live From Death Row, humanized death row from the inside and exposed its racist character. In his unrelenting commitment to revolutionary literacy, study, and the fostering of connections among people fighting injustice the world over, Mumia continues to resist the system’s attempts to censor his message and criminalize his speech.
The Fraternal Order of Police knows that there is danger in the widespread discovery of Mumia by today’s powerful generation of young Black and Brown activists. Indeed, their serious engagement with the political analysis, challenges, and lessons of struggle waged by Black radicals last time—a significant number of whom are political prisoners today—would be a beautifully dangerous thing. It would catapult the Black Lives Matter movement, and our nation, closer to revolution. And for the leading Black prophetic voice of our time, that would mean freedom, indeed.
Johanna Fernandez is a professor of History at Baruch College (CUNY).
—Huffington Post, February 6, 2015