Writing for His Life
Reviewed by Joseph F. Jordan
Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 pp. 38-39
Mumia Abu-Jamal, Noelle Hanrahan, ed. All Things Censored. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000.
It is clear that the most articulate voice for prison reform and abolition of the death penalty is that of a prisoner who happens to be on death row. Mumia Abu-Jamal’s writing and commentary have become familiar in spite of official attempts to silence him and discredit his work. In this book, All Things Censored, he writes on some of the themes and issues that he has previously discussed, but with this dispatch he offers a more deliberate, but no less compelling, set of essays.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was accused, in 1981, and convicted in 1982 of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He was sentenced to death and, despite evidence that places all contentions of his guilt in doubt, he was scheduled for execution hi December of 1999. New evidence delayed the sentence and his appeals continue.
Noelle Hanrahan, an investigative journalist who has previously produced radio commentaries for Mumia, edits this collection of essays, covering a ten-year period from about 1989-1999. She also wrote the Introduction, and conducts an interview with Mumia in one of the closing chapters. The book follows the publication in 1994 of “Live From Death Row.” has been translated into five languages and garnered praise from many who now believe in Abu-Jamal’s innocence.
With a foreword contributed by Alice Walker, the collection is separated into four sections: “Scenes:” “Perspectives:” “Essays on Justice:” and a “Conversation between Mumia and Node.” There are also additional sections containing notes on the composition and recording of the essays and a useful section authored by Clark Kissinger entitled “The Case of Mumia Abu Jamal,” that synthesizes the political context of Mumia’s imprisonment allows us to see the case as a much broader example of state repression.
Of course, the most effective witness and commentator is Mumia himself. It might have been expected that his years of incarceration would have dulled his political senses or muted his voice, but the opposite has occurred. He remains a skilled and incisive social critic and he has helped to make the politics of death a national issue with international notoriety.
In one essay, “Meeting With a Killer.” Mumia relates the story of another death row inmate, Hank Fahy, convicted of the rape slaying of a young girl. While in prison Fahy’s own daughter was beaten, raped, and murdered. With his execution date fast approaching, and with little to live for, Fahy finds himself residing in the same prison and the same cellblock as the convicted murderer of his daughter. Fahy quickly understands this as a set-up–he
is expected by the authorities to ‘do what is natural,’ that is to kill the murderer of his daughter.
But it is here that Mumia, in telling the story, reveals a greater sense of his and the other inmate’s humanity. He relates how Fahy summoned the restraint to resist any act of revenge and instead, offered his forgiveness. Mumia recognizes these moments of grace in a place where moments worth remembering are few. Still, Mumia does not allow the political aspects of Fahy’s refusal to cooperate and fulfill the system’s expectations to be lost, and he succeeds in humanizing individuals most of us have long written off as animals. Both Mumia and Fahy know that Fahy has been set-up. In the words of Fahy, “I felt good. I felt like the better man, ’cause the same system that plans to kill me, that plans to kill him, and the same system that set us both up, for me to kill him and for him to get killed, can’t do what I did–forgive”.
This essay, along with others like “Mother Loss and Father Hunger,” reveal the precious nature of simple memories when one’s life is in the balance. The opus for his mother ends with no resolution, just a trailing off of thought, marked by ellipses, and we can imagine the depth of feeling when, he says, ‘To see one’s mother die while imprisoned, to see her lifeless form while held in shackles.”
These essays however, are a more important demonstration of Abu-Jamal’s continuing passion for justice, not only in his own case, but for general movements for justice and human rights around the world. In the sections ‘Perspectives” and “Essays on Justice,” he offers statements of solidarity with, and draws strength from Haitian communities seeking equal treatment as immigrants; and from Zapatista militants fighting for sovereignty and justice. The state and the various bureaucracies associated with the state and the criminal justice system have long recognized the danger of allowing Mumia to speak or write without strict and stringent controls.
Read for example, in one of the longer essays, “An Uncivil Action,” we follow him as he is tried for allegedly pursuing a profession (journalism) while imprisoned. In the hands of any other writer this episode might be as compelling and provocative, but, as an inmate Mumia tells the story with a much more conviction, focusing on the most minute, but still critical, pieces of testimony. As a critic of the justice system he is unrelenting and unforgiving, focusing on the duplicity and dishonesty of lawyers, prison officials, and judges.
Mumia still fights, with an international following these days, for his own life as well as for the lives of others who have been placed on death row with little hope of relief. All Things Censored is an important part of that fight. As a part of the larger progressive movement for reform of the justice system he is one of the most eloquent voices and one off the most intelligent minds we have. This book is an important addition to the body of work that challenges how we mete out justice and shows how our system of justice is hopelessly entwined with our systems of inequality and loss of moral and ethical certitude.
In the opening words of the book Mumia offers a moving afterthought: “By reading (or hearing) these very words, you are participating in a conspiracy of resistance. I welcome you. For the spirit of resistance is, in essence, the spirit of love.”
Joseph F. Jordan is an administrator at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History in Atlanta, Georgia.