Happy 60th Birthday to Mumia Abu-Jamal
I woke up yesterday morning needing to write a poem. It was the second day of the final readings for my students at UC Berkeley’s Poetry for the People. As the program’s director, I could pass. With over two dozen students and student teachers reading, nobody would notice the absence of my poem. But I believe that teachers should take risks alongside their students, so I needed to dig up something old or write something new.
I was at a total loss. Having worked on my novel for the last five years (not to mention parenting), I didn’t have much new work. None of my old work seemed relevant. I was trying to write a new piece, but it wasn’t quite coming together.
Then, out of the blue, I got an email yesterday morning from the Prison Radio Project, because yesterday was the 60th birthday of imprisoned activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. He had recorded an address to his community
, and the folks at the project wanted to lay it out as a poem, as well as offering it to the community in audio format. They asked me to help put in line breaks, as they had little experience with poetic page formatting. They knew my work from a poem I had written for him some years back called “In the Flesh,” and I was featured in the documentary “Long Distance Revolutionary.”
I was honored to be asked. Noelle Hanrahan from Prison Radio titled her email “a favor if you can.” When I called, I explained that out of the 365 days of the year, she picked the one day when I had carved out an hour to work on poetry. But Mumia is a man of many miracles, so I shouldn’t be surprised.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Mumia Abu-Jamal is
an internationally celebrated black writer and radio journalist, author of six books, a former member of the Black Panther Party, who has spent the last 30 years in prison, almost all of it in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit. Mumia Abu-Jamal was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer and remains in prison under a sentence of life without parole. According to Amnesty International, “Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in 1982 after a trial that failed to meet international standards.” And has investigated the “political influences that may have prevented him from receiving an impartial and fair hearing.” Mumia Abu-Jamal was a writer relentlessly seeking the truth about a shocking incident in the 80s
where authorities in Philadelphia attacked a home where members of a radical black organization lived. Police opened fire and dropped two bombs on the home, killing 11 adults and children. The fire department was ordered to delay services, and the blaze eventually burned down 61 houses.
Here he is, in his own words, recorded by the Prison Radio Project. As mentioned above, I did the line break formatting, by request:
To Our Supporters
my sixtieth year of life
I am compelled to share with you
all my supporters
a sense of thanks beyond anything you have ever heard
and anything I have ever said
For I am here among the living
because of each and every one of you
All of you known and unknown
who have joined us in this battle for life liberty and justice
Some of you have been beaten
Some of you have been jailed
Most of you have been threatened
Yet you have continued the struggle no matter what for yearsfor years
We are not where we want to be
But we are here because you are there
Your struggle has become our struggle
and it has touched many many people the world over
Make no mistake
I breathe today because you fought for my breath
The state hates you and attacks you because you fought for me
with me every step of the way
I am humbled by your support and energized by it
Struggles like this prove the possible
And we are not done
They have had to rewrite laws for us
But like sunshine like rain
we just keep on moving
keeping on coming
I thank you all for what you have done and what we have yet to do
I love you all.
On the Move
Long live John Africa
From in prison nation this is Mumia Abu Jamal
I played this for my students last night at the final reading for the Poetry for the People class, and tied it in to the poetry they are writing:
“When we talk about urgent poetry, when we talk about the concept of purpose in our poetry, this is what June Jordan was talking about. What do you want your words to do? While none of us want our words to put us in prison for life, or on death row, we want you to take risks with your words. Whether that means revealing vulnerabilities about your personal life, or digging into important stories around us. With every poem you write, you should be pissing somebody off. Whether it’s the political opponents of something you believe in. Or your family members who don’t want you to talk about that. Or the manufacturers of some beauty product that you’ve decided you don’t need, because there’s nothing wrong with you, and you’ve decided to declare your unconditional love for yourself in a self-affirmation poem. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a powerful example of people using their words to fight injustice. He has continued to write from jail and death row, and continues to inspire new generations of writers.”
Last night, I walked out of my students’ reading totally inspired. By Mumia’s relentless integrity and hope, by the students’ raw, honest, intense poetry, and by the opportunity to be of service. If Mumia can continue to be hopeful after 60 years of life and over 30 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement on death row, truly anything is possible.