[Pnews] ''Writing on the Wall'': Editor Johanna Fernández on Mumia Abu-Jamal's New Book
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 17 10:36:58 EDT 2015
August 16, 2015
''Writing on the Wall'': Editor Johanna Fernández on Mumia Abu-Jamal's
/For decades, Mumia Abu-Jamal has written from prison about injustice,
racism and the struggle for a better world. /Writing on the Wall
/collects more than 100 unpublished Mumia essays, many written in
solitary confinement on death row. Filled with the author's insight,
revolutionary perspective and hope, the subjects of these essays range
from Rosa Parks to Edward Snowden, from the Trail of Tears to Ferguson.
Click here to order the book today!/
Johanna Fernández first heard of Mumia Abu-Jamal - the Philadelphia
journalist whose sonorous commentaries from death row had made him
world-famous - as an undergraduate at a protest in the early 1990s.
Mumia's analysis of racism and class exploitation immediately spoke to
Fernández. The daughter of working-class immigrants fleeing poverty and
the Dominican Republic's Trujillo dictatorship, Fernández grew up in the
Bronx during the crack epidemic and got her working papers at 14.
She went on to become the first person in her family to graduate
college. By the time she was doing graduate work at Columbia, Fernández
had become a revolutionary socialist and considered Mumia "the Che
Guevara of our time." When Fernández moved to Pittsburgh, to teach at
Carnegie Mellon, she started visiting Mumia.
So began a friendship and collaboration destined to last well beyond the
publication of /Writing on the Wall
a new collection of commentaries by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which Fernández edited.
Fernández now teaches history at New York's Baruch College, and Mumia's
death sentence has been commuted to life without parole - though he's
facing serious illness
in prison. I asked Fernández about the book and their work together
*Susie Day for Truthout: What was it like the first time you visited Mumia?*
*Johanna Fernández:* I was petrified. Like, what the hell am /I/ going
to tell Mumia Abu-Jamal - on death row? But before long I was visiting
him and about 10 other men on death row at SCI Greene. I became part of
a cohort of people whose work consists mostly of visiting prisoners,
including Mumia. I also taught a course at Carnegie Mellon that included
Mumia's book on the Black Panther Party, /We Want Freedom/. That was
where we did the first "Live From Death Row" conversation in the
classroom with Mumia.
My Carnegie Mellon students are big nerds and tech geeks. They helped me
figure out how to have Mumia call into the classroom. He talked to the
students and the students talked to him - it was transformative. I still
have students from that class tell me how that changed them. And Mumia
was changed. I remember their last question: "Do you think you've risen
above this tragedy? Because yes, you're imprisoned, but you're known
around the world and you've touched so many lives."
Mumia answered, "I am not a martyr. I don't believe in martyrdom." Then
the phone cut us off.
*Yes, I often sense that Mumia's supporters feel required to objectify
him as an exemplar of "the struggle." We forget that, for all Mumia's
accomplishments and courage, he's also one more person among over 2
million others in US prisons.*
Well, here's the thing. I /needed/ to have visited him. I met Mumia, and
he's this ordinary guy who has no ego - I mean everybody has an ego -
but he's cool and approachable, and he goofs around about a million
things. We laugh; he curses.
Visiting prisoners grounds you. It puts things in perspective. I was
petrified about meeting Mumia because it was like I was going to visit
Jesus Christ. And Mumia was this ordinary man without airs. He's an
incredible conversationalist. He rejects the identity of an icon.
*Good. Because I think seeing people as icons distorts your own
But I do think Mumia's case is important because he's the target of the
state. The Fraternal Order of Police <http://www.fop.net> (FOP) has
identified Mumia as the world's most infamous "cop-killer," and they go
after him rabidly. Because of that and because of Mumia's unrelenting
revolutionary writing - that's part of why he's a target - a victory in
Mumia's case would blow the cover off, not only political imprisonment
but also the crisis of mass incarceration. Not to mention the role of
police in society.
*In the book's Introduction, you say the Fraternal Order of Police is
"the most powerful police organization in the world." Really?*
The Fraternal Order of Police is the largest police organization in the
world. Go to its website. They fund the legal expenses of cops who kill
civilians. The FOP uses Mumia's case to advance its right-wing agenda at
every turn. From Marylin Zuniga, the third-grade teacher in New Jersey,
who was fired for mailing her students' get-well letters to Mumia
to the takedown of Debo Adegbile
who was Obama's nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division of the
Department of Justice, the FOP is a powerful and insidious organization.
*How did you decide to put together this collection?*
What do you do when you visit a prisoner? You tear the world apart and
then build it back up, with humanity's highest aspirations leading the
rebuilding process. So after a decade of visiting Mumia on death row,
sometimes two and three times a week, I thought, "We should put some of
these ideas in writing."
Also, as a historian, I wanted to see how Mumia's writing changed during
his 33 years in prison. And to understand the post-Civil Rights era
through Mumia's writings, because that's the period I study. Second
probably only to Manning Marable, who had a column titled "Along the
Color Line" during the same period, I don't know anyone who looks at
America through the lens of race and racism but also has a revolutionary
critique of capitalism and imperialism.
*I'd never read the essays Mumia wrote just after his 1981 arrest. Have
these appeared anywhere before?*
You know, Mumia believes in movements and the power of ordinary people.
So back then he hand-wrote his commentaries on carbon paper, making
three copies. One he kept; two he sent out to women who were the
telegraphers of his words from death row.
Some of these pieces were published by a local newspaper, The Scoop USA,
which is a local circular. It was then literally an 8½-by-11
mimeographed paper you could find in barbershops and local dives in
North Philly. The first nine of these commentaries were published later
in the 1980s by activists, in a pamphlet titled "Survival Is Still a Crime."
*Why did you include such old essays?*
In one piece, Mumia unequivocally declares his innocence. That's
important because the Fraternal Order of Police wrongly repeats over and
over again that Mumia has never declared his innocence; that he
confessed in the hospital to killing Officer Daniel Faulkner. For that
essay, Mumia actually lifted part of his statement of innocence from the
public record. He'd already declared in court, before his sentencing: "I
am innocent of these charges that I have been tried for ... I am
innocent despite what you 12 people think ..."
*This book includes 108 of Mumia's commentaries. How did you pick them?*
Mumia has written thousands of pieces, so choosing only 108 was very
difficult. Someone helped me whittle it down to around 600. I wanted a
variety, so after the 600 or so were selected, I went off and found
others that addressed the politics of the Caribbean, Haiti, Africa,
Puerto Rico ...
The book's objective was to place Mumia in the context of the Black
Radical tradition and with other prison writers. That's important for
this new generation of young people coming to political consciousness. I
also wanted to include "10 Reasons Why Mumia Abu-Jamal Should Be Freed."
That's what's different about this collection; it addresses the case.
*I notice you included some essays on Israel's treatment of Palestinians.*
Part of what it means to be in the Black Radical tradition is to defend
the colonized and the oppressed. It would have been dishonest and
unprincipled to exclude Palestine. This is one of the most important
crises of our time. It's the terrorizing and displacement of a people
and their demonization by their oppressor - we forget this has a deep
resonance in the African-American experience. I can't imagine Mumia
approving a book without these commentaries.
*Isn't Mumia as a journalist - even with resources most people don't
have in prison - still operating at a huge disadvantage? How do you
think his work might be different if he were allowed access to the world?*
I think Mumia is enamored of people's stories, of struggle. His work
would probably benefit from being able to interview the people he writes
about. He really enjoyed going into the field and talking to people. In
fact, that's how he got into this crisis. He was the only journalist in
Philadelphia who actually talked to the MOVE people and got their story
from their perspective.
*As his collaborator, is there any constructive advice that you'd give
Mumia about his writing?*
Well, because Mumia's used to writing short form, sometimes I want him
to deepen his analysis. I push him to do that.
*Yes, often there are little nuggets of gobsmacking information tucked
away in his essays. In one, he mentions offhandedly that "members of the
Abolition movement were seen as the 'crazies' of the day, and Lincoln
made jokes about shooting them!" Mumia could make that an essay in itself.*
Exactly. And he welcomes feedback. I mean he pushes back because he's
trained in this journalistic haiku. But you know this is also a product
of his isolation. Writing is about rewriting; it's about sharing your
work with a community of writers and people you trust. Mumia doesn't
Part of the issue now is that Mumia's very ill but the demands on him to
write are still immense. He's constantly writing. And writing these
commentaries, recording them, giving speeches hither and yon, this keeps
*It's now public that Mumia has hepatitis C. Do you know anything more
at this point?*
Mumia's condition is horrific. His skin, from head to toe, looks like
elephant hide. So the movement managed to get a doctor to visit and
eyeball his condition. Even though this wasn't a formal exam - he just
made a regular prison visit - the doctor thinks that Mumia's condition
is a complication of hepatitis C, which Mumia acquired when he was
transfused in 1981 after he was shot by Officer Faulkner. The doctor,
who's traveled internationally with Doctors Without Borders, also noted
that this same condition was studied in Egypt among predominantly Black
*Back in 1981, I'm guessing that, if a police officer had shot and
killed Mumia Abu-Jamal, there would have been no outrage of the kind
that erupted after Officer Faulkner's death. Mumia would be another
statistic. Why should a cop's life be more important than a civilian's?*
I don't think it should be. I think Eddie Conway said
that, in the post-Civil Rights era, the killing of a police officer by a
Black man is the new unspeakable act, similar to the rape of a white
woman by a Black man.
It's also how police, in the aftermath of the Black Power era, have
reacquired legitimacy in American society. In many ways, the cops were
exposed and delegitimized in the 1960s by the Civil Rights and Black
Power movements. They had to launch a campaign to regain respect, which
they've gotten on the backs of political prisoners, of Black political
This term "cop-killer" is part of that campaign. It's elevated the life
of a police officer over that of an ordinary person. That's dangerous
because, when you enter that kind of territory, you're living in a
*So Mumia's not a martyr. But you've said that with his fame and his
writing and the art other people make about him, Mumia's still an icon.
How do you get people to see beyond that?*
When I was working on the film /Justice on Trial/, I interviewed Mumia's
sister. She started talking about the role Mumia played in their family.
His mother had been orphaned and didn't show much affection. His sister
tells how Mumia would just grab their mother up - she was a very small
woman - and would force her to hug him. She told me all these stories
about the ordinary Mumia in a family unit.
I thought, "Oh my god, this is how they're able to warehouse so many
African-American men." Because, if they're political prisoners, we
imagine them as icons. If they're not, they're free agents, disconnected
from friends, family, partners. And I realized that one of the most
important things we can do is simply to humanize incarcerated people.
Political prisoners, all of them.
The problem is that the state is always on the attack. It has prison
activists constantly in a frenzied state, such that we can't think
long-term. For me, there's always some emergency, and the challenge is
to step back, to figure out how we're going to bring Mumia home.
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