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Copyright 2006 Mumia Abu-Jamal/Prison Radio

"Interview w/ Mumia Abu-Jamal & Catherine Murphy re Literacy"

rec 8/27/06

1) 9:45 Radio essay Mp3

 Sociologist and social documentarian Catherine Murphy is the founder and coordinator of The Literacy Project, an multi-media oral history project on literacy in the Americas. For more information, see www.theliteracyproject.org

CM:  Can you please start by talking about literacy as a social justice and a liberation issue.

MAJ: When you first wrote to me, I did some digging, and I found some quotes from a book I had read many years ago, by a man known as a liberation psychologist. His name is Ignacio Martín Baró. He wrote a book called Writings for Literation Psychology. He talked about the Salvadoran experience, and about how his work in the liberation theology movement were trying to do was to awaken critical consciousness among the peasantry and poor people. The term he used was conscientización – conscientización is the awakening of critical consciousness. Literacy is a part of that. But what happens is that people are awakened to a new reality - they are literally transfomed. That is the very essence of Revolution. We think about Revolution in certain ways because of our history and what we’ve been taught. But Revolution is always intensely personal. It begins with the self. It begins with how that person interacts with the society around. Literacy that teaches people their history, progessive ideas, a way of challenging the society in which they live… Ignacio Martin Baró said that literacy is really de-coding because it teaches people who are poor and illiteracy how to de-code the mechanisms of oppression that they´re living in every day. How to question, how to develop a critical consciousness. That is an important part of the Revolutionary process, no matter where you are.

Of course, one cannot forget the lived example of Frederick Douglass, who as a very young boy learned to read & write.  And his experience, what he found out, when his… shall we say “master´s wife” - and I hesitate to use that word because very few men in that time or any have mastered Frederick Douglass - found his wife teaching how to read, he gave her hell. He told her  “you’ll spoil a nigger, don’t you do anything like that” and forbade her.  Frederick Douglass said from that moment on, he learned an important lesson. For him and for people of that time, and people subsequently of course, that was a road to freedom. I think that is esentially and generally true. But the problem isn’t whether one is literate - whether one can read or write - but what one reads or writes. And in this culture, it is possible to be literate - indeed to be considered educated - but because you’ve been educated in an imperialist, backward country, really, that you become a tool of neo imperialism of the state. And the state uses various ways to subvert that tool by mis-informing, mis-educating people or teaching them the worst lessons that people can learn: racism, sexism & looking down on people from other cultures & other nations.

CM: The story of Frederick Douglass is very powerful in terms of illustrating systematic exclusion from basic literacy - and clearly there are many literacies – it´s important what you´re saying that it´s not just being able to read / write but what you read / write ‘ what youre given to read / write… could you speak to this issue of exclusion from basic literacy as a tool of oppression, and the legacy of slavery in the US.

MAJ: What we see when we look around in this day and age are city schools and public schools for the most part, and some charter schools, that have failed miserably at the task of teaching kids how to read and how to write. That isn’t an accident – there’s a certain design. When I listen to a right wing and neo-fascist or conservative radio show, and someone calls up, they won’t use the words “public school”. They’ll say “government school” and that is a subtle form of propaganda to attack the very notion of public education - the right of every person to the fundamental education about the world in which they live. Why is that that America has some of the best higher education in the world, and some of the worst primary education in the world?  So that the people who at the lowest levels and rungs of society - because they can’t afford that commodity which is education - and it is fast becoming a greater and greater commodity - get the worst teachers, they get the worst schools.

I will never forget the imagery of Jonathan Kozol writing about a school I believe in New Jersey and perhaps in New York - with human waste running down the center of a hallway, windows broken, with people not caring, frankly, about their charges. This is an outrage – and it should be.

CM: It is an outrage. Could you talk about the relation of illiteracy in the US to mass incarceration?

MAJ: One of the greatest stories to come out of Black America in the 20th century was the story of Malcom X, who essentially taught himeself the fundamentals of reading. He could read, he was a bright student, but in his autobiography, he´s told, when he tells his cousel that he want to be a lawyer, she says, “Be realistic. That’s not a realistic option for a n-i-g-g-e-r”. And it crushed him, it crushed his young soul, but it wasn’t until years later when he was in prison that he began reading the dictionary from beginning to end, and studying words & the roots of words, then studying ideas and then studying philosophies – where he really educated himself.

What we have in the American Prison System today is a kind of premium on ignorance. If there´s anything that works, and the studies have shown this, it´s education.

Why to cut that from people and make it harder not easier shows that people don’t really care about recidivism, They want people stupid, that they want people to go out, re-offend and feed the Prison Industrial Complex - and not to contribute to their communities & the world at large.


CM: Let´s talk about models of hope. Cuba is one, there are many, but there are also models in the US: Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, the Panther Party as well. Can you talk about some of that history?


MAJ: What we learned from all of those examples that you mentioned – Cuba, the Black Panther Party, Freedom Schools, Liberation Schools – is when people have an ideological motivation, if they are moved & driven to not just teach teach, but when students hear the message & it turns them on, then true learning happens! When people are motivated, then they want to learn.

Cuba certainly tapped into that, the Party tapped into that, SNCC and Black Nationalist organizations and other organizations tapped into that. Education isn’t a one-way process – it’s multi-layered, you see. It has to go both ways.


When I was reading the book about the Cuban Literacy Project, there was a man named Juan Martinez. He seemed to be middle-aged or an older man. He said “Until I learned how to read and write, I never felt like I was truly Cuban.”  It was a striking quote – because everything is in there. He never felt like he was part of the country until he understood what reading and writing could do for him.

CM: Any other words on the Cuban campaign?

MAJ: They have done something that is absolutely remarkable. I knew about it of course, but to read again about the campaign – to read Kozol’s book Children of the Revolution and the other book [In the Spirit of Wandering Teachers published by Ocean Press], it made me weep with admiration for their incredible, truly revolutionary accomplishment. It hasn’t been duplicated anywhere else on earth. Amazing.

CM: Thank you.

MAJ: Thank you.


Copyright 2006 Mumia Abu-Jamal

[Mr. Jamal's recent book features a chapter on the
remarkable women who helped build and defend
the Black Panther Party: *WE WANT FREEDOM:
A Life in the Black Panther Party*, from South
End Press (http://www.southendpress.org); Ph.


[Check out Mumia's latest: *WE WANT FREEDOM:
A Life in the Black Panther Party*, from South
End Press (http://www.southendpress.org); Ph.

"When a cause comes along and you know in your bones that it is
just, yet refuse to defend it--at that moment you begin to die.
And I have never seen so many corpses walking around talking about
justice." - Mumia Abu-Jamal


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The Power of Truth is Final — Free Mumia!

International Concerned Family & Friends of MAJ
P.O. Box 19709
Philadelphia, PA 19143
Phone - 215-476-8812/ Fax - 215-476-6180

Send our brotha some LOVE and LIGHT at:
Mumia Abu-Jamal
AM 8335
175 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370


Submitted by: Sis. Marpessa