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Copyright 2005 Mumia Abu-Jamal/Prison Radio

‘Writings From the Other Side of the Cage’

rec. 2-23-06

1) 7:41  Essay Mp3

[Col. Writ. 2/23/06] Copyright '06 Mumia Abu-Jamal

[For Ctr. for Black Lit./Medgar Evers College]

When I think of prison writings, I think, not of my own work, but of those I read as a teenager, years ago, which fed me and sustained me as a young revolutionary.

I think, first and foremost, of Malcolm X, who, when his autobiography was published, was no longer a prisoner, but who movingly told of his transformation from a convict called “Satan”, to a clean, sober, militant, Muslim minister, and later, leading Black Nationalist. Malcolm’s provocative lesson to us all came during a speech when he said: “Don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison; you’re *still* in prison!”

From Malcolm’s autobiography, an invisible but perceptible line leads to the late Dr. Huey P. Newton’s *Revolutionary Suicide*; to the late Eldridge Cleaver’s *Soul on Ice*; to George Jackson’s *Blood in My Eye*; to Dr. Angela Davis’s *If They Come for Me in the Morning*... These works opened the eyes of a generation, brought them into the Black Liberation Movement, and opened eyes not just to the horrors and repression of prison, but to the illusion of Black Freedom on the other side of the bars.

We must remember that the long history of African captivity on this land has lasted longer then the United States has existed. Ghettos and other places of poverty are virtual open air prisons, where people walk streets of fear (either from racist cops or from unconscious youth.) Americans claim the freedom to travel, but Driving While Black can be a capital offense. How nebulous, how ethereal is this 'freedom!'

Prison literature, therefore, performs a dual social function; it reports on repression, resistance and survival behind the walls; and it educates in forms and opens possibilities for freedom on the outside. It unites the two sides in consciousness, and illuminates the true nature of a society, as it pulls apart the curtains of its dark, hidden machinery of fear.

No one knows more about freedom, than s/he who is denied it. In America, more often than not, the quality of freedom was determined by one’s Africanity. As the famed black writer, Toni Morrison, has written in her essay, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination”:

“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.” (Morrison 52: 1993).

Morrison’s exposition gives us an almost mirror-image of Americanism as freedom; and Africanism as *un*freedom. One knows what freedom is by knowing what it is not.

Similarly, the prison writer, by telling us of the hells of life in the joint, tells us of the underside of the 'free' state.

For centuries, Africans have known that when the high and mighty spoke of 'freedom', it was but words, as empty as the space between the stars and the heavens. Freedom, of course, meant 'white' freedom, and equally, Black captivity. That uniquely American hypocrisy was pinpointed by the rapier wit of English author Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, (at the time of the American Revolution) quipped: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of [N]egroes?”

There was a time -- a long time -- when the entire South was a prison. If you were Black; and many places in the so-called 'Free North' were, at best, minimum security outposts for Africans, whether slave or 'free' -- where freedom, again, was but rhetoric.

Why, then, should it surprise us, when we look around us, today, only to find a vast Prisonhouse, where millions are chained and shackled, as politicians mouth vacuous phrases about a 'free country?'

And, in this land of prisons, the prisons aren’t always the places with bars. If you were to check for the most popular books among young Black men in prison, you’d find the works of Iceberg Slim, or perhaps Terri Woods. In short, you’ll find novels about hustling, about street life, about pimping and about drug-dealing. One would think that George Jackson’s work would be deeply popular, but, in truth, his name is not well known among younger prisoners.

When one engages some youth on such issues, one is apt to hear the response, “Man -- I ain’t trying to hear that 'Black' shit!”

The dearth of cultural, historical and resistance consciousness that one finds in prison, is but a reflection of the low level one finds in the streets. The apparent triumph of the civil rights movement (I say apparent because I believe it’s more appearance then substance) has led us to this age when millions of young Blacks not only don’t know their rich history of rebellion and resistance; they don’t wanna know. Their eyes seek only the streets. That is their battleground, and their targets are each other.

A few years ago, I heard from several dozen college students who where reading passages from my book, *WE WANT FREEDOM: A Life in the Black Panther Party* (South End, 2004). Almost all of them, including several graduate students, expressed surprise at the death of Black resistance they learned from the book’s opening chapter; history they never knew, nor were ever taught, even in inner city schools. Many only learned about Martin Luther King, or George Washington Carver in school, but little beyond that. They received Black History Lite -- a sweet, almost deracialized history, where things were once bad, but Rev. Dr. King saved us, and our people finally got the vote.

When they read of the long, hard, and brutal freedom struggles of Black folks, and about how our people still really ain’t free, they’re surprised -- and angry.

Surprised at what they didn’t know; angry that they weren’t taught.

Meanwhile, while those destined to rule (those in college) learn about the history of Black revolutionary resistance, those who are captives, the descendants of those who fought those fierce battles for freedom, show disdain for 'Black' shit, and study, if anything, how to hustle on increasingly barren streets.

The dynamics could hardly be more dire.

Those of us who know our people’s history, and who know the Power of that history, must find some way to break through to our young; to reach them. To surprise them. To anger them.

We are reminded of our brave ancestor, the revered Harriet Tubman, (a woman called 'Moses'), who, single-handedly, brought 1,000 Black souls out of slavery through the Underground Railroad.

Her response when honored for her freedom-fighting achievements are as apt now, as they were then. She replied, “I would have been able to free a thousand more slaves, if I could only have convinced them that they were slaves.”

Young people, especially those in modern-day captivity, must be exposed to the works of people like Malcolm X, Dr. Huey P. Newton, Dr. Angela Y. Davis, and George Jackson.

It is their history that they must own, if only to gain a knowledge of freedom.

Copyright 2006 Mumia Abu-Jamal

[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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P.O. Box 19709
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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