Angela Davis, in her introduction to Mumia Abu-Jamal's 2009 book "Jailhouse Lawyers," called him one of the most important public intellectuals of our time. "As a transformative thinker," she writes of Abu-Jamal, "he has always taken care to emphasize the connections between incarcerated lives and lives that unfold in the putative arenas of freedom."
In his newest book, "The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America" with Marc Lamont Hill, Abu-Jamal thinks deeply and publicly about a broad range of issues, from Black feminism, to Obama's election and presidency, to hip hop, mass incarceration, public education and the Black church. He quotes Thomas Paine as easily as he references bell hooks. As a man who spent 30 years on Death Row insisting he's innocent of murdering Officer Daniel Faulkner, he's remarkably free of bitterness. He self-describes as a "free Black man living in captivity."
The incredible news, delivered Dec. 7 that Abu-Jamal will no longer face the death penalty, came just two days before the day that marks his 30th year in prison. At the press conference announcing his office's vacating the death sentence, District Attorney Seth Williams promised Abu-Jamal would spend the rest of his life in prison. Still, it was a victory for Abu-Jamal and for the Free Mumia campaign.
This interview was conducted via letters. Abu-Jamal's answers arrived a week before the announcement that his three decades on death row have finally ended.
DH: You're one of the busiest men I know, constantly creating podcasts; you've recently completed your seventh book and you find time to create hand-painted greeting cards. Is this a jail thing or have you always been so productive?
Mumia Abu-Jamal: I'd like to say it's a prison thing, but it isn't. The truth is, my mom used to bug me when I was a boy about being lazy (I was), so I overcompensated by working incessantly. If I didn't have at least two jobs, I felt guilty (the power of a mom's suggestion). There were times when I worked three jobs. I carried that energy with me when I entered the joint. For me, it's second nature.
DH: What do you think of this uprising of the progressive left, Occupy Wall Street? There's been talk of the absence of people of color.
MAJ: I'm frankly quite impressed with Occupy Wall Street, for it did in three months more than the movement of the '60s did in seven years. The growth and sheer span of their work can only be termed impressive. Over 100 cities? Damn. I think it's too white and too college-centric, but at least they're doing something. For that, if nothing else, they are to be lauded. As for Afros and Latinos and Afro Latinos, I think it's our job to enter those movements, and give 'em input, issues and support. I think if all goes according to plan, this could very well be a turning point for this country and by extension, the world (for what happens here radiates around the world, because it's the center of empire). We should remember that every great rebellion in U.S. history led to change, whether negative or positive. The great Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, led to changes in the structure of the government, from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. The (Jacob) Coxey "Army" of the 1890s, while initially unsuccessful, was a direct cause of social security years later, for example.
DH: There's so much talk about the lack of Black leadership. Your generation broke from traditional church leadership. But it's re-emerged — or, perhaps, remained — a central organizing community space.
MAJ: Most of us have early, perhaps childhood memories of church. In many ways, it's formative of not only our personalities, but also our sense of community, of some sense of self-worth, and even, Blackness. It therefore set the limits of what was communally acceptable, for they are inherently conservative (at least socially), and they have that stamp on communal consciousness. But, what I learned during the '60s is that radical actions in the streets moves right through the walls of the sanctuary, and we remember the emergence of radical Black preachers (and imams, etc.), who, in turn, gave radical spiritual blessings to struggles outside of the church. For example, Malcolm X, Nat Turner, James Cone, Jesse Jackson, Ishakamuse Barashango, etc. In fact, in his later years, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was deepening in his radicalism, as shown by his Riverside Church speech, which decried racism, militarism and capitalism. His life and example, in turn radicalized many, many other religious people.
DH: Tell me about writing "The Classroom and the Cell," about its conception and the process.
MAJ: When professor Marc Lamont Hill suggested the project, I was intrigued. Technically, it was the easiest I've ever done, but substantively, it wasn't. For it was constructed from our series of phone calls, perhaps three, or four, per chapter. Marc would tape, send out texts after two or three weeks (whenever a chapter's worth was done), and we would clean up, expand, and/or augment pieces. We mailed each other constantly. I must say, it was intellectually invigorating; but it also was challenging, for we talked about things that Black men rarely discuss, like love, Black love, pain and such. Most Black men avoid such subjects like the plague, but I think we both addressed it openly and honestly.
DH: The chapter on love was powerful, radical even. In the book you call Black love "revolutionary."
MAJ: Black love itself, in a profoundly Negrophobic nation such as ours, is a radical thing, for it opposes the mainstream trajectory of U.S. life, policy and culture. We need to deepen and expand that ethos, so that it becomes a social force that has the power to attract and, with it, build. As in the discussion on church, social movements — especially radical and revolutionary movements — changes social reality in other spheres of life. It changes consciousness. Deep, caring, holistic love among our people can therefore make us more whole in all our relationships in our community. That's because love is inclusive; while hatred is exclusive. There is power in love, which knows no limitations. That, I'm convinced, is our greatest treasure.