Thoughts on Live From Death Row

The occasion arises when a book review simply will not will not rev up without a few shouts out. This is such a time, so indulge me for a bit. I wanna say what's up to Aaron Anderson, who'll be serving out the rest of his 16-year bid up at Pelican Bay. Aaron, I know you didn't think I liked you those days back when you were with my sister. What bugged me was the shit you did. It wasn't you. I've watched my niece and nephew -- your daughter and son -- grow up, and found loveable common traits in them that I can't trace to my sister. That shit must have come from you. I gotta give a shout out to Delbert Bilal, my father. After all these years it must have gotten around to you that I don't want to ever see you again. That's not true anymore. See, I just got married and want to start a family, and I somehow don't think I've learned all that's important to know about staying out of the pen. Being an ex-con, you could show me. But this piece goes out to my man Jon-Jon back in Ohio. Thanks for calling. Re-visiting high school glory days was cool, but it hurt to hear about the addicts, convicts and small-town crack kings everyone had become. Who'd have thought that crazy Boo Boo would be the best news of that whole crew? No one knows where his ass is, so we can at least hold out for the possibility that he's all right. I mean, after all, none of you all knew where I was for 10 years, and I'm cool. You laughed when I told you I get paid for writing down the same sort of shit that used to get me thrown out of class in high school. ("Journalism? That's English like a motherfucker," you said.) As the saying goes, you gotta have a con in this land of milk and honey. Boo Boo had hella con game, so he might have turned out like me, you know what I'm saying? If you're black, you have a prison story, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Past tense or present tense, friends or family, it don't matter. It don't matter how rich or assimilated you are, niggas got 'em. This constant continuity is just a tangible example of how the denial of freedom rules our lives. And with society jonesin' for prisons as never before, the metaphor's about to get real like a motherfucker. That's why Live From Death Row, a collection of writings from journalist Mubia Abu-Abdul, is so timely. After being named "one of the people to watch in 1981," by Philadelphia magazine, the radical journalist moved from being an object of surveillance to one of capture. In convicting Mumia for the murder of a police officer, local DA's successfully pursued a singularly insubstantial case through under-scrutinized and apparently illegal means. The circumstances of his arrest, conviction and subsequent denied appeals, all of which are detailed with calm incredulity in attorney Leonard Weinglass' afterword, have drawn the attention of no fewer than 10 groups across the country dedicated to winning him freedom. Although he's the most celebrated political prisoner this side of Geronimo Pratt, most know him from the dust conservatives kicked up when public radio planned to give an audience to his reports from prison last year. Mumia addresses the expansive baseline unfairness the criminal justice system has had on his life in an early essay on deathcase jury composition. Although blacks are a little more than 11 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 40 percent of those condemned to death. The reason for this disparity is systemic, the author explains: in order to sit on a jury for a capital case, a juror must indicate support for the death penalty. This mandatory predisposition excludes people -- most often women and minorities -- who traditionally put less faith in the death penalty than white men, and nudges sentences to the most extreme end of available punishments. From here, it's a short leap to understanding why murderers of blacks are sentenced less harshly than those of whites, and why black convicted killers are disproportionately sentenced to death. Live From Death Row's brief essays and reports are poured into big type that fills petite columns in this slender volume. Mumia's language is conversational, as if he were writing for broadcast, the medium in which he worked. A combination of eyewitness accounts and detailed research, his journalism differs markedly from the prison missive prototype. Where George Jackson's Soledad Brother exalted in, as Jean Genet put it, "a joy in anger," Live From Death Row comes from a perspective of cold eyes that have been chilled by sadness. That adjustment, inadvertant as it may be, gives the book an indisputably contemporary feel. Soledad Brother was a product of fiery, idealistic times. Similarly, Mumia's book matches the era in which it was produced. "Fuck tha Police" could not be credibly released in 1995 and E-40's remorseful hit audio letter to prison "One Love" sums up a feeling (inevitability, despair). Anything more than instances of passion in Live From Death Row would have read like lies. Like any good revolutionary, Mumia has picked up worthwhile qualities from the system that's played so prominent a role in his life. His distant tone calls to mind the cool precision of a jurist. (Not your average Supreme Court jurist, but you get my drift.) And in his presentation of statistics and judicial opinions, the metaphoric content of his work glows. Having achieved his desired balance of fact and analysis, Mumia finds the amalgamation is complete only with the inclusion of a personal insight. Documenting a morning when, instead of water, "an oil based substance" flowed through his faucet at Huntingdon State Correctional Institute, he writes: I think of white, well-fed families who survive and thrive off houses of pain like this, in rural enclaves across the country, under the illusion of otherness. How many housewives in the surrounding township met sunrise this morning with sleep in their eyes, filled the pot with water for coffee, caught a whiff of gasoline rising from the cup, and gagged? The earth is but one big ball. The borders, the barriers, the cages, the cells, the prisons of our lives, all originate in the false imaginations of the minds of men. Not everyone has to go to prison to be on death row. Now that building prisons is a certified growth industry, the concept of housing the offspring of slaves in the penal system has become entrenched in our civilization. It's a part of our lives. On the matter of a 15-year-old boy, Mumia AbuAdbul writes, "He grew into manhood in shackles, and every time I saw him he seemed bigger in size but more bitter in spirit." Has this boy grown up shackled, ass-out of prospects in an "equal opportunity" workplace? Is he being honed by the streets because his mother can't feed him? Or has the subject been sentenced to do a bid that's as long as the time he's been on earth? Do the details even matter? In his perfectly pitched introduction, John Edgar Wideman explains the wrong-headed appeal of what he calls the "neo-slave narrative," in which the one-time poor black triumphs over the system to "make it" in America. The problem with these narratives is that they provide a "bifurcated, either/or world." Readers snatch up and publishers crank out this narrative "because it is about individuals, not groups, crossing boundaries; because it comforts and consoles those in power and offers a ray of hope to the powerless. Although the existing social arrangements may allow the horrors of plantations, ghettos and prisons to exist, the narratives tell us, these arrangements are not absolutely evil. No one is absolutely guilty . . . If some overcome, why don't others." Brilliant in its specificity and moral imperative, Mumia AbuAbdul's work is about why multitudes of people don't overcome. It rings so true because he has not overcome. author

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