Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America: A Review


By Terrenda White

More than 10 years ago, I first heard someone speak of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His name wasn’t spoken really, as much as it was chanted, by a chorus of others who displayed large banners reading, “FREE MUMIA!”

It was 2001 and I was in Durban, South Africa attending the World Conference Against Racism. At the time, I thought it odd that one man had galvanized so many, and on such an international scale—I was literally on the other side of the planet learning about the unjust conviction, incarceration, and looming death of a Philadelphia journalist and former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

But while many supporters continue to speak out, or chant passionately, on behalf of Abu-Jamal’s freedom and the cause he represents, there is nothing more powerful than the words he speaks himself.

In The Classroom and The Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America, Abu-Jamal dialogues with Columbia University Professor Marc Lamont Hill, a scholar-activist and eloquent speaker himself, on matters of politics, culture, love, and black liberation.

Together, the two men seem to vibe on almost every aspect of contemporary life in America—pushing the reader beyond renderings of Abu-Jamal as a slogan or symbol for a single cause, and inviting us to engage with him on matters which extend beyond the prison cell.

There are important chapters on incarceration and the specter of execution which Abu-Jamal has faced until recently.  (In December, after 30 years on Death Row, Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was commuted to life without parole.) But, the majority of this book –eight chapters in all—touches on identity, race in the age of Obama, hip-hop and black cultural politics, education, black love, and masculinity.

Despite Abu-Jamal’s more than 30-years of incarceration, he shares with Hill remarkably current, empathetic, and courageous thoughts on life. He also shares hope.  In many instances, the older Abu-Jamal affirms the younger Hill, encouraging the professor to work through the unique challenges of being a public intellectual. An interesting exchange occurs, when Abu-Jamal, responding to Hill’s existential question of ‘Who are you?’ responds, ‘I am a free Black man living in captivity.’ With powerful irony, Hill replies:

When I think about myself, all sorts of words come to mind. Depending on the situation, I would say things like “father,” “activist,” “writer,” or “professor.” But “free” is one thing I wouldn’t say for myself. In fact, I would describe you as being far freer than me. I can’t avoid seeing the irony that you’re in prison but somehow still free, while I’m out here feeling profoundly un-free.

Though coming-of-age a generation apart, the two men share a deep knowledge of black revolutionary politics which continues to shape their activism and scholarship today. Both natives of Philadelphia, they are two men whom W.E.B Dubois might call Philadelphia Negroes of the 21st century. Abu-Jamal was influenced by the Black Panthers and the writings of Huey P. Newton, and Hill by the cultural nationalism of black religious groups and later by hip-hop culture. Those experiences enrich their debate over black cultural politics and the changing notion of revolution.

Abu-Jamal reminds us that revolution in the late 60s was more than a metaphor for innovative cultural forms and represented an impending sense of real political change. While Hill agrees that youth culture today,
such as hip-hop, deserves serious critique and that much of its content is commercial, he says its form is revolutionary nonetheless. Hill argues, moreover, that it’s misguided to expect today’s black art forms to bear so much responsibility for change, particularly since real political struggle and black organized revolutionary change (characteristic of Abu-Jamal’s generation) are woefully absent.

One particularly insightful conversation between Abu-Jamal and Hill is their discussion of incarceration and prison reform. They attribute the explosion in incarceration over the past thirty years, for example, not only to problematic public policies such as the war on drugs, but also to postindustrial macroeconomic shifts that have reduced the employment prospects of black men in urban areas. 

Though Abu-Jamal and Hill are deeply reflective on racism and its dehumanizing impact on black men and women, they equally share a strong critique of black bourgeoisie society. Indeed, the men ponder the social-spatial and cultural distance of poor blacks (the “lumpen-proleteriat”) from the rest of middle class black community. The eradication of the prison industrial complex, they acknowledge, will require the mobilization of an otherwise complacent professional group of middle class blacks (a point they recognize is highlighted by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow).

As the book moves to its end, both men reveal personal aspects of their individual struggles and limitations, letting down the walls of their public personas, as they discuss issues of love, sex, and masculinity. Hill argues – somewhat to Abu-Jamal’s surprise — that the construct of “masculinity” may be unsalvageable, because it is rooted too deeply in patriarchy and violence.

Throughout the book, the discussion between the two men is constructive, not combative. They seem to genuinely learn from one another and build on each other’s ideas.  Through their candid and rigorous conversations, the reader learns a lot. Plus, each chapter ends with a recommended reading list of critical books that have informed their perspectives.

While Jamal will avoid execution, he is experiencing what Desmond Tutu calls “yet another form of death sentence,” life without parole. The movement to free Abu-Jamal wages on, therefore, until his wrongful conviction is overturned completely.

Paradoxically, despite the daunting struggle which lies ahead for Abu-Jamal, the book ends with Hill leaning on him for guidance and hope. Having faced the threat of death for what amounts to my total years living on earth, Abu-Jamal reminds Hill, and thus the reader, of the incredible resilience of our ancestors and their sustaining powers of love and joy.

From his cell,  Abu-Jamal reminds us that, “Whether it’s making jokes while sitting on death row, singing sorrow songs while working on a slave plantation, or everyday Black people living under hellish conditions, we’ve always managed to retrieve joy from a pile of misery.” I have no doubt that Abu-Jamal will be legally and physically liberated from his hellish misery one day—hopefully in the near future.  Ironically, he is as mentally free in consciousness as any of us are now, perhaps more so.

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