Mumia, the Writer: An interview with Johanna Fernández, editor of "Writing On The Wall"

I think that this volume is important because it shows that Mumia represents a continuity in black radical str

On Dec. 9, 1981, at 3:55 a.m., in Philadelphia, police officer Daniel Faulkner stopped a man named William Cook. Cook's brother Wesley—also known as Mumia Abu-Jamal, a famed black journalist and activist who was working with the radical organization MOVE—arrived across the street from the scene while driving his cab. Faulkner was found dead, with Abu-Jamal lying unconscious on the floor with a gunshot wound in his abdomen. Abu-Jamal was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in the state of Pennsylvania.

But the case has never truly been settled. Witnesses came forward testifying that they saw a different man running from the crime scene, and the ballistics report specified that Faulkner was shot with a .44 caliber weapon when Abu-Jamal's gun was of .38 caliber. Abu-Jamal has been something of a cause célèbre for a couple of generations of activists now, and has written widely during his decades of incarceration. His new book "Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal" collects some of his most important essays. Johanna Fernández, who edited the book and works as the coordinator of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, will talk about "Writing on the Wall" at the Book festival this weekend. We caught up with Fernández to talk about her own work, her relationship with Abu-Jamal, and "Writing on the Wall." (Kaila Philo)

CP: Could you tell us a little bit about "Writing on the Wall"?

JF: "Writing on the Wall" contains written material including Mumia's . . . writings from prison, and what is different about this volume is that it has a commentary in particular in which he clearly declares his innocence. This is important because the Fraternal Order of Police repeats over and over again that Mumia confessed to the crime of killing Officer Faulkner, but in these writings—the first of these writings—Mumia clearly declares his innocence, which is also important because Mumia stopped writing about his case pretty early on. He decided that he was going to focus his energies and critical lens on the crisis of imprisonment and domestic and world politics. So, the writings in "Writing on the Wall," Mumia's commentaries—which he begins to write immediately upon his incarceration in 1982. Part of what I present in the introduction of this book is that Mumia's work is part of the canon of American literature, but I also argue that his writing is part of the liberation-oriented current that Cornel West identifies as the black prophetic tradition in American history . . . I interviewed Cornel, and the edited transcript of that interview is the preface of the book.

CP: What does West mean by the "the black prophetic tradition"?

JF: What he means by the black prophetic tradition are black voices that are vilified while they're living, voices that are uncompromising in their commitment to illuminating the truth about black oppression (including Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis, even Martin Luther King), and are celebrated in American history after their death. I think that this volume is important because it shows that Mumia represents a continuity in black radical struggle and dissent from the 1960s to the present. He writes consistently—I mean, Mumia was publishing these commentaries consistently on a weekly basis from 1982 to the present, and in these commentaries he offers a black radical counternarrative to the ruling ideology of the last 40 years. This is an ideology that's been manufactured and presided over by both Democrats and Republicans who presided over the elimination of civil rights; this ruling ideology pretty much condoned the mass transfer of wealth from the bottom of society to the top that happened over these 20 years, and the unprecedented political power of the 1 percent here in the United States, and also the deployment of terror . . . abroad. Beyond that, I think that Mumia's writings offer an important . . . syllabus for the new generation that's coming to political consciousness from Ferguson to Baltimore, and who are fighting for a better world at home and against U.S. wars abroad.

CP: I was surprised by the breadth of topics covered in his writing.

JF: In his book you'll find commentaries about the new face of racism in American society after the civil rights movement, the growth of mass incarceration and its root causes; you'll find articles that discuss the economic transformation of the nation and that transfer of wealth from the bottom of society to the top—from the working and middle class to the top—and why that happened; there are articles on Palestine, on Puerto Rico, incredible articles about Katrina, Haiti; any of the writers who influenced Mumia like Frantz Fanton are reviewed by him; a number of articles about Reaganism and Reaganomics, the terror wars abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan . . . he covers a range of subjects that have defined social, economic, and political life—domestic and internationally. There's a commentary on hip-hop . . . so, it's a really rich and poetic compilation of commentaries, and it was very, very difficult to choose (Mumia's written thousands and thousands and thousands of commentaries), and we chose a little over a hundred. There are commentaries on Ferguson, his assessment of Ferguson.

CP: Last I heard of Mumia, the prison was withholding his hepatitis C treatment from him as well as other prisoners, and now it appears he's suing the prison. If all of that is true, have you seen him recently? How does he appear to be doing?

JF: Oh, I just visited him on Sunday, in fact . . . He has filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania DOC [Department of Corrections] for medical negligence . . . and we think there has been some retaliation because his belongings—all of his property—was packed up and put in storage. This is while he's been in the infirmary; he's been in the infirmary since April, permanently . . . He's lost 25 pounds in the last two months. His skin is just horrible; it's black, jet black all over, and Mumia is like a chocolate brown. His skin is wrinkled; he showed me his feet, his legs. I hadn't seen his legs, and I said, "Let me see your legs. Do you still have open wounds?" because he'd had open wounds for months . . . This is an inferno; he's living an inferno, and the prison is presiding over this torturous situation. Now, let me tell you that one of the things that could immediately ease his situation is zinc. Zinc costs $9.99, and they refuse to administer [it]. But ultimately, what he really needs is to be administered the cure for hepatitis C; they're denying that in part because whatever they do with Mumia is going to set a precedent for a class-action suit by 10,000 Pennsylvania prisoners who also have active hepatitis C.

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