AJR  Books
From AJR,   July/August 2000

A Passionate Message from Death Row   

All Things Censored

By Mumia Abu-Jamal
Seven Stories Press
303 pages; $29.95

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Remember passion? Remember anger?

In the age of kinder-blander journalism, here is a book that resurrects the enkindled spirit of the '60s. Mumia Abu-Jamal's message is burning and powerful, outraged and outrageous, but most of all tragic.

His signature signoff--"from death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal"--gives this collection of essays a singular sting. The man whom supporters call "the voice of the voiceless" offers a nearly unique perspective on the hellishness of prison life, the inhumanity of the criminal justice system and the rage of the underclass. He also, in harsh and unsparing language, bewails the cold-bloodedness of the mass media and their indifference, at least from his perspective, to injustice and suffering.

Abu-Jamal's life story is complex and troubling.

In the early 1980s, he was an outspoken radio journalist who became president of the Association of Black Journalists of Philadelphia. In 1982 he was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a police officer who had stopped Abu-Jamal's brother's car. The trial was hugely controversial, and the appeals still are being fought.

Over time, Abu-Jamal has acquired the status of international icon. In May, thousands of demonstrators turned out across Europe for the "International March for Support of Mumia Abu-Jamal." Celebrities from Alice Walker (who wrote the foreword to this book) to Desmond Tutu have appealed on his behalf. Many believe he was framed, that his trial was unfair, that he was targeted because of his dissidence, that he stands as a victim of a racist system. Amnesty International has called for a new trial.

Others find the evidence against him persuasive and believe he is a guilty man using charges of racism as a cloak.

This book will not settle these matters, but it will raise disquieting issues for journalists.

First, it is important to feel the anger of Abu-Jamal and of others in the "voiceless" society he depicts. As a teenager protesting a political speech by George Wallace, he writes, he was attacked by a group of whites and then kicked in the face by a police officer when he called for help. "I have been thankful to that faceless cop ever since, for he kicked me straight into the Black Panther Party."

That anger still seethes. Abu-Jamal assails the image of police as public servants. "Since when have servants (of any kind) acted in the vile, arrogant, monstrous manner that many of these cops do in black, hispanic, and poor communities? Since when have such servants been in the position to slaughter, shoot, humiliate, and imprison the very public they are sworn to serve?"

Abu-Jamal writes in the spare, direct style of the broadcaster. His work's power derives less from any special literary flourish than from the inherent drama of the stories he has to tell. One essay, for instance, concerns a man convicted for the rape-slaying of a child. While he is imprisoned, his own daughter is murdered, and her alleged killer is assigned to the man's cellblock. The essay recounts what happens when the two men meet.

Another poignant piece deals with the loss of Abu-Jamal's father, the social costs of fatherlessness, and several fellow inmates who "have taken to the odd habit of calling this writer 'Papa,' certainly high irony when one notes this writer is himself an absent father."

Not surprisingly, Abu-Jamal has harsh words for what he calls the "corporate press."

"As mergers and acquisitions reassign the power over media outlets into fewer and fewer hands," he writes, "the multiple mirrors of the world coalesce into an almost singular image."

He condemns "the institutional, race and class-based bias that pervades the media" which practice "censorship by class and caste while essentially disappearing the suffering and loss of the 'lower classes.' " Ultimately, he contends, the media make up "a multibillion dollar industry that serves the interests of the owners, investors, and stockholders.... So-called public interest is, at best, purely incidental."

Some will dismiss these words as the misguided railings of a convicted murderer. But there is something searing and profoundly disconcerting in the words and images Abu-Jamal brings from the death row of human misery. Our society claims a tradition of opening its eyes and ears, and its pages and airwaves, to the radicalized cries of the oppressed, yet today's media too often seem to shun such disturbing messages.

Abu-Jamal writes with the cartridge of a ballpoint pen, his access to books and visitors severely limited. In a Kafka-like prison hearing, he was actually found guilty of breaking a rule against "writing and conducting the business or profession of journalism" from prison. He became, in his sardonic words, a "convicted journalist." At another point, National Public Radio engaged Abu-Jamal as a commentator, only to back down after then-Sen. Bob Dole and others objected and threatened public radio's funding.

I don't know if Abu-Jamal represents the best of us or the worst of us, but I do believe the both of us must be heard. After all, as he himself asks, "Do you need to be protected from my voice? Or do you need protection from your protectors?"