A Ritual to Celebrate the Life of Mumia Abu-Jamal

Alice Walker on how to honor Mumia

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Mumia Abu-Jamal has been on death row since 1982, convicted of murdering a Philadelphia policeman. Writer Alice Walker penned this piece as an introduction to Mumia’s collected radio commentaries, which National Public Radio commissioned but never aired. 

I will not write any longer about Mumia Abu-Jamal’s innocence. Millions of people around the world believe he is innocent. I will not write any longer about how he was framed: The evidence speaks for itself. I will not write any longer about the necessity of a new trial: That is obvious. The state intends to take Mumia’s life for its own purpose; for all our love and work, it may succeed.

In every generation there is a case like Mumia’s: A young black man is noted to be brilliant, radical, loving of his people, at war with injustice. Often while he is still in his teens, as in the case of Mumia, the “authorities” decide to keep an eye on him. Indeed, they attempt to arrest his life by framing him for crimes he did not commit, and incarcerating him in prison. There, they think of him as something conquered, a magnificent wild animal they have succeeded in capturing. They feel powerful in a way they could not feel if he were free. Imprisoning such a spirit prevents their knowing just how much of the natural, instinctive, loving self they have lost, or have had stolen from them, whether by abusive parents, horrendous schools, or grim economics. They do not know they have engaged their own masculine beauty, their own passionate soul.

This is immediately apparent when one enters the prison where Mumia is kept. The apprehensive, bored guards. And Mumia, in his orange prison uniform, alert to every spark of life on a visitor’s face, seemingly interested in everything. His essays demonstrate his engaged attention to what is going on in the world, his identification with those who act against injustice and who suffer. His great love of truth and what is right. It is his integrity, in analyzing dozens of events, that makes it possible to sense that he is not a murderer. Certainly not a liar. They will have to kill Mumia to silence him; he has lost his fear of death, having been threatened with it so many times; he is a free man, at last.

A man who is free, whose life has been signed away several times already, is a man I can listen to. What does such a man, unrepentant of his beliefs, have to say? And what places in the listener’s soul are fed by his words? As we push off into the next thousand years, which I personally feel are going to be great, what is the fundamental voice we need to hear to start us on the journey? It is the voice of those like Mumia, whose love outweighs his fear.

So I will ask you to read at least one of Mumia’s books, as a way to begin to feel your way into this new millennium. He has written and published books from death row, an amazing feat, and of course he has been punished for doing so. I will encourage you to listen to his voice. Losing that voice would be like losing a color from the rainbow. I will tell you we have a reason for being here, in America, and that Mumia reminds us what it is. It is to continue to delight in who we are, because who we are is beautiful. Who we are is powerful. Who we are is strong. Mumia is us, this amazing new tribe of people that being in America has produced. With plenty consciousness, plenty beauty, plenty intelligence, and plenty hair.

We are like the Zapatistas of Chiapas in southern Mexico in many ways: vastly outnumbered, many of us poor, humiliated daily by those in power, feeling ourselves unwanted, unseen, and unnamed. Mumia helps us know how deeply and devoutly we are wanted; how sharply and lovingly we are seen; how honorable is our much maligned name. And like the Zapatistas, who are an indigenous people still trustful of Nature, we too can rejoice in knowing it is not too late to take direction from the Earth.

Therefore: The Ocean has told me to tell you this: As Lovers of the Life of Mumia Abu-Jamal, we must be prepared for three things: to see Mumia murdered by the state; to see him left to languish on death row indefinitely; to see him freed. What is our responsibility in the face of these things, all of them designed deliberately to cause great emotion in our hearts? Emotion that, in the past, has predictably sent us mad into the streets, our anger and frustration making us careless in our pain; set up, once more, to become victims of our grief. If Mumia is left to languish in prison indefinitely, we must continue to try to get him out. But if he is murdered by the state or if he is set free by the state, there is something else we must do.

Therefore: On the afternoon of his release, whether into our waiting embraces, we his global family, or whether into the infinitely vast arms of the loving Universe, let us prepare to welcome him into the place of honor his own life has created. Let us observe silence. This will be the hardest thing to do, but we can do it, and it will strengthen us. We can prepare to be silent, by making arrangements beforehand. Let us dress, if we can afford it, in white. White, because it is the color of potentiality, of emptiness, and also because, in America, it has so often been the color of our despair. Let us carry candles in all the colors of the rainbow, representing our multicolored family who have found such joy and inspiration in Mumia's life. Let us carry four stones, symbolic of Mumia's and all the ancestors' bones, and of the four directions. Let us carry sage, incense, flowers, and oranges. Let us carry, as well, a small paper photograph of Mumia and one of Judge Albert Sabo, who showed Mumia no mercy as he sentenced him to death, and another of Governor Thomas Ridge, who signed Mumia's death warrant almost the moment he took office. The fourth photograph should be of Mumia's lawyer, Leonard Weinglass, whose dedication to saving Mumia's life has been brave and unfaltering. These four men are linked for all eternity, and we should honor that. Let us, with our friends and family, and especially all the little children-each child entrusted with a flower and a single orange-make our way to the ocean. Any ocean. And if there is no ocean where you live, go to rivers, creeks, rivulets, and streams. These will eventually reach the ocean, just as you yourself will, someday.

Compose your altar there on the beach; Sabo's photograph to the left, reminding us never to forsake our hearts, and Governor Ridge's to the right, reminding us that force is not our way. Place Mumia's and Leonard's photographs in the center, to reassure us of the possibility of trust, friendship, and freedom. Use the rocks, the bones of the ancestors, to hold the photographs in place. Light your candles, place them on either side of the photographs. Light sage or incense and smudge each other. And now, in whatever way the Spirit moves, facing Ocean, speak. Mother Ocean is so immense that She touches every shore. She can accept your tears; they are of her substance, and She can hold them.

After speaking, return to silence. Burn the photographs. Sabo's first, in gratitude for having been spared his life and his fate; Governor Ridge's next, in joy that your descendants will never need to remember you as someone who wished to kill, or who actually did kill, the Beloved. Then burn Mumia's and Leonard's photographs together, reminding us that those who work for justice are seldom without allies. Bless these ashes, all of which are made holy by your love and your restraint, and send them out to sea. Ask the children to let their flowers accompany them. When your ceremony is finished, hopefully at sunset, sit on the sand, facing the ocean, and share the oranges, symbolic of the sun that those in prison rarely see; a sun so generous in its nature that men have had to build prisons to hide other men away from it. Go home, gather around a good, light meal, no part of which was tortured or enslaved. Answer every child's question thoroughly and with patience. Speak of Angelo Herndon, Hurricane Carter, Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X. Read Mumia's censored radio commentaries aloud. Meditate together on whatever action you need to take. In remembrance of our people, in their thousands, who are imprisoned: If there is anyone in your family who is in need, abandon judgment and commit yourself to helping them.

The meaning of our life is Life itself. As mysterious and as precious as That to which we belong.

Remember to look directly into each other's eyes throughout this long day. Embrace at every opportunity. Touch often.

From the introduction of All Things Censored (Seven Stories Press, 2000), a collection of Mumia’s writings.