Remembering a Panther

The last time I saw former Black Panther, incarcerated activist and poet, Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa, he asked me a question I didn’t fully understand. “Here’s a riddle for you,” he began, gap-toothed and grinning from his hospice bed. “If the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second and there are 5,180 feet in a mile and if the speed of sound is 1,100 feet per second, how long would it take you to see that you’ve heard something?”

It was the early afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday 2016, a few hours before Beyonce and her back-up dancers would take the field in Black Panther-inspired berets. I remember shrugging at Mondo’s question, bemused and a little frustrated. He’d posed the question to me before in postscript. “Wasn’t that fun?” he wrote in tight, minuscule cursive at the end of the first letter he sent me, his reply to my letter of introduction. I wasn’t the only one he’d put the question to. Mondo loved riddles and he recycled his repertoire shamelessly.

But what began as a nonsensical combination of stats morphed into a poignant and surprisingly simple sentiment, one that now seems impossible to have missed. How long would it take you to see that you’ve heard something? James Baldwin once wrote: “The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen.” During the short time I knew Mondo we talked a lot about art and responsibility. He wrote his first poem in high school, at a point in his life when he was becoming interested in social justice, but was still a few years away from becoming a Panther, from being radicalized.

I met Mondo during the final year and a half of his life, visiting him in the Nebraska State Penitentiary. At the time of his death on March 11th, 2016, just over four years ago today, he had served 45 years in prison. I wrote about his case while a graduate student at the University of Iowa. Formerly known as David Rice, Mondo changed his name in the early 80s, an attempt to reclaim his African identity.

In 1971, he and his co-defendant Edward Poindexter were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of an Omaha policeman. The officer, Larry Minard, died when a suitcase bomb exploded in a North Omaha home on August 17, 1970. Minard was responding to a phony report that a woman was being assaulted inside a vacant home. At the time, Ed and Mondo were leaders in the Omaha chapter of the Black Panther Party. The two were arrested after a 15-year-old former member implicated Ed and Mondo as the brains behind the bomb plot, though he initially confessed to planting the bomb and placing the phony 911 call alone.

Eight years after the trial, an FBI memo surfaced showing cooperation between police and FBI in suppressing the audio of the phony 911 call as evidence that might have demonstrated Mondo and Ed’s innocence. Court documents also reveal that Omaha police had been monitoring Mondo and Ed for two years prior to the murder.

Though Amnesty International called for Mondo and Ed to have a new trial or be released, their case received little national attention. Omaha, too, has mostly forgotten them, forgotten that the Panther story extends beyond Oakland and Chicago. And yet the issue that prompted the formation of the Omaha Chapter of the Black Panther Party – police brutality – is very much alive and in the national consciousness.

At the same time, the Panthers called for much more than an end to police brutality. They advocated for quality education, quality medical care, decent housing, exemption from military service, and a general anti-capitalist restructuring of society.

To borrow from Steve Wasserman, if we focus on the stories of the “supernovas” of the party, if we repeat the Oakland-centered narrative, we risk overshadowing the lesser-known stories of Panthers like Mondo and Ed. We forget that the BPP grew from an Oakland-based organization to a national party with chapters in almost every major city in the U.S. Like many others, the Omaha chapter addressed poverty and inequality at the local level, going beyond activism for self-defense. Mondo and Ed started a free breakfast program for schoolchildren and ran the Vivian Strong Liberation School, named after one of four unarmed Omaha teenagers killed by police in 1969.

How long would it take you to see that you heard something?

As I left the prison that afternoon, I realized that Mondo’s words could be read as a commentary on his own political trajectory, both a validation of and a condemnation of his own movement from apprehension to articulation. I say condemnation because, in Mondo’s eyes, he too long lived the straight and narrow. Mondo laughed, for instance, about his first foray into activism. As an eighteen-year-old — and still very much the good Catholic boy– he was part of a delegation of Omaha teenagers who met with Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison seeking his support for a bill prohibiting the sale of obscene literature to minors.

In 1966 (his senior year) Mondo was one of six black students at Creighton Prep and on the verge of realizing, after attending homecoming with his white girlfriend and earning the ire of teachers and peers, that he wasn’t just one of the boys. A class clown, he never lost his sense of humor, or resisted repeating a good pun, but that year the middle-class boy who played football and promoted sock hops and speech meets as a member of the Poster Club began to funnel his energies into more heady pursuits: into organizing, into writing. He ran a poetry group as a young man in his early twenties. On Saturdays he and five others would meet at a coffee-shop. There they would discuss Beat poetry and write in books with blank pages. Sometimes Mondo and a friend would get to ab-libbing poetry back and forth, neither wanting to be the first to pause, stumped. “If we’d start to lose momentum, to get it back, he would shout ‘while wallowing in the depths of poverty’ and then I’d jump in and that would get it started again,” Mondo told me, laughing as he recalled his friend’s go-to line. One of Mondo’s best early poems is an elegy for Vivian Strong.

The ideology of the Black Panther Party articulated something for Mondo that he had always felt, but hadn’t yet learned the language to express. How long does it take you to see that you’ve heard something? Seeing was linking lived experience to discourse. Hearing precedes sight. Mondo was politically engaged until the end, sharp even in sickness.

The late 1960s and early 70s saw a surge in politically-driven poetry that challenged complacency within unjust systems. The BPP’s national newsletter regularly published poetry. It was common for Panthers to perform poems at meetings or functions, spitting out bold, revolutionary sentiments, their gymnastic wordplay prefiguring hip hop and modern rap. “Poems are bullshit,” Amiri Baraka wrote, “unless they are teeth.”

Two weeks before his death, Mondo mailed out a copy of what would be his final poem, called “When It Gets To This Point.” It begins:

Michael Brown?
I had never heard of him
had never heard of anything he’d done
before the news of his death came
whoever he might have become
whatever he might have achieved
had he lived longer
not been riddled lifeless by
bullets from Darren Wilson’s gun
and crumpled on the pavement of a ferguson street
for more than four hours in
the heat of that august day
and before
I’d never known of Trayvon Martin
had known nothing of who he was
until I learned of his demise
and cause of death
a bullet to the chest
George Zimmerman, the shooter
a badge-less, pretend police
with a pistol
and fear of the darkness
Trayvon’s darkness
and after a while
the pictures, the names,
the circumstances
run together
like so much colored laundry in the wash
that bleeds on whites
was it Eric Garner or Tamir Rice
who was twelve but seen as twenty
Hulk Hogan or The Hulk
with demonic eyes it was said
who shrank the cop in ferguson
into a five-year-old who
had to shoot
and John Crawford the third
in a walmart store aisle
an air rifle in his hands he’d picked up
from the shelf
and held in the open
in an open-carry state
was it John or someone else
killed supposedly by mistake
in a dark stairwell
I know Akai Gurley fell
I hadn’t heard of him before
nor of Amadou Diallo or Sean Bell
prior to their killings
which of these two took slugs in the greater number
I don’t recall
my memory is too encumbered
with the names
of so many before and since

Much of Mondo’s poetry critiqued police power within the U.S. But, like the Panthers, his scope was broad. Like the Panthers, he called for the internationalization of black struggle and aligned himself with third world liberation movements. Many of his poems have a Pan-African and anti-imperialist bent.

In “I Don’t Step in the Water,” the final poem in his 2012 collection, The Black Panther is an African Cat, Mondo writes:

There is a place
between the building I’m caged in
and the one where the slop is served
where when it rains
two puddles form
puddles that form a map
of Africa
I do not splash through
but walk around
out of respect.

Mondo’s ashes are now in Tanzania, where former Panther Pete O’Neal lives in exile with his wife, Charlotte, also a former Kansas City Panther. One of their students volunteered to carry Mondo’s ashes to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

At Mondo’s service, former inmates and friends shared their favorite memories, how he hated shoes and once during a meetings of Harambe, an African cultural organization for inmates, went without: barefoot, elfin, talking a mile a minute. For once the guards let him get away with it. When Mondo turned himself in he was wearing a dark t-shirt, beige pants, and sandals, the only footwear he could tolerate, a choice that seemed inappropriate given the gravity of his situation. The newspaper picture capturing the moment suddenly seemed retroactively funny.

There was anger, too. I learned that once he refused to wear socks to the cafeteria. This, in combination with an earlier offense (giving his meat to another inmate) led to a parole hearing being postponed for five years. Everyone who spoke talked about how productive he was, how he mentored younger inmates, taught classes in African history, how he still managed to contribute to society despite being incarcerated, how his poems would live. But I don’t know that I can get on board with such optimism. I would have preferred him to live. I would have preferred him to walk free, to have made it to Tanzania, alive.

Still, I like to picture Mondo at eighteen years old, the way he described himself and the way he looked in pictures: small for his age and hunched over on the carpet in his room, where he can stay for up to four or five hours alone. He’s scrawling furiously on a yellow pad. Like a singer overcome with the raw emotion behind his own song, he lets his eyes fill with tears. Then laughs, started at a turn of phrase. At his own turn of phrase. At his own ability to create.

Maybe part of the reason he’ll stick with his poetry is vanity, an unarticulated desire to differentiate himself from his peers through his ability to manipulate language. But a writer doesn’t realize he’s good at writing on the first try. There has to be something before that. It’s a compulsion. Something that has to be written. In Mondo’s case, call it a moral imperative.

Poetry as teeth.

Mondo was my subject, but in some ways he was also my friend. Or, more accurately, we were becoming friends at the time of his death, a death he denied, resenting the doctor’s diagnosis and anyone who spoke to him of his failing health. There were things we didn’t talk about. He regretted his white girlfriends. There were things I didn’t want to talk about, but he did. He could be homophobic. He could be long-winded. There were things we both wanted to talk about. He waxed philosophical about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He once wrote a song about how much he looked forward to his showers, a goofy ballad the guards in the infirmary knew well. He was too shy to sing it to me.

I wanted to write him out of there.

If innocent, Mondo, was, at the time of his death, among the longest-serving political prisoners in the U.S. Ed Poindexter is one of 16 former Black Panthers still behind bars. He is serving his 49th year in prison.