It was Paul Robeson who introduced us, albeit he’d been dead for 32 years. My new acquaintance had been locked away in prison for 26 years, and was still contesting a death sentence.
The venue was the Oakland City Hall, and the occasion the grand opening, on what would have been Paul Robeson’s 110th birthday – April 9, 2008 – of an exhibit by the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee, on Robeson. I had just arrived from Irvine, CA, where I had given my first-ever US performance of my one-man play, Call Mr. Robeson, and was due to reprise it the following day. I was staying with people I had never met, but who nonetheless willingly welcomed my pianist and me into their home, because a mutual friend in Liverpool had told them I was coming over to tell Robeson’s story. A choir sang South African freedom songs. I performed an extract from the play. I shook the hand of Ron Dellums, then Mayor of Oakland, heard him speak, and would learn only later that he was a very distinguished politician – a former congressman who, among other things, had been instrumental in getting the US government to reluctantly issue sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, hastening that regime’s demise.
I was introduced to active members of the ILWU longshoremen’s union, which had proudly made Robeson an honorary member. These men told me they had not only organised boycotts of South African ships, refusing to load and unload them, but also supported the dockers’ struggle in Liverpool.
Harry Belafonte’s familiar raspy tenor voice was next heard, as his message was played on a tape machine. A veteran even then, he said that Paul had been his mentor, guide and inspiration as a young man.
And then we heard this strong, clear, baritone voice declare, from the same machine, “Paul, the magnificent!” The speaker went on to recall what a huge impression was made on him by Robeson’s defiant answer to one member of the House Un-American Activities Committee who had asked why Robeson didn’t move to Russia. “Were this a movie,” this voice said of Robeson’s answer, “it would require a clap of thunder to mark this dramatic moment.” He remarked at how, despite his fame and fortune, Robeson had refused to lose sight of the battle faced by the majority of his fellow Americans, Black or otherwise, and lamented at how so few present-day people in similar positions were brave enough to express similar views. The message finished with, “How much such art as he produced is needed now…. From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
Who? From Death Row? How is that possible? I found out since of course that Mumia had somehow been able to continue his pre-imprisonment journalistic profession by broadcasting regularly from behind bars, and, thanks to the internet, reaches all round the globe with his revolutionary eloquence. This is reminiscent of Robeson himself, who, when prevented by his government from leaving the USA between 1950 and 1958, was able, thanks to the newly laid Trans-Atlantic cable, to present a whole virtual concert to an audience at St. Pancras Town Hall, London, on May 26, 1957, and then sing to the Miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl, Wales, on October 5.
The St. Pancras concert had been presented by the Let Robeson Sing campaign, which saw prominent artists team up with trade unions and the general public to pressure the US State Department to restore Robeson’s right to travel. That campaign was probably only exceeded by the Free Mandela campaign decades later, and one could argue that the campaign to Free Mumia not only follows in that great tradition, but also places Abu-Jamal in the same league as the other two.
Mumia has spent much longer in jail as a political prisoner (forty years) than Mandela did, but there is one other interesting, maybe controversial comparison to make. Madiba would perhaps never have been freed and gone on to assume the presidency of his country, had he not made certain compromises which would prevent post-Apartheid South Africa from achieving its promise and potential. On the occasion of Mandela’s death, Mumia himself wrote and recited another beautiful essay which he titled “Mandela Sanitised,” finishing it with this uncomfortable truth:
“South African independence … opened the door to elective office but closed the door to South Africa’s vast wealth by putting it in private hands. Dr. Nelson Mandela was hired to consolidate this state of affairs.”
As I have written elsewhere, as Barack Obama revelled in his top-billing at the world’s most watched funeral, he chose not to see the irony of his words of praise for Mandela’s courage as an activist who was unafraid to speak truth to power, and as a political prisoner. Obama’s eulogy belied the fact that back home, the system he oversaw held people like Mumia, Leonard Peltier and Chelsea Manning in prison, and that both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden had been granted political refuge by the Ecuadorian and Russian governments.
Halfway through Obama’s second and final term, many had started discussing the possibility of Mumia receiving a Presidential Pardon as the country’s first Black President left office. It is the measure of Abu-Jamal that he was nonetheless brave and honest enough to continue recording several commentaries critical of Obama. In one, he reacted to Obama’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement for “yelling at political leaders.” Mumia placed it in the context of past civil rights struggles, and quoted from one-time-political-prisoner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He finished his essay by saying, “Black Lives Matter’s yelling ain’t the problem. Far too often, the problem is politicians, who make deals –while Black people die.”
I offer one last example of Mumia doing exactly what Robeson repeatedly stated as his life’s mission: to use his art as his weapon in defence of all oppressed people. On April 23, 2016 – the day before his own birthday – Mumia discussed how treatment for Hepatitis C (a condition he had, but this wasn’t about him) cost over $100,000, thanks to the chokehold that Big Pharma – and in this instance, a company called Gilead Sciences – has over the health industry. Mumia again evoked Robeson, referring to Paul’s 1958 Carnegie Hall concert. Revealing the quality of his own baritone by singing the opening lines of one of the songs Paul had sung at that concert, Balm in Gilead, he titled his essay, Is There a Balm In Gilead? and finished it with this simple, powerful truth: “If you can’t afford it, you die.”
Such honest appraisal of one’s own country, even though done from a place of love, has grave consequences, as people like Dr. King and Malcolm X well knew, as does Mumia himself. So did Paul Robeson. He became a prisoner of conscience of sorts when, in addition to losing his passport, he found recording and performing opportunities denied him for eight long years, at great financial, physical and mental cost.
It is nothing short of remarkable, and even miraculous, that Mumia has survived so long in the literal rectum of the beast with his incredibly impressive mental faculties so intact. He has also battled bravely against disease and deliberate medical negligence. As I write this, he is shackled to a hospital bed in preparation for heart surgery, not long after having contracted Covid-19. Despite forty years of such cruel and inhumane treatment, Mumia has somehow retained a deep humanity. In that 110th birthday tribute, he recalled Robeson talking about having had opportunities that his sharecropper relatives had been denied. Robeson was of course speaking for the majority of Black America. He could have been speaking of Mumia too, for when such an undeniably unusual talent is forced to spend the majority of his life behind bars because of his politics, not only is he being denied the opportunity to flourish and to contribute to society to his full potential, but his country and the world are being denied the benefit and the pleasure of his physical freedom.
This article was originally intended as a simple birthday greeting to a man who I am willing to bet was, in addition to all his remarkable qualities, a great sportsman and actor as a young man, just like Paul Robeson. I send it off with a prayer to the ancestors, to the universe and all higher powers, that on April 24, we will all indeed be celebrating the life of the one man capable of surviving this last of several attempts on his life:
Mumia, the Magnificent!