The night before last I had a gun put to the back of my neck for the contents of my backpack and pockets. There was a book in my bag that I can only hope the three teenage assailants will read. I know it’s not what they were robbing me for, but if they read it with the attention it deserves it would be far more valuable for them than any amount of cash they could have stolen. The book is the latest work from the brilliant minds of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America.
Abu-Jamal and Hill converse with comfort and ease, logic and love, about some of the most serious issues of the day. Both men grew up in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods. One has written seven books from the confines of Pennsylvania’s death row, the other teaches at Columbia University. Together they have an expansive view of Black life in America. The Classroom and the Cell is a must read for building a movement against the school to prison pipeline. This daring text elaborates on Michelle Alexander’s mind-blowing work, The New Jim Crow, by providing personal insights into our national epidemic of mass imprisonment, specifically concerning populations of color.
Hill and Abu-Jamal advance the goal post for the prison abolition movement by transcending academic discussion and delving deeply into personal reflection and palpable empathy. I’ve been educated and impressed by Mumia’s previous works, such as Jailhouse Lawyers, Faith of our Fathers, and We Want Freedom. However, this is something different. I’ve had the privilege of spending many hours visiting with and getting to know Mumia. This text is the closest one can come to getting to know this complex and beautiful man through the written word. The Classroom and the Cell brings the reader into the conversation with its honesty and vulnerability.
While the work focuses on Black life in America, Abu-Jamal and Hill passionately discuss the roles of nationalism, homophobia and patriarchy as interconnected systems of oppression. The Classroom and the Cell is a humanist work of profound love for people. The authors understand the necessity of building community in organizing social movements. Much of my political education began in the era of “the Battle of Seattle” in 1999. Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row and Death Blossoms had a tremendous impact on my early activism. Now, in the era of the vibrant Occupy movement, The Classroom and the Cell should be on every activist’s bookshelf.
Maybe the teenagers who robbed me will read the book in my backpack. I hope so, but I doubt it. After being failed by their school system and left without options or direction I’m not certain books are where they’ll turn to seek relief. However, we must change the discussion. We must challenge the dominant dialogue that condemns the poor for conditions caused by the greedy. We must expose the disproportionate jailing of people of color for non-violent crimes. More importantly we must challenge these systems with the love and humanity expressed by Hill and Abu-Jamal. As Mumia wrote in his essay, The Lost Generation?:
“This is not the lost generation. They are the children of the L.A. rebellion, the children of the MOVE bombing, the children of the Black Panthers, and the grandchildren of Malcolm; far from lost, they are probably the most aware generation since Nat Turner’s; they are not so much lost as they are mislaid, discarded by this increasingly racist system that undermines their inherent worth.
They are all potential revolutionaries, with the historic power to transform our dull realities. If they are lost, then find them.
Let’s do it.