“Ona MOVE Kevin!
Hey Now Bro! I got your letter and wanted to write right back so you’d know it was good to hear from ya. Always good to hear from those you are active in the work needed to right the things this rotten system has caused to be wrong. To make a righteous change in this world one must be willing to work for it and to stand up against all that is wrong.”
Those lines began the first letter I received from MOVE 9 political prisoner, Phil Africa. I was 16 and his letter of encouragement kept me motivated for weeks. Phil had that effect on people. I continued to write and visit with him over the years, unfortunately less so the past few years. I was as shocked as everyone else when I heard that he passed away on Saturday. To say that it didn’t seem like it should be his time is an understatement. If you’ve had the privilege to spend time with Phil you know that to think of his high energy level slowing down is like thinking about the sun going out. Though he has spent the last 36 years in prison, eating prison food, spending time in solitary confinement, and experienced the abhorrent conditions that come from a life imprisoned, Phil was vibrant, his skin glowed, he talked a mile a minute and he was excited to be alive.
Writing about Phil is frustrating because he’s a hard person to describe. I only knew him through visits and letters, but I really feel that I got to know him. I wish more people had had that opportunity. Phil’s hard to describe because he embodied forces that we usually think of as contradictory. He was big, strong as hell, very protective, and I’m sure he’d be damned intimidating if the situation required it. He was MOVE’s First Minister of Defense for a reason. However, he was bursting with love, humor, and positive energy in a way that was physically palpable as soon as you came near him. He had a calm, clear thinking, collected vibe that relaxed those around him.
Phil was like a metronome, a very fast metronome. His steady pace and consistent energy level gave me something to measure myself against. He wrote letters with whoever wrote him – hundreds of people. If you sent Phil a letter you’d usually have at least one or two typed (hopefully, otherwise good luck with his handwriting!) pages back within a week. There were many times when he wrote to me twice before I responded to the first letter. I’m incredibly thankful to have a binder of his letters on my shelf. I’ll be reflecting on them for years to come. In letters and in person Phil was always moving things forward. If you wrote him about a problem he’d offer pragmatic advice to proceed and didn’t humor weakness if you were stubborn to move on. This discipline was coupled with an incredible sensitivity and concern.
I’m lucky to have so many fond memories of Phil. It helps that he had a lot of unforgettable habits that will help aid in keeping the memories clear. As soon as we’d arrive in the prison visiting room, after we had hugged, he step back and thoroughly examine me. He’d squeeze my bicep and nod encouragingly or tip his head to the side humorously if he thought I hadn’t been exercising. He’d look closely at my face and say “You alright man?” After we’d stocked up on food from the prison machines he’d sit across the table, give a knowing look, tilt his head back and smile in the most distinctive way, almost like he was observing the whole thing from the future, like he already knew what you were going to say and he was quite entertained by it.
The past few days it’s been tough telling people about Phil who didn’t know him. I’ve been glad to be able to share my experiences, but there’s just no translating them. I think for many folks it’s hard to get past the label “prisoner.” That word becomes the primary identifying factor. I understand that. Without the privileges I’ve had to get to know so many people who happen to be imprisoned I think I would have the same stumbling block. If I was making a list of a hundred things Phil was though, prisoner wouldn’t make the top 100. He never allowed himself to be imprisoned. He didn’t put his life on hold after he was sentenced, he continued right along in the work of his life. He put in long days, typing deep into the night. He kept a strict exercise regimen, called into radio shows, mentored other inmates, and learned to paint. He wrote until typewriters broke and he painted until there were no more supplies. He became a damned good painter. And if you were on a visit or on the phone, he talked. He talked very quickly and very intentionally. The number of words that went into a 15 minute call with Phil would fill up an hour of normal conversation. He was passionate and he was excited. And that is why it is so damned hard to believe that the last letter that I got from him is the last I will get from him. His words and actions will continue reverberating on and on into the future though. As I type these words now the waves of his life are still moving through mine and the thousands of other lives he touched.