Telling Tales of Death: Review of recently published books by Mumia Abu-Jamal and Richard Wright

Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? By Mumia Abu-Jamal, Published by City Lights Open Media, 2017and The Man Who Lived Underground By Richard Wright, [author of Native Son,] written but unpublished in 1944; published by Gordon Parks/Library of Congress, April 20, 2021   

By Bronson Tweety 

The story of Richard Wright’s 1944 character, Fred Daniels, could well be incorporated in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s collection of short narratives, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered,? an exposé of America’s continuing legacy of murderous brutality towards Black people.

Richard Wright wrote The Man Who Lived Underground in 1944, but due to the prevailing systemic racism towards Black people, not to mention Black authors, he was unable to find a publisher. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a prominent Philadelphia journalist, framed-up and convicted of murdering a police officer in 1981, writes his books from the confinement of a Pennsylvania jail cell, where is serving a life sentence. Mumia’s introduction includes a brief overview of the colonization of the Americas beginning with the genocide and enslavement of Indigenous people combined with the chattel slavery of 12 million kidnapped Africans whose “free labor” provided the economic foundation of early U.S. capitalism. In the words of socialist filmmaker (Sorry to Bother You) and founder of The Coup rap group, Boots Riley, “Every slave story is present tense.” Wright and Abu-Jamal recount these stories, in Wright’s own words, “telling tales of death.”

Wright’s fictitious character, Fred Daniels, was a working class Black man in Chicago forced to live in a cave in a sewer underground after being tortured by the Chicago Police Department into signing a confession to a double homicide that he did not commit. Daniels fits well into Mumia’s Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? narratives. Mumia brings his accounts of brutalized, tortured and daily-murdered Blacks in America to our consciousness with the horrifying details of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many more. Unfortunately, we understand that these horrific narratives didn’t end with the 2017 publication of Mumia’s book. His yet unpublished sequel includes the subsequent murders of Jamar Clark, George Floyd and Winston Smith.

Richard Wright was among the most eloquent American writers. His words alone create a graphic novel in astonishing and intricate detail, revealing the horrific plight of Fred Daniels. Wright’s novel speaks so much more to resistance than the initial incident of police brutality and corruption. For the sake of a broader review of the American capitalist system bound together with the chains of systemic racism and degradation  of Black and Brown people, I have highlighted a few passages from Wright’s novel: 

“They’ll be some surprised when they open up in the morning, he thought. Yes; he remembered the firm; it collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks; now he was taking just a little bit of it, not to spend but just to keep around and look at. 

“He did not feel that he was stealing, for the clever, the radio and the money were all the same level of value, all meant the same thing to him. They were the toys of the men who lived in the world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that condemned him. 

“He decided to take the gun and the cartridge belt with him, not to use, but just to keep, as one takes a memento from a county fair… 

“What a fool! A man with a gun risking his precious life each night, the only life he will ever have on this earth, to protect sparkling bits of stone that looked for all the world like glass… 

“He felt in his pocket for a cigarette and was astonished when he pulled forth a fistful of ticking golden watches that dangled by gleaming chains…. He held the watches and heard their awful ticking and he hated them; these watches were measuring time, making men tense and taut with the sense of passing hours, telling tales of death, crowning time the king of consciousness.” 

Yet another Minneapolis Police Murder

On June 3rd, 2021, a task force of US marshals reinforced by Minneapolis police murdered 32-year old Black man, Winston “Boogie” Smith, with fourteen or fifteen rounds of  “law enforcing” ammunition. Smith was on the top level of a parking ramp. He had been surveilled earlier at lunch with a female companion in an Uptown restaurant. I was knowledgeable about “Boogie” Smith’s  “tale of death” narrative as I was present in Uptown minutes after it occurred. 

[Killing of Winston Boogie Smith]

I reference this incident because Winston “Boogie” Smith was executed by US marshals on a sunny afternoon in Uptown, Minneapolis while this review of Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? was being outlined. So my review begins with the Mumia’s Chapter entitled: 

We Have No Country (Oct. 19, 2002)
 where he tells the story of William Parker, detailed by Black historian, Ella Forbes in her book, But We Have No Country: The 1851 Christiana, Pennsylvania Resistance. The narrative reveals the slave-catching origins of the “Boogie’s” modern day US Marshals. William Parker had escaped his enslaver, Edward Gorsuch 12 years earlier and on Sept. 11, 1851 Gorsuch brought US Marshal, Henry Kline, to William Parker’s home in Christiana, PA. Mumia writes, “Gorsuch made his demand, telling the now free Blacks, ‘You had better give up,’ and adding, ‘for I have come a long way this morning, and want my breakfast; for my property I will have, or I’ll breakfast in hell’.” p.50 The free Black man, William Parker, greeted the US Marshal, Henry Kline, at the front door and when Kline stated that he was a US Marshal there to retrieve the former slave, Parker, as the property of Edward Gorsuch, Mr. Parker replied that “he did not care for him or the United States”. Mumia continues, “Parker’s position, in light of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which threatened all Black People, whether fugitive or free, with seizure and passage into bondage, was simple. He said, ‘The laws for personal protection are not made for us, and we are not bound to obey them … [Whites] have a country and may obey the laws. But we have no country’.” p.50 “For a time, Parker and Gorsuch argued over slavery, and each quoted the Bible to support their views, but each knew that words would not decide the argument.” None of the free Blacks in their PA home wished to be forcibly returned to chattel slavery, so Parker’s wife, seeking assistance in community defense, contacted the local Black Militia. Mumia writes, “As she sounded her horn, the Marshal shot at her with a pistol but missed. As scores of militiamen appeared, the US marshal withdrew, but the stubborn [enslaver] Gorsuch and his men remained … ‘I’ll have my property or die in the attempt’. He tried. He died.” … “Parker and two other Black men took to the Underground Railroad, en route North, United States President Millard Fillmore, who signed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act into law, dispatched 45 Marines to Christiana, and they arrested scores of people. Thirty-six local Black men and five white Quakers were later tried for treason. The men, defended by the abolitionist Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens, were acquitted by a jury in 15 minutes!” p.51 

(This portion is dedicated to Kidale Smith, brother of the late Winston “Boogie” Smith in hopes he will find inspiration in his pursuit of justice for his brother, Winston, killed by US marshals in Uptown, Minneapolis on June 3, 2021 at 2:08 CDT ) 

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s “TALES OF DEATH”: 

Trayvon Who? (Aug. 8, 2013)
 Mumia writes, “If the media are any measure of the mood of the masses, the sound and fury of the Trayvon Martin case is over” … “The late great scholar-activist Manning Marable, in his 2002 work, The Great Wells of Democracy, noted how local activists, often at odds with national groups, pushed for change, and used imagination, insight, and grassroots power to build movements against the racist violence used by police against Black people…. “Trayvon Martin’s life and sacrifice are too precious to be left in the hands of politicians.” Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? pp. 105,106. 

A Cop Shot 18-Year Old Michael Brown Eight Times.Pp 9, 120 1,2,3 Fergusons. Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?, p. 122

137 SHOTS (May 24, 2015)
 “A man drives his companion down a Cleveland street…. “within minutes, he and his companion will be shown their last vision in life, 137 shots fired into them, courtesy of Cleveland’s finest. This happened in 2012, on a Saturday. A judge there acquitted a cop for leaping atop a car’s hood and pumping 15 rounds from his semi-automatic into bodies of the two occupants of the car.” Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?, p.158 

Tamir Rice of Cleveland (Oct. 15, 2015)
“Question: When is a child not a child? Answer: When it’s a Black child.” Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?, p. 164 

“Killed by Cops Who Were Just Doing Their Jobs (July 7, 2016)
… And now comes another. Alton Sterling, father, husband, beloved of his family and friends, joins a tragic train of death: Mike Brown, Rekiah Boyd, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and on, and on, and on. All killed by cops who were ‘just doing their jobs’.” Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?, p. 172 

Ferguson, USA 
“With breathless news reports, the US Justice Departments’ Civil Rights Division investigation of the Ferguson Police Department paints a damning picture of a long, cruel and bitter normalization of maltreatment, mass profiling, police targeting, and brutality against Black people in this Missouri town” … “Renowned Rolling Stone writer, Matt Taibbi, in his 2014 book The Divide, tells a similar tale but from points all across America — Brooklyn; Gainesville, Georgia; Los Angeles; San Diego, and beyond — where poor people are being squeezed by cops, judges, and local governments, to part with their last dime to finance a system that is corrupt to the core.” Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?, p. 154 


Related Articles