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GeoBooks: Mumia Abu Jamal, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party
Reviewed By Walidah Imarisha
 

From slavery to sharecropping to the northern migration and the disillusionment black people found here, death row journalist and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal's sixth book We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, sets the stage so one can understand why the Panthers had to come into being. It is a book full of revelations and recollection, the work of a scholar, of a revolutionary, of an idealist and a realist.

 

With an moving introduction by Kathleen Cleaver and characterized by his trademark readability, Mumia's book flows from one topic to the next, blending history, psychology, political analysis and personal memories to give a view of the Panthers that is clear and brilliantly painted.

 

Because Mumia isn't just an impartial observer to the Panthers and the black uprising of the 1960s and 1970s, like so many other folks who have written books about them. At 16 years old, he helped form the Philadelphia chapter and became Minister of Information. He was there not only as witness to history, but as creator and shaper of it. Whether it was the Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention held in Philly in 1970, or Chicago scant hours after police had murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Mumia gives a first hand account.

 

We Want Freedom is overflowing with Panther information that is not common knowledge, so while it serves as an excellent entry point into the history, it also is valuable to those who are well-versed in Panther history.


Whether it be that the first Free Breakfast Program was started in Seattle, or a description of the National Fronts Against Fascism, which were propaganda centers in white communities the Panther set up, this book offers a very full view of the Party.

 

One Panther story, not well known, relayed in the book tells of a the brutal beating at the hands of LAPD of Paul Redd, the chapter's Deputy Minister of Culture, who was also a gifted artists. LAPD, when they found out who he was, "brutally broke the fingers of his right hand. Undaunted, Redd learned to draft art with his left." This encapsulates the energy of the Panthers at their best that Mumia describes.

 

Since Panthers headquarters were in Oakland, and much of the history has come out of there, Mumia's east coast experience offers a valuable view, and as impartial a one as can be had by someone involved in the struggle.


"We struggled daily," Mumia wrote of his experience, to make the Philly chapter strong. "We got up early and didn't go to sleep until late. For most of us, Party work was all that we did, all day, into the night. Our little branch blossomed into the biggest, most productive chapter in the state and one of the most vigorous in the nation. from our original fifteen-odd members in the spring of 1969, a year later virtually ten times that number would call themselves members of the Black Panther party of Philadelphia."

 

Mumia's book is not the tale of heroes and leaders, personalities and revolution superstars. It is the tale of the thousands of every day foot soldiers, the young, black, energetic brothas and sistas who flocked to the party and who fed children, distributed blankets, sold papers, slept in collective housing, and were prepared to (and did) give their lives for what they believed in.

 

But if you are looking for a book that will mindlessly big up the Panthers, then this one isn't for you. Looking back with four decades of knowledge and reflection, as well as a whole lot more political experience, Mumia talks about the east coast/west coast split between the Panthers, the ideological (and personal) conflicts in the organization, while keeping in the front that the downfall of the Panthers was ultimately brought about by the FBI and their COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program). And he ought to know, since the FBI started their file on him at 16, and now have thousands of pages on this brotha (and no doubt growing everyday).

 

"The Party, like the proverbial cat, had many lives. At some phases of its life, it ran with grace and purpose, at others, it limped, wounded by external and self-inflicted injuries," he writes.

 

There is no sainthood in this book; we will not find the black giants that so many of us seem to be looking for. Rather, we will read the stories of people just like us, hear their triumphs, and their mistakes, as well as Mumia's and others political voice analyzing those mistakes and Offering tips for any person who is still struggling to change a system that no more works today than it did in 1960.

 

Rich in first hand accounts, Mumia supplies not just the voices of the Huey Newtons and Angela Davises, but of the little-known Panthers who made the organization, relying not just on numbers and anecdotes but letting them speak for themselves, especially women.

 

In a male-centered world, much of what we know of black revolution is seen in a male perspective. Mumia attempts to bridge that gap and incorporate the voices of sistas, not just as an addendum at the end, but as an integral part of the story itself. He in fact dedicates an entire chapter, "A Woman's Party," to the discussion of sexism and a woman's place in the Party.

While it is not (and could never be) the definitive work on the subject, it is refreshing to see a brotha acknowledging and tackling these issues as more than an afterthought. This chapter ignites the mind to the need for much more scholarship into the area of black women and the Party.

 

Sharing the story of Naima Major, a Panther member in the Bay area, Mumia writes, "Although her name may be little known by those who have read the popular literature produced around the Black Panther Party, her story is actually closer to the norm of a woman's life in the Party. Hard work, hard study, jailed lovers, survival, striving, times of promise, times of terror, resistance to male chauvinism, and hope."

 

This book is impressive in its own right, but becomes mind boggling when you realize that Mumia wrote it in a cell by hand with only the inside of a pen (as the pen casing "can be used as a weapon"), having to write everything out twice for fear guards may come in and destroy his creation. That he has so many first hand account, most of them unpublished until now, is powerful, as he could not go interview them, could not call them, could not drop them an email. That Mumia could do what others, out here and free with monetary backing of big publishing companies could not, is the essence of the Panther spirit that lives on.

 

Mumia ties in the Hip Hop generation in the invocation of rapper Tupac Shakur, born to Afeni Shakur and raised by such Panthers as Dr. Mutulu Shakur and Assata Shakur. Afeni wrote a letter to the child in her womb, which Mumia quotes, while she was a political prisoner in prison. It is a letter that epitomizes Mumia's message with the book to readers who didn't live through those times, as well as perhaps the Panthers' message to all their children, worldwide: "Forgive us our mistakes because mostly they were mistakes which were made out of blind ignorance (sometimes arrogance). Judge us with empathy for we were (are) idealists and sometimes we're young and foolish."

This book gets five globes.

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