Fellow students, Dr. Mark Lewis Taylor; I think you for this rare opportunity to join you, if only on paper. For the first time in nearly 3 decades, I join you, free from a death sentence; yet, I write from the nation’s growing public housing population: its prisons.
As Michelle Alexander, Angela Y. Davis, and a plethora of scholar-activists have more than aptly demonstrated, we are in the throes of an imprisonment fever, holding millions of men, women and children in shackles. It is what I call, “Incarceration Nation.”
As I am now in the “hole,” and thus in transition to population (or so I’m told), my access to phone is restricted, so my words and paper must suffice. No matter, I am a writer, and am fully able to use this medium to press my points.
As this is both an academic as well as a theological setting, I intend to share with you voices that may not necessarily be commonly heard or expressed here, but are vital to the mission of institutions such as these, as they arise from the very heart of Black religious practice, albeit of various spiritual traditions. Indeed, the first is drawn from a uniquely artistic tradition, and is therefore, a performance of a performance (you’ll understand more, shortly, I trust).
For the Black preacher has been, since Africans arrived in the nation, the central voice of Black yearning, Black hope and yes, Black resistance to the system of white supremacy and racist terror against black life.
Acclaimed Black dialect poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, in his 1896 poem, “An Antebellum Sermon,” brings out the soul and the satire inherent in the traditions of Black preachers, thus:
We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs,
In dis howlin’ wildaness,
Fu’ to speak some words of comfo’t
To each othah in distress.
An’ we chooses fu’ ouah subjic’
Dis – we’ll ‘splain it by an’ by;
“An de Lawd said, ‘Moses, Moses,’
An’ de man said, ‘Hyeah am I.’”
Now ole Pher’oh, down in Egypt,
Was de wuss man evah bo’n,
An’ he had de Hebrew chillun
Down dah wukin’ in his co’n’
‘Twell de Lawd got tiahed o’ his foolin’,
An sez he: “I’ll let him know –
Look hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher’oh
Fu’ to let dem chillun go.” . . .
But fu’ feah some one mistakes me,
I will pause right hyeah to say,
Dat I’m still a-preachin’ ancient
I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout to-day.
But I tell you, fellah christuns,
Things’ll happen mighty strange;
Now, de Lawd done dis fu’ Isrul,
An’ his ways don’t nevah change,
An’ de love he showed to Isrul
Wasn’t all on Isrul spent;
Now don’t run an’ tell yo’ mastahs
Dat I’s preachin’ discontent.
‘Cause I is n’t; I’se a-judgin’
Bible people by deir ac’s;
I’se a-givin’ you de Scriptuah,
I’se a-handin’ you de fac’s.
Cose ole Pher’oh b’lieved in slav’ry,
But de Lawd he let him see,
Dat de people he put bref in,-
Evah mothah’s son was free. . . .
But when Moses wif his powah
Comes an’ sets us chillun free,
We will praise de gracious Mastah
Dat has gin us liberty;
An’ we’ll shout ouah halleluyahs,
On dat mighty reck’nin’ day,
When we’se reco’nised ez citiz’ –
Huh uh! Chillun, let us pray!
Paul Laurence Dunbar mined the rich mother-lode of Black speech and oration to fund his poetry, and while it may sound somewhat new to some students here, I assure you – as someone who accompanied my mother to a Black Baptist church in his childhood – the rhythms and intonations of Dunbar are as familiar as an old relative.
That said, it was penned over a century ago, and new deliveries, new attitudes and even new religions were inevitable.
By the ‘60s, voices such as Malcolm X’s would ascend to the pulpit, in the name of an American-born Islam (specifically, the Nation of Islam) which would use new cadences and a different message to give voice to the Black spirit.
The following text of one of his sermons is typical:
My brothers and sisters, our slave masters’ Christian religion has taught us black people here in the wilderness of North America that we will sprout wings when we die and fly up into the sky where God will have for us a special place called heaven. This is white man’s Christian religion used to brainwash us black people! We have accepted it! We have believed it! We have practiced it! And while we are doing all of that, for himself, this blue-eyed devil has twisted his Christianity to keep his foot on our backs…to keep our eyes fixed on the pie in the sky and heaven in the hereafter…while he enjoys his heaven right here…on this earth…in this life.
Of course, the differences in tone, in structure, and even in language, are, to say the least, striking. Yet, both forms are reflections of the central concern of Black people. Freedom. Liberty. Here. Now.
(It is noteworthy, too, that both saw America as ‘wilderness.’)
And it might also be said that both forms resulted in the frustration of hopes dashed, for, in Dunbar’s era, Black people were experiencing the Great Betrayal of Reconstruction, where all the promises of the constitution’s 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were sacrificed on the profane altar of white supremacy and Ku Klux Klan terrorism, and ignored for most of the 20th century.
In Malcolm’s time, meanwhile, we were in the opening innings of the mass incarceration period, where, despite declining crime rates, prison populations, with predominantly Black incarcerees, would, literally rise a hundred-fold between 1970 and the 1990s.
Little wonder that the tones would change, until today, when we’re in “Incarceration Nation,” with millions behind bars.
Malcolm knew something of this, for he did nearly a decade in prison, where he experienced his conversion to the Nation of Islam’s teaching. I think that experience steeled him, and made him the outstanding minister he would later become. It deepened and sharpened his critique.
And yet, we’re still in Incarceration Nation, the Prison Industrial Complex – where prisons are America’s sole remaining growth industry.
From Incarceration Nation, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.