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REVIEWING

Enchantments

By Kathryn Harrison

Reviewed by Andrea Janov

katheryn harrison

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison is a historical novel set in Russia that is loosely based on the life story of Masha Rasputin, Gregory Yefimovich Rasputin's daughter. This novel focuses on the belief that Rasputin was a healer and that only those who feared him doubted his abilities. Throughout the novel we are only introduced to characters who are supporters of Rasputin and his work. From the peasant population who flock to the site of his murder to get the last drop of his healing power to the Tsarina who calls upon him each time her son injures himself.

Rasputin’s most devoted follower is his daughter and our narrator, Masha. She is unquestioning in her faith and obedience to his words and prophecies, which unveils itself as the force behind every move she makes within the novel. In fact, Rasputin is the driving force behind all of the action in the novel.

As the novel begins, Rasputin has been killed and Masha and her sister Varya have become wards of the Romanovs and sent to live in Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo with the royal family. It is believed that Masha has her father’s gift and she has inherited the responsibility of healing Tsarvich Alyosha who her father treated for years due to his hemophilia.

Masha’s voice grabs the reader immediately; she is here to tell us her story and the story of those who surrounded her in her life. There is no hesitation, there is no sentimentality, when she speaks of those closest to her who were brutally murdered, it is simply up to her to speak for those who weren’t able to make it out of Russia.

She begins her story by saying, “But first: my father. For without Gregory Yefimovich Rasputin, the end of the Romanovs is no different from that of the Hapsburgs or the Ottomans or any other of the great dynasties that collapsed at the beginning of the century.”

It is not long after Masha and Varya arrive that Nikolay II is forced to abdicate his throne and the entire family is put under house arrest as the February Revolution begins. Confined to a small section of Alexander Palace Masha fills her days with Alyosha by telling him stories.

I told him about my father, about me, about Siberia. I told him stories my father told us when we were children, I did whatever I could to distract him.”

It is mostly through these stories that we learn about Gregory Rasputin, The Romanovs, and about Masha and Alyosha themselves.

As Masha lives among the Romanovs she starts to show us many unexpected qualities that incite empathy in the reader. Instead of seeing the rulers that history reports, they become sympathetic characters who the reader is made to feel sorry for.

We see the former Tsar being bullied as he tries to go for a simple bicycle ride and the former Tsarina burn her love letters so they could not be exploited. Mostly, we see the relationship between Masha and Alyosha develop from acquaintance to friendship to something more intimate. Harrison gives each character a trait that is so humanly vulnerable that we forget that they are the autocrats that the rest of the country is overthrowing.

We hear the stories that Masha is telling, and are given glimpses into the daily life of the family, so by the time the government arranges transport and exile for the Romanov family, we are hoping for their safety even though we already know their fate.

We want Masha and Alyosha to live happily ever after and for the former Tsar and Tsarina and their daughters to begin a new life in a small town in Siberia. Yet, history has already written itself and Harrison stays true to the facts, Masha and Alyosha will be separated and the Romanov family will be sent to their eventual deaths.

The latter half of the novel tells of Masha’s marriage to a charlatan (an event her father prophesized), her desperate search to find details about her sister, and her eventual profession as a circus performer.

As she is trapped in her loveless marriage, and is writing dozens of letters with only the hope that she will find out that Varya is still alive, she expresses her only doubt about her father’s prophecy. It is only in that despair that she finds herself: she realizes that she is the daughter of Gregory Yefimovich Rasputin, “The sole thing of value I possessed was my father’s history. His history and his name.”

Her new career path as a circus performer brings her to America where she is desperate to escape her past, but she soon realizes that there is no way to remove her memories. Even an old journal of Alyosha’s finds its way to her from “A friend in the old country.” For the next few chapters it is Alyosha telling her stories.

As in every historical novel, the balance of fact and fiction is a delicate one. For Enchantments, Harrison has chosen a moment of history ripe with controversy and irresistibly eccentric characters that had the right amount of mystery so her fiction would not be a glaring variation from history.

Masha’s character is heavy with historical accuracy with just the right amount of fictional artistic license that allows her to tell us about the other character’s personal lives.  Harrison stays true to the historical occurrences surrounding Rasputin, the Romanovs, the February Revolution, and the adult life of Masha Rasputin, our narrator, only creating the catalyst for Masha and Alyosha’s relationship to begin.

Enchantments, grabbed me from the first page and kept my interest through the final chapter. I was so intrigued by the story that I was told in these pages, that I simply needed to know more about these people. I wanted to know which elements were facts and which were literature. In the end though, it was Masha’s direct voice that intrigued me the most. Only a few times does she let the reader get close, and the most significant of those moments is a line that underscores her entire story, “No one escapes Russia with his or her heart intact.”

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REVIEWING

Second Person Singular

By Sayed Kashua

Grove Press | 2012 | 346 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber


sayed kashua

Whose Man Are You?

And if you want another kind of love I’ll wear a mask for you

This subversive line from  “I’m Your Man” by folksinger Leonard Cohen ran through my mind as I read Sayed Kashua’s gripping novel of two Arab Israelis living in Jerusalem, both educated men, a lawyer and a student/social worker/photographer, each desperate to create socially acceptable but false identities while ruthlessly suppressing their real selves. You (second person singular) say you’d wear a mask for someone else – but would you wear one for yourself?  Would you be more true to yourself with the mask on or off?  And after a time, would you even be able to remove the mask?

We follow the paths of the two men until those paths converge and become one: “The lawyer” is outwardly successful in business as he is in his private life, living in a large house with his wife and two children, a respected and contributing member of Israeli society, who hobnobs with other prominent Arab Israelis (a gynecologist, a professor…).  He seems to have everything he’s ever wanted.  Well, his marriage seems a little sterile, he’s a bit of a workaholic,and he has no name (!). The other man, Amir, is struggling at a subsistence level to live in Jerusalem and find a way to use his education to best advantage.  One of his dead-end jobs unexpectedly provides the key, enabling him, if he chooses, to “pass” in society.  Both men’s shared fascination with European and Jewish culture (they both want to read Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and they should!) and their shared desire to better themselves results in their eventual meeting—with disastrous results.  Maybe.

Amir is by far the more sympathetic character, raised by an impoverished and shunned woman, bullied at school in his Arab village, seeking escape through his intellect and talent.  He comes across as a genuinely sweet character, albeit one who is troubled about his place in society and exactly how he is supposed to fit in.  The identity he seems to slip into, like an overcoat, is liberating and restrictive at the same time.  The path he has chosen for himself seems alternately brilliant and unsustainable.  Is he not in an untenable position?  How can he ever marry?  Does religion play any role in his scheme?  How ironic that this identity he has stolen was so unsatisfactory to the original owner!  But his motives are ones we can appreciate:

“Today I want to be one of them, to go into the places they’re allowed to go, to laugh the way they laugh, to drink without having to think about God.  I want to be like them.  Free, loose, full of dreams, able to think about love.  Like them.. . .Those who never looked for suspicious glances, whose loyalty was never questioned, whose acceptance was always taken for granted. . . .I want to drink with them, dance with them, without feeling as though I’m trespassing in a foreign culture.  To feel like I belong. . . .

    Amir’s cri de coeur resonates with all of us, all strangers and The Other at one time or another in our lives.  His counterpart, the lawyer, however, faces a different identity crisis.  It turns out he can’t hide from who he is and who he is results from his upbringing, his class, his religion.  Education and surface sophistication be damned, he rapidly morphs into a jealousy-crazed obsessed madman.

He convinces himself that a scribbled note in his wife’s handwriting is a love letter written by her to Amir.  That trips the switch to the amygdala apparently, and suddenly he’s prepared to throw her out, make a grab for the children, ruin her, and kill her, why not?  All evidence – he’s a lawyer, remember – has little to no effect on his obsessions.  We follow the plot with baited breath.  We’re not sure what will happen, but it might not be pretty.

Amir is a photographer, working in a darkroom with negatives, specializing in portraits and particularly focused on people’s expressions, watching no doubt for the masks to slide.  The lawyer prides himself on being able to recognize Jews from Arabs, on being pretty savvy, on being respected by mainstream society.  Both men speak a mostly flawless Hebrew; only Amir, light-skinned, is able to blend in and pass as Jewish.  The disconnect for these men is their divergent sexual mores as well as cultural experiences and the animosity/fears of sexual competition with which they are greeted and which make it a struggle for even well-educated Arabs to be themselves/be accepted/belong.

The author, Sayed Kashua, knows of what he speaks.  An Arab Israeli who writes in Hebrew, he is the creator of the popular sitcom, Arab Labor, the author of three novels, and the recipient of many literary honors in Israel.  He is an assimilated and accepted member of Israeli society, sensitive to the stresses facing Arabs in a Jewish state and conscious of the enormous gaps in culture.  We may look alike, he seems to say, Jews and Arabs, we may be “cousins,” but peek under the mask and you’ll see the truth.  It’s not so easy. 

A must-read.

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REVIEWING

Is Just a Movie

By Earl Lovelace

Haymarket Books | 2012 | 353 pages | $15.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


earl lovelace

If It Weren’t So Funny, It Would be Tragic

“If it’s not a pleasure, it’s not a poem.”  This is a quote I heard awhile back (sadly I’ve forgotten whom to attribute it to) and one I took to heart.  I believe in the pleasure principal—that reading should not be a “good for you” endeavor like eating carrots and broccoli (even though I like eating broccoli and carrots), but should go down smooth.  The same goes for novels, memoirs, and every other sort of writing.

Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace is difficult in some sense, but it’s also pleasurable.  After all, there’s a pleasure in concentrating on something and relinquishing to language that is unpredictable.  The writing of Earl Lovelace is not stale, and in this time of sound bites, tweeting, and texting, it harkens back to a modernist sensibility where writers tried to capture the essence of life using language.

Is Just a Movie is set in Trinidad during the 1970’s and after.  The characters are a hodge-podge lot: Sonnyboy, who is both a revolutionary and a dreamer with one short leg and a romantic streak; King Kala, a calypso singer who has returned to perform, but is relegated to a third tier stage; Sweetie-Mary, a vulnerable beauty who returns home after dreams of selling cosmetics door-to-door; and Sweetie-Mary’s grandmother who sets up shop (for a while) with Sonnyboy. 

Many of these characters get their own story relayed in short chapters named after them.  These short histories are humorous and revealing.  Some of the characters are hypocritical or full of bluff, but none of them are seen as corrupt, as is the depiction of Max, a director from America who comes to the island to film a movie.

When the unnamed movie is being filmed, the locals get to audition for parts.  King Kang and his gang try out for the roles and are told, “Marvellous …you fellars have talent.”

Pleased for being chosen for a role, King Kang decides to put his whole being into the small part he’s offered.  This is what he says about his part:  “So, I get this job to die.  Is a kind of jungle picture, with a river in it and a trail and a rope bridge and a love story and natives with headdresses of coloured feathers, their splendid bodies bare except for grass skirts, carrying bwana packs over the mountains.  And they have donkeys.  I mean we have donkeys.  Some of us tote the loads on we head.  In the bushes.  Crawling on their bellies.  Shooting with expert marksmanship.  They just shoot you and you supposed to fall….”

King Kang’s problem is he doesn’t want to fall; he doesn’t want to die.  Or he doesn’t want to fall right away.  Chosen to be an expendable commodity—a dark skinned guy who looks “native,” King Kang is supposed to die instantly, but he has too much pride for this. 

Much to the director’s annoyance, he elongates his acted death with exaggerated artifice.  After all, he says that even when children play at cowboys and Indians, they get to be shot at a few times before they die.  The scene is hilarious—the director getting more and more agitated with this washed-up calypso singer who refuses to be an extra in his precious movie, and King Kang becoming more focused on survival as he refuses to die when pretend bullets hit him.

Even King Kang’s fellow actors tell him just to die already.  When the director finally yells, “Cut!”  King Kang narrates, “The director don’t like how we dying at all.  He doesn’t like it.  And even the fellars there, the same fellars, my countrymen, who go through a boyhood like my own, and who should know, who must know the conventions of the shooting game, the same very fellars looking at me and Sonnyboy, as if we commit some kinda crime.  We dying too slow.  We wasting too much of the Whitepeople time.”

This idea of “Whitepeople time” and white people power is pivotal in Is Just a Movie.  Just like the director hustles in from Hollywood to use the country as if he owns it, Trinidad’s colonization is a constant-present theme in the book.  It also brings to the foreground a question of actors and directors using places for their own gain with little regard to the feelings of the locals. 

With these ideas, Lovelace seems to be criticizing Hollywood for using the land and resources, including natives, for their own benefit.  It calls to mind questions about recent movies and their depictions of “foreignness,” movies such as Slumdog Millionaire and In the Land of Milk and Honey.

In order to convey a sense of reality, Lovelace often uses a stream-of-consciousness style to give a sense of the daily rhythms of life.  Like Faulkner and Joyce, robust language helps lift mundane daily activities into moments of greatness and beauty.  Also, like Faulkner, a sentences in Is Just a Movie can go on for a page or more.

This sense of perpetual motion and feeling makes the reader closely identify with the characters and life in Trinidad, as in this description of music:  “And when he got to Sweetie’s he whistled ‘With a Song in My Heart’, the tune that Ebonites mash up town with, when he, Sonnyboy, was a barebacked fella in a steelband beating the iron, tasting the music, sweat flowing down his face, feeling the heat and the strain of his arms and the sweetness of belonging, and by his side big hard men who have no fear for nobody, who ain’t ‘fraid nobody in the world, who will pelt bottle and stab and cut and butt and cuff….”

This earthiness of language is also counterpointed by an ironical stance that gets played throughout the book.  Lovelace isn’t necessarily harsh about the foibles of the Black Power movement, but he does play up the ridiculous jostling for power within the characters of the movement.  The hodge-podge lot of political “wannabe’s” undermine their own movement by arguing over somewhat trivial points such as what color the Black Power flag should be.

However satiric, Lovelace never ridicules his characters.  Indeed we sympathize with the players in the movement because Lovelace has created back-stories for most of them.  Rather than focusing on one plot line, the novel traces the lives of many characters, focusing with energy and finesse on the daily, moment-to-moment happenings of people, whether it be a cricket game, a wedding, the creation of a eatery, or calypso playing.

Because of the circular nature of the book and the lack of a linear plot, some might find the book hard to navigate.  Is Just a Movie would fit in well with a college class, simply because of its impressive style and post-colonial themes.  But, like I said, weight in a book is not a bad thing,it just requires us readers to work a little harder and to focus on something that is in stark contrast to most of the banal messages we receive—in e-mails, movies, and even books—each day.

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REVIEWING

Gathering of the Waters

By Bernice McFadden

Akashic Books | 2012

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

bernice mcfadden

Weighed in the Water

Recent events in the killing of Trayvon Martin have opened the collective wound of African Americans. Memory/suffering goes back to the brutal murder of 15 year-old Emmett Till nearly 57 years ago.  As this book attests, his murderers boasted of their crime. Because they had already been tried and found not guilty, they could not be tried again. They didn’t serve any time for his murder.

A tragedy of this magnitude can block out anything else in a book unless it is the focal point of the work. This novel, which could have stood on its own without the reference to this monstrous killing, only uses the homicide as a touchstone. That may not have been a wise choice given the way the story unfolds.

Its narrator is the town where Till was murdered. “I am Money. Money Mississippi. …Their story begins not with the tragedy of ’55 but long before that, with the arrival of the first problem, which came draped in crinoline and silk; carrying a pink parasol in one hand and Bible in the other.”

It is 1900. The girl, Doll, is described as the “first problem,” but she really isn’t. The first problem is a Black prostitute named Esther. After her brutal and unsolved murder, she becomes an evil spirit that possesses innocent children turning them into lechers and criminals.

Doll is one of her victims. When the child is five-years old, she begins talking in the same whisky-laced voice of the dead Esther. Doll’s mother finds her daughter to be too much to deal with and gives the girl to the local minister, Rev. August Hilson, and his wife. Within a few years, Doll seduces her foster father and destroys his marriage.

McFadden’s prose sails across the page as she describes the afterglow of the seduction: “After the coupling, the bursting into wild brilliant lights…Sorry to say that the only place she would lead him was to hell—which turned out not to be the fiery underworld he preached about, but right here on top of the world with me.”

Money, Mississippi is only hell for the Black residents. Their part of town, Baxter (aka Nigger Row) lacks the basic necessities unlike Candle Street where the well-off whites live. Baxter’s houses are of made of cheap grade lumber and don’t have indoor plumbing. There are no streetlights, no sidewalks, and no sewage system in the community.

The author deftly paints it as a typical segregated Southern town where there is a symbiotic relationship between Black and white residents. Baxter Street is where the support system of the white part of town lives, “cooks, maids, and laundresses.”

It is also where the story diverges from the Hilson family to a rather tenuous link to the murderer of Till. During Doll’s affair with a prominent white man, the ghost of Esther leaves her and takes up residence in a white boy.

“…Esther executed a perfect swan dive off of Hemingway’s shoulder and plunged right into that boy’s open mouth.”

Here is where plausibility becomes questionable. Why put the evil spirit of a fictional Black woman character into the body of a factual white boy? Why have this spirit kill a factual black boy?  Why use one of the most notorious hate homicides of the 20th century as the backdrop of a novel? What is the subtext here? This book evokes these questions and more.

What is also brought to mind is the most obvious symbol--the water of the book’s title. The novel explains that the Choctaw named the state Mississippi, and the name means gathering of waters. In McFadden’s hands, the waters take on the human aspects of good and evil.

Although Till’s murderer drowns in a flood, he (the murderer) comes back to life, is in effect reborn, baptized in water. The river connects the two boys in death because they are both corpses in it. However, for Till, there was no rebirth.

“Barely thirty paces away from his fishing spot, Carson came upon a thick swarm of blue bottle flies. He combed his arms through the air and flies scattered. When he looked down, his stomach lurched again.”

McFadden used poetic license in describing the reason for the killing of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was tortured and killed after supposedly whistling at a white woman in 1955 Mississippi. . The white woman, recipient of said whistle, lies about the incident. When the Black witnesses are questioned at the trial about it, they are not allowed to fully explain the cause, thereby exonerating the perpetrators.

The author also gives Till a teenage romance that doesn’t end with his death. Unfortunately, the lethal Esther has a part in his reunion with his sweetheart. Esther becomes Hurricane Katrina. Once again, the author’s craft is strong. Still, it is unclear why she creates a black prostitute that becomes first a factual murderous white racist, and then one of deadliest factual hurricanes on record.

The horrors of that storm are still be felt by residents of that region. The devastation to the Black community has been documented as being much worse than that of their white neighbors.

 Because of her skill, McFadden’s narrator is reliable as far as that goes.  However, this book is also a kind of denial about the plain truth that white people are fully capable of killing innocent Black children.

Consequently, the author’s use of characterization doesn’t serve the novel in some very crucial aspects. Instead, the book too seems to be a victim of its own subtext—the ongoing trauma of racism.

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REVIEWING

Fifty Shades Of Grey

By E.L. James

Vintage | 2012 | 528 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen

e l james

Does a highly respected on-line literary magazine have a responsibility  to report or comment on a publishing phenomenon?  And if such a phenomenon does not  -- even a teeny tiny bit -- qualify for  the category of “literature,” is “pornographic runaway best seller” a sufficiently credible status to require that it be acknowledged?
    I struggle with an answer even as I write this, in response to an assignment.

     For anyone who has been holing up in a cave for the past few months, 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James and its two follow-up novels (it’s a trilogy) of the continuing saga, have not only occupied top spots on the best seller lists, its author, readers, social impact, and prurient content have (and for this, I say, “thankfully”) almost replaced the badgering, repetitive, unstinting droning of partisan politics.

       Simple in premise, virgin Anastasia Steele, a college student of—if you’ll pardon the irony—literature, interviews high powered executive, drop dead gorgeous Christian Steele, a man in his mid-thirties, for her school publication and she quivers at the sight of him.

    Inconceivably, this man of enormous wealth, power, physical magnetism, and position, (lots of positions)  is somewhat attracted to the plain Jane co-ed, although it is never established and therefore really a stretch, to understand why. But I suppose in this genre, it doesn’t really matter.

    He deflowers her with no resistance and invites her to engage in a no nonsense sexual arrangement wherein he is contractually the Dominant and she the Submissive. They negotiate the written contract throughout the book, which is otherwise plotless, during which time, they experiment with its stipulations. There is no lead-up to indicate why this otherwise seemingly stable and sane female would relinquish her complete self for the tenuous lure of glamour, opulence, and physical pleasure during the contractual limits of weekends, and the guarantee of a non-permanent relationship. Hmm, really ?

     As for Mr. Big Shot, the reasons for his weirdo proclivities, S & M, chains and the like, are never quite analyzed, at least not in the first of the trilogy, however simplistically they are hinted at. Character and motivation are no place seriously explored in these pages.

    The set-up is so contrived that it would pass as a myth, if only there were a message. Personally, I love orgasms, the explosive characteristic of which is highlighted herein, page after page. But when scripted descriptions of it land on the pages of a book, with a resounding thud that never seems to go away, allowing no room for other stimulation, then I can only call it a colossal bore.

    On the other hand for some, it either feeds a void, or provides voyeuristic pleasure.  Pornography—uh, erotica—sells–and sells and sells.

     Predictably, book clubs have cornered the market on copies, and print and broadcast and social network media have devoted vast numbers of pages and hours and text messages to discussions that pose the “why.”  Questions like this keep sociologists and psychologists in business and tend to engender cottage industries of their own.

     When the Christian Science Monitor and other somewhat restrained mainstream news outlets recognize the cultural impact that such a rush to readership poses (and by the way, the movie, of course, is forthcoming)  then this is not unlike the Beetles of the ‘60s, or The Harry Potter and Twilight phenomenon that overtook generations of young people.

   Fifty Shades, however, with its hyped reliance on sexuality, has infiltrated to mid-lifers and beyond, proving that the gurus of psychology who boost the significance of fantasy in the lives of humans as an eternal staple, are on the mark.  

    Initially, this book was self-published in May 2011 and if ever the power of word-of-mouth has proven to be incalculable, this is such an instance.  James is a British mother of two who touts her books as Adult Romance and Love Story. The picture on her website shows a dark haired pixie faced innocent and headlines “Romance, Suspense, Erotica.”  

     And surely, despite the hand ringing, nay-saying  and denunciations, that smart lady is smiling–no! Laughing, as the cliché goes, all the way to the bank.   

     Is this a matter of sexual deprivation in the millennium years? I thought that had dissipated when Hugh Hefner let loose with his Bunnies, lo those many decades ago. Do women “get off” on reading this stuff, just as guys do when hiding behind a Playboy magazine or watching a porn film? Or perhaps this gives us permission to talk about what we never talk about. Or all of the above?

     So, does a highly respected on-line literary magazine have a responsibility to report or comment on a publishing phenomenon such as this?  I ask my readers.

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REVIEWING

The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America

By Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill

Third World Press | 2011

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene


“After all, it’s about the work you know.”
Mumia Abu-Jamal

marc lamont hill

The professor, Marc Lamont Hill, and the prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, two Black men from North Philadelphia whose lives took dramatically different paths, sit down to engage in a provocative discussion and insightful analysis on issues faced by Blacks in America: the prison industrial complex, the educational system, politics, hip hop, love, identity, Black leadership, and life and death.

Their book, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America, published by Third World Press, is in the tradition of Cornel West and bell hooks, who in the 1990s wrote on race relations in their conversations: Breaking Bread, and Margaret Meade and James Baldwin, who penned the widely discussed A Rap on Race. 

We get their viewpoints and we hear their perspectives on solutions to critical issues facing Black Americans.  One wonders whether there is only one “professor” in this book; are not both engaged in “professing?” 

Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist and activist, has spent the last 29 years of his life on Pennsylvania’s death row for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. He was sentenced to death at his first trial in July 1982. His calls for a new trial became an international cause, and cries for justice came from important heads of states, Nobel laureates, Amnesty International, the Congressional Black Caucus, and countless other advocates for justice, democracy and human rights.

Mumia is the author of six books, including Live from Death Row, All Things Censored, and Jailhouse Lawyers. His death sentence was lifted in December 2011 and he now faces life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Marc Lamont Hill, professor, writer, and activist, is Associate Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He also holds a joint appointment in African-American Studies at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia and has published widely in culture, politics, and education.  He is the author of Beats, Rhymes and the Classroom Life: Hip-Hop Pedagogy and the Politics of Identity, co-editor of Media, Learning and Sites of Possibility, and host of the nationally syndicated television show, Our World with Black Enterprise.

The conversation between Mumia and Marc opens with an exploration of why they do the work they do, and what it means to be Black, alive, conscious, and resistant in the 21st century.

In response to a question about why he seldom talks about himself, Mumia answered tellingly: “It’s all about the work you know. I come from a movement that inculcated in me a real sense of community and collective consciousness, so it was never about me. ”

This is a guiding force that permeates the writing of Mumia.  He has been able to survive 29 years on death row because he thinks beyond the self; and although he is a prisoner, he views himself as a free Black man who lives in captivity.  It’s not about him; it’s about making a difference in this world. 

Marc concurs; he is committed to making a difference.  The work that he does, the writing, research, speeches, and political commentary, inevitably reveals his beliefs, fears, and desires about what it means to be a Black man in this society.  His work moves beyond the self and represents a bridge between academic and public spaces.

A major issue in their discussion involves the paradoxical notion of freedom for a prisoner and for an academic.  Both identify themselves as public intellectuals who connect their intellectual arguments to public spaces, spaces beyond the university and the prison.  But is either man really free?

Mumia, housed in prison, is determined to exercise his freedom to write about issues of injustice, and to raise political awareness and social consciousness. He is “free” to say what he believes and is not afraid of repercussions. He thinks about and faces death on a daily basis and is thus motivated to do as much of the “work” as he can each day.  In his view, being in prison does not limit his freedom, for as someone who grew up seeing many imprisoned for their political beliefs, “. . . being in prison for one’s political beliefs and resistance was as normal as pancakes for breakfast.”

The notion of freedom for Marc, however is more complicated. As an academic and host of a weekly nationally syndicated television program, he is expected to, and free to, write on a number of issues related to education, culture, and politics, but he wonders about the repercussions of writing about issues that critique the establishment and that focus on his advocacy of political and controversial issues related to social justice.

Marc argues for connecting theory and practice and for using his writing and the media to advance his beliefs about social justice.  However, he also asks whether he will face repercussions because he has co-written a book with a man on death row, a public figure who is considered by many a political prisoner, and by others, the murderer of a police officer.

He ponders as to whether he can really be free as a Black man in a society where white supremacy still exists, and where politics, the media, and consumerism shape and impact the world he lives in, and the ways in which people respond to him. 

The notion of freedom for him is at times inconsistent and ambiguous. Marc asks what is the cost of his “apparent freedom?”

Both writers advocate for the need to engage in self-critique and discuss the ways in which the arts represent a powerful means to engage in revolutionary struggle.  They cite hip hop as an example of a cultural art form that was developed in response to the need to critique the establishment.  Hip hop, begun as a movement of resistance, was considered to be revolutionary in that it represented change.

Marc contends that while it may have a revolutionary form within America, most of it has become devoid of revolutionary content because of misogyny, violence, homophobia, and consumerism; in short, the messages conveyed by hip hop artists have been co-opted by a compromise of integrity in order to achieve mainstream success.      Despite this lack of a revolutionary edge to hip hop, however, he recognizes that on a global scale it is still representative of a revolutionary movement.

Marc cites countries in Africa, South America, and Central America where hip hop artists have created narratives steeped in the cultural traditions and critical issues of a particular country.

The stance that Mumia and Marc take on the educational system is noteworthy.  They ask what kind of message do we send to teachers when we praise Waiting for Superman, a film which is anti-union, anti-tenure, and anti-teacher. 

Marc notes, that this film is part of a long stream of films that celebrate a “get tough and charismatic approach,” films which send a strong message that students in our schools will be successful when we crack down on them and remove unions and the tenure process for teachers. 

He argues that these films send the message that you don’t need more books, you don’t need funding, and you don’t need to re-imagine the curriculum; all you need are teachers who “care,” and a willingness to crack down on teachers and parents who don’t. 

This stance is antithetical to a more progressive one that advocates for education administrators to examine books, curriculum and pedagogy and provide funding for more initiatives that professionalize teaching. Marc supports his argument by citing films which celebrate the charismatic and caring teacher as the panacea for solving the problems in our schools, films such as Stand and Deliver, To Sir with Love, Blackboard Jungle, Dangerous Minds, and Dead Poets Society. 

Films such as Waiting for Superman, rather than examine our pedagogy, implicitly support expanded surveillance and heightened militarization in our schools by criminalizing behaviors that are considered developmentally inappropriate. In doing so, they lay the path that prepares students for a prison–like existence.  Hence, penalties for not obeying the teacher or talking back can lead to a student’s arrest for disorderly conduct.

Mumia and Marc have created an indelible bond of respect for the value of dialogue which is forged through their mutual backgrounds of growing up in urban Philadelphia and their mutual respect for the work they are each committed to doing.  They urge their readers and the public to take a critical stand on issues that affect and impact the lives of Black Americans in our society.

Some may view their conversations as too generalized, for what they “profess” from the perspectives of public intellectuals is based on their personal experiences, readings, and observations.  I suggest that you critically examine the statements of these two men and that you listen to their voices and read the books which they list at the end of each chapter. These readings provide a sound basis from which to analyze their provocative and intellectually stimulating conversations on the state of Black life in America.

Brenda M. Greene is Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. 

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