Martín Espada: A Censored Poem for Mumia Abu Jamal

The board-blinded windows knew what happened;
the pavement sleepers of Philadelphia, groaning
in their ghost-infested sleep, knew what happened;
every Black man blessed
with the gashed eyebrow of nightsticks
knew what happened;
even Walt Whitman knew what happened,
poet a century dead, keeping vigil
from the tomb on the other side of the bridge.

More than fifteen years ago,
the cataract stare of the cruiser’s headlights,
the impossible angle of the bullet
the tributaries and lakes of blood,
Officer Faulkner dead, suspect Mumia shot in the chest,
the witness who saw a
running away, his heart and feet thudding.

The nameless prostitutes know,
hunched at the curb, their bare legs chilled.
Their faces squinted to see that night,
rouged with fading bruises. Now the faces fade.
Perhaps an eyewitness putrefies eyes open in a bed of soil,
or floats in the warm gulf stream of her addiction,
or hides from the fanged whispers of the police
in the tomb of Walt Whitman,
where the granite door is open
and fugitive slaves may rest.

Mumia: the Panther beret, the thinking dreadlocks,
dissident words that swarmed the microphone like a hive,
sharing meals with people named Africa,
calling out their names even after the police bombardment
that charred their black
So the governor has signed the death
The executioner’s needle would flush the
down into Mumia’s writing hand
so the fingers curl like a burned spider;
his calm questioning mouth would grow numb,
and everywhere radios sputter to silence, in his memory.

The veiled prostitutes are gone,
gone to the segregated balcony of whores.
But the newspaper reports that another nameless prostitute
says the man is innocent, that she will testify at the next hearing.
Beyond the courthouse, a multitude of witnesses chants, prays,
shouts for his prison to collapse, a shack in a hurricane.

Mumia, if the last nameless prostitute
becomes an unravelling turban of steam,
if the judges’ robes become clouds of ink
swirling like octopus deception,
if the shroud becomes your Amish quilt,
if your dreadlocks are snipped during autopsy,
then drift above the ruined RCA factory
that once birthed radios
to the tomb of Walt Whitman,
where the granite door is
and fugitive slaves may rest.


A Forbidden Poem: “Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man is Innocent” – Excerpt from interview with Martin Espada in Yes Magazine (1997.

“As many readers may know, Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted in the 1981 slaying of police officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia – under extremely dubious circumstances. Officer Faulkner was beating Mumia’s brother with a flashlight when Mumia came upon the scene. In the ensuing confrontation, both Faulkner and Mumia were shot. Though Mumia had a .38 caliber pistol in his taxi that night, and the gun was found at the scene, the judgment of the medical examiner concerning the fatal bullet was that it came from a .44 caliber weapon. Several witnesses reported seeing an unidentified gunman flee. I don’t think it’s coincidental that before his arrest, Mumia was a strong critic of the Philadelphia police.

What we’re dealing with in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal is a chain of silence. For example, I was commissioned to write a poem by NPR. I met all the guidelines – one of the producers admitted in an interview that she loved the poem, called “Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man is Innocent” – but they refused to air it, because it was about Mumia. Since that happened, I have become much more involved in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal; I’ve ended up visiting him on death row.

In order to silence the millions for whom Mumia speaks you have to silence Mumia. In order to silence Mumia, you have to silence those that speak for him where he does not have the opportunity to speak for himself…”



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