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House on Mango Street
All Things Censored

The Poem NPR Doesn't Want You to Hear

(abridged)

By Martin Espada (from his collection of essays, Zapata’s Disciple)

I was an NPR poet. In particular, I was an All Things Considered poet. All Things Considered would occasionally broadcast my poems in conjunction with news stories. One producer even commissioned a New Year's poem from me. "Imagine the Angels of Bread" aired on January 2, 1994, in the same broadcast as the news of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. But now I have been censored by All Things Considered and National Public Radio because I wrote a poem for them about Mumia Abu Jamal.

As many readers may know, Mumia Abu Jamal is an eloquent African-American journalist on death row, 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, leaving Faulkner and Mumia severely wounded in the street.

What happened in court was a tragic pantomime. The trial featured a prosecutor who assailed Mumia for his radi­cal politics, including his teenaged membership in the Black Panthers. Witnesses were coached and coerced in their testimony or intimidated into silence by police. The trial was presided over by a judge notorious for handing out death sentences to Black defendants, or manipulating juries to do the same, as in this case. A strong critic of the Phila­delphia police -- particularly with respect to their brutal treatment of the African-American collective called MOVE -- Mumia was condemned by the very system he questioned.

In August 1995, Mumia came within ten days of being executed by lethal injection. He is seeking a new trial. Robert Meeropol, the younger son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, says: "Mumia is the first political prisoner in the U.S. to face execution since my parents."

Enter NPR. In 1994, National Public Radio agreed to broadcast a series of Mumia's radio commentaries from death row. The Prison Radio Project produced the record­ings that April. Suddenly, NPR canceled the commentaries under pressure from the right, particularly the Fraternal Order of Police and Senator Robert Dole. Mumia and the Prison Radio Project sued NPR on First Amendment grounds.

            In April 1997, I was contacted by the staff at All Things Con­sidered, their first communication since my New Year's poem. Diantha Parker and Sara Sarasohn commissioned me to write a poem for National Poetry Month. The general idea was that the poem should be like a news story, with a journalistic perspective. They suggested that I write a poem in response to a news story in a city I visited during the month. Ms. Parker called to obtain my itinerary, so that NPR could give me an assignment relevant to a particular city. Fatefully, they could think of no such assignment. But the idea had found a home in the folds of my brain.

Since April is National Poetry Month, I traveled every­where. I went from Joplin, Missouri, to Kansas City, to Rochester, to Chicago, to Camden, New Jersey. And then to Philadelphia. I read an article in the April 16th Philadelphia Weekly about Mumia Abu Jamal. The article described a motion by one of Mumia's lawyers, Leonard Weinglass, to introduce testimony by an unnamed prostitute with new information about the case. This became the catalyst for the poem.

I also visited the tomb of Walt Whitman in nearby Camden, and was moved. Whitman wrote this in "Song of Myself": the runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside, /1 heard his motions crackling the twigs of the wood pile, I Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak, I And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him, I And brought water and fill'd a tub for his sweated body and bruis'd feet." In my poem, Whitman's tomb became a place of refuge for the "fugitive slave," first for a nameless prostitute, then Mumia. By poem's end, this place and poet came to represent our sacred­ compassion, our ceremonies of conscience. our will to resist, our refusal to forget.

I faxed the poem to NPR on April 21st. On April 24th, All Things Considered staff informed me that they would not air the poem. They were explicit: They would not air the poem because of its subject matter-Mumia Abu Jamal -- and its political sympathies.

"NPR is refusing to air this poem because of its politi­cal content?" I asked. "Yes," said Diantha Parker.

She cited the "history" of NPR and Mumia, a reference to their refusal to air his commentaries. She further ex­plained that the poem was "not the way NPR wants to re­turn to this subject." Such is the elegant bureaucratic language of censorship. Parker would later admit, in an in­terview with Dennis Bernstein of KPFA-FM, that she "loved" the poem, and that "the poem should have run, perhaps in a different context." This comment also debunks the idea that NPR was merely exercising its editorial discretion. The quality of the poem was never questioned. The criteria for the assignment had been met. "He did everything we asked him to do," said Parker to Bernstein.

A few days later, I met Marilyn Jamal, Mumia's former wife. I presented her with the poem and watched her strug­gle against tears. Then she said: “I promised myself that I wouldn't cry anymore.” I concluded that NPR's censorship should come to light…

            …I once asked my friend David Velasquez, who worked as a farrier, about shoeing horses. He replied: "Imagine a crea­ture that weighs 1,500 pounds and is motivated by fear." That's NPR, at least in terms of Mumia. Of course, the lib­eral media is notorious for timidity. To again quote my wise friend: "A liberal is someone who leaves the room when a fight breaks out."

Editorial decisions are made for political reasons on a daily basis: Rarely, however, is the curtain lifted to reveal the corroded machinery. Moreover, as a left-wing poet, I ex­pect to be censored by mainstream media. But when so­-called "alternative" media also censor the left, the impact is devastating. Ask Mumia Abu Jamal…

…Readers can call or write All Things Considered to urge that the poem be aired. They can urge, again, that Mumia's commentaries be aired, or at least released from the vaults of NPR so that others might have access to them. They can inform NPR that their financial contributions to National Public Radio will instead be diverted to the legal defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal. That address is: Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal, 163 Amsterdam Avenue, #115, New York, NY 10023. Checks should be made payable to the Bill of Rights Foundation ("for MAJ").

Meanwhile, I assume that All Things Considered has put my name on their blacklist. I wonder what poems I must write to be allowed on All Things Considered again. Maybe some cowboy poetry.

What follows is the poem NPR does not want you to hear. I have made a few minor revisions, since, in the midst of this madness, with a poet's compulsive nature, I was try­ing to create a better poem.

Another Nameless Prostitute

Says the Man is Innocent

for Mumia Abu-Jamal

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania/Camden, New Jersey,

April 1997

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 witnesses who saw a gunman

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 bodies.

So the governor has signed the death warrant.

The executioner's needle would flush the poison

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 unraveling 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 open

and fugitive slaves may rest.

Teacher's Guide
Essential Questions
Summary
Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Additional Projects/Activities I
Additional Projects/Activities II
Additional Projects/Activities III
Additional Projects/Activities IV
Transcript of TV Reports
Michael Eric Dyson
  Materials for Other Activities
Instructions for Essay on King's Giant Triplets
Who Killed Martin Luther King?
St. Martin, The Militant
All Things Censored
Native American Resistance
Day Of Shame
Samples Of Student Work

Urban Dreams
OUSD Curriculum Unit
Hidden In Plain Sight -
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
Radical Vision
Subject: U.S. History
Grade Level: 11th

Lesson Plan Author:
Craig Gordon
Organization: OUSD