All Things Censored
The Poem NPR Doesn't
Want You to Hear
By Martin Espada (from his collection of essays,
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
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
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
"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
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…
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."
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
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
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
Pennsylvania/Camden, New Jersey,
board-blinded windows knew what happened;
sleepers of Philadelphia, groaning
in their ghost-infested
sleep, knew what happened;
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
stare of the cruiser's headlights,
angle of the bullet,
and lakes of blood,
dead, suspect Mumia shot in the chest,
who saw a gunman
his heart and feet thudding.
the curb, their bare legs chilled.
squinted to see that night,
fading bruises. Now the faces fade.
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
slaves may rest.
the Panther beret, the thinking dreadlocks,
that swarmed the microphone like a hive,
with people named Africa,
their names even after the police bombardment
their black bodies.
So the governor
has signed the death warrant.
needle would flush the poison
down into Mumia's
so the fingers
curl like a burned spider;
his calm questioning
mouth would grow numb,
radios sputter to silence, in his memory.
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.
courthouse, a multitude of witnesses chants, prays,
his prison to collapse, a shack in a hurricane.
the last nameless prostitute
unraveling turban of steam,
if the judges'
robes become clouds of ink
if the shroud
becomes your Amish quilt,
if your dreadlocks
are snipped during autopsy,
above the ruined RCA factory
that once birthed
to the tomb
of Walt Whitman,
where the granite
door is open
slaves may rest.