Brown University acquires Mumiya Abu-Jamali’s papers

Author: Yuvi August 24, 2022 Brown University acquires Mumiya Abu-Jamali's papers

Providence, RI – For years, Mumiya Abu-Jamal was the face of the anti-death penalty movement in the United States. A former Black Panther sentenced to death in the 1981 murder of a police officer, he became a best-selling author and commentator of the early 1990s, as a staple of “Free Mummiya” protests and T-shirts became.

His prominence has faded since 2011, when, after several appeals, the District Attorney of Philadelphia agreed to drop the death penalty. Abu-Jamal is currently serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. But now, the paper he hoards as one of America’s most famous prisoners has found a permanent home in a different kind of institution.

Brown University has acquired Abu-Jamal’s personal collection, more than 60 boxes of letters, notebooks, manuscripts, pamphlets, personal artifacts, books and other materials. It had filled its cell on death row, where it sat unseen, before being sent to the home of a scholar and friend a decade ago.

Abu-Jamal’s collection will be hosted by the university’s John Hay Library as part of its new Voices of Mass Incarceration collection initiative, aimed at one of the most widely debated – and under-documented – aspects of American life. One has to chronicle.

“The carceral system touches millions of people,” the library’s director, Amanda E. Strauss, said earlier this month before giving a first glimpse at the collection. “And yet the stories of the people imprisoned in historical collections are lacking.”

According to data cited by Brown, between 1970 and 2020, the number of people imprisoned or imprisoned in the United States increased to nearly 2 million, an increase of nearly 500 percent. And over the past decade, the study of the “Kaiserle State” has become a flourishing scholarly field.

But much of that work is based on vast records maintained by the police and prison systems. Archivist Mary Murphy, who oversees Abu-Jamal’s papers, said her team had unearthed only 25 archival holdings related to first-person experiences of people imprisoned in American libraries.

Some are subsets of larger collections, such as the collection of activist and scholar Angela Davis, which was acquired by Harvard University in 2018. But most, Murphy said, are small, like a handful of prison diaries here and there.

He said that the Abu-Jamal collection is unique. “This is the largest and only collection belonging to a man who is still imprisoned,” she said.

Abu-Jamal was born Wesley Cooke in 1954 in Philadelphia. As a teenager, he co-founded a local chapter of the Black Panthers, which advocated socialism, black nationalism, and armed self-defense. He later became a radio journalist and president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, known for his sympathetic coverage of MOVE, a radical, anti-government Black power group with ties to the police (who set their campus on fire in 1985). Granted, 11 died) remains a raw theme in Philadelphia.

In 1982, Abu-Jamal, who had no prior criminal record, was arrested in 1981 by police officer Daniel J. Faulkner was convicted of first-degree murder in the murder, which witnesses Abu-Jamal shot him as the officer was arresting his brother.

The acquisition of his collection is not only unique, but potentially controversial. In 1994, National Public Radio reversed plans to broadcast his prison remarks, following protests from police and others. To his most ardent defenders, Abu-Jamal (who maintains his innocence) is a political prisoner. To opponents, he is a “celebrity cop killer”.

Brown’s spokeswoman Jill Kimball said the purchase was approved by the university’s provost. She said the collection was acquired “through a trust” but added that the university was not disclosing more details, including the purchase price.

The archive came to Brown almost by accident. In the spring of 2020, Murphy began recording oral history with Johanna Fernandez, a historian at Manhattan’s Baruch College, and a Brown alumna who was involved in the student takeover of University Hall, ultimately a successful campaign for need-blind admissions. As part of the recruitment of more minorities.

Murphy, an archivist at the Pembroke Center, a feminist research center at Brown, was also interested in obtaining Fernandez’s papers, which record her own activism and her work as a leading scholar of radical movements. (In 2014, Fernandez sued the New York Police Department for access to millions of pages of surveillance files on the Black Panthers and others.)

After a few conversations, Fernandez delivered an unexpected message. “She said, ‘Oh, I should probably mention that I have this other collection too,'” Murphy said. She was shocked to hear what it was, and called Strauss. “I almost fell out of my chair,” Strauss recalled.

Fernandez said in an interview that he first heard about Abu-Jamal as an undergraduate. “He was the Che Guevara of our time,” she said.

She knew him in 2005, when she began visiting him and other inmates on death row in Pennsylvania, where she was living. He has since made a documentary about his case, and edited an archive of his prison writings.

She began archiving her collection in 2012, when she abandoned the death penalty. “They were pressuring him to get rid of everything in his cell,” she said. “He wanted to throw it all away. But as a historian I understood the importance of the papers.”

He mailed her boxes and boxes full of contents, filling her closet and other corners of her apartment. She looked through them, and included an interview with Mumiya in “The Young Lords,” her award-winning 2020 history study of the Puerto Rican activist group, modeled after the Black Panthers. But otherwise, she said, the papers have not been seen or used by anyone.

Earlier this month, a sample of both Abu-Jamal’s papers and that of Fernandez (which were acquired in a separate transaction) were spread over two tables at an off-campus facility in Providence.

Samples from Fernández’s collection included his scholarly research material and student diaries, as well as items talking about his long friendship with Abu-Jamal, such as his watercolor paintings.

“These collections are really in conversation with each other, the prisoner and the lawyer,” Murphy said.

Abu-Jamal’s array of collections included a box of art supplies, a clear-plastic prison radio, and a pair of his heavy-framed plastic aviator glasses. But the bulk of the collection is paper.

Much of it talks about daily life in the prison, such as the price list for breakfast, and correspondence with prison administrators on requests for reading materials. “In a way, the collection is actually generated by the prison system,” Murphy said.

The collection also includes huge notebooks. And there are thousands of letters from supporters around the world, as well as correspondence with notable figures including authors Angela Davis and Alice Walker, activist Kathleen Cleaver and Harvard legal scholar Derrick Bell (who debated Abu-Jamal, Murphy said.) importance of music.

Some of the items talk about Abu-Jamal’s influence on other imprisoned people. A 2007 letter from Bomani Shakur (born Keith Lamar), a death row prisoner in Ohio who is to be hanged in November 2023 for his role in the murder of five fellow inmates during the 1993 prison riots .

“I have perused your writings and tried to use them as a guide for my transformation,” wrote Shakoor. “And now I want to make a contribution and, along with you and others, advocate for a better world.”

Along with titles such as “Panther Walk” and “Vampire Nation”, there was handwritten sheet music for Abu-Jamal’s original songs. Murphy also offered a brief glimpse of what he described as one of the collection’s “rare objects”: a long, philosophical manuscript sent to Mumiya in the early 1980s by John Africa, the founder of MOVE, who was killed in a firebombing in 1985.

The curators will not allow the object to be photographed. He added that the library is still working out any restrictions related to privacy, but expects most of the collection to be processed and opened for research in about a year — much faster by archival standards.

Murphy said the collection is historically significant, although one sees Abu-Jamal.

The prison system, and the experience of the people inside it, is “a vast piece of American history,” Murphy said.

Author: Yuvi

My name is Yuvi, I work as Sub Editor at

24 August, 2022, 6:30 pm

News Cinema on twitter News Cinema on facebook share newscinema latest news on whatsapp

Wednesday, 24th August 2022

Latest Web Stories

More Stories