The Soul Knows No Bars, "Free Mumia and H. Rap Brown"

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“This book taught me a lot…I highly recommend it for All Serious Brothers”

The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, & Hope

A Review by Joy James

By Drew Leder and Cornel West Rowman & Littlefield 224 pages

Currently, some 70 percent of the 2 million people in U.S. jails, prisons and detention centers are people of color; approximately 1 million are African American. With the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, the United States is one of the few developed countries with capital punishment and one of a few democratic nations to execute minors. Two new books, The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death, & Hope and All Things Censored, discuss imprisonment, philosophy, politics and personal and social struggles.

Neither book addresses the more than 138,000 women incarcerated in the United States. And although most men are in prison for nonviolent offenses, often related to the drug trade and addiction, The Soul Knows No Bars introduces us to men convicted of heinous crimes: rape, armed robbery, murder. Editor and co-author Drew Leder is a philosophy professor at Loyola College in Maryland who for several years also taught at Baltimore’s Maryland Penitentiary. Charles Baxter, Wayne Brown, Tony Chatman-Bey, Jack Cowan, Michael Green, Gary Huffman, H. B. Johnson Jr., O’Donald Johnson, Arlando Jones III, Mark Medley, “Q,” Donald Thompson, Selvyn Tillett and John Woodland attended his course at the Penitentiary and eventually became his co-authors.

The Soul Knows No Bars consists largely of edited transcripts from their class sessions. Their discussions of theory, morality and philosophy appear in six parts, each focusing on a different historic individual:

* Power — Simon Well and Friedrich Nietzche;

* Architecture — Michel Foucault;

* Space and time — Martin Heidegger;

* Sex and race — Cornel West;

* Journeys — Joseph Campbell;

* Beginnings and endings — Martin Buber and Malcolm X.

The book is somewhat constrained in that it never quite shakes the authoritative voice that academics wield while granting (or seeking) approval in relation to their students. Leder candidly explores the unequal power dynamics at work and displays considerable respect for his incarcerated students: “The convicts cared about ideas, more than many of my Loyola College students sentenced to serve out their required curriculum. I felt at home in this drab penitentiary classroom and so, seemingly, did the inmates.” African American philosopher Cornel West, who lectured in Leder’s class, writes in the foreword: “How I wish such high-quality pedagogical experiences could be had in schools and prisons across this nation and world!”

Still, the parameters within which the men reveal their souls are structured by Leder’s training in philosophy. Readers might wonder what would have happened if Leder had included pioneering, provocative texts such as the anthology by African American philosophers, Philosophy Born of Struggle and Toni Morrison’s collection of essays on race, culture and literature, Playing in the Dark.

One of the most engaging intellectuals, and the only one besides Leder to establish a name for himself before this volume, is H.B. Johnson Jr.

Incarcerated for armed robbery and attempted murder, sentenced for a minimum of 25 years, Johnson is described in the book: “Entering prison with an eighth-grade education, H.B. studied the works of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, and was inspired to become a writer.” His plays, poems and essays gained attention outside of prison. He won the WMAR-TV Black Playwrights contest, was featured on the NBC Today show and honored by the PEN American Center. Having contracted AIDS from drug use while in prison, Johnson’s reflections reveal intimacy not only with prison culture and the street violence that led him to be incarcerated, but, one senses, an awareness of the proximity of his own death.

With the other prisoners,Johnson offers personal insights into culture and social relations. In discussing Foucault’s panopticon and the prison as constant invasive surveillance, co-author Tillett remarks: “Different people react differently to the discipline. It might make you or break you.” To which, Johnson responds: “The best is living a life where you don’t have anything to hide. You don’t care if the state’s looking at you or not. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

While The Soul Knows No Bars contributes to the growing literature about prison life and intellectuals, violence, power and morality, one of the most powerful and influential writers on social justice today is death row inmate and political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Live from Death Row, published in 1995, established him internationally as an intellectual. Leder might have been permanently banned from teaching this incisive book in the penitentiary, but one can only wonder what dynamic unfolds when Black prison intellectuals are able to read each other’s works. Translated into seven languages, Abu-Jamal’s books have sold more than 100,000 copies. Yet, his popularity as a writer also highlights his pending execution date.

In the foreword to his latest book, All Things Censored, Alice Walker writes, “So I will ask you to read at least one of Mumia’s books, as a way to begin to feel your way into this new millennium. He has written and published books while on death row, an amazing feat, and of course he has been punished for doing so. I will encourage you to listen to his voice. Losing that voice would be like losing a color from the rainbow.”

The title of the book refers to how Americans were prevented from hearing that voice when National Public Radio fired journalist Abu-Jamal as an on-air columnist for its news magazine, All Things Considered, in 1994. Learning about the upcoming commentaries from the station’s promotional spots, then-Sen. Bob Dole and the National Fraternal Order of Police lobbied NPR not to broadcast Abu-Jamal. Although it had agreed to air the tapes, NPR canceled their contract with Abu-Jamal and refused to return the tapes that had been painstakingly made by Abu-Jamal and Noelle Hanrahan, the editor of his most recent book. The only copies of the tapes were placed in an NPR vault and those commentaries — which address social and racial issues but make no mention of his case or trial — as read by Abu-Jamal are lost to the public, which ironically pays for public radio.

However, the commentaries resurface in print in All Things Censored. The CD which accompanies the book also presents other commentaries read by Abu-Jamal and by activists, writers and actors such as Alice Walker, Cornel West, Ramona Africa, Assata Shakur, Martin Sheen and John Edgar Wideman. It is rare to hear Abu-Jamal’s voice. Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Greene, where Abu-Jamal is on death row, has changed its regulations in order to prevent further recordings.

In 1982, the former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists was sentenced to death for the killing of a White police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal and his supporters maintain his innocence and are petitioning for a new trial. All Things Censored devotes few pages to this struggle, the public record of malfeasance by the police, district attorney and presiding judge, and the perjured testimony of prosecution witnesses. The book closes with C. Clark Kissinger’s essay on the case and a list of notable individuals and groups calling for a new trial, including Jesse Jackson, Toni Morrison, Susan Sarandon, the National Black Police Association and the National Lawyers Guild.

Abu-Jamal is not new to the trials of censorship. As a young journalist he was fired from a Philadelphia radio station because of his coverage of the Africanist organization MOVE, and because of his strong critiques of the Philadelphia police.

Dealing with life outside and inside of prison, All Things Censored draws us into parallel universes populated by people struggling for humanity. It chronicles pervasive racial bias in sentencing and policing, e.g., although Whites are the majority of consumers of both crack and powder cocaine, Black and Latino defendants disproportionately are policed, arrested and incarcerated for drug use and sale.

Abu-Jamal addresses police harassment, brutality and racial-profiling. He describes how race of both the defendant and the victim is the primary factor in capital punishment. Those convicted of killing a White person are four times more likely to receive the death penalty, particularly if they are not White themselves.

Reading these essays, one is struck by analyses that won’t appear in the speeches of politicians who embrace the rhetoric of capital punishment, despite the publicly acknowledged racial bias in state executions which led the American Bar Association to call for a moratorium. All of this does not deny the criminal activity and dangerous behavior of many — and the insanity of a few — who are incarcerated: In narratives about prison experiences we hear stories of frailty, depravity and humanity. It only notes that the basis for a prison or death sentence is not determined merely by guilt or criminal activity. Of the many types of social criminals — white or bluecollar, government, corporate or individual — the ones who are incarcerated fight for their dignity and human rights.

Ultimately these essays challenge us to rethink contemporary government, social and police policies. They also remind us of a historical struggle shaped by legal disenfranchisement — the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which codifies rather than abolishes slavery, saying that those convicted of a crime can be forced into involuntary servitude while in prison. One must add to those the prison-lease system after the Civil War, in which Blacks were worked to death on former plantations that became prisons in joint state-private ventures to accumulate wealth.

Alongside powerful writing on injustice and the oral testimonies on the CD, this book provides arresting photographs and sketches by various artists. All Things Censored provides what All Things Considered tried to bury: a collective narrative of the compelling and painful stories of the village or tribe on both sides of the concertina wire and their constant resistance to being dehumanized. As Abu-Jamal writes, “Don’t tell me about the valley of the shadow of death. I live there.”

Joy James is a professor of African American Studies at Brown University.


The book alternates between the voice of the inmates and that of Drew Leder, the primary author. What follows here is a brief and representative excerpt from one of the prisoner dialogs, the topic here being “Violence and the Soul” (chapter 20). We are reading and discussing a text by Thomas Moore.

Violent Life
The word violence comes from the Latin word, vis
Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, pp. 126-127.

meaning “life force.” Its very roots suggest that in violence the thrust of life is making itself visible….It would be a mistake to approach violence with any simple idea of getting rid of it. Chances are, if we try to eradicate our violence, we will also cut ourselves off from the deep power that sustains creative life.

Donald: I agree with Moore that there’s constructive violence. A good example could be the childbirth process. There’s a lot of violence and pain associated with birth.

Charles: I think violence is in every form of life, everything. I have an uncle who’s a shoe repair man and it takes violence to use the hammer and beat the shoe, take the knife and cut the leather. Once he put the shoe on the finishing machine he has a beautiful pair of shoes, but it takes violence to make it.

John: In Project Turnaround when we’re counseling kids, we talk very violent. Our tone of voice, our mannerisms, and our words are rough–but to get a message across that if you follow this path you’ll end up in here.

Tray: And when one of them Project T kids gets me angry, that’s when I give the best presentation. It’s like the same intensity I have when I’m doing something negative–it’s got to be there when I’m doing something positive or I won’t do it right. I need that anger that makes me able to kick somebody else’s butt. If you ever take that violent streak out of me it will reduce me to nothing.

John: But it’s a force that has to have some degree of control. My bad temper was my downfall. I don’t really think I’m a bad person, but I had the tendency to react when I would feel like I was being threatened. And I’m better at handling that reaction now than when I was out on the street. Because I didn’t have any thought about how to control or direct it–just to react, and react as strongly as possible. That’s the way I learned on the street. If you’re going to be violent, you’re going to be all the way violent. There’s no “a little violent”–you go the whole nine yards or you’re not going at all.

Wayne: I liked the reading because it helped me understand a particular scripture. In Matthew 11:12 it says that “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” I never really knew what that meant. Then I realized that when I come to the knowledge that what I did was wrong, it takes as much violence not to do it, an opposite violence going in the opposite direction. Now I use that same energy to redirect the anger. I come up with creative ideas to keep from doing a drastic thing I’ll later regret. It’s funny, really funny–the same energy that you use to do something, like commit a murder, you have to use to not

commit a murder.John: When I was thinking about rechanneling energy and violence, they had a special on last week about rap music; how the message is violent, and rappers are perceived as role models, and this might be creating more violence in the street. But in my opinion, this is an example of someone who has taken the potential for violence and channelled it into a constructive force. They could be guys like us sitting in the penitentiary. They could sell drugs, end up killing somebody, do stickups, car-jackings, whatever. Instead, they chose to express what they know. And they’re not harming anyone–there’s no causal relationship between what they say and violence on the street.

Tray: I beg to differ. Before any violence can be kicked off, somebody always writes something that’s going to inflame people. In the nineteenth century, all you had to do was write that a black man raped a white girl and paint it up and glorify it, and you’re going to have a black man lynched. And now the rappers get kids pulling out guns, shooting people for no apparent reason. That pen is real mighty but when it goes into a violent person’s hand and he’s real talented with it, a great many people get killed.

John: When they would lynch a black man, it had nothing to with writing. It was just something they were wanting to do anyway. And it’s the same thing now with a lot of African Americans. Because our living conditions are so frustrating, and we have a lot of hostility, we just wait for a direction to express that. There wasn’t no rap music when we committed crimes!

Tony: Yeah, but when we were growing up, most of the time if you had a beef with somebody, at the most you had a knife. Maybe a chain, a baseball bat. And if you got your butt whupped you accepted it.

John: Yeah, I think the difference now is the accessibility of guns, especially to younger kids. When I was coming up, say thirteen or fourteen, getting a gun was out of this world! Get a gun from where? Maybe if you beat somebody for one, but usually if you did it was an old ragged revolver that had a rubber band on it and you had to tape it together. But now they’re not pulling out old ragged guns, they’re pulling out brand new fresh pretty-looking big spanking new guns. Where does a little boy like that get a gun from? And they got four or five of them! When I was growing up there might be one gun in the whole neighborhood. Say I had it. If you had a beef you had to come looking for me, and I had to duck past my mother and go up in the attic, and by the time I get it to you, you might have calmed down or the other guy might’ve left. Now everybody’s got the gun right in hand. It don’t give people the opportunity to think. Got a problem–go grab a gun and solve it.

A RBG Street Scholar Educational Design

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