I was burying my head in college books and preparing for graduation requirements at the University of Michigan in December 1981 when independent journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal was shot and then beaten into unconsciousness by Philadelphia police — accused of killing a cop. I hate to admit that it was not something that mattered to me at the time. But one day, it would resonate to my very core.
Sentenced to death in a trial denounced by many, including Amnesty International, as failing to meet even the lowest acceptable standards of judicial fairness, Abu-Jamal has since spent decades defending his innocence while also railing against racism, injustice and violence in America.
His latest collection of essays is entitled by the provocative question “Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?” — a book I devoured from cover to cover within a few short hours and which I’d recommend to anyone of color who can read. It serves as a no-holds-barred walk through American history and seeks to counter many of the narratives devised by those of European descent known for employing unprecedented examples of savagery and violence in their thirst to both seize and maintain control of the “New World” and its rich, natural resources.
The author reminds us of two axioms often expressed by journalists that, when stated collectively, add greater relevance to Abu-Jamal’s musings: 1) “Today’s newspapers are the first draft of history;” and 2) “History is written by the victors.”
For those more often relegated to the “invisible” sectors of U.S. society — Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, women, the poor and the incarcerated — even if their stories make it to the news, the emerging form tends to be a rabid, distortion of the truth. Many history books refer to the people who Columbus encountered in the late 14th century as “savages.” Abu-Jamal reminds us that the Europeans were so determined to acquire free land and cheap labor that within 100 years, close to 80 million Native Americans had been killed. Who were the real savages?
Brown lives didn’t matter.
Meanwhile, to replace the indigenous communities the Europeans had destroyed due to abuse and disease, Black laborers, who first came to America as indentured servants, quickly found themselves labeled by a new status: “slaves.” For the over 100 million people kidnapped and transported in chains and filth, and subsequent generations, their lives were used to engine a budding economy — for whites only.
As for Africans and their descendants, the Spanish, British and Americans, all by law, identified their enslaved workers as property, not even persons. More like beasts of burden than living, breathing men, women or children.
Black lives didn’t matter.
The author says Black lives didn’t even seem to matter during the eight years under a Black president, albeit in episodic incidents, rather than with more preferred systemic evidence to suggest otherwise.
“How do you think things are going to go under Donald Trump,” he asks. “Have Black lives ever mattered?”
Brother Mumia posits the question but not to generate heated, philosophical debate. Instead, he believes that the Black-female founded, majority-millennial supported organization has the power to turn things around and to reverse the escalating, racially-motivated violence that threatens to tear our divided nation apart.
We need voices of reason to step forward — not those thirsting for even greater power and dominance. And color has nothing to do with value, worth, nor whose lives do or do not matter.