By Albert Woodfox with Leslie George.
New York: Grove Press.
414 pp. $26.
Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL, who as a Philadelphia teenager became a Black Panther monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, turns 65 Wednesday. He has been in Pennsylvania’s human vaults–jail, then Death Row, and now, prison under a life sentence–since the age of 27. Meanwhile, Albert Woodfox–who joined the Black Panther Party in prison in the 1970s and, as a direct result, was framed into what would be known as “The Angola 3,”–is, today, at the age of 72, out and about. He is speaking and fighting and recovering from being put in Louisiana’s solitary confinement, give or take a year or two for a trial or two, from 1972 to 2016. Woodfox spent the majority of that locked-down time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed Angola–a maximum-security prison that was, and has a long history of acting like, a former plantation.
This book’s public, NPR-ish face invites America to face up to the abuses of the American criminal justice system and the human rights violation of solitary confinement. It tries to straddle the ideological distance between Black Panther Party prison revolutionary George Jackson and liberal prison reform activist-scholar Michelle Alexander, who are both mentioned by the author. However, the autobio’s undercurrent is the visceral hatred whites in power had, have today, and perhaps ever will have, against the Black Panther Party, independent of geography, context, decade or circumstance. The constantly-stoked fear of the long-defunct BPP keeps so many white-controlled machines running in 21st century America–pretending-to-be-invisible ones operating in courts of public opinion and law, and proud-to-be-visible ones steadily producing white-supremacy products online and off. No amount of Amnesty International quotes and left-leaning white lawyers embedded in this narrative can obscure that harsh, racist reality, nor should it.
The Angola 3–Woodfox, Robert King (released in 2001) and Herman Wallace–stuck together even when apart. So covert craziness had to replace chicanery. When, in 2013, an elderly and dying Wallace was released (and, it must be emphasized, only after the judge threatened the district attorney who tried to block it with jail), then re-indicted, while on his “free” deathbed, Woodfox correctly diagnoses: “The vengeance by the state of Louisiana against us had long been incomprehensible to me, but this move pushed at the boundary of sanity.” Right, because many Blacks see powerful whites’ Panther obsession, no matter how many decades later, as a sickness. It is absolutely that, and it is also a half-century-old, tried-and-true way to scare older whites and exert political and legal leverage over any Blacks who become radicalized and resist, either in the streets or in prison.
WOODFOX, WHO, AT one point in his 44 years of suffering, had to drink water out of the toilet, is unsparingly honest about his criminal past. Yes, he admits to years as a thug and a crook, one who once held a gun to a deputy’s head. Young Wesley Cook of Philadelphia, in contrast, did not have a criminal record when he became a Panther and when, as Mumia Abu-Jamal, he was arrested about a decade later. But they were both mesmerized by the Panther’s image, and enveloped in its shadow. And both paid the price in their respective trials.
Time halts and becomes twisted in the pages. The reader’s frustration builds as the emotional and physical casualties mount. “In prison, you are part of a human herd,” Woodfox recalls. “In the human herd survival of the fittest is all there is. You become instinctive, not intellectual. Therein lies the secret to the master’s control. One minute you’re treated like a baby, being handed a spoon to eat with or being told where to stand. The next, with utter indifference, you’re being counted several times a day—you have no choice, you have no privacy. The next moment you’re threatened, pushed, tested. You develop a sixth sense as a means of survival, instincts to help you size up what’s going on around you at all times and help you make all the internal adjustments necessary to respond when it will save your life, but never before. Taking action at the wrong time could get you killed.” Although Woodfox’s prison world is very violent, his internal growth and power (and the types of psychological and physical warfare against prisoners waged by guards and wardens) are not unfamiliar to those who have read any samples of prison biography, particularly Nelson Mandela’s autobio. Since the Panthers originally carried law books on patrol in Oakland, it’s not surprising that both Abu-Jamal and Woodfox decide to become expert jailhouse lawyers.
There are plenty of details about how prison authorities framed the Angola 3, in jail for separate crimes before they became politicized, for the 1972 killing of a young, white corrections officer. Coincidences abound after decades of attempts at legal redress: Woodfox’s FBI files destroyed, and most of the evidence that could clear the Angola 3, lost. The group’s international campaign came late, but struck the Black Lives Matter Zeitgeist.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL turns 65 today. That’s 38 years locked up, six years less than Woodfox spent in solitary. (A chilling thought while reading Woodfox: Abu-Jamal, who two years ago survived a dangerous bout of Hepatitis C, might be too young and too healthy to get a [sympathy] appeal that will work.) Death row vs. Solitary.
The book’s epigraph defies its Amnesty International-ish marketing: “It has been my experience that because of institutional and individual racism, African-Americans are born socially dead and spend the rest of their lives fighting to live.” Like Abu-Jamal, Woodfox infuriated authorities by doing three things: refusing to neither break nor die, continuing to believe in and publicly proclaim the principles of the Black Panthers, and consistently and publicly resist racism and human rights violations in prison. The Louisiana Panther-without-a-Party forced himself into an emotionally moderate existence; for decades he made himself into something as cool and hard as steel, metal used in prison doors.
There is no truly happy ending here. Even Woodfox’s 2016 release is tainted with legal and political fraud on the part of the Louisiana corrections officials. His lawyers and advisers persuade him to plea “no contest” to the correction officer’s murder, because if he continued to attempt to prove his innocence, he might die in prison. So he walks out, victorious and compromised because of the vicious hatred white law-enforcement had for the BPP and any ideological fellow travelers. Meanwhile, all those who tortured Woodfox are unpunished, because all they did was either legal or allowed. This reviewer didn’t as much finish the book but finally throw it down in disgust.
None of the liberal homilies and blurbs that surround inside and outside the covers demand that the individuals at Angola be punished along with the reform of the system. Sadly, neither does the book’s author. Instead, corporate prisons, right-wing politics, and the finances behind jail construction and prisoner occupancy, amorphous entities all, take the rap. For the organized anger it wants to generate, “Solitary” wants an all-too-safe “ABC Afterschool Special” ending to such a NC-17 racist horror tale. So after all the Black resistance and courage displayed, the book’s message is that City Hall can be overcome but not defeated, particularly if you publicly embrace the BPP.
If this writer were to imitate an Abu-Jamal column, he could imagine the new Gray Panther reviewing thusly:
“If Aunt Becky from Nexflix’s ‘Fuller House’ is destined for the joint for a few years because, as a card-carrying member of the Nouveau riche, she and the other newly-wealthy parents hadn’t been trained properly on how to bribe an elite university, what should be the sentences for those who beat, tortured and attempted to emotionally destroy former Black Panther Albert Woodfox? How is one very white-collar crime, essentially one of a lack of finesse in bribery, worth public ridicule and prison time, while Black-and-blue beatings for decades by law-holders are legal and subject to silence? If Hollywood celebrities and other rich parents are not above the law, how are working-class and middle-class law enforcement officials who abuse human rights for decades exempt from justice? This disparity exists because the system is corrupt, broken, particularly when the topics, the targets, are Blacks. It must be destroyed, not reformed, and replaced with human beings determined not to act like savages just because they have control over cages.”
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is writing a biography of Abu-Jamal. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.