On Sunday, October 5, Mumia Abu-Jamal, African-American public intellectual and death row survivor, delivered a commencement address to graduates of Goddard College's low residency bachelor's program. The students chose their speaker and the speech was pre-recorded, given that Abu-Jamal is serving a sentence of life without parole in Pennsylvania. Following announcement of the speaker choice, Goddard endured a barrage of scornful press reports, hate-laced phone messages, and social media backlash. Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey pressured the college to rescind its invitation, with police and corrections officials issuing similar calls.
As a Goddard faculty member and longtime social justice activist, I've been much distressed by the high volume of shrill, one-dimensional press coverage. You would never know that "convicted cop killer" Abu-Jamal (in Fox News parlance) was found by Amnesty International to have been deprived of a fair trial, nor that he and an impressive group of supporters here and abroad credibly claim he was framed. Nor could you grasp why Goddard would let its graduates pick their speaker and stand firm as the controversy severely taxed the small Vermont college's resources -- or why so many faculty and staff see upholding our association with Abu-Jamal (who received his own Goddard B.A. in 1996) as not just "the right thing to do," but an affirmation of everything we've long been about.
A transcript of the commencement speech may be found here, and a recording appears at the bottom of this essay.
Not that you would really expect any of this context to be clarified by soundbite journalism and Facebook flame wars. Abu-Jamal represents a tradition of uncompromising progressive activism within grassroots African-American communities, a political lineage relentlessly marginalized in the current political environment. Meanwhile, Goddard's own roots in a radical educational philosophy that values critical dialogue and social engagement don't make sense to a public encouraged to see higher education as job market training, worthwhile only when "learning" can be quantified and monetized.
Yet, in a wonderful irony, the obfuscating public uproar has sparked a rich internal conversation among Goddard's faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Does our penal system deserve the label "prison-industrial complex"? If so, why? Do recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri illuminate historical dynamics between police and low-income communities of color on levels relevant to what happened when Officer Faulkner was killed in Philadelphia in 1981 (the crime for which Abu-Jamal was convicted)? Apart from the specifics of this case, what are the implications of the fact that the name Mumia Abu-Jamal still sparks outrage in people who would never blink at academic honors for men like William Burroughs and Louis Althusser, both of whom killed their wives?
How can we uncover and name the often hidden ways in which race and class assumptions are buried within these reactions? Most challenging of all, how might we as faculty and students in a small, nontraditional liberal arts college begin to address our own participation and complicity in the oppressive aspects of the larger education system?
Goddard alumnus Kevin Price, who works on Abu-Jamal's defense, has written eloquently of how his own enrollment at Goddard was partly inspired by his contact with the man. He concludes that despite many "wonderful symbolic reasons to support Mumia as a commencement speaker, Mumia is not a symbol. He is a man who was wrongfully held in solitary confinement on death row for nearly 30 years and is now being wrongfully held in general population with no legal possibility for parole.... He is a man with a brilliant mind and an unstoppable pen.... With so much at stake it only seems right that we listen."
The example of this student's educational journey bears out the observation of Dr. Herukhuti, Goddard Faculty Council chair, that it is our educational philosophy rather than the political content of our academic program that makes Goddard a radical college: "We have created a space for people, like Mumia and our thousands of students and alumni/ae around the world, who have tremendous obstacles to their educational ambitions to unshackle their dreams and achieve their goals. We have created an incubator for thinkers, artists, healers, activists and writers who have decided not to allow their brilliance to be diminished nor snuffed out behind the walls of any form of prison — real or metaphoric."
How I wish that Goddard could "publish" our internal dialogue, thereby usefully complicating the seductively simplistic mainstream media account. What a teachable moment that would be!
Jan Clausen is a poet whose most recent book is Veiled Spill: A Sequence (GenPop Books, 2014). She teaches in the Goddard College M.F.A. in Writing Program. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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