Cover image for On a move : the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal
On a move : the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal
Bisson, Terry.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
[Farmington, Pa.?] : Litmus Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
xvii, 215 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV8699.U5 A333 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HV8699.U5 A333 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HV8699.U5 A333 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ

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Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Abu-Jamal, condemned to death in 1982 in a murder trial seen by many as notoriously unjust, has continued to draw on his journalistic skills and voice his passionate and informed observations from death row, just as he has ever since he joined the Black Panthers as an ardent and gifted teenager and promptly became the lieutenant of information for the Philadelphia chapter and an enemy of the state in the eyes of the FBI and the police. His books, including All Things Censored [BKL My 1 00], are widely read, and many people, some quite famous, have been working on his behalf. In an engrossing, straight-ahead style, acclaimed science-fiction writer and political activist Bisson chronicles Abu-Jamal's childhood, the evolution of his political consciousness, and his tireless and nearly fatal efforts to unveil the truth about racism. Leery of being seen as a saint instead of a revolutionary, Abu-Jamal asked that the book be fun to read, and, indeed, Bisson's incisive tale is every bit as charming as it is enraging. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Calling attention to the plight of death row activist, journalist and NPR contributor Abu-Jamal, award-winning science fiction author Bisson attempts a full-scale portrait of the controversial figure implicated in a police slaying in Philadelphia nearly two decades ago. What he delivers is a well-intended rehash of mainstream media accounts. The book's real value is in its chronicle of Abu-Jamal's bold, inquisitive youth on Philadelphia's mean streets, inspired by his exceptional mother to become a compulsive reader with a deeply curious mind. In school, Abu-Jamal discovered the causes of black liberation and black power, and became a natural student leader. In his early teens, he faced his first police run-in at one of George Wallace's presidential campaign rallies and was "beaten so badly that his own mother didn't recognize him." His tenure with the Black Panthers during their glory days awakened his talent for writing and activism, and so impressed his comrades in Philadelphia that they made him lieutenant of information at age 15. Abu-Jamal's tireless efforts on behalf of the Panthers brought him to the attention of Hoover's FBI, placing him on the infamous Cointelpro target list. A series of painful episodes of police harassment and intimidation against Abu-Jamal followed, ultimately leading to that fateful night in 1981 when Abu-Jamal was shot and seriously wounded while defending his brother during a conflict that ended in the shooting death of an officer. Labeled a "cop-killer," Abu-Jamal faced a highly charged trial that ended in a death sentence that has stirred international interest. Written in short, energetic vignettes, Bisson's tribute occasionally fails to fill in the gaps in Abu-Jamal's travails, choosing heated rhetoric over researched substance at a time when more information and less fist pumping would suit the imprisoned writer's cause well. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One the pjs The PJs are the projects where the poor kids live. Don't tell them that, though. They don't know they're poor; not yet. They're still kids, and kids are rich when they've got a nickel, or a Batman comic, or a story to tell, or to hear.     See those kids sitting in a circle under that new tree? Black, brown, honey-colored; some in their Sunday best, others in the bright, cheap, anonymous sportswear that clothed urban African-American kids in the early 1960s, before the brand-name thing.     Laughing, squirmy, playful kids. Lookabouts and talkalots. Still bright-eyed: life hasn't knocked them down yet. Some will get knocked down hard. A few will not get knocked down at all.     Some will never get up.     They're all young, but the one that gathered them together is a little older. Six or seven. He's wearing khaki pants and the only white shirt in the tiny crowd. (Better not get it dirty, Wesley!)     He's telling them a story, as much for his own pleasure as theirs. He likes to tell stories. Wes Cook already knows this about himself. He goes out and collects them, like flowers or creek stones, and brings them back, and tells them. The other kids listen. Easy as pie.     "Listen up now," he says in his still-squeaky kid's voice. They listen. They will, each and every one, go on to have their own stories; some happy, some sad, but his is the one that interests us, for in time (and not such a very long time) he will grow up to become known as Mumia Abu-Jamal, the world's most famous political prisoner since Nelson Mandela. * * *     Mumia's story begins far from the PJs. We could go all the way back to Africa as it was being looted and stripped of its treasure, its youth (for there were few old folks on the slave ships). Or back to the South, built brick by brick, barn by barn, by those same kidnapped Africans.     But our story really begins in the North, twenty years after the Civil War, when the victorious Yankees decided to ally themselves with the slave owners they had defeated rather than the slaves they had helped set free.     That fateful decision was to shape all our futures, black and white.     Three million Africans and their descendants were not compensated for the labor that had created this country. No forty acres and a mule. No rich bottomlands (that they had cleared), no elegant mansions (that they had built).     No freedom.     Instead, Reconstruction was cancelled, the Freedmen's Bureaus closed, the American apartheid called segregation was imposed through Jim Crow laws and regular lynchings, and the South sunk back into the new and partial slavery of sharecropping until even that was stripped away. After World Wars I and II the farms were mechanized, and black people moved to the cities of the North in one of the greatest migrations in world history.     Painter Jacob Lawrence documented it well in his famous series, "The Great Migration." Young and old, educated and ignorant, eternally hopeful and hopelessly poor, clutching their belongings in cardboard boxes and paper bags, millions of black southerners came north to claim the meager legacy America had set aside in return for hundreds of years of unpaid labor and privation.     Welcome to the PJs. * * *     Edith was not yet Edith Cook when she moved north from the Carolinas. She was tall, big-boned, strikingly beautiful, just country enough to know she didn't want to stay country forever.     She came north with her big brother.     He went on to New York, but Philly looked fine to Edith.     Philadelphia was still booming right after World War II, just beginning the long, slow decline that would leave it replaced in the first rank of American cities by upstart Atlantas and Denvers.     But who knew, then?     There were the expansive parks, the lazy river dotted with racing shells like waterbugs, the noble old houses and wide boulevards.     And for the black folks arriving every day, of course, the PJs. * * *     In North Carolina Edith had been an orphan, shuffled from pillar to post, from relative to relative, some caring, others less so, but all poor.     She wanted better for herself and for her children, when they came. And she knew they would come. She wanted to build the family she felt she had been denied.     And she did.     She found a job, found a place, found a man. Made a home, made a family. There was no stigma attached to the PJs (in those days), and the brand new, red brick row houses, with their tiny yards of shimmering new grass, seemed like heaven to Edith. Everything was nice. Everything was new. Even the trees were new, wrapped in off-white tape, like the skinny kids that played around them in their new (or if used, clean) clothes.     Boys, boys, boys. She had lots of boys. Soon Edith (known to her new friends as Cookie) was raising a family of all boys except for one girl, Lydia, a pretty little thing whom her mother kept close by her side.     Mumia's father was her second husband. His name was William Cook; Edith and Lydia called him Mr. Bill, but the boys called him Dad. He was not quite the looker Edith was, and a full inch and a half shorter. He was already fifty, and bald. But Mr. Bill was a rock.     He was a quiet man, hard working and "respectable," a quality that meant a lot in those days when drugs and alcohol were just beginning to feed on the despair that poverty generates.     And smart! Was there anything that man didn't know everything about? He had a deep country accent and he smoked Phillies, keeping one in his mouth and one in his pocket, ready to go. For special occasions -- when his beloved "Phillies" won a game, or when Edith gave him that special look -- there was a pipe.     He was a quiet man with a dry sense of humor who would wait till everyone was finished and then rock the house with a one liner. Laughter? There was plenty of laughter in the PJs. * * *     On April 24, 1954, the twins were born, Wesley and Wayne.     Soon they had a baby brother, Billy.     They had older brothers, too, and a sister from an earlier marriage. Together they whooped and hollered, tortured bugs and lost balls. They doubled up on rooms and toys, fought over bicycles and skates, and grew up clean and well behaved.     It was Yes Ma'am and No Sir. It was sit down for breakfast, sit down for dinner. It was homework and lights out. It was hugs and carrot cake too, and board games and TV, and Mr. Bill's Phillies, and Edith's Pall Malls, and Coca Cola and comic books (unless Edith found them and threw them out as "trash").     It was what Edith Cook had never known, but created for her kids out of the hunger in her heart.     It was family. * * *    "KeithRonnieWesleyWayneBilly!"     When Edith called her boys, their names ran together in one long Carolina-accented word, and her reedy voice that echoed from one end of the housing block to the other.     It does indeed take a village, and in those days the PJs were just such a village, a safe place for kids. Woe to the child who thought he could get away with some meanness just because his mother wasn't watching.     The PJs were all mother, mothers everywhere, ready to slap a bottom or dry a tear, to stop a fight with a broomstick or interrupt a game with a handful of cookies.     The tones, the sounds, the smells were Southern, for these were a displaced people -- twice displaced, first from Africa and then from the South -- but still miraculously, wonderfully intact.     A great place for kids to be kids. * * *     Edith and her best friend Ruth were back door to back door. One a Methodist, one a Baptist. Edith was taller than her man, and Ruth was so short she had to wear high heels to hang her laundry. Ruth's house was all girls, or almost. Edith's was all (or almost) boys.     Both ladies loved to laugh and smoke Pall Malls (which Edith called "Pell Mells").     Both kissed and smacked and wiped and fed each other's kids. Both doors were always open. And both made cookies, by the peck and the pound.     The Cooks raised a garden, southern style: tomatoes and sweet corn, okra and squash. Potatoes you could buy.     Mr. Bill would start it; Edith would maintain it. It was mostly vegetables, with spearmint for flavoring, and morning glories, which the kids called seven o'clocks, and other flowers.     No one could look at their bright faces and tell Edith her kids weren't living like royalty. * * *     "Die!"     "Hey, don't."     "Why not? It's just a bug."     "Bug has a life."     "Ugly life."     "Not ugly to the bug."     "Little bitty life."     "Everything's life is big to it."     "I wanna kill something!"     "Come on, I'll tell you a story."     "Oh all right."     Wayne and Wesley were twins, but they weren't identical. Just brothers born on the same day.     The same hour!     Wayne was the shy, quiet one.     Wes was taller, darker, more adventurous. He didn't talk back (none of Edith's boys talked back), but he didn't exactly take no for an answer, either.     Affectionate and physical, he never learned like other boys not to hug his mother -- or even his sister.     Quiet at times, thoughtful as little kids are thoughtful (chewing the future like gum). But at other times you couldn't shut him up.     No way. He was filled with questions and answers, mysteries and facts all mixed together. He was beginning his enthusiastic (sometimes annoying) interrogation of the Universe -- an investigation he continues still today.     "Guess what! How come? Know what! Who says?"     Wes was bursting with so much imagination, so many ideas, that words ran out of him like water over a dam, powering his little talker.     "Hush, child, please," Edith would say. "You can tell me about it later." * * *     Wes was an explorer, a Marco Polo of the PJs, always wandering downtown, across Spring Garden Street to the tall buildings, newsstands, honking cabs and snarling buses of Center City.     The other kids took to calling him Scout because he was always on the lookout for something -- a construction site, a new candy, a dead dog, a grapevine.     Then they called him United Nations, because he would tell them (whether they wanted to know or not!) about the Quakers who ran the settlement house; about the Jews and their synagogue. He knew all about the Ukrainians who lived a few blocks north, and the Italians who lived to the west and south.     Was there ever anything that boy didn't want to know everything about? * * *     Once a month the Welfare Lady came, and Mr. Bill made himself scarce. The Cook kids had to pretend they didn't have a daddy.     That was okay. Lots of kids in the PJs had to do the same. It was part of the price white America extracted from black America just for survival. If keeping a family together involved pretending you weren't one, so be it. Ever since Br'er Rabbit, cunning has been vital for the children of slaves.     So Edith and her kids would put away the iron, the toaster, the TV (the first one on the block) -- all the stuff Mr. Bill so generously provided.     "Don't forget your sister's hair dryer, Wayne. Slip it under the bed."     Still, today, Mumia shakes his head, marveling at how such little kids could understand such grand complexities as pretending you are poorer than you are. * * *     Once or twice every summer, a treat.     A trip to Lawnside.     Edith and the all the kids would pile into Mr. Bill's Studebaker sedan and ride across the Delaware for a day in the country.     Lawnside was a resort where black folks could gather, eat ice cream, swim, listen to music, stroll, and watch their kids play in peace without worrying about white folks and the constant threat of violence.     A one-day mini vacation from the tensions of racist America.     Summer at Lawnside was firecrackers on the Fourth, watermelon suppers, soft singing in the night, hide-and-seek, and Mason jars like lanterns, bright with lightning bugs.     "Ain't they pretty, Wes?"     "They are, but let 'em go."     "Why, when they so pretty?"     "They so pretty, that's why."     Summer was also trips to South Jersey to visit Uncle Bubba in his ramshackle house between the fields and the woods.     The boys called him "Uncle Bubble," but not to his face. He had white hair, wrinkled skin, and only two or three teeth.     His house had no electricity, and Wes often wondered if the lack of teeth and the lack of outlets were somehow connected.     Uncle Bubba greeted the boys and then ignored them, as old folks often do. He and Mr. Bill would sit and talk on the rickety porch for hours, while the boys threw rocks at birds (or each other) or stood around the yard, yawning.     First they stood on one leg, then on the other.     Country = boring.     Wes would often sit on the steps and try to listen to his dad and Uncle Bubba. Something was being communicated across the generations, but what? Some wisdom, in a thick southern accent; something as rich as sorghum molasses and as deep as the farm's hand-dug well, but what?     Uncle Bubba lit his house with kerosene lamps. But when it got dark in South Jersey, it really got dark, and the boys were only too glad to pile into the Studebaker and head back for the lights of Philly. * * *     Mr. Bill had a limp from a car wreck, and he had to rub his leg and take long walks to keep up his circulation.     Often he would park the car at the PJs and walk to Center City -- ten long blocks and back.     Just as often, he would take a boy in tow.     "Wesley."     "Yessir."     "One day, Wesley, a Negro will be elected President."     "Yessir."     "I want you to pay attention to that."     "Yessir."     "I might not live to see it, but you will, boy."     "Yessir."     Mr. Bill knew from personal experience how many obstacles there were in the path of every black man in America. He knew what his boys were up against.     He knew what a big arm around little shoulders could mean. (The only thing he didn't know was how being left out can hurt the feelings of a little girl ...) * * *     Edith Cook was strict with her kids. Harsh at times. But if anybody -- anybody! -- threatened one of them, she was on the scene. Once she waded into a crowd with a broomstick, laying about at young and old until her daughter was safe at her side in her tiny, tidy kitchen.     Only then did she notice the blood on her arm. She'd been slashed with a razor, so badly that she needed stitches.     She meant to raise her kids right and keep them safe. And she did. Always at work. Winner of the PTA's Housekeeper Award.     You can still find plenty of folks in the PJs who remember her warm smile, her wicked sense of humor, her high-pitched, almost girlish, sweet southern drawl ... Her "Pell Mells." * * *     "KeithRonnieWesleyWayneBilly!"     All the boys come running, all from different ends of the PJs.     All but one.     Remember the kids sitting under the tree? Wes has gathered them at his feet.     He's fresh out of Sunday School and his head is spinning with stories that he wants to share.     He's still learning how to tell stories. How to put them into words folks can relate to, and understand. Like the story he heard today in Sunday School.     "He's got this secret identity," Wes tells the other kids.     "Wow! You mean like Batman or Spiderman?"     "Sorta. And he's got these supernatural powers ..." Copyright © 2000 Terry Bisson. All rights reserved.