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The Poem

The Author



Since April is National Poetry Month, I traveled everywhere. I went from Joplin, Missouri, to Kansas City, to Rochester, to Chicago, to Camden, New Jersey. And then to Philadelphia. I read an article in the April 16 Philadelphia Weekly about Mumia Abu-Jamal. The article described a motion by one of Mumia's lawyers, Leonard Weinglass, to introduce testimony by an unnamed prostitute with new information about the case. This became the catalyst for the poem.

I also visited the tomb of Walt Whitman in nearby Camden, and was deeply moved. Whitman wrote this in "Song of Myself":

The runaway slave came to my house
 	and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs
	of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the
	kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and
 	led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill'd a tub for
	his sweated body and bruis'd feet. 
In my poem, Whitman's tomb became a place of refuge for the "fugitive slave," first for a nameless prostitute, then Mumia.

I faxed the poem to NPR on April 21. On April 24, All Things Considered staff informed me that they would not air the poem. They were explicit: They would not air the poem because of its subject matter-Mumia Abu-Jamal-and its political sympathies.

"NPR is refusing to air this poem because of its political content?" I asked. "Yes," said Diantha Parker.

She cited the "history" of NPR and Mumia, a reference to the network's refusal to air his commentaries. She further explained that the poem was "not the way NPR wants to return to this subject." Such is the elegant bureaucratic language of censorship. Parker would later admit, in an interview with Dennis Bernstein of KPFA-FM, that she "loved" the poem, and that "the poem should have been run, perhaps in a different context."

A few days later, I met Marilyn Jamal, Mumia's former wife. I presented her with the poem and watched her struggle against tears. Then she said: "I promised myself that I wouldn't cry anymore." I concluded that NPR's censorship should come to light.

The people at All Things Considered expressed indignation that I was aware of their "history" with Mumia, and still wrote the poem anyway. Sara Sarasohn, the same producer who solicited my New Year's poem, told me: "We never expected you would write this!" Said Parker to Dennis Bernstein: "He should have known better."

How could I not write this poem once it came to me? How could I censor my imagination, making myself complicit in NPR's muzzling of Mumia?

I had given NPR the proverbial benefit of the doubt. I had hoped that a sense of fairness-a respect for opposing viewpoints-would compel All Things Considered to broadcast the poem, a broadcast which would address the concerns of listeners who felt that NPR "sold out" Mumia. Instead, I encountered a reaction based on cowardice and self-pity.

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