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Voix afro-américaines : négritude et identité

Biography as ‘‘fictions we live in”: Live from Death Row

Une biographie à l’image des « fictions we live in » : Live from Death Row
Claude Guillaumaud-Pujol
p. 104-118

Résumé

Cet article confronte les concepts de biographie et de fiction à travers le cas et le témoignage du journaliste noir américain, Mumia Abu-Jamal, enfermé dans le couloir de la mort à Philadelphie. La plupart de ses essais, y compris son récit Live From Death Row (1995), vont du discours direct à la représentation métaphorique. La voix de ceux qui sont privés de voix émerge alors dans cette narration enchâssée dans l’histoire des Afro-Américains et offrant une véritable réflexion sur la dimension fictionnelle qui peut exister dans des genres aussi factuels que historiographie et la biographie historique.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

20th century, XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

  • 1  Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live from Death Row. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, USA, 1995.
  • 2 Concise Oxford Dictionary, 5th edition, Oxford, Clarendon, 1960.

1Our primary assumption would be that Live from Death Row1, a narration of daily life in an American death row prison by Mumia Abu-Jamal, a death row prisoner himself, belongs to the autobiography genre, defined by dictionaries as “the biography of a person that is written by that person”. This genre is distinct from the biography genre, in which the narrator and the main character of the story have two separate identities (“an account of a person’s life written or produced by someone else”).Biography can benefit from an enlarged semantic connotation, no longer restrictedtoa“written life of a person” but designating also “a branch of literature dealing with persons’ lives”, and/or “life-course of a living being” (from “L. Gk. bi-, bio-living organism, mode of life + graphia-graphy”2). Our analysis will primarily focus on the second concept (“life-course of a living being”) which is more relevant to our case study.

  • 3  Jamal changed his name from Wesley Cook to Mumia Abu-Jamal when he joined the Black Panther Party.
  • 4  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., v.

2Wesley Cook3 alias Mumia Abu-Jamal’s narration, published in 1995 by Addison-Wesley, can be seen as a “graphy”, a written testimony about a “living organism”—a man from an ethnic minority as the narrator calls himself on page 1. This account is dedicated to the narrator’s deceased African-American parents, portrayed with both warmth and humour: “To Edith L. and William H., two Southern souls, one dimpled, high cheek-boned, the color and aroma of sweet potatoes, the other short, muscular, coffee-colored (sans cream) [...]” (sic). Mumia thus introduces himself as a black man, the son of two African-Americans who had gone “ ‘Up Nawth’—the Northern tier of a Mason-Dixon line that marked the U.S.-Canadian border for some African-Americans”; in the footsteps of black workers from Southern States to the North, “[they] both joined the Great Migration North in search of the fabled land of Equality, Opportunity, and Freedom for all”4.

  • 5 Ibid, Preface, xviii.
  • 6  Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essays were first intended as a radio program for National Public Radio. Because (...)
  • 7 Ibid, xvii and xxi.
  • 8 Ibid, 33.

3Therefore Live from Death Row is the autobiography of an African-American man and son, whose identity will endlessly enlarge as the narrative unfolds. In the Preface, he adds his professional and political identity: “a black journalist who was a Black Panther way back in [his] teens”5. His profession (a radio journalist) dictates the style of the narration characterized by the redundant use of direct speech and dialogue6 with formulae like “Welcome to Pennsylvania’s death row” and “From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal”7. Focus on ethnicity is a prevailing pattern, be it his own ethnic group (with death row described as a black vs. white microworld: “The denizens of death row are black as molasses, and the staff are white bread.”8) or another ethnic minority:

  • 9 Idem.

A light-skinned Native of Lenape lineage sidles up to a fellow prisoner in a nearby steel cage for a bit of small talk;
“Damn, man”, the Indian youth exclaims in his north-eastern Pennsylvania nasal twang, “I been here too damn long.”
“Why you say dat, Runnin’ Bear?”
“Well cuz I caught myself sayin’ ‘poh-leece’ insteada ‘puh-leese,’ [= “police”] and ‘fo’ insteada ‘four.’”
The two men yuk it up [= “laugh” in African-American English] Gallows humour.”9

  • 10 Idem.
  • 11 Ibid, 7.

4In addition to this variety of “IDs” we are introduced to his legal status as a member of the death row prisoner community, a minority within a minority: “Don’t tell me about the valley of the shadow of death. I live there [...] I and some seventy-eight other men spend about twenty-two hours a day in six-by-ten-foot cells”10. In this restricted area within the prison, convicts are differentiated by status and regulations from the rest of the population: “Unlike other prisoners, death row inmates are not ‘doing time’. Freedom does not shine at the end of the tunnel. Rather, the end of the tunnel brings extinction. Thus for many here, there is no hope”. Basically death row units are only “human storage [...] in an austere world in which prisoners are treated as bodies kept alive to be killed”11. Contrasting with the former abundance of identities, the final line reduces the character to “a body kept alive”, depriving him of his spiritual self.

  • 12 Ibid, 6.

5The subject of our case study is then explicitly an autobiography, it is an “I” story, although the “I” displays a multi-faceted identity. The guideline of the narration is the writer’s daily experience of life (“I have lived in this barren domain of death since the Summer of 1983. For several years now I have been assigned DC (disciplinary custody) status for daring to abide by my faith [...]. I have been denied family phone calls [...]. I have been shackled [...]”)12. When Jamal exposes such prison regulations as visiting rules, he does it through personal experience (as shown in his encounter with his baby daughter) turning the consequences of specific rules into an “I”, then family-shared, experience:

  • 13 Ibid, 26.

Tiny [...] this daughter of my spirit [...] had finally made the long trek westward, into the bowels of this man-made hell, situated in the south-central Pennsylvania boondocks [...]. She burst into the tiny visiting room [...] stopped, stunned at the glassy barrier between us; and burst into tears [...] sadness and shock shifted into fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which banged and pummelled the Plexiglas barrier [...]. “Break it! Break it!” she screamed [...]. Her mother [...] bundled Hamida in her arms, as sobs rocked them both [...]. Her unspoken words echoed in my consciousness: “Why can’t I hug him? [...] Why can’t I sit in his lap?” I turned away to recover13.

  • 14  e.g. Ibid, 41, “Swear to God, Mu—he’s packin’ his gear right now”.

6The quotation exemplifies how the “I” narration adds pathos to what would be, otherwise, the description of a set of regulations. Yet, the narrator’s name is rarely mentioned in the story, making him one among many (his name is written once, on the cover-page and mentioned now and then in his dialogues with other prisoners, as “Mu”14).

  • 15 Ibid, 35.
  • 16 McCleskey v. Kemp 481 U.S. 279 (1987). McCleskey revealed a system of demonstrable, documented imba (...)
  • 17 Dred Scott v. Sanford 19 U.S. (How.) 393, 407, 15 L.Ed. 691 (1857); quoted verbatim. Dred Scott, a (...)
  • 18  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 39.
  • 19 Ibid, Acknowledgements, xii.
  • 20 Ibid, Acknowledgements, xi-xv.

7What is more, he links the facts of his daily environment to his historical heritage (“at the heart of this country’s death penalty scheme is the crucible of race”15) and inscribes his fate in a long tradition of racial discrimination and oppression, as we can read in the following observation: “Echoes of Dred Scott ring in today’s McCleskey16 opinion, noting the paucity of rights held by Africans in the land of the free, who ‘[…] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect’17. [...]. One hundred and thirty-three years after Scott, and still unequal in life, as in death”18. Therefore, the “I” story constantly hesitates between the multi-sided identity of the narrator himself and the reality of his collective self, the “I am we” quoted in his Acknowledgements: “the African axiom ‘I am we’, the natural notion that the tribe and the individual are one [...]. I wish to acknowledge my debt to [...] the Nameless Ones who braved hell’s storms to make that wretched Middle Passage [...] to Nat Turner [...] to NAACP Legal Defense”19. In addition, the narrator/hero focuses on his belonging to other minority groups which can be either legal (death row prisoner unit) or political (his Acknowledgements include former slaves and other outstanding black characters) but can go beyond his own ethnicity (Acknowledgements are also made to “rads and rebels worldwide”20).

  • 21 Ibid, 190.
  • 22  Ibid, 192.

8It is to be noted that, diverging from the current rule for the biography/autobiography genre, the narration is not organized around any chronological pattern. The story begins with a description of the narrator’s present situation (a series of essays already published in 1991, in the Yale Law Journal) to be followed by part two, entitled “Crime and Punishment” (a list of court cases and statistics, “real facts” about racial discrimination in American justice) whereas part three “Musings, Memories and Prophecies” closes the autobiography in a circular pattern. The narrator finally describes himself, in 1981, seriously wounded by the police and experiencing the fictional loss of his body, his own self split into two entities which he tries to pull together: “I look down and see a man slumped on the curb, his head resting on his chest, his face downcast. ‘Damn! That’s me! A jolt of recognition ripples through me’”21. A brief portrait of his father closes the narration: “I recall my father’s old face with wonder at its clarity, considering his death twenty years before. I am en route to the Police Administration Building, presumably on the way to die”22.

9The narrator’s ultimate vision brings the reader back to the beginning of the story, to page one of the book and the colorful description of his parents, whom he joins in his fictional death. Jamal’s penultimate vision occurs while he is being maltreated by the Philadelphia police and it includes another fictional encounter (with his baby daughter this time):

  • 23  Ibid, 190.

A cop walks up to the man and kicks him in the face. I feel it but I don’t feel it. Three cops join the dance, kicking blackjacking the bloody, handcuffed fallen form. Two grab each arm, pull the man up, and ram him headfirst into a steel utility pole. He falls.
“Daddy?”
“Yes, Baby girl?”
“Why are those men beating you like that?”
“It’s okay, Baby girl, I’m Okay.”
“But why, daddy? Why did they shoot you and why are they hitting and kicking you, Abu?”
“They’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, Baby girl, but don’t worry, daddy’s fine—see? I don’t even feel it!”23.

10Finally, only the explicit, in the narration, provides the reader with the cause of the breaking-point in the narrator’s life and brings him back to the location described in the incipit (“the valley of the shadow of death”). Breaking away from traditional slave-narratives and their chronological time-life pattern, the structure and the contents of Jamal’s essays appear “important as departure and corrective”, to take up Wideman’s words, because “although dedicated to personal liberation, [Jamal] envisions that liberation as partially dependent on the collective fate of black people”. The narrator deliberately blurs the division between individual and collective fate, chronology and autobiography and finally between biography and autobiography.

“Fictions we live by”24

  • 24  Jagna Oltarzewska, “Fiction(s) we live by”, Tropismes n°11, “Que fait la fiction?”, Centre de Rech (...)
  • 25  “Death Row USA”, January 1, 2004. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.

11Now let us take the example of three discourses disclosing the same “real” facts (about the increasing number of inmates in US prisons). The first text from the website of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund25 provides us with the total number of American prisoners (3,503), the state they belong to, and a chart showing the sharp rise in death row population from 1982 (one thousand) to 2002 (over three thousand). Because these figures are published by the NAACP, it is understood that these prisoners are mainly African-Americans. Our second example is an excerpt from an activists’ review about the increase in US global prison population:

  • 26  Dan Parkin, International Socialist Review, Jan-Feb 2002, 69.  

The number of people in prison, in jail, on parole, and on probation in the US increased threefold between 1980 and 2000, to more than 6 million, and the number of people in prison increased from 319,598 to almost 2 million in the same period. This buildup has targeted the poor, and especially Blacks. In 1999, though Blacks were only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they were half of all prison inmates. In 2000, one out of three young Black men was either locked up, on probation, or on parole26.

12Our third example is an “inside voice”, it is a presentation by Mumia (“Death march and lessons unlearned”):

  • 27  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 20.

There is a quickening on the nation’s death rows of late [...]. As murder rates rise in American cities, so too does the tide of fear. Both politicians and judges continue to ride that tide that washes toward the execution chamber’s door. No matter that of the ten states with the highest murder rate, eight lead the country in executions that supposedly deter; no matter that of the ten states with the lowest murder rate, only one (Utah) has executed anyone since 1976 [...]. States that have not slain in a generation now ready their machinery: generators whine, poison liquids are mixed, gases are measured and readied, silent chambers await the order to smother life. Increasingly, America’s northern states now join the rushing pack, anxious to relink themselves with their pre-Furman heritage27.

  • 28  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 59.

13These three discourses, with similar topic (a sharp, recent increase in America’s prison population) stress the variety of ways in which facts can be exposed by three narrators sharing the same political agenda. We have a selection of similar semantic entities, (or should we say “fictions”?) which are either figures and charts (1), or a social analysis (2), or a metaphorical representation (3). How do figures compare to a metaphor (“3,503 prisoners” vs “there is a quickening on the nation’s death rows of late”)? The strict boundary “reality/fiction” explodes under the rhetoric by Jamal which mingles factual and fictional information. What can possibly be more “reliable”, in terms of truth, than the speech of the witness, the testimony of the actor of the scene, the man or woman who tells the story of his own life? The question is all the more cogent if we share Oltarzewska’s assumption that “knowledge is relational and ineradicably metaphorical in nature, steeped in sensory experience, rooted in the body and its spatial orientation [...] metaphors speak to us, shaping everyday conversation and speculative discourse even as we imagine we are using them”28.

  • 29  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 62.

14An analysis of Jamal’s metaphors reveals that the text no longer functions as an “I” story, although we first classified it as an autobiography. It is first and foremost an exploration of the hierarchic relation between ethnic groups in modern America (“America’s northern states now join the rushing pack”) confused by a narrator stressing the comprehensiveness of human experience. They all belong to a nation where fear is rising for both death row prisoners and “free citizens” (“generators whine [...] silent chambers await the order to smother life” while “as murder rates rise in American cities, so too does the tide of fear”). Fear, to take this example, has become a common feeling among American citizens, whatever their legal status, ethnic or economic background, pulling down the walls erected between free citizens and prisoners, a redundant metaphor in Jamal’s narrative, which will be exposed again in his description of a case of pollution (“Bars, steel, and court orders can’t stop the seepage of pollution that affects both the caged and the ‘free’. Despite the legal illusions erected by the system to divide and separate life, we, the caged, share air, water, and hope with you, the not-yet-caged”)29.

  • 30  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 58.

15Should we come to the conclusion that an autobiography does not belong to the “real” genre but to the “fictional” genre? Should we definitely cancel the binary divide between “fictional narrative” and “real narrative” and accept “the inherent ‘fictionality’ of such truth and fact-oriented (and constrained) genres as historiography and biography”30? We cannot deny the veracity of the facts as described in Live from Death Row but we must underline the specificity of the “I” narrative and its functioning which is comparable to a set of Russian dolls. The “I” is defined by gender (a man), ethnicity (African-American), legal status (death row prisoner), professional status (a journalist), but he is also a father, a husband and so on [...]. Although he is separated from his community he claims to remain a member of the Jamal clan and one of the “rads and rebels worldwide”.

  • 31 Ibid, 53.

16Paraphrasing Lacan who wrote “La fiction n’existe pas” I would add “la réalité n’existe pas”. “A category enjoying privileged ties with reality, fact or truth31” has no existence as “hypostatized entity”, any more than “fiction” has. And the call for a positive re-writing of the concept of “fiction” means implicitly the re-writing of the concept of “reality”.

  • 32  In 2000, a man, Arnold Beverley, confessed to the murder of the white policeman; his confession wa (...)
  • 33  “Fiction”, from Latin Ficio, act of fashioning: 1- “feigning, invention, 2- thing feigned or imagi (...)
  • 34  Compare the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1960:“1. an imaginative creation or pretence. 2. a lie. 3. (...)
  • 35  Michael Hoffman & Patrick Murphy (eds.), Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. 1996. 2nd ed. Durham (...)

17Let us see how this applies to the narration of the 1981 murder scene described previously by Jamal (110). We are dealing with “real facts” certified by evidence in Court. Note that Jamal’s narration includes one omission: a white policeman was also shot dead on the scene. Confusion followed and to this day no one knows for sure who killed the two people; sentenced to death for the murder of the policeman in 1982, the narrator has constantly denied the accusation and the reliability of the evidence brought forward by the prosecution seems questionable32. Therefore, should the information included in the sequence be classified as “fictional”, that is assimilated to “conventionally accepted falsehood?”33. The American Heritage focuses on the binary functioning of the binary biography/fiction pairing and defines “fiction” as a concept varying from “imaginative” to “pretense” or deliberate “lie”34. Such an assumption is to be found in articles about fiction including such comments as Barbara Foley’s: “Fiction, I would propose, is intrinsically part of a binary opposition; it is what it is by virtue of what it is not”35, or Hoffman and Murphy’s:

  • 36 Ibid, 400.

Fiction does seem to have been cannibalised by two régimes of connotation which pull it different ways: a vaguely aestheticizing, post-romantic ideology of reading valorizes fiction as a mode of creative writing, culminating in what Foley calls a “fetishization” of mimetic discourse, while demoting non-fiction to the humdrum—“the immediate reportage of what is36.

In similar vein, Jagna Oltarzewska observes:

  • 37  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 53.

On the other hand—and here we remain in the long shadow of Plato’s Republic—in common usage fiction is frequently made to resonate with concepts of imitation, representation or copy, shading off, at the far end of the spectrum, to include the sham [...] the outright lie [...] “a pure fiction” [...] whether [...] glamorized or denounced as falsehood, the signifier remains securely locked into a dualistic paradigm where firm lines of demarcation mark it off from non-fiction, a category enjoying privileged ties with reality, fact or truth37.

  • 38  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 5.

18If we abide by this thesis we will conclude that Live from Death Row belongs to the non-fiction group; it is “an immediate reportage of what is”, with “reality, fact or truth” and with an abundance of reliable figures. The narrator informs us that “[...] the largest death row stands in Texas, 324 people: 120 African-Americans, 144 whites, 52 Hispanics, 4 Native Americans, and 4 Asian-Americans [...]38” while footnotes and references to Supreme Court decisions provide more factual information

  • 39  J.E. Wideman, Introduction to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row, op.cit., xxxi.

19We can read the book as one of “the countless up-from-the depths biographies and autobiographies of black people—from Oprah to O.J. to Maya Angelou—that repeat the form and the assumptions of the slave narrative, [and] have always been best-sellers”. They sell, according to Wideman, because “[...] the formula is simple; because it accepts and maintains the categories (black/white, for instance) of the status quo; because it is about individuals, not groups, crossing boundaries; because it comforts and consoles those in power and offers a ray of hope to the powerless39”. Nevertheless, because he always links his fate to the collective fate of his ethnic community (“I am we”) and he finally realizes the “fictions he [has] lived by”, Mumia’s story stands apart :

  • 40  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., Preface, xxi.

Perhaps I’m naïve, maybe I’m just stupid—but I thought the law would be followed in my case, and the conviction reversed. Really [...]. I continue to fight against this unjust sentence and conviction [...] the “right” to a fair trial [...] the “right” to represent oneself [...]. They are not rights—they are privileges of the powerful and rich [...]   
From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
December 199440.

20So we are in the “what is” field of narration as long as we share the assumption of a fiction/non-fiction boundary and classify the autobiography as a “non-fictional genre”. But this excerpt and another reading of the quoted shooting-scene cloud the issue. While the narrator is a man physically involved in a shooting, the way he conveys his personal experience, his “memories” of the “facts” (physical pain, location, actors), is “beyond” reality. It is first a repetition of his testimony in court (“On December 9, 1981, the police attempted to execute me in the street”), confirmed by neighbors, to which are added his own memories of the scene. The rigid boundary between “fiction” and “reality” seems to have collapsed. The scene exemplifies the dubiousness of the concept of “reality” as a stable barrier between fictional and real facts, between past, present and future. For a member of a minority group, whose marginal status can only be compensated for by an urgent need to be “visible”, it emphazises the timeless claim for an acknowledged identity, blending, into one concept, past, present and future, “the seamless medium uniting past, present and future”, according to J.E. Wideman’s definition:

  • 41  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., Introduction, xxxvii.

The best slave narratives have always asked profound questions, implicitly and explicitly, about the meaning of a life. Part of the work of blues, jazz, our best artistic endeavors, is (thank you Mr Ellison) to reveal the chaos which lives within the pattern of our certainties. In a new world where African people were transported to labor, die and disappear, we’ve needed unbound voices refusing to be ensnared by somebody else’s terms41.

  • 42 Ibid,191.

21And the narrator is an expert at turning everyday life occurrences into timeless experiences as exemplified by the exchange in the shooting scene: “’I love you, boy’–‘And I love you Daddy.’” The “ ‘I love you’ echoes in a thousand voices, and faces join in the cacophony: wife, mother, children, old faces from down south, older faces from–Africa? Faces, loving, warm, and dark, rushing, racing, roaring past”42.

  • 43  Cornelius Crowley,“La fiction nie les évidences”, Tropismes n° 11, op.cit., 25.

22Should we go as far as sharing C. Crowley’s assumption that there is nothing like “reality” and that “fiction” is “reality”? Or should we assume: “la fiction passe par le déni de l’évidence, si seul est évident ce qui est devant les yeux, ici et maintenant”?43. And therefore the “what is” becomes the fiction of “what was” and “what will be”:

  • 44  Ibid,26.

Le présent de l’évidence ne peut donc ouvrir que sur la fiction du temps que, par raccourci, nous appellerons le temps augustinien, dont la seule vérité est sa condition irrémédiablement mixte : prégnance déjà effective de ce qui n’est pas encore, prégnance toujours agissante de ce qui n’est plus, à laquelle on ajoutera ces quelques auréoles modales: le possible, le souhaitable, l’impossible44.

  • 45 Ibid, 28.

23Therefore, in the narration, if the present is fiction, it implies that any form of life will also be fictional and the main character will be an endless series of fictional identities. “Le choc des fictions sera donc sans fin [...] [la fiction peut faire] comme s’il y avait des points d’arrêt durable [...]. Elle peut [...] tenter de résoudre l’aporie de ces arrêts provisoirement durables –[la fin de la narration]- en optant pour la mise en abyme ou la mise en boucle – les poupées russes ou Finnegans Wake”45, which is precisely the story-pattern of Live from Death Row.

The Self: a Positive Fiction or Metaphors we Live By46

  • 46  George Johnson and Mark Lakoff, Metaphors we Live By. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Pr (...)
  • 47  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., Introduction, xxxvii.
  • 48  Idem.  
  • 49  R. Johnson and E. Carroll, “Litigating Death Row Conditions: The Case for Reform”, in Prisoners an (...)
  • 50  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 12.
  • 51 Ibid, 4.

24J.E. Wideman concludes his Introduction to Jamal’s autobiography with the following assertion: “Because he tells the truth, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s voice can help us tear down walls—prison walls, the walls we hide behind to deny and refuse the burden of our history”47. Because Wideman is an African-American novelist and because he belongs to the same ethnic minority, he identifies Jamal’s voice with the African-Americans’ long search for identity and their endless struggle to be heard and seen by mainstream institutions and media. “What [Mumia] is, who he can become, results from his daily struggle to construct an identity wherever his circumstances place him”48, Wideman adds, expanding on Jamal’s nickname (“voice of the voiceless”) to greet him as the herald of “the oppressed of the world”, of the “Wretched of the Earth”. Whereas some death row prisoners “fight Sisyphean battles, struggling to prove their innocence”, others live as they are treated, as “shadows of [their] former selves, in a pantomime of life, human husks”49. “To such men and women, the actual execution is a fait accompli, a formality already accomplished in spirit, where the state concludes its premeditated drama by putting the dead to death a second time”50, adds Jamal. Moreover the institutionalized process must not be disrupted by natural causes as he shows in the following extract: “The guards: “[...] Ya know we can’t leave y’uns out here when it gits ta thunderin’ an’ lightnin’—“Oh, why not? Y’all ‘fraid we gonna get ourselves electrocuted?” a prisoner asks. “Ain’t that a bitch?” another adds. “They must be afraid that if we do get electrocuted by lightnin’, they won’t have no jobs and won’t get paid!”51.

  • 52 Ibid, Introduction, xxxv.
  • 53  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 53.
  • 54  The expression is inspired by the title of Catherine Clément’s book Miroirs du Sujet. Paris, UGE 1 (...)
  • 55  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 55.

25Finally Mumia’s narration can be read as a metaphor for African-American history: “Like the blues. Like jazz [...] Mumia Abu-Jamal forces us to confront the burden of our history”52, writes Wideman. To take up his assumption is to obliterate the “what is” to the benefit of “what was” and “what will be”, blurring the firm demarcation between fiction—“the dimension of the ‘as if’—and non-fiction—a category enjoying privileged ties with reality, fact or truth”53. Taking the concept to the extreme, we assert, together with Oltarzewska, that “fictions operate as so many ‘mirrors of the subject54’ [...] [that] they repeatedly seal or ‘suture’ the subject to her symbolic identity, understood as the whole range of positions taken up within the family, the school [...] and peer group55”. In the case of a member of a minority group, this is likely to beget anger and frustration:

  • 56  Idem.

fictions have also a well-documented history of fostering unease and critique [...] exposing as they do the mismatch between a fragmented, inchoate self and the seamless individual posited by cultural norms [...]. We draw on fictions for the energy necessary for subversion: we rely on their reflexivity to remind us that the mirror-stage, a founding moment, is also a founding myth56.

  • 57  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 184.

26The professional fiction Jamal lived by was his plan for an “independent career”: “Black radio acts as an unofficial feeder system to white radio and TV careers. It’s a farm club where talents are tested, whitenized, and then packaged for general market consumption. When I left Moore’s station I was on his track”57.The ultimate awareness of his self as a fiction came after the failure of his 1988 court appeal:

  • 58 Ibid, Preface, xix.

Really [...] I still harbored a belief in U.S. law, and the realization that my appeal had been denied was a shocker. I could understand intellectually that American courts are reservoirs of racist sentiment and have historically been hostile to black defendants, but a lifetime about American “Justice” is hard to shrug off58.

  • 59  Gilles Deleuze, Logique du sens. Paris, Minuit, 1969.

27Referring to Deleuze’s concept of fiction (“fiction as a positive concept“59) we will conclude by repeating Rancière’s discourse:

  • 60  Jacques Rancière, “La fiction de mémoire. À propos du Tombeau d’Alexandre de Chris Mark”, Trafic, (...)

La “fiction” [...] ce n’est pas la belle histoire ou le vilain mensonge qui s’oppose à la réalité ou que l’on veut faire passer pour elle. Fingere ne veut pas dire d’abord feindre mais forger [...] [mettre] en œuvre des moyens d’art pour construire un “système” d’actions représentées, de formes assemblées, de signes qui se répondent60.

  • 61  Jean-Jacques Lecercle, “Begin at the Beginning”, Tropismes n°11, op.cit., 13.

28Therefore, the inherent ‘fictionality’ of such truth and fact-oriented (and constrained) genres as historiography and biography can no longer be denied, with autobiography representing an extreme case of fictionality by introducing the “I” in the order of discourse: “’vie d’une histoire, histoire d’une vie’, nul endroit où la chose soit plus apparente que dans l’autobiographie [...] le chemin parcouru, le texte se retourne et contemple sa propre histoire [...] alors même que justement, le terme de la narration ne peut coïncider avec celui de la vie”61.

  • 62  See Denise Riley, The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony. Stanford: Stanford Unive (...)

29To use both Oltarzewska’s and Riley’s semantic mix the history of the “I” and its surrogates, the stream of sexual, political, professional identities, which can be assumed and discarded over a lifetime and an autobiography, becomes first and foremost “the history of repeated and necessary failure of words to coalesce with selves”62.

  • 63  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 60.

That which is in excess of (or out of joint with) the ‘I’ designates the latter as a fiction (albeit a necessary one), and exposes the confident, unqualified assumption of identity as an act of imposture. In the disjunction of self and word lies hope [...] that incites the subject to critique [...] a constraining order63.

  • 64  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., Introduction, xxxii.

30To conclude we may assert that Mumia’s essays are “departure” because they differ from the “formula for the neo-slave narrative [which] sells because it is simple, because it accepts and maintains the categories (black/white, for instance)”64. And they look “disruptive” to the reader and to the critic insofar as they mix up the “I” and the “We” story and they reveal the “Fictions we live by”.

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Bibliographie

Works cited

Abu-Jamal Mumia, Live from Death Row. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

Deleuze Gilles, Logique du sens. Paris, Minuit, 1969.

Hoffman Michael and Murphy Patrick (eds.), Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, 2nd ed., Durham: Duke University Press, 1999 (1996).

Johnson George and Lakoff Mark, Metaphors we Live By. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Oltarzewska Jagna, “Fiction(s) we live by”, Tropismes n° 11. “Que fait la fiction?”, Université Paris X-Nanterre, 2003.

Parkin Dan, International Socialist Review, Jan-Feb 2002.

Rancière Jacques, “La fiction de mémoire. À propos du Tombeau d’Alexandre de Chris Mark”, Trafic, printemps, 1999.

Riley Denise, The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Wideman John Edgar, Introduction to Abu-Jamal Mumia, Live from Death Row. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

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Notes

1  Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live from Death Row. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, USA, 1995.

2 Concise Oxford Dictionary, 5th edition, Oxford, Clarendon, 1960.

3  Jamal changed his name from Wesley Cook to Mumia Abu-Jamal when he joined the Black Panther Party.

4  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., v.

5 Ibid, Preface, xviii.

6  Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essays were first intended as a radio program for National Public Radio. Because they were censored by the Board they were ultimately published a year later with another set of short stories.

7 Ibid, xvii and xxi.

8 Ibid, 33.

9 Idem.

10 Idem.

11 Ibid, 7.

12 Ibid, 6.

13 Ibid, 26.

14  e.g. Ibid, 41, “Swear to God, Mu—he’s packin’ his gear right now”.

15 Ibid, 35.

16 McCleskey v. Kemp 481 U.S. 279 (1987). McCleskey revealed a system of demonstrable, documented imbalance, where the race of the victim and the race of the defendant determined whether one would live or die. This, said the Court, was perfectly constitutional, whereas capital punishment was declared unconstitutional in 1973 as being pregnant with discrimination, (Furman v. Georgia). It was again declared constitutional in 1976 if the jury “was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt” (Gregg v. Georgia) and the Court decision was sustained in 1987 (McClesky v. Kemp).

17 Dred Scott v. Sanford 19 U.S. (How.) 393, 407, 15 L.Ed. 691 (1857); quoted verbatim. Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri, brought a suit to court on the grounds that temporary residence in a territory in which slavery was banned under the Missouri Compromise had made him free. The Supreme Court held that Scott as an African Negro could never be a citizen of any state and therefore could not sue his owner in a federal court.

18  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 39.

19 Ibid, Acknowledgements, xii.

20 Ibid, Acknowledgements, xi-xv.

21 Ibid, 190.

22  Ibid, 192.

23  Ibid, 190.

24  Jagna Oltarzewska, “Fiction(s) we live by”, Tropismes n°11, “Que fait la fiction?”, Centre de Recherches Anglo-Américaines, University Paris X-Nanterre, 2003, 54.

25  “Death Row USA”, January 1, 2004. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.

26  Dan Parkin, International Socialist Review, Jan-Feb 2002, 69.  

27  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 20.

28  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 59.

29  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 62.

30  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 58.

31 Ibid, 53.

32  In 2000, a man, Arnold Beverley, confessed to the murder of the white policeman; his confession was videotaped but the judge deemed the evidence was produced too late to overturn the sentence or grant a new trial.

33  “Fiction”, from Latin Ficio, act of fashioning: 1- “feigning, invention, 2- thing feigned or imagined, invented statement or narrative, 3- a genre (literature consisting of such narrative as novels…”), Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1960.

34  Compare the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1960:“1. an imaginative creation or pretence. 2. a lie. 3. a literary work, such as a novel, whose content is not necessarily based on fact”.

35  Michael Hoffman & Patrick Murphy (eds.), Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. 1996. 2nd ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999, 395.

36 Ibid, 400.

37  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 53.

38  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 5.

39  J.E. Wideman, Introduction to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row, op.cit., xxxi.

40  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., Preface, xxi.

41  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., Introduction, xxxvii.

42 Ibid,191.

43  Cornelius Crowley,“La fiction nie les évidences”, Tropismes n° 11, op.cit., 25.

44  Ibid,26.

45 Ibid, 28.

46  George Johnson and Mark Lakoff, Metaphors we Live By. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

47  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., Introduction, xxxvii.

48  Idem.  

49  R. Johnson and E. Carroll, “Litigating Death Row Conditions: The Case for Reform”, in Prisoners and the Law, 8-3, 8-5. I. Robbins ed. 1988; quoting R. Johnson, “Death Row Confinement: The Psychological and Moral Issues”, 5 (unpublished paper presented in colloquium on death penalty at Towson University, March 10, 1983).

50  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 12.

51 Ibid, 4.

52 Ibid, Introduction, xxxv.

53  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 53.

54  The expression is inspired by the title of Catherine Clément’s book Miroirs du Sujet. Paris, UGE 10/18, 1975.

55  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 55.

56  Idem.

57  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., 184.

58 Ibid, Preface, xix.

59  Gilles Deleuze, Logique du sens. Paris, Minuit, 1969.

60  Jacques Rancière, “La fiction de mémoire. À propos du Tombeau d’Alexandre de Chris Mark”, Trafic, printemps, 1999, 37.

61  Jean-Jacques Lecercle, “Begin at the Beginning”, Tropismes n°11, op.cit., 13.

62  See Denise Riley, The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

63  Jagna Oltarzewska, op.cit., 60.

64  M. Abu-Jamal, op.cit., Introduction, xxxii.

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Claude Guillaumaud-Pujol, « Biography as ‘‘fictions we live in”: Live from Death Row », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, 104-118.

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Claude Guillaumaud-Pujol, « Biography as ‘‘fictions we live in”: Live from Death Row », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 20 septembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2932 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.2932

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Auteur

Claude Guillaumaud-Pujol

Dr. (Clermont-Ferrand, France)
Claude Guillaumaud-Pujol est maître de conférences à l’Université de Clermont-Ferrand II. Elle a soutenu une thèse de doctorat sur le thème : « Le Cas MOVE à Philadelphie, 1975-1995. Fait Divers ou Événement Historique ? », publiée chez ANRT, France, en 2000. Elle enseigne les études américaines à Clermont II après avoir enseigné à l’université de Tours et avoir été visiting professor à Cal State University, USA en 2001. Elle a été boursière Fulbright à Temple University, Philadelphie. Elle publie également des articles sur le cinéma américain : « Are You Afraid of Dreadlocks?», with Marco Sioli, Milan University (janvier 2004, Université Paris 7), ou encore « La Représentation d’un Espace Public Américain : La Rue dans les films américains des Années 30».

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