Recently little Goddard College in Vermont where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program has been in the news because the 25 graduating members of the undergraduate BA and BFA programs asked Mumia Abu- Jamal to speak at their graduation ceremony. Mumia Abu- Jamal is in prison for life because he was convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman. Mumia is a graduate of this program, which he was allowed to complete because it is a low-residency program, and he did not have to come to campus. My purpose here is not to talk about whether or not he is innocent or guilty but rather to talk about the language that the media used when reporting on our undergraduates’ choice. Inevitably the headlines read something like “Cop-killer asked to speak at graduation” or “Goddard College asks cop-killer to speak at graduation.” This defines Mumia Abu Jamal as one thing, when in fact, he, like all of us, is many things, a writer, a radio host, a journalist, a thoughtful critic of our educational and prison systems.
I remember a conversation I had with an acquaintance a number of years ago. This man was a psychologist who had studied violence in a number of different cultures. He told me about a member of the Cree tribe who asked him, “Why do you English always say that someone is something? We understand the people are always becoming something and that behaviors change. We do not say that someone is a thief, we say he is stealing because we understand that the stealing behavior will change and he will be doing something else.”
It strikes me that the language around Mumia Abu-Jamal insists that he is stuck at the moment in his life when he was convicted; he is, in the eyes of the media at least, always a “cop killer.” But that moment was more than 30 years ago, and clearly Mumia has been doing other things. This language of “cop killer” also freezes that users of the language in that moment as well. One reporter on Fox News kept repeating the phrase as she talked with the wife of the slain officer and with the public information officer from Goddard. She was clearly stuck in the moment and had no interest in moving on. (Not to mention the sensationalism around the phrase “cop killer’ and its alliterative nature, which makes it stick in our minds.) When we become stuck on the nouns, we do not allow for growth or for change on the part of the person designated by the noun or the person applying the noun.
When we think of people as “doers” rather than “things,” when we think about people as “singing” or “writing” or “thinking” or “killing” or “ stealing”, we allow them room to move on from that activity. We are not defining them statically. They are not locked in one moment of time, but nor are we.
I do not mean to diminish the crime, nor do I wish to engage in a discussion about whether or not he is guilty of the crime, nor do I wish to get involved in a discussion of the conditions of prisons, or the prison industrial complex, but I do want to highlight how our language discounts growth and change. Mumia has spent more than 30 years in prison, reading, writing, learning. He might well have something to say to undergraduates about that experience. It should not be a scandal of national proportions that a group of students might want to hear what he has to say. It speaks well for these students that they can see beyond the “cop killer” label, and can see that people are works in progress, not insects stuck in amber, labeled forever for one part of our lives.