In the Shadow of Death

Fifteen years ago, Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for a murder he and the multitudes who have accepted his cause say he did not commit. From prison Abu-Jamal wrote Death Blossoms, a window into a mind that dares to see beyond the bleakness of death row.

A collection of essays, Death Blossoms serves as a platform for Abu-Jamal’s views. Religion, the environment, God, and oppression are recurring themes, with perspectives on children, violence, slavery, and prison life scattered among them.

In "The Spider," Abu-Jamal recalls a conversation with a fellow prisoner, illustrating the loneliness of death row.

And indeed it was amazing, especially to Norman, a man encaged in utter isolation. Here he sat—would sit for the remainder of his days—in the antiseptic stillness of a supermaximum-security prison block, yet he was not entirely alone. With a quiet, unwitting bravado that defied the State’s most stringent efforts to quarantine him, spiders had moved in and built webs in the dark corner under his sink. Now they shared his cell, and he spent hours watching them spin their miraculous silken thread.

Through a tiny insect that most of us would squash absent-mindedly, we are witnesses to both the bleakness of life on death row and the preciousness of it.

The power of this book comes not from its form: The chapters seem to be ordered at random, resulting in an uneven rhythm. Rather, its power lies in the content. Even then, the content itself is not radically profound. Abu-Jamal tells us that children are our future, poverty and homelessness are widespread, and our consumption and carelessness are destroying mother Earth.

These opinions are not new. What validates them is the man who offers them. In Death Blossoms, the passionate voice that urges us again and again to value and respect life is the voice of a man who will one day lose his own. The cold concrete of death row muffles the shouts and cries of this voice, but does not silence it.

THE MEN in this place don’t own their lives—the state does. To some, like Leon Moser, the inevitability of that death destroys them long before a lethal injection or a rush of voltage ever does. "To execute me won’t mean nothing," Moser tells Abu-Jamal, "cause that man ain’t alive no more. To kill me, Jamal, is just like puttin’ out the garbage."

But Abu-Jamal, instead of turning inward like Moser, opens himself wide to the miracle of a spider, the beauty of a thunderstorm, and the intimacy of relationships. In Death Blossoms, this man who is so close to death is more alive than most of us.

Essay by essay, this book builds a bridge between those who revere life and those who exercise the legal right to end it. Opponents maintain that the death penalty is racially biased, unevenly administered, and futile when used as a deterrent to crime. Proponents laugh and respond by executing a record number in Texas this year.

As the arguments grow louder and louder, the statistics cited by opponents are beginning to drown in all of the noise. Recent polls show that 70 percent of the nation supports the death penalty. Statistics and research are often lost in the face of seemingly simple answers to complex problems.

But perhaps a book like Death Blossoms will cause some to question their perspective. Maybe as they discover the spirit and mind of a man whose life they would willfully end, they will pause. And maybe they will begin to ask, as Cornel West does in his forward, "What does it profit a nation to conquer the whole world and lose its soul?’

JENNIFER THANEY is youth worker at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, and contributes there to the Seward Profile and The Alley.

Death Blossoms. Mumia Abu-Jamal. Pough Publishing House, 1997.

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