Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mumia Abu-Jamal Speaks on Literacy and the Cuban Revolution

Mumia Abu-Jamal on Literacy, Liberation and the Cuban Campaign of 1961

One month ago, on September 8th, World Literacy Day was celebrated for the 21st time. Three years ago, United Nations announced the World Decade of Literacy (2003 to 2012) with the goal of reducing global illiteracy by 50%. UNESCO estimates show 860 million illiterate adults in the world today, two-thirds of who are women. Illiteracy remains a persistent problem worldwide. Systematic exclusion, privatization of education and deepening injustices makes work toward full literacy look harder than ever.

Adult Illiteracy is often framed as a developing world issue, but many developed nations have surprisingly low literacy rates -- most notably the USA. The most recent serious national study on literacy, conducted in 2003, measured functional illiteracy in the US at 22%. This means one in five US adults cannot fill out a job application or a voting ballot, calling into question the idea and possibility of democracy itself. Some communitites, states, and regions have even higher rates. The Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans found adult illiteracy up to 32% in the five parishes. Some tell stories of families who could not claim FEMA benefits following Hurricane Katrina because they could not read nor fill out the forms.

Meanwhile, several undeveloped countries have taken great strides to erradicate illiteracy. The most striking example is from the island nation of Cuba. In 1961 over 100,000 young men and women became the core of volunteer teachers who went into rural mountains and urban shantytowns across the island, teaching people often decades older how to hold a pencil and write their names for the first time. Almost one million people learned to read & write in less than 12 months.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Cuban Literacy Campaign.

Catherine Murphy speaks with journalist and visionary justice activist Mumia Abu-Jamal on Literacy, Liberation and the Cuban Campaign of 1961.

CM: Can you please start by talking about literacy as a social justice issue -- as a social justice issue and a liberation issue?

MAJ: When you first wrote to me, I did some digging, and I found some quotes from a book I had read many years ago, by a man known as a liberation psychologist. His name is Ignacio Martín Baró. He wrote a book called Writings for Literation Psychology. He talked about the Salvadoran experience, and about how his work in the liberation theology movement were trying to do was to awaken critical consciousness among the peasantry and poor people. The term he used was conscientización – conscientización is the awakening of critical consciousness. Literacy is a part of that. But what happens is that people are awakened to a new reality - they are literally transfomed. That is the very essence of Revolution. We think about Revolution in certain ways because of our history and what we’ve been taught. But Revolution is always intensely personal. It begins with the self. It begins with how that person interacts with the society around. Literacy that teaches people their history, progessive ideas, a way of challenging the society in which they live… Ignacio Martin Baró said that literacy is really de-coding because it teaches people who are poor and illiteracy how to de-code the mechanisms of oppression that they´re living in every day. How to question, how to develop a critical consciousness. That is an important part of the Revolutionary process, no matter where you are.

Of course, one cannot forget the lived example of Frederick Douglass, who as a very young boy learned to read & write. And his experience, what he found out, when his… shall we say “master” - and I hesitate to use that word - found his wife teaching Frederick Douglass to read, he gave her hell. He told her “you’ll spoil a nigger, don’t you do anything like that” and forbade her. Frederick Douglass said from that moment on, he learned an important lesson. For him and for people of that time, and people subsequently of course, that was a road to freedom. I think that is esentially and generally true. But the problem isn’t whether one is literate - whether one can read or write - but what one reads or writes. And in this culture, it is possible to be literate - indeed to be considered educated - but because you’ve been educated in an imperialist, backward country, really, that you become a tool of neo imperialism of the state. And the state uses various ways to subvert that tool by mis-informing, mis-educating people or teaching them the worst lessons that people can learn: racism, sexism & looking down on people from other cultures & other nations.

CM: The story of Frederick Douglass is very powerful in terms of illustrating systematic exclusion from basic literacy. Could you speak to the issue of exclusion from basic literacy as a tool of oppression, and it's relation to the legacy of slavery in the US.

MAJ: What we see when we look around in this day and age are city schools and public schools for the most part, and some charter schools, that have failed miserably at the task of teaching kids how to read and how to write. That isn’t an accident – there’s a certain design. When I listen to a right wing and neo-fascist or conservative radio show, and someone calls up, they won’t use the words “public school”. They’ll say “government school” and that is a subtle form of propaganda to attack the very notion of public education - the right of every person to the fundamental education about the world in which they live. Why is that that America has some of the best higher education in the world, and some of the worst primary education in the world? So that the people who at the lowest levels and rungs of society - because they can’t afford that commodity which is education - and it is fast becoming a greater and greater commodity - get the worst teachers, they get the worst schools.

I will never forget the imagery of Jonathan Kozol writing about a school I believe in New Jersey and perhaps in New York - with human waste running down the center of a hallway, windows broken, with people not caring, frankly, about their charges. This is an outrage – and it should be.

CM: What about the relation of illiteracy in the US to mass incarceration?

MAJ: One of the greatest stories to come out of Black America in the 20th century was the story of Malcom X, who essentially taught himeself the fundamentals of reading. He could read, he was a bright student, but in his autobiography, he´s told, when he tells his cousel that he want to be a lawyer, she says, “Be realistic. That’s not a realistic option for a n-i-g-g-e-r”. And it crushed him, it crushed his young soul, but it wasn’t until years later when he was in prison that he began reading the dictionary from beginning to end, and studying words & the roots of words, then studying ideas and then studying philosophies – where he really educated himself.

What we have in the American Prison System today is a kind of premium on ignorance. If there´s anything that works, and the studies have shown this, it´s education. Why to cut that from people and make it harder not easier shows that people don’t really care about recidivism, They want people stupid, that they want people to go out, re-offend and feed the Prison Industrial Complex - and not to contribute to their communities & the world at large.

CM: Let´s talk about models of hope. Cuba is one, but there are also models in the US: Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, the Panther Party as well. Can you talk about some of that history?

MAJ: What we learned from all of those examples – Cuba, the Black Panther Party, Freedom Schools, Liberation Schools – is when people have an ideological motivation, if they are moved & driven to not just teach teach, but when students hear the message & it turns them on, then true learning happens! When people are motivated, then they want to learn. Cuba certainly tapped into that, the Party tapped into that, SNCC and Black Nationalist organizations and other organizations tapped into that. Education isn’t a one-way process – it’s multi-layered, you see. It has to go both ways.

When I was reading the book about the Cuban Literacy Project, there was a man named Juan Martinez. He seemed to be middle-aged or an older man. He said “Until I learned how to read and write, I never felt like I was truly Cuban.” It was a striking quote – because everything is in there. He never felt like he was part of the country until he understood what reading and writing could do for him.

CM: Any other words on the Cuban campaign?

MAJ: They have done something that is absolutely remarkable. I knew about it of course, but to read again about the campaign – to read Kozol’s book Children of the Revolution and the other book [In the Spirit of Wandering Teachers by Ocean Press], it made me weep with admiration for their incredible, truly revolutionary accomplishment. Amazing.

Catherine Murphy is the founder of The Literacy Project, a multi-media oral history & documentation project on literacy in the Americas. For more information, see http://www.theliteracyproject.org

Mumia Abu-Jamal is a renowned journalist and justice activist who has been on death row in Pennsylvania since 1981. Mumia continues to speak out. He has written several books, and his radio commentaries and weekly columns are published around the world. His case is one of the most important social justice struggles of our time.

For more information and updates on Mumia´s legal case and the organizing to get him a new trial, see: www.freemumia.org http://www.freemumia.org

The audio track of this interview, along with Mumia´s radio commentaries, can be found at http://www.prisonradio.org http://www.prisonradio.org

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