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Unique View of An African from America

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Remembering Attiba (Exile 2012)
Aspirations, Aaron Douglas, 1936

Worldviews, Workviews

We had our differences. The letters he sent were, if they had been a voice, the commanding baritone of a Paul Robeson. The swirl of information didn't cease. Pretty soon, the astounding neatly printed magazines coming out of a Chicago suburb soaked into my mind between the noise and daily drama of living in the rapid decay of Philadelphia's forgotten neighborhoods. Fanon and Cabral, the extension of the discussion on Africa's 1960s and 70s freedom movements (and the puppet movements orchestrated on European and American boulevards) into the late 1980s began to take in reality of my days and nights as an activist. The only revolution going on was the innovation in oppressing with Africans in place as window dressing. Challenged, I had to get to grips with the world movements in and out of the corporate press: Azapo, Black Liberation Army and even the Weathermen. At the time, prison survivors in 'the camps' were some of the only clear beacons of reason in the shadow of the Church Committee, which exposed the world to the USA state hammer taken to batter the earlier freedom movement of the people. The theory of those of us steeped in New Afrikan ideology predominated but didn't crowd out the whole booklet. That's not to say the editor did not pay attention to the need for food, clothing, healthcare and shelter, least of all education that would uplift the African people he came from, us. The undeniable streak of knowledge didn't hide the fact of his origins in and commitment to the people in the war zone we called the American ghetto. What I had in common with the sometimes uncredited writer of this journal of 20 pages or more was that I was a beginning to get my views out to the local and national public. In the universe of prison activism I was a consistent contributor of information from the outside and I recognized the role of political prisoners fairly well for someone of my generation. I didn't just have a worldview, I was involved and recognized for my efforts. I also had a workview. Disseminating my own ideas was important and helping others to get theirs out to the world was also.


Attiba Shanna (1947-2008)

(65th anniversary tribute)

While I had some things 'on the ball', there was much to be learned during the first decade of this facet of my activism. Perspective meant that admitting that I hadn't seen it all at age 28 and was scraping the surface of the state vs the most determined people I had ever heard of. The honed wordsmith of Crossroads had some friends outside of the joint who agreed that his articles needed to be heard. Crossroads was slick by black and white 1980s standards, heavy on rhetoric but weightier on political education. It had a plastic curled binding indicating that it was to be used as a reference. I know it served that role for me every four times a year it appeared on the doorstep through the USPS. Contributors were not always inside the numerous prisons more and more of us were being sent to but the ripple of one person cautioned against the unfinished business to be tended to. National liberation, historical analysis, revolutionary violence, sexism and of course, study of the capitalist system was coursing throughout the pages. Few pictures were used. I was soon able to see that it was I who had to rise to the level of highly developed discussions blossoming all over the Prison Nation. This man, Attiba Shanna, was one of the ones supposedly silenced by concrete, steel and a billion microphones and glossy books, magazines and newspapers, not to mention The A Team, Miami Vice, Cosby Show and Ronald Reagon. Over the kitchen table in the glare of sunlight three flights up in my sister's apartment, strains of Graham Central Station insistently reminded me of gospel's relation to jazz while the Crossroads wrestled my tendency to put the struggle into the past to the mind's floor. I was learning. Later, in 1991, life's changes forced me to halt prison activism  for a time. I said my farewells by letters to numerous men and a few women behind the walls then expanding ever faster, including Attiba Shanna. One day I would be in place to recall and speak internationally on the global 'tours' I got from a man in a stone box from the time that I was a child. He would be there until I was forty-five years old.

A few years ago, I got word that Attiba Shanna had made his final transition. From across the ocean I read via internet that he had indeed gotten out of the dungeon the American prisonocracy had tried to bury him in. If an intellect like that had hit the streets, truly, there was hope for us all. We never met, not that I thought that it was possible. He had an Illinois C number and those bloods had been stamped, as I said, dead, and buried by the government. The internet articles had his picture, which I had never seen.The word Stateville made solid soldiers shudder, I remembered from a stay in Chicago. Other massive prisons, Pontiac, Menard and Joliet, these were the places from where letters had arrived addressed to me at the begining of the early 80s. The Illinois car license plates read ' Land of Lincoln' as if mocking the African people of Chicago bound for the steep gray walls and gun towers. But from a key few of these men I got guidance and courage to face a new era of government attack. Add to that lessons in life. Give this some thought, they told me in penciled script or if fortunate, inked lined paper. Question her, cut off your heat on him, let the older adult have time to saturate in your viewpoint. In the end it was Brothers such as Attiba Shanna who balanced my twenties' fire and put out what I accidentally started. Fear, to them was as common as the freezing cold cells they endured, the chemical laced paltry slop called food shoved through floor level slots. It was handled routinely in the course of a day fighting off four or five brawny rural Whites who lost their farm jobs only to be issued prison guard uniforms. They never had to meet African men, Indigenous (Indians), Puerto Ricans or Chicanos with strength mentally lithe in the US Federal Rules of Procedure, Civil or Criminal and the United Nations Human Rights canon (take your pick) or toned by 5000 push ups a day. Attiba would live less than 5 years after such a 'life' but he used his time before his cancer to help liberate others. Men of Attiba Shanna's character continue to deliver to liberate freedom loving freedom fighting people. But each day fewer and fewer are in this achievement circle.
In truth, not many of these men strode the streets in the 1980s. Public pressure, the reason we petitioned the folk in the streets and even a few politicians was invaluable. And in return some of us were asked to dine at the table of giants. Master teachers like Attiba Shanna weren't expected to see the sun, have a contact visit (touch a loved one) or be compensated for the injustices that they lived through. I knew only a handful that were out and they needed healing from the past. Who had been released from hellholes unknown to America were mostly as Gil Scott Heron famously sang, Pieces of A Man.
They had been crushed. Strangely, they performed insanely more of their mistakes.

That was to the delight of the system of disinformation and control.
But not Attiba Shanna aka James Sayles aka Yaki.

And a lot of other Brothers.
And after fifty two and a half seasons,
Not Me.
24 January 2012
From Exile,
See Related Articles:
The Meaning Of Bizarre (Exile 2006)

Outsiders (Exile 2008)

An Exile's Alphabet (Exile 2010)

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Atiba Shanna

I, too, was one of the fortunate beneficiaries of Atiba's brilliant thought process. I started reading his works while in prison, thru Crossroad or the POW Journals or the informal studies drafted as letters. I met him at a conference in Chicago after he was released, and he was very humble and approachable, almost like a quiet uncle. Glad to read positive words about such an important brotha.

Thanks for the comment! That's right, Atiba (misspelling of his name throughout my mistake) is a legend. I felt I got the opportunity you had within your thoughtful notes. I'm willing we 'students' keep his views on others' lips and inside some hearts and hands! Welcome and share some more insight when you can. Bankole

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