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BOOK REVIEW: The Black Panther is an African Cat – Poems of Exploration and Testimony

March 2, 2010

BY MICHAEL RICHARDSON

From the Omaha Star, May 28, 2009

Autographed copies are not available. Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa has penned his sixth book of poetry from the maximum security Nebraska State Penitentiary where he is serving a life sentence.

Langa, formerly David Rice, has been behind bars for 37 years, convicted for the murder of an Omaha police officer. Langa has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the bombing ambush of patrolman Larry Minard in August 1970 and post-trial revelations of contradictory police testimony and withheld evidence suggest the prison poet was indeed framed for the crime.

Mondo, a twenty-two year old writer at the time of his arrest, was Minister of Information of Omaha’s Black Panther chapter called the National Committee to Combat Fascism. Caught up in the then-secret COINTELPRO operation of the FBI against the Black Panthers, Langa and his co-defendant Ed Poindexter, also serving a life sentence, went to jail while the confessed bomber got off with a reduced charge.

The years of confinement have not dulled Langa’s sharp observations on life in America for the descendents of African slaves and the predations of the dominant culture. The Black Panther is an African Cat is not an easy book to read; the angst is palpable and permeates the text while the wisdom goes deep.
“As David Rice, I was proud of being a Panther then and, as Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa I am proud now that I was a Panther….The poems and raps I selected for this book express what it means to me to be an African and how the meaning of this influences how I see and interpret things. At the same time, though, I’m an African who was born and brought up in the U.S. and continues to be influenced by its institutions, and I’m an African who’s been locked up.”

The book is illustrated with several photo collages assembled by Langa that are visual poems, telling their own stories.

The opening words ‘From the Ancestors’ House,’ “What were we but strangers to the land where we were born” caught “in a maze of Europeanisms” sets the tone for the explorations and testimony to follow.

‘Dressed in Black’ is a requiem rap for the Black Panthers and notes the passage from “people needin defense and protection” to “communities of us that traded in black power for government jobs and mid-level-management window dressin positions under glass ceilins.”

‘The White Sea’ is a poem written in Langa’s youth, before his arrest. Langa explains its inclusion in the collection. “It is included because I wrote it while I thought of us as “black” while I was in the Party, and while I was still on the street. It’s also included because it is a poem that wound up, for me, to be prophetic.”

“and I was screaming and shaking
while the sky was corroding
tiny beads of blood rolling down my face
toward my neck down to purge me
so many chairs set up for us
to sit around and stare at each other
nd we recounting dreams in a nightmare showcase
with translucent windows
and a jury outside deciding a verdict
to bring us all to guilt
and send us out in a boat with stones
tied round our necks and throw us dead into
the goddam milky sea”
‘Once the New Wears Off’ explores Langa’s own journey as a youth who would salute the National Anthem and who shared a “rainbow dream” of equality and a time to come. When ‘We Shall Overcome’ “would bring a tingling up my back and a warming to my head” before realizations “emptying my head of melting-pot dreams” would render the song “a meaningless melody” and “a crass, discount-store magician’s trick to reward believers in this house of cards.”

Several poems on the war in Iraq and George Bush are in the collection. In ‘San Juan Hill, Iraq’ Langa asks, “Why, George, do you want war so bad? Why are you so eager to quench the appetite of unfilled graves?”

Although the military and club-swinging policemen catch Langa’s piercing prose Mondo’s voice raises against those who have sold out as well. ‘Runnin, Runnin’ tracks O.J. Simpson “down and down you went.” ‘Electro-Dis Clap Baby’ zeros in on both male and female pop celebrities:

“he and she too, and these other brothas and sistas who, knowin nothing and filled with self-hate, aint got they heads on straight, wanna go on talk shows to get some kicks, but end up bein perfect tricks, for talk-show hosts who playin the ratins game, will exploit their butts without an ounce of shame.”

Langa tackles rappers with his own rap ‘Hardcore’ and evens the score. “As you sling the ‘nigger’ word around, like some dope in a hood that you claim to be loyal to, while poisoning homeys, and sendin them to the dug-out soil to, lie in some graves while, women who are yo sistahs you brand as ‘bitches,’ you really need stitches, to sew up the hole in your soul.”

Sports celebrities, idolized by the media and fawning fans, do not escape Mondo’s reach. ‘To Bring the Boys Home’ speaks of “these sporting men, with names that came, from bills of sale and deeds of ownership” and “these sons of Africa, who are known to say ‘I love this game,’ but are seldom heard to say, ‘I love my people.”

‘Brother, What Are We Supposed to Do’ takes on preachers and politicians with their platitudes without action “and we must point our finger, at you AND us, because we stand with you and follow your lead, are stuck in your confusion, and share in your impotence.”

‘Some Straight’nin’ explores the possibility of Malcolm X alive today. Langa uses Malcolm X’s African name of Omowale in the poem.

“do you think Omowale would be silent
and just be sittin’ on his butt
while comedians who look like us
perform like house-negro clowns
in stand-up routines
puttin’ our sistahs down
makin’ jokes out of slavery
mockin’ our struggles of the here and now
….
do you think Omowale would have nothin’ to say
about these slaves in their master’s house
and these singers and rappers sellin’ out
for jewelry, limos, and fame
collectin’ the money
while dodgin’ their share of the blame
for the chaos and earth
their lyrics have helped maintain”

Prowess’ is a beautiful poetic tribute to tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, perhaps the best writing in the collection. However, Mondo’s purity of African consciousness adds a critical footnote. “Written before these sisters lost an appreciation of the wooly hair that Mother Africa endowed them with, before they began mutilating (straightening) their hair and Europeanizing themselves in other ways.”

Mondo’s ninety year-old mother is the subject of the most poignant poem in the book. ‘Maito, Walking With Me All This Time.’ The poem speaks of a mother’s love and loyalty while the poet “continue paying on a debt that I did not owe.” The “sure caress of a mother’s love” was there to comfort while “passing through dark halls where not knowing smelled like mildew and sounded like a muffled justice mumbling.”

The slender volume also contains blues poetry, talks of Egypt and Africa, and longs for the company of women.

‘I Don’t Step in the Water’ is the last poem.

“There is a place
between the building I’m caged in
and the one where the slop is served
where when it rains
two puddles form
….
puddles that form a map
of Africa
….
I do not splash through
but walk around
out of respect

The Black Panther is an African Cat is published by House of August Press. The book of poems can be purchased by mail from Aframerican Bookstore, 3226 Lake Street, Omaha, Nebraska 68111, (402)455-9200.

Mondo we Langa (27-768)
P.O. Box 2500
Lincoln, Nebraska
USA 68542
www.aframericanbookstore.com

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