Beyond the Classroom and the Cell:
An Interview with Marc Lamont Hill
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
Marc Lamont Hill and Mumia Abu-Jamal are two of the most visible intellectuals of my generation. Separated by the walls of injustice, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America brings these two giants in the struggle for justice together.
Discussing family, life and death, hip-hop, love, politics, incarceration and so much more, this book highlights their prominence and passion in the fight to “make America again.” As Susan L. Taylor describes in her endorsement of the book: It “gives voice to what is rarely heard: African American men speaking for themselves without barriers or filters, about the many forces in their lives.” Inspiring and illuminating, informative and insightful, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America is a conversation about issues and about these prominent figures. Amazing as the book is, I had the opportunity to talk to Marc Lamont Hill to discuss the book and its power.
David J. Leonard: How did the book come about?
Marc Lamont Hill: The book really emerged naturally out of my relationship with Mumia. I have been working on his defense, advocating for him for years, but it was in 2008 when we actually started a direct personal relationship. He called me out of the blue, right in the middle of the Democratic primaries, and we talked. He reached out and told me that he read my work and that he had seen me on TV; he appreciated the work. It was all love so we rapped about the work; we talked about Obama, we talked about whether or not he could beat Hilary Clinton and that almost became the source of our weekly conversations.
He would hit me every Friday at 5:30. We would just talk and as we began to talk more we developed a critique of Obama and what it meant for him to become President. We also talked about our lives, about our children, and about the other intellectual interests we had; we talked about culture and so much other stuff that we developed a bond and friendship that continues until now. After a while, we said lets do some work together.
Initially we thought we would write a book, a more traditional book on black life in America. It was an interesting project. We started to write essays together and the thing that we noticed was that we were melding our voices into one; we were losing our distinctiveness, we were losing the thing that made our conversations so rich: we had similar politics, we had similar values, but we also different perspectives, we came from very different places, we occupy very different social locations.
We decided that instead of trying to transform these conversations into something else we would spotlight the conversations in the tradition of Cornel West and bell hooks, and James Baldwin and Margaret Mead.
We decided to do a book of conversations, talking about the things that matter to us, the stuff that we care about. Politics came up, issues of life of death, leadership, education, love and relationships. Over the course of a year, we talked every Friday at 5:30 and that became the basis of many of the chapters in the book. Between prison visits, letter writing and phone conversations we produced this book, which I hope reflects the depth and breadth of our conversations as well was the deep love, commitment and respect we have for each other
DJL: When I was reading I was thinking about the West-hooks and Baldwin-Mead dialogues of the past, but this book felt different because of the level of respect and the love between the two of you; it felt more intimate than what we often get with dialogues and discussions between two prominent public figures. You give readers not only your assessment about the world, but also insight about yourselves.
MLH: That is what we wanted to do. We have each written a lot; we each occupy public lives and because of that, certain parts of who we are get exposed all the time; our ideas, our perspectives, our ideologies all get revealed. But we wanted to locate ourselves in this work. We wanted to give more perspective on who are we, but we really wanted to go deeper, to show who we are, to expose our anxieties and fears; we wanted to link the ideas to our personal stories. We wanted to tell a different story and we also wanted people to know that people conversing in this book are people who care deeply for each other and can model a kind of love ethic necessary for social change. It should feel more personal because it was.