Every time I get one of Sundiata Acoli letters, I hug it. I press it close to my chest and hold it there until I am moved to tears. I pull his picture off my wall and set it on the nightstand next to my bed. Of all the pictures that I have seen of him, this one is my favorite. He is standing against the wall of the visiting area and wearing blue prison scrubs. At 69, he has more muscles than wrinkles. His eyes are shaped like almonds and are the color of the inside of Reese’s cups. His smile is so bright you can’t see the pain or the prison. In my mind, we are in the back of some soulful cafe on the Southside of Philly. Instead, we are hundreds of miles away separated by concrete, Plexiglas, and visiting hours. Our relationship is a lazy eight; our history absolutely intertwined and infinite. I hold his handwritten letters close to my heart. Before that, I had only Googled him and read all of his biographies and political writings. I had already read books by his comrades that mentioned him. I had been studying the Black Panther Party since I was 13. I love them all: Assata, Afeni, Kathleen, Sundiata Acoli, Mumia, Elderidge, Seth, Bobby, Fred, and the list rolls on. They are all my superheroes. I wrote 23 drafts of my first letter to him. I even went to the post office to get black history stamps. I remember lying in my bed, trying to figure out which stamp I should use. After deliberating between the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins and the 1964 Voting Rights Act, I decided to go with the voting rights stamp. This it was the first type of revolutionary work he had officially done. That night I mailed Sundiata Acoli a letter, two pictures, and two poems.
There were lights and sirens. The pigs were pulling us over. I decided since I was the oldest that i would get out. Assata was on the front passenger side, and Zayid was sitting in the back seat. “Go back and meet him,” Zayid said. I met the trooper between our cars. He took my driver’s license and registration and ordered me to remain standing with the backup trooper. As he began checking the serial numbers on the car door, the other officer pulled out his pistol and began to pistol-whip me. As he hit me, he yelled out to his partner, “He’s dirty.” At that moment his partner opened fire, and a gunfight ensued. In the midst of all the commotion i ran. It took them two days to find me. When I was arrested, police immediately cut my pants off me so that i only wore shorts. Whooping and hollering, a gang of New Jersey state troopers dragged me through the woods, through water puddles, and hit me over the head with the barrel of their shotguns. They only cooled out somewhat when they noticed that all the commotion had caused a crowd to gather at the end of the road, observing their actions. I was arrested on May 2, 1973, and later sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.
It came in a standard white #10 envelope. His address was written in block letters in the upper right-hand corner. My address was written in the middle- lower half of the left side of the envelope. The stamp in the upper- right corner of his letter was an American Flag stamp turned upside down–This is to show that he has no respect for Amerika or its flag. On the top of the left side of the envelope, the standard Postmark stamp with the date and time. In no strategic place, an ink stamp in big, bold, red letters:
MAILED FROM U.S. PENITENTIARY
I opened the letter:
Peace! Young Sista Aisha ?,
I got a KICK out of your “statue of liberty” picture! ?
Every word dancing off of the page with smiley faces drawn across. In fact, they are in all of his letters to me.
Anyway, i got your poem “In Search of Freedom” and you know i love it! It’s da BOMB! ?
Pray for me; My daughter is pregnant; I love your book; I am going to hear you perform your poetry one day ?
Love ya & struggle,
Sundiata Acoli ?
Every time I see one of his smiley faces I can’t help but smile. His smile ignites my smile. But I am not sure what we are smiling about. His smile transcends paper. It is my grandfather, my comrade, my friend, my hero. His smile makes the letters feel as if they are coming from a different place: a place where intangible things suddenly become tangible, like freedom. I know that his smile comes from a place where he is free. However, I can’t help but be puzzled by it. I know the bitter taste that lingers on his tongue.
On April 2, 1969, i was arrested to stand trial in the Panther 21 case. Twenty-one of us were accused of conspiring to blow up some New York department stores and the New York Botanical Gardens. It had taken two long years before the trial concluded. The trial itself lasted eight months–the longest criminal prosecution in New York history—however, it only took 56 minutes to acquit all the defendants of every charge. Police agents appearing at the Panther 21 trial had also attended some group political education classes held at my apartment. Although an ad hoc organization of my fellow workers named `Computer People for Peace’ had raised and posted bail for me and although several other defendants had been released on bail, the judge refused to let me out on bail. I had to do the entire two years on trial in jail until finally i was released on acquittal. I endured 2 years of political imprisonment. Upon my arrest May 2, 1973, i was denied medical care, newspapers and kept in isolation from everyone but my lawyer. Bright lights were turned on in my cell 24 hours per day, and even my food was restricted. State troopers paraded in front of my cell–harassing and threatening me. I was confined to a space smaller than the SPCA recommends for caging a German shepherd. It was there i developed tuberculosis. Five years later, i was transferred to the federal penitentiary at Marion, a special facility for punishing and isolating political prisoners.
On November 2, 1979, my comrade and co-defendant Assata Shakur was liberated from the Women’s Prison in Clinton, New Jersey by an underground unit. She now lives in exile in Cuba. i was punished severely. I was permitted booth visits with immediate family and attorneys only. I was unable to receive any visits from friends or associates. Guards would stand in front of my cell and harass me. Because of the great distance and costs, these visits were possible only every one to three years. Prison officials constantly berated my children and threatened to cut off their visiting privilege for playing (i.e., not sitting still in the visiting booth). They once declared a baby blanket a non-permitted item and took it out from under my daughter’s baby sister who was sleeping on the floor, causing both the child and her mother to cry.I only received a total of 24 hours of visiting each month. Once my mother traveled over 2,000 miles to visit me, and she was unaware that i had already used 16 visiting hours that month. Prison officials rudely cut off her visit after only 8 hours, causing my mother to cry. In another instance, legal aide Anne Else traveled 550 miles to visit me. The FBI and Marion staff eavesdropped on our meeting until they were inadvertently discovered in the act by another prisoner.
I read a poem once about Sundiata Acoli once. It was about his smile by Assata Shakur:
They been trying to take your smile
Wipe it off your face
Like they are wiping us off this earth
But you smiled that smile in cages
Twenty years hits
Like a contemptuous spit
An in spite of a bitter taste in your mouth
Your smile shines strong
I have never actually heard his voice before, but I know what it sounds like. I can hear it when I read his letters out loud. It is freedom: raspy, strong, black, and prudent. Our relationship is like a lazy eight. Our lives crisscrossed. It was my freedom he had been fighting for all along.