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Autobiography // Assata Shakur
On May 2, 1973, Black Panther Assata Shakur (aka JoAnne Chesimard) lay in a hospital, close to death, handcuffed to her bed, while local, state, and federal police attempted to question her about the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that had claimed the life of a white state trooper. Long a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to defame, infiltrate, and criminalize Black nationalist organizations and their leaders, Shakur was incarcerated for four years prior to her conviction on flimsy evidence in 1977 as an accomplice to murder.
This intensely personal and political autobiography belies the fearsome image of JoAnne Chesimard long projected by the media and the state. With wit and candor, Assata Shakur recounts the experiences that led her to a life of activism and portrays the strengths, weaknesses, and eventual demise of Black and White revolutionary groups at the hand of government officials. The result is a signal contribution to the literature about growing up Black in America that has already taken its place alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the works of Maya Angelou.
Two years after her conviction, Assata Shakur escaped from prison. She was given political asylum by Cuba, where she now resides.
Assata Shakur writes her autobiography in a way that allows the reader to feel as though she is speaking directly to you, telling you her story. And her words are so powerful and moving as she does so. I really appreciated her use of poetry throughout the book, with the opening poem, Affirmation (excerpt below) and closing poem, The Tradition, being my favorites. Assata’s poetry allows you to feel deeply what she is feeling and how she continued to be throughout all that she endured. Her rotation between stories from her childhood and stories from her struggle as a Black political prisoner let the reader into both the light and the darkness of her life. Activism remains at the center of her being throughout her life and her commitment to freedom is empowering and inspiring.
As this is an autobiography it feels weird to judge the characters being that they are all real people. What I will say is that Assata allows you to see their realness. The way that she allows you into her mindspace to learn more about her life and the movement develops her own character very well. It is clear throughout the book that Assata attributes her successes to her community and those that she is able to reach out to for support. She is able to learn and grow through her activism and writes, “the Black liberation movement has done more for me than i will ever be able to do for it” (223).
Assata Shakur’s autobiography tells the story of her life and the corruptness of the US justice system. She explains beautifully and tragically the way she was abused and framed by the state and how she fought to claim her own freedom despite the shackles placed upon her by pigs in an attempt to quell the movement for Black liberation. Her story is a powerful read, especially as we live on the cusp of an extraordinary moment in history. The Black Lives Matter movement has become, in many ways, what Assata imagines in her autobiography. Black liberation groups have known for decades that our government and criminal justice system are not broken, but working to continue to enslave Black people. Assata critiques the liberation movement of her day and calls for a movement that “is constantly growing and changing with the times” (181). The Black Lives Matter movement strives to be intersectional and fight for all Black lives, much in the way that Assata Shakur dreamed of, but there is still a lot of work to be done. We must be aware of how oppression is operating and has operated in the past in order to fight back.
When I think about the ways Black women are being erased during many the Black Lives Matter uprisings, I think of Assata’s critique of Black men and their failure to protect us. Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin Salau, just 19 years old, was failed by her community when she was assaulted by a Black man. She tweeted her experience and disappeared the same day, only for us to learn she was murdered days later. Where were her protectors? Shakur writes of enslaved Black women, “she was considered less than a woman. She was a cross between a whore and a workhorse. Black men internalized the white man’s opinion of Black women, And, if you ask me, a lot of us still act like we’re back on the plantation with massa pulling the strings” (116). Black women deserve better. It is time that Black men begin to fight for us too, and quite frankly, it’s long overdue.
When people refuse to allow our movements to be intersectional, they uphold the ideals of white supremacy, we are not free until the trans Black woman and all Black people are free and it seems that many forget that in their activism. That is why there is a need for constant education and re-education in order to create a cohesive and surviving movement. We must be open to critique and self-reflection if we truly hope to dismantle these systems steeped in white supremacy. In the words of Assata Shakur, “You can’t claim that you love people when you don’t respect them, and you can’t call for political unity unless you practice it in your relationships. And that doesn’t happen out of nowhere. That’s something that has got to be put into practice every day” (218).
If you want to read a book about being unapologetically Black and free, this is the one. Reading this now inspired me so much and helped open my eyes even more to the ways in which the government sabotages our movements and what we can do to protect one another from that and do better as we fight for our liberation now. As we call for abolition, it is important to hear the Black women who have been fighting for this for decades. I leave you with the opening poem to the autobiography, a call for abolition and a belief in something better.
I believe in living.
I believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
Tricycles and rocking chairs.
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
I believe in the magic of the hands.
And the wisdom of the eyes.
I believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.
I believe in life.
And I have seen the death parade
march through the torso of the earth,
sculpting mud bodies in its path.
I have seen the destruction of the daylight,
and seen bloodthirsty maggots
prayed to and saluted.
I have seen the kind become the blind
and the blind become the bind
In one easy lesson.
I have walked on cut glass.
I have eaten crow and blunder bread
and breathed the stench of indifference
I have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if I know any thing at all,
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.
I believe in living.
I believe in birth.
I believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.
And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home
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