The FBI’s most wanted woman, a former Black Panther who survived it all – Book review

Have you caught the dramatisation of Assata Shakur’s autobiography on Radio 4 this week? In a coincidence of timing the book has also made it to the top of Jo Manby’s review pile!

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur. First published in the UK by Zed Books Ltd, London (1988). This edition Lawrence Hill Books (an imprint of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated): Chicago, Illinois, 2014

Assata Shakur is the FBI’s most wanted woman. Since 1979 has lived in Cuba as a fugitive after being granted asylum there following her escape from prison. She is also a founding member of the Black Liberation Army and godmother of Tupac Shakur. This autobiography tells the story of the circumstances that brought her to her present day situation.

the picture shows a book on a table. The book cover has a young black woman's face in profile, with a red target on her face. The title is Assata: An AutobiographyAssata begins her story with the immediate fall-out of the worst (but not only) crime she is framed with. About to be accused of murdering a state trooper, she has been shot through the clavicle and stomach, and her arm is seriously injured and for the foreseeable future, paralysed. She could not have fired the gun. In addition her friend and fellow-Panther Zayd has been killed. Immediately we are with Assata as hordes of police interrogate her while she slides in and out of consciousness and they kick and punch her, adding to her agony.

Following the cruel opening scenes of the autobiography, Assata alternates between recounting growing up as a young girl under the care of her mother, her Aunt Evelyn and her grandparents, and outlining the machinations of the criminal justice system, prison life and the charades of the courts, which she describes as being like walking into the Theatre of the Absurd.

Born in the Bricktown section of Jamaica, New York, she moved south with her grandparents to Wilmington, North Carolina as a young girl. The South was still completely segregated but Black people had rare opportunities to enjoy beaches and Assata’s grandparents were able to open a business on the coastal land inherited from her great grandfather and called it Freeman’s Beach. The popular name for it was Bop City, ‘a wonderful place, and to this day there’s no place on earth that i love more.’

Later on in life Assata grew to realise that what she was taught at school was only one version of the facts. As a young pupil she was delighted to be cast as a cherry tree in her class’s performance for George Washington’s birthday.

I didn’t know what a fool they made out of me until i grew up and started to read real history… When George Washington was fighting for freedom in the Revolutionary War, he was fighting for the freedom of “whites only”. Rich whites at that.

As she became politically aware she saw how the Civil War was fought for economic, rather than moral, reasons:

The fact that “official” slavery was abolished was only incidental… The slave economy of the South was a threat to northern capitalism… Northern capitalists could not possibly compete with slave labor.

In her twenties Assata became a leading member of the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party and coordinated a school breakfast programme that became a source of friendly and impartial advice to the needy children of the area. Eventually however she left the BPP, partly due to a macho element, partly because she believed the party lacked ‘a systematic approach to political education.’ She joined the Black Liberation Army and later, in 1971, the Republic of New Afrika, a Black Nationalist organisation formed to create a Black-majority nation out of the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

image shows a black and white police photograph of a black woman. She has shoulder length hair and piercing eyes

By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The reason she became top of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list in 2013, 40 years after her original arrest, is a bit of a mystery. Accused of ‘maintaining and promoting her terrorist ideology’ while living in Cuba, to paraphrase the FBI, as a 2014 article in the Chicago Tribune suggests:

Shakur was raised to terrorist level on pretty shaky grounds: for speaking and writing, usually protected activities.

The development of her outspoken, but intelligent and considered attitudes, that achieved so much within the Black Panther Party, is interwoven throughout the book with chapters that deal with her years of terrible treatment inside the American prison system, much of her time spent in solitary confinement. Several times, pleas were made on her behalf that she was being kept in inhumane conditions, and were successfully upheld. In these chapters we also get to see how it was that the FBI, with Cointelpro, managed to divide and break apart the Black Panther Party.

Towards the end of the book, we see how Assata’s own family were subjected to the same kind of whispering campaign and harassment. Her mother and aunt had, for example, received notes mimicking Assata’s handwriting and had phone calls in her voice telling them to come to a certain place and to bring money.

During May this year, a stage play, Assata Taught Me, was produced at the Gate Theatre, London. It features a fictional scenario whereby a young Black Cuban is desperate to make it in America. The scenario may be fictional, but it serves as a means of raising awareness of the ‘engrossing and rarely staged history’ (The Stage, review by David Ralf, May 9, 2017) of the revolutionaries of the Black Panther Party.

This is an example of a useful fiction, one which reveals more than it conceals. In these times of fake news, Assata Shakur’s autobiography is well worth reading for the way it delves into centuries of misinformation. It emphasises how we would do well to always question who is doing the telling and why. What’s their motivation? What are they missing out or skimming over?

The great Angela Y Davis, in her forward to the book, examines and quotes from Assata’s conclusions as regards the industrial scale American prison system, something she acquires a regrettably long experience of: ‘an essential element of modern neoliberal capitalism’ used to ‘neutralize and control huge segments of potentially rebellious sectors of the population’ and to ‘sustain a system of super-exploitation, where mainly black and Latino captives are imprisoned in white rural, overseer communities.’ Davis poses the question of Assata, ‘What has she been made to represent?’

Assata’s poems are reproduced throughout the book – the first we come across, ‘Affirmation’, is good to go back to when you reach the end of her autobiography:

I believe in living.
I believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine.

That is certain: she has never stopped believing in life and love for humanity in their suffering.

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