Assata: an autobiography

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Assata Shakur, (first published 1988), reprinted by Zed Books July 2014, £8.99pbk, 416pp ISBN: 9781783601783

‘No oppressed people ever won their freedom, by hoping their oppressors would change their minds’ Assata Shakur

This book promises an ‘intensely personal and political autobiography’ and ‘a major contribution to the history of black liberation’, and it more than delivers on its promise. This account of the life of Assata Shakur, in her own words, gives us a completely different view of this brave, strong and proud woman so often simply described as the ‘most wanted’ US terrorist.

Black communist Angela Davis has written a brief foreword to this new edition of Assata Shakur’s autobiography along with Shakur’s lawyer Lennox Hinds. The book is enriched by both for different reasons. Angela Davis offers a straightforward account of some of the activities in the 1970s surrounding Assata Shakur. Along with her views on institutional racism this places the book firmly in a political context. A detailed account of one of her own experiences of police racism, abuse of police powers and police intimidation sets the tone, immediately making it clear that this book is not just another story, but one of definite political importance.

Lennox Hinds, as a black lawyer, teacher and student of history, elaborates on the legal cases against Shakur, detailing the inaccuracies of evidence, and the painstaking lengths the state will, can and did go to in order to prosecute black activists who were deemed politically dangerous. He sifts through the masses of evidence to pick out the important facts from many acquittals and her single conviction, raising the question immediately of her innocence and the state’s desperation to contain the black liberation movement at any cost. He describes her story as a struggle for self-determination and for freedom. These forewords prepare you for the intense, personal and moving story of a political activist, black woman, mother, lover and revolutionary, who to this day remains the worst-treated female prisoner in the US prison system.

The book is gripping from the first paragraph, beginning with Shakur’s memories of the shooting on the New Jersey turnpike, in which she is left critically wounded. The first chapter details her hospital ordeal, where instead of receiving decent treatment for her gunshot wounds, Shakur is instead forced to withstand violence, interrogation and systematic abuse as she determinedly fights to stay alive.

The following chapters skip between two timelines, the first from that moment at the turnpike onwards, the other from her childhood up to that point, showing clearly the conditions and racism that drove her actions towards that moment. It is a very personal account written with great honesty.

Her life is detailed simply and without pretention. The book takes you on a journey of the life of a working-class black woman in the US and describes the racism that permeated every sphere of her life. She describes simply but powerfully that journey down a political route, drawing out the issues at the heart of racism and the imperialist US state.

It explores the prison system, the state and institutions like the police and legal system, posing questions on ethnicity, freedom, economic enslavement and justice. This is therefore just a good read and an interesting life of a revolutionary, but has an overtly political message. It leads the reader to the questions that Assata herself faced in her political awakening, as she describes herself as having originally held an anti-communist position formed by the propaganda surrounding her as she grew up. Over time she becomes more and more politically aware and her position changes when questioning the motives of the Vietnam War with other black activists.

This book does not just engage the reader to realise the legal system’s flaws and its institutional racism, or the state’s power, but paints a picture of police brutality, inequality, state control and political repression with every passage leading you to question more and more the charges against Assata and the picture of a violent terrorist that the media would have you believe. By highlighting the lengths the state went to to ensure a conviction and paint her as guilty in the eyes of the public through mass media manipulation.

Every activist living in an imperialist country should read this this book, not just for its lessons on the nature of the state but also on how to organise against it. It inspires the reader to change society, as you see how despite all the hardship and persecution this revolutionary woman remains hopeful that change is possible through the collective action of the people. As she says, ‘a wall is just a wall, it can be broken’.

The book wraps up this inspiring woman in socialist Cuba, where she escaped to and now lives in political exile. She describes Cuba not in an idealist way, ignoring racism or sexism there; but acknowledging it exists, and critically observing it. In 1996, FRFI interviewed Assata Shakur in Havana and she explained how socialism made it possible to tackle racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination:

‘When I came to Cuba I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea. It was clear that a revolution was not a magic wand that you wave and all of a sudden everything is transformed. The first lesson I learned was that a revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice.’ (see full interview at www.tinyurl.com/q6qltsu)

She therefore describes Cuba however as ‘the most progressive place on the planet’ because it actually does have the means and the will to tackle these issues and not ignore or hide them.

It is amazing to think that through all the pain, heartache of separation from her family, loss of loved ones and memories of years of abuse, that she is now is somewhere she considers a progressive home finally safe from the persecution of the US institutions; there is a place in the sun, where there is hope for everyone, and its name is Cuba.

Hands off Assata Shakur!

By D Spencer