Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Growing up in the Bay Area, I learned about Assata Shakur at a fairly young age. I likely first heard her name in connection to her godson, Tupac, who’d gone to the same high school I later attended in Marin County. I was about seven years old when he was shot, and I remember driving by students in front of the school, holding bright signs of disbelief, claiming it couldn’t be true. Students milled around in groups, some crying, others comforting. Though I can’t find any articles from the time corroborating this chaotic scene, as my first memory of public emotional outpouring, it has stuck with me.
After learning about the Black Panthers in middle school, I would search Assata's name from time to time to see if she'd given any new interviews. The fact that she was so secretive, that her opinions were only given every few years to one or two reporters, that she lived underground in Cuba, all fascinated me. But it wasn’t until this year that I finally read Assata: An Autobiography, first published in 1987.
The book is the story of how Assata became Assata, including the confusion, fragility and growth that came before the carefully constructed interviews of thorough and composed ideas. Its chapters alternate between Assata as a young girl, born JoAnne Deborah Byron in Jamaica, Queens, NYC, and Assata as a woman, a former member of the Black Liberation Army, navigating the United States court system through multiple trials. Between court and prison scenes, Assata grows from young girl into frustrated worker, questioning college student, nascent organizer, and Black Panther Party member, outlining in personal anecdotes how her beliefs were constructed over many years, in opposition to the systemic oppression she saw all around her. Shuffled between are some of Assata’s poems, intimate snapshots of her personal and political lives:
And kept on getting up.
A little slower.
And a lot more deadly.
The first chapter begins at a point somewhere in the middle, the point that perhaps most altered the course of her life, in a car on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 2, 1973. She was pulled over with two other BLA members, Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur, for a broken tail light. The stop ends in a shootout, with both Zayd and one of the cops dead, and Assata partially paralyzed from bullets in her chest and arm. It’s not clear what exactly happened, but Assata recounts the parts she can piece together. Although she was tried for a number of bank robberies, armed robberies, and a kidnapping, all other charges were either dismissed or acquitted, except for this incident on the turnpike. In 1977, she was found guilty of first degree murder of New Jersey State Trooper, Werner Foerster.
Assata includes a few short chapters about the women she met in Rikers Island and the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women, along with the abuse she experienced at the hands of prison guards before and after delivering her daughter, Kayuya. In a postscript, she skips over her breakout from prison in 1979, and her supposedly living underground in the US in the early 80’s. Instead, she ends at the beginning of her new life, in Cuba.
I am actually writing this while in Havana, where Assata has lived since 1984. Most Cubans I’ve met don’t recognize her name, but everyone seems to know who las Panteras Negras are and to support Cuba being a safe haven for US political refugees. During the Obama administration, when it looked like relations might finally move on from the Cold War-era embargo, Assata and other fugitives’ names began circulating in the US press. No one was quite sure what open relations would mean for them. Would Cuba send them back to face prosecution in the US? Would they be allowed to stay? We never found out, and last year Trump reversed some of Obama’s executive actions while calling on the Cuban government to return the estimated seventy US political refugees living there. He called out Assata specifically, and she has stayed out of the spotlight since then.
When, five years after her conviction, Assata is finally reunited with her mother, aunt, and daughter in Havana, she reflects on how her life led them to this “beautiful city of narrow, spider-web streets.” Her words tie together the present and the past, the history of struggle in one part of the world with those in every other, and the fight for change as a continual, arduous process:
How much we had all gone through. Our fight had started on a slave ship years before we were born. Venceremos, my favorite word in Spanish, crossed my mind...We were here together in their land, my small little family, holding each other after so long. There was no doubt about it, our people would one day be free. The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world.–Claire Mullen