17. Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur

4 May


By odd coincidence, I was in  the middle of reading the autobiography of Assata Shakur last week when it was announced that she was being added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Terrorists list. HuffPo already has a wonderful story, which should be required reading for everyone, about why the FBI has targeted Assata now, and what this means for all of our civil liberties—spoiler alert, nothing good.

Assata’s autobiography should also be required reading.

A grandmother and former Black Panther living quietly in Cuba since the 80s is obviously not an active threat to American security. Thus it’s also obvious that we’re witnessing our government scapegoating someone, for political ends, which is disturbing and immoral, regardless of the real history of Assata’s crimes—which I will admit that I don’t know much about, beyond what I read in her book.

Usually when things like this happen, I have that vague feeling that “there’s nothing I can do.” In this case, there is something we can all do: Go buy this book. At a time when radicalism in America is heavily repressed, it’s interesting reading.

Assata’s writing gives her side of the story, and it’s also a riveting page-turner, that alternates between the tale of her imprisonment in 1973 after a shoot-out on the New Jersey state turnpike that left one state trooper dead, and her multiple trials for “every alleged crime in which a [Black] woman was believed to have participated,” as she says, and her personal history of growing up in the segregated south and coming to consciousness as a Black radical in the 1970s. You’ll come for the politics and stay for the poetry, which is surprisingly good. Here are the opening stanzas of a poem she wrote for a woman she met in prison:

Rhinocerous woman
Who nobody wants
and everybody used.

They say you’re crazy
cause you not crazy enough
to kneel when told to kneel

Hey, big woman—
with scars on the head
and scars on the heart
that never seem to heal—
I saw your light
And it was shining.

You gave them love.
They gave you shit.
You gave them you.
They gave you hollywood.

And here is the opening of a statement that she made during the trial:

“Black brothers, Black sisters, i want you to know that i love you and i hope that somewhere in your hearts you have love for me. My name is Assata Shakur (slave name joanne chesimard), and i am a revolutionary. A Black revolutionary. By that i mean that i have declared war on all forces that have raped our women, castrated our men, and kept our babies empty-bellied. I have declared war on the rich who prosper on our poverty, the politicians who lie to us with smiling faces, and all the mindless, heartless robots who protect them and their property. I am a Black revolutionary, and as such, i am a victim of all the wrath, hatred and slander that amerika is capable of. Like all other Black revolutionaries, amerika is trying to lynch me.”

Professor Angela Davis writes in the book’s foreword “Assata was convicted in New Jersey as an accomplice to the murder of state trooper Werner Foerster…even though three neurologists testified at the trial that her median nerve had been severed by gunshot wounds, rendering her unable to pull the trigger, and that her clavicle had been shattered by a shot that could only have been made while she was seated in the car with her hands raised.”

40 years later, the controversy continues.

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