By Joseph G. Ramsey
If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what is happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk. (Assata, 207)
Thirty-four years ago this November 2, in 1980, Black revolutionary Assata Shakur escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, with the help of comrades wielding .45 caliber pistols. Successfully avoiding a national “manhunt,” Shakur ultimately fled to Cuba, resurfacing there in 1984. Condemned by US authorities and mainstream media as a “cop killer” for her alleged role in a 1973 shoot-out on the New Jersey Turnpike,2 Assata was granted political asylum by the socialist Castro government, in light of extensive evidence that the former Black Panther Party member (like many activists in the age of COINTELPRO) faced unjust and racist persecution in the United States, and was being targeted for her revolutionary politics. Assata remains in Cuba to this day, where she has long maintained her innocence of any crime but that of seeking to overthrow the racist, imperialist, patriarchal capitalist system. For that “crime,” Shakur proudly pleads guilty.3
In May 2013, the FBI, without charging any additional wrong-doing, added “Joanne Chesimard”4 to their top ten “Most Wanted” list of “Terrorists,” placing her alongside the likes of accused World Trade Center and Pan Am flight 103 bombers and Al Queda leaders.5 She is the first woman to make the list—and the only “domestic terrorist” currently listed in the “Top Ten.” Accordingly, the bounty on her head was raised from $1 to $2 million.
Shakur has not set foot in the United States for decades—and has issued only a handful of public statements from Cuba—yet her presence continues to be felt today, in part through the narrative she wrote in exile. Assata: An Autobiography (1987) offers us a vivid, accessible, personal, and yet theoretically astute narrative of one woman’s oppression, exploitation, alienation, and resistance, as well as a relatable account of explicitly revolutionary (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist) consciousness in the making, and a damning exposure of police terror, courtroom corruption, and state repression. Nearly three decades later, Assata still poses a stark challenge to hegemonic institutions that sustain oppression in the US and across the world. Moreover, Assata does all this in ways that are accessible, relatable, and emotionally compelling to readers, including those not previously familiar with or inclined towards such perspectives. I believe that contemporary radical educators and organizers have much to learn from this remarkable text, in terms of both its content and its method of presentation.
I had the chance to teach Assata: An Autobiography in 2013, in a course on “Memoir and Autobiography,” at a university serving a diverse and largely working-class student population from the Greater Boston area.6 I found the book to be one of the most thought-provoking works that I have ever taught. Most importantly, it engaged students as effectively as any avowedly left-wing work that I have used, winning students to sympathy and opening them to frank and nuanced discussions of advanced social and political issues. Assata is on some level a strikingly didactic, and ‘in your face’ work—as the opening epigraph to this essay suggests—engaging very abstract ideas as well as more immediate and ‘concrete’ situations, even directly exhorting the reader at various points. Yet despite (and perhaps in part because of) this motley mix—Assata: An Autobiography was, hands-down, the class’s favorite work of the semester.7 What was it about Assata that enabled its radical resonance?
For starters, students were just blown away by the history here—that there had ever been such a (bold, revolutionary, popular) organization as the Black Panther Party in the US, that “violent” participants in that movement could be as eloquent and reflective as Shakur, that the US government had rained down such vicious repression on them, right here ‘at home.’ Being confronted with such a spectacular, shared, historical blind-spot helped students begin a sustained discussion of the political and social role that official schooling and dominant history has played in US society, and in their own lives, a topic that Shakur herself directly engages through her narrative.
Students generally were struck by how Assata (and the Black Panther Party as depicted in the text) wasn’t advocating violence or “hate” against white people, as they had been taught to expect, but rather targeted their antagonism much more narrowly—and politically—against the structures and agents of oppression and exploitation. One white working-class student from South Boston expressed pleasure and surprise that he could identify with much of the struggle that Assata relates, as well as with her broader criticism of US social institutions, history, and ideology. Indeed, many students reported that they could relate personally to Assata’s criticisms of workplace, neighborhood, and school struggles, despite their varied historical, cultural vantage points. Her critique of financial exclusions, petty corruptions, and bureaucratic alienation resonated powerfully. One student volunteered that he felt inspired by Assata to return to radical politics, something he had been exposed to and interested in, but not involved in lately.
Students unanimously reported having a much more favorable response to Assata, this work by a “Top Ten Terrorist,” than to the acclaimed memoir of current US President, Barack Obama, whose Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press 1995, 2004) most students found to flop by comparison, both politically and stylistically.8 (We read this text immediately after Assata.) It’s an interesting moment when a class comes to the collective realization that they find the life story and the expressed views of an unreconstructed revolutionary socialist—an “anti-Amerikan” activist and accused “terrorist” fugitive—to be more compelling, relatable, truthful, and admirable than those of the current Commander-in-Chief.
But of course, as fascinating and shocking as the content of the book was and is, the text’s form played a crucial role in shaping student responses to that ‘content.’ It was not just the radical ideas to which they responded so positively, but the particular presentation of those ideas in and through Shakur’s text. Several students emphasized how the very structure of Assata functioned as rhetorical strategy, drawing readers into a serious and sympathetic consideration of radical and revolutionary ideas that they might not otherwise have taken to heart.
The structure of the text
In a sense, Assata’s structure juxtaposes a narrative of Incarceration, focusing on the years 1973-1987, with a narrative of Education, focusing on the years 1947-1977—what we might call a “struggle for freedom” set against a “struggle for consciousness,” though of course the two struggles are deeply interrelated. Opening with the immediate aftermath of her shooting, capture, and brutal hospital interrogation by New Jersey State Police in 1973, the Incarceration narrative follows Shakur’s legal struggles, as well as her confrontation with jail and prison conditions, police terror, and a series of biased “kourt” cases and judges.9 The intervening chapters follow her life, from birth10 through early childhood, elementary and high school, through various jobs and through (sometimes humorous, sometimes death-defying) explorations of the street life of New York City, with a consistent focus on her education, understood in the broadest terms.
The two narratives effectively merge near book’s end, as Shakur’s account of her education turns to an account of increasingly revolutionary activism in and around the Black Panther Party. This then turns to an account of her life underground, after police violence against the Party escalates, bringing us up to the present of her capture, imprisonment, trial(s), and eventual conviction.11 While necessarily leaving undisclosed the details of her escape, the book ends with a moving account of Assata’s daughter (whom Shakur conceived and gave birth to while incarcerated) and her own mother joining her in Cuba, after years of forced separation. In a Postscript, Shakur reflects on her experience in socialist Cuba, and on the current prospects for world revolution from the sober standpoint of the mid-1980s.
Students found that the stark violence and injustice to which Shakur is subjected in the Incarceration sections inclined them towards a more sympathetic and attentive engagement with her life story, including her turn to radical politics, in the Education sections. At the same time, the coming-of-age story, by relating the struggles and development of an inquisitive and strong-willed child coming up against a racist, sexist, and class-stratified America, inclined them to be (even) more sympathetic to the grown rebel woman, as she is subjected to egregious abuse in courtrooms and prison cells. At the same time, we explored how the different sections do not merely contrast but connect on deeper levels; Assata’s struggle against the state echoes her struggles in the streets—just as her education continues behind bars, through conversations with fellow prisoners.12
Conversely, the text reveals how Incarceration in “Amerika” extends well beyond the prison walls; indeed the schools she attends operate in a highly racist and punitive manner, foreshadowing penitentiaries. As Assata’s fellow prisoner, Eva (honored by Shakur in a poem as “the rhinoceros woman”), puts it, for black people in the US, to be on the street is still not to be “free.” Eva tells Shakur: “You’ll be in jail wherever you go” (59), prompting Assata to reflect that she “has a point”:
The only difference between here [the Middlesex county workhouse] and the streets is that one is maximum security and the other is minimum security. The police patrol our communities just like the guards control here. I don’t have the faintest idea what it feels like to be free.… We aren’t free politically, economically, or socially. We have very little power over what happens in our lives. (60)
The split form of the narrative then, while introducing a jarring dramatic effect between the present fixity of incarceration and persecution and the past freedom of education and development, ultimately works to complicate this opposition, towards an enriched, and collective, sense of the meaning of both Imprisonment and Freedom. That is to say, the more the younger Joanne/Assata learns about the world through her (comparatively) free explorations of it, and the more she grows connected to others through her investigations, the more she sees the constraints on both her own freedom and that of so many others, the more she learns about the historical and structural barriers to achieving freedom for these others…and for herself, insofar as she now feels connected to them. Insofar as her sense of self comes to include the situation of others, she realizes that she cannot get free alone, but only through participation in a collective (self) liberation. As she puts it on the cusp of her radical commitment, “I want to help free the ghetto, not run away from it, leaving my people behind” (154).
Poetry and revolution
Students were further moved by the way Assata uses poetry throughout the book, framing or interrupting the movement of her narrative. Significantly, these interruptive texts present Shakur to us as not only a “militant” activist, and not only a victim of state violence, but as a writer, and not just as a critic or polemicist, but as a lyricist: a creature of human emotion, imagination, and love, as well as intellect and organizational commitment. From within a situation where there is often painfully little that she can control, writing gives Shakur a means of imposing her ideas and will on the madness around her, while keeping that madness from wrecking her own mind.13
“Affirmation,” the poem which opens Assata, provides a powerful example of how imaginative writing usefully frames Shakur’s narrative for readers, establishing empathy while foregrounding key themes. I quote the poem here in full:
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 in 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
This moving poem gives us a useful map of some of Assata’s major themes. Indeed, the very fact that Shakur opens with a poem – celebrating a belief in and a love of life – is significant; my students said they felt immediately pulled in by the emotional quality of the poem; it wasn’t what most expected from a “militant black revolutionary” let alone an accused murderer or “terrorist.” “Affirmation” immediately prompted them to read Assata’s radical political trajectory as a product of emotional experience, as well as intellectual argument, an expression of love, hope, and affirmative belief, not only of hate or criticism (though her book, justifiably, contains plenty of both).
“Affirmation” also charts what we could call a dialectics of Oppression and Liberation—a key nexus that lays the basis for Assata’s remarkable revolutionary optimism. As she writes, “I have seen the kind become the blind, and the blind become the bind,” lines which are soon followed by the supplementary statement: “if I know anything at all, // it’s that a wall is just a wall // and nothing more at all. // It can be broken down.” Here, Assata calls attention to the (dialectical) fact that the ultimate basis of what appears to be solid and perhaps immovable “objective reality” (“just the way it is”) is in fact nothing more (and nothing less) than the product of human consciousness and feeling, as embodied in the practices this consciousness and feeling sustains (or disrupts). She asks us to reflect on the way that people give up their own human vision and sympathy, making themselves into—or allowing themselves to be made into—objects, stripped of meaningful will or subjectivity. Not only does she speak of the “bind[s]” that hold people and systems of oppression in place as ultimately constituted by the “blind”—that is, those who are unable to (or who refuse to) “see”—but she marks how many of the “blind” were themselves previously “kind.” Oppressors are not oppressors by fate, by nature, nor by “race,” but by training, through the “lessons” they learn (and fail to unlearn). The flip side of this dialectical insight, of course, is that, given the correct transformation of consciousness and human feeling—a return to kindness from blindness, so to speak—the “binds” and with them the “walls” can be broken down, dissolved, and the people trapped by them, set free. (Shakur’s own life trajectory as a prison escapee speaks powerfully to the concrete possibilities of such freedom.)
Assata’s depiction of the state, including the “kourt” system and the police as well as other ideological state apparatuses, is radically critical and even shockingly blunt—she refers to cops as “pigs” routinely and unapologetically, likening state police to fascists, even outright Nazis in some cases. And yet she also calls attention throughout her narrative to various cracks and openings in the would-be totalitarian “pig” system, highlighting moments where an element of humanity manages to slip through, where the kindness, solidarity, or just plain decency of a person, even one who may technically be working for the “other side,” plays a crucial role in sustaining Assata’s spirit, even saving her life.14 Unredeemable systems of oppression exist, but so do small acts of human kindness, and these small acts matter.
For example, in the first narrative chapter, while Assata lies handcuffed to a hospital bed, shot through the chest and the shoulder by police, without access to a lawyer, yet subject to interrogation and outright torture, a man whom she initially identifies as a “black pig” turns out to be “not a cop but a hospital security guard…not at all hostile. His face breaks into a kind of reserved smile and, very discreetly, he clenches his fist and gives me the power sign.” Assata adds, “That man will never know how much better he made me feel at that moment” (6). Later in that same opening scene, at a moment of deep desperation, Shakur is able to persuade a nurse—again a state employee—to disobey her superiors and get word out to Shakur’s lawyer and family, an act that may have saved her life. Assata is peppered with such small and often surprising acts of human solidarity.15
To underline the point: Insofar as the “walls” and “binds” are constituted by human beings (who are often facing some sort of oppression and exploitation of their own), Assata reminds us, there remains the potential for “kindness” and thus for solidarity to burst the binds, to bring down the walls.16 Thus, though Assata ultimately affirms the necessity for serious revolutionaries to take a sharp and unsentimental view of the enemy, cultivating the social, political, and, yes, the military basis for an (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist) Liberation Army, and thus points clearly to her belief that the repressive apparatus in the United States cannot ultimately be defeated by peaceful means alone, her sharp antagonism towards the systems of oppression, and towards those “pigs” who actively operate positions of power within those systems, does not rule out the continued possibility (and perhaps even necessity) for the “un-binding” of those who constitute that system, through the clearing of vision and the rekindling of kindness. Assata’s assertion of the need for violent revolution does not bar but rather necessitates her openness to the potential of human transformation.
In this spirit, the wall-breaking, bar-bursting “violent” actions of a guerrilla insurgency, such as the Black Liberation Army aspired to ignite, may be seen as not primarily military, aiming at impairing the enemy apparatus and liberating particular forces or territories (though that is one important aspect), but as deeply symbolic, signaling and reminding those looking on that, in fact, “a wall is just a wall, nothing more at all. It can be broken down.” The goal of “violent” action would ultimately be to anchor, amplify, and sustain symbolic resonance among the people, which then may provoke and inspire proliferating thought and action, of various kinds. The function of revolutionary violence here—as opposed to what we might call ‘terrorist violence’—is thus not to render the world more polarized and fixed, but more porous, partisan, and change-able, precisely by shaking the ideological “walls” that act as a barrier to human thought and solidarity. Such “violence” ought not to aim to simply divide the world into “us” (the People and the Revolutionaries) and “them” (the “Pigs” and Reactionaries), but to divide the “them,” opening up new fronts within the repressive apparatus, as the previously inert “binds” are summoned back to conscious life (to sight and to kindness). In this sense, at least in theory, revolutionary violence can, when sharply focused against enemy institutions as embodiments of oppressive ideologies, open rather than close down space for human subjectivity, for thought and freedom, on both sides of the walls.
Revolutionary hopefulness…and humility
Alongside this striking revolutionary optimism — some might call it voluntarism17 — Assata’s opening “Affirmation” frames for readers another key theme that impressed my students: Shakur’s humility, her willingness to engage in self-criticism and to dramatize her own moments of ignorance, insensitivity, embarrassment, and shame as she struggles toward a revolutionary road. “I have eaten crow and blunder bread, and breathed the stench of indifference,” she writes, lines which admit that she has not only been the victim or the virtuous antagonist of systems of oppression, but has been subject to their influence as well. “Breathing the stench of indifference” goes in both directions here. It is not that Shakur has been able—through luck, enlightened leadership, the proper reading, or a superior nature—to avoid social contradiction, human failing, or toxic ideology (from internalized racism, to worker false consciousness, from historical ignorance and naïve patriotism, to consumerism, knee-jerk anti-communism, and, later, what she will call “revolutionary romanticism”). Rather, what distinguishes Assata’s revolutionary trajectory, and part of what made her so approachable for students, I think, is her willingness to admit mistakes, to recognize her own human ignorance and “blundering,” admittedly often only after others force it into her consciousness, and then to work to overcome these socially imbibed, inherited weaknesses, in theory and in practice. The starting point for revolutionary practice here is not a matter of achieving a standpoint of purity or perfection, a blueprint of what is to be done, or some Archimedean point above the fray, but a willingness to admit and to work through contradictions, with others, in light of a growing, if uneven awareness of a common history, a common goal, and a common enemy. It is an expression of critical love that begins with a deep belief that one is not fundamentally better or different (or separate) from the people one sets out to organize and to liberate.
Several students were moved by this depiction of Shakur’s own learning process, how her account is as much about the process of learning and self-transformation as it is about the particular content of lessons that result from it. Assata depicts revolutionary consciousness not just as a set of properly radical verdicts, but as an endlessly critical and self-critical advance in awareness, a matter of experimentation and experience, and of reflection on that experience, a matter of listening to others and learning lessons, negative and positive, from failure as well as success.
In a final paper, one student discussed eloquently how Assata models for readers this often- difficult process of working through the shame and “cognitive dissonance” that radical critique can provoke in those who ‘ought’ to be open to it. When confronted with a radically new and paradigm-shifting idea about the world—even an idea that seems intellectually convincing and ethically compelling—many people will suppress rather than respond positively to that idea, paralyzed by a sense of shame that they remain at some level attached to the very practices, institutions, and notions that they would now have to denounce.18 Without an avenue to work through this shame and dissonance—feeling in a sense judged rather than liberated by the new notion—the subject may lapse into paralysis and cynical resignation, failing to pursue the opening into new theory and practice.
Students attested that they found Assata’s approach to resonate with what they themselves have experienced when they have been confronted with radical criticism of dominant ideologies and institutions—ideologies and institutions which they have spent much of their lives being taught to identify with. They found that Assata, rather than preaching at them, was working through these ideologies and attitudes with them. The difference was crucial.
Arguably, the paralyzing effect of such shame-inducing cognitive dissonance may reach its pinnacle in a country like today’s USA, where capitalist penetration of public and private life—politics, culture, consciousness, intimate relations—has reached unprecedented levels, only dreamed of in the 1960s. Mental prisons have proliferated alongside the literal ones. Who among us today can claim to be beyond the psychological reach of myriad fantasies constructed by capital, though we aspire to the mantle of ‘anti-capitalism’? To what extent have most young people (or for that matter, their would-be teachers) incorporated capitalist commodity culture into their very identities and life-goals? How could people not? Assata confronts and yet transcends the often-paralyzing discourse of ‘complicity’ with the dominant culture by at once acknowledging — and dramatizing — Shakur’s own embeddedness in various backward ideologies and destructive practices, but also foregrounding her self-transformative efforts to overcome them, as part of a larger working through of a contradictory historical inheritance. Shakur’s emphasis on her own self-activity—both her mistakes and her breakthroughs—played an important role in getting students to see this revolutionary neither as a “victim,” nor as some “hero-saint” to be put on a pedestal, but as a complex human being, not fundamentally different from themselves. This point further helped discussion of the text to move beyond an identity-politics frame, allowing students to connect personally with the types of “Amerikan” problems that Shakur parses across her own life, while acknowledging important differences in historical experience as well.
“I was a puppet, and I didn’t even know who was pulling the strings.”
Assata’s long line of social self-criticism starts in the living room, with a discussion of Television, and how watching it as a child led her to internalize dominant images of beauty, domesticity, and (white) middle class normativity, so pervasive and insidious in 1950s America. Shakur harshly recounts her unsympathetic and judgmental attitude towards her own mother for “failing” to recreate the middle-class consumer ideal as depicted on TV. “Why didn’t my mother have freshly baked cookies ready when i came home from school?” she writes, “Why didn’t we live in a house with a backyard and a front yard instead of an ole apartment? I remember looking at my mother as she cleaned the house in her old raggedy housecoat with her hair in curlers. ‘How disgusting,’ i would think. Why didn’t she clean the house in high heels and shirtwaist dresses like they did on television” (37). She shows her younger self to be an ingrate and a complainer, an unfair judge of her working-class, single mother. “I was a puppet,” Shakur reflects later, “and i didn’t even know who was pulling the strings” (38).
At the same time, Shakur frames this embarrassing self-critique as a social commentary on the cultural apparatus that enabled and encouraged her anti-social and deluded ideology. It was not something she came to “on her own”; she is both an object and a subject in this process. In framing matters so, Assata not only offers a model of humility and self-critique, she targets particular – and pervasive—social institutions and ideologies in such a way as to welcome readers to interrogate (and perhaps confront and transcend) the influence of these same institutions and ideologies in their own lives. The influence of mass media commodification and consumer ideology, of course, is as pervasive today as ever, making her discussions all the more relevant to contemporary readers.
A particularly memorable self-critical exposure comes soon after this, with Shakur’s account of how, as a child, she publicly denigrated her close friend—and would-be boyfriend—Joe, a boy she honestly likes. She tells off Joe, stating that he is “too black and ugly” to ever date. The young Joanne does this to avoid the scorn of peers, who make fun of Joe at school as looking like a “black frog.” “I will never forget the look on his face,” Shakur writes, reflecting on her own opportunistic complicity. “He looked at me with such cold hatred that I was stunned. I felt so ugly and dirty and depraved. I was shaken to the bone. For weeks, maybe months afterward, I was haunted by what happened that day, the snakes that had crawled out of my mouth. There was nothing I could do but change myself. Not for him, but for me” (72). Across the board, students were moved by this moment, as well as by Assata’s later historical and theoretical reflections on how such internalization of racism and black-on-black dehumanization can be traced all the way back to habits and rituals forcibly imposed on Black people in the context of plantation slavery. Again, Assata’s (self-)critical reflection on a particular bad practice is tied to an argument that foregrounds the larger structural and institutional forces at work through these practices. In the process, the text offers us living proof of how important a grasp of history and of social power relations can be for a critical navigation of everyday life, even as it also lays the basis for imagining an inclusive and welcoming political collectivity, one that will include not just those subjects who have somehow (allegedly) come through racist-imperialist, patriarchal capitalism unscathed, but also, crucially, those who have been in various ways damaged by this process, even to the point of victimizing others. Shakur presents herself as having been ensnared in the very contradictory net that traps so many others, and that she is working to escape, and to shred for good.19 By connecting, contextualizing and politicizing the “personal” wounds that the system has inflicted on herself and on others (including those wounds that she has helped to inflict on others!), Assata challenges readers to refuse the divide and conquer strategies—both ideological and repressive—that serve ruling class-ends, by turning people with so much in common against one another, and against themselves. Shakur’s narrative shows us how humble yet bold reflection can transform what turns us against one another into what unites us, laying the basis for building a common, revolutionary strength.
Notably, in this early episode with young Joe, Shakur describes her participation in this black-on-black “colorism” without herself believing in it; her only drive is to “desperately be one of the pack” (71). In pursuing this goal, Joanne harms not only Joe, but herself, insofar as she and her family both have grown fond of Joe’s innocent flirtations and affections. Thus, in a manner that once again welcomes readers into parallel self-interrogations, Assata’s self-critique extends from the phenomenon of internalized racism (in particular, racism within the oppressed community) to the broader practice of succumbing to peer pressure, cynically going along with the dominant fashion, even when at some level one knows better.
As Shakur puts it later, provocatively, if in a different context: “Everything is a lie in amerika…the thing that keeps it going is that so many people believe the lie” (158). Shakur’s account of denigrating young Joe shows us that it is not necessary for people—be they kids or adults—to actually believe the “lie” in order keep to that lie going; all that is necessary is to act as if one believes. Objective belief—and the reproduction of ideology—does not require subjective sincerity, but only a cynical going through the motions, a willingness to stifle one’s own true(r) feelings and thoughts for the sake of keeping up appearances, and avoiding conflict with other “believers.” Adding to the tragic irony here, but also laying further basis for revolutionary rupture, is the distinct possibility that those “believers” whom one fears offending are themselves not sincere subjects of the bad ideology (racism, colorism, etc), but are equally cynical—which is also to say cowardly—participants in the performance of a ritual that they don’t “really believe” in either. The revolutionary hope here lies in the potential implied by this shallow shell of cynical conformity; once one of these tight-packed eggs cracks…others may quickly do the same.20
Later, in a more overtly political vein, Shakur discloses how she was spurred toward rethinking her views of “America” and its foreign policy, in 1964, before the anti-war movement really blew up, not first by her own studies, but by being publicly embarrassed, confronted with her own ignorance—and her cynical parroting of half-baked ideology. Fancying herself “an intellectual” coming out of high school, she spouts off patriotically to a group of African students regarding the Vietnam War, saying that both the war and the broader American struggle of “Democracy” against “Communism” are “all right.” The African students leap to refute her. After hearing all the historical and political knowledge they bring to bear regarding French and US colonialism, corporate interests, and more, Shakur recalls that “my mind was blown.” Yet,” she adds:
I continued saying the first thing that came into my head: that the u.s. was fighting communists because they wanted to take over everything. When someone asked me what communism was, i opened my mouth to answer, then i realized i didn’t have the faintest idea. My image of a communist came from a cartoon.… The Africans rolled with laughter. I felt like a bona fide clown. (151)
Again, Shakur follows up this account with a more general reflection on her particular embarrassment, one that welcomes readers to apply her general insight to the texts of their own lives: “I never forgot that day,” she writes,
We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea of what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.… I never thought i could be so easily tricked into being against something that i didn’t understand. It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.
“After that,” she adds, “I began to read about what was happening in Vietnam” (152).
Obviously, as a wanted “terrorist” who continues to be subject to character assassination (and perhaps to actual assassination attempts) by the US government, Shakur’s warning about believing in “bogeymen,” and especially in “bogeymen” constructed by one’s enemies, resonates not only in relation to the issue of communism—though students were still sparked by this aspect—but also in relationship to her particular case, and, by extension, to the entire contemporary US discourse around “terrorism.” She implicitly asks readers to reflect critically on the extent to which the US government continues to do our thinking for us, deciding who is an “enemy” and who is not. She prompts readers to admit how they too, like the young Joanne, may at times have found themselves mouthing official ideologies that they don’t even understand—and how these very moments of cynical, quasi-robotic conformity may, if brought to consciousness, mark out fault-lines of potentially radical self-shattering. Being able to admit such embarrassing, complicit moments is key to Assata’s process of transformation, and to the effective radical pedagogy of her text. She models the humility and the courage of self-critical practice.
At a typographical level, Assata’s revolutionary humility is symbolized by her refusing the convention of capitalizing the first person singular, “i” throughout her book.21 In this way, Shakur sets off her narrative from more self-congratulatory accounts by self-proclaimed political “leaders,” including various “cults of personality” that afflicted so much of the New Left, and even the BPP itself. With this move, she refuses the mantle of individual heroism, suggesting that her “self” is but a moment in an evolving and collective process of constant, self-reflexive struggle and transformation. The “self” she has become was not something she was born into, or something that she herself determined through sheer will or wisdom, but a product of collective struggle.22 In bringing out the necessarily contradictory nature, and the transformative potential of both her own subjectivity and that of others—and of their mutual dependence—Assata provides us with an account of becoming revolutionary that is as relatable as it is radical, as humble as it is hopeful. It is, I believe, an exemplary mode of revolutionary self-representation for dark, cynical times like ours.
Assata’s Political Lessons
What makes Assata an outright revolutionary text, and not just a radical one, is that Shakur does not confine critical thinking to her own private or personal experiences, but applies it also to her self-consciously political, collective, outward-oriented activities, as an organizer in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, a member of the Black Panther Party, and a cadre in the Black Liberation Army. Her story of “personal” transformation is one that includes extended discussion of revolutionary theory and practice, strategy and tactics. Her rhetorical and pedagogical strategies, as detailed above, are of interest in themselves, for the humble-hopeful method they enact, but also because they function as effective means for stimulating broad and sustained engagement with radical and revolutionary “contents.”
A full discussion of the strictly political content of Assata’s autobiography falls beyond the scope of this essay. But her key insights include the following:
*We must be clear about what we mean by “revolution.” For Shakur this means “the revolutionary struggle of Black people had to be against racism, capitalism, imperialism and sexism and for real freedom under a socialist government” (197).
*We must define the enemy in a sharp yet open way. “One of the most important things the [Black Panther] Party did was to make it clear who the enemy was, not the white people, but the capitalist and imperialistic oppressors. They took the Black liberation movement out of a nationalist context and put it in an international context” (203).
*Colonialism is not just about race, but about class. Blacks can become oppressors and exploiters just as whites have (191).
*Being for racial equality or black liberation in the USA requires being anti-capitalist, for as long as there is a class hierarchy race will be used to justify and reproduce the exploitation at the bottom of it.
* Those who speak of “climbing the ladder of success” are accepting class inequality, a system with a “top” and a “bottom,” where some stand over others. Such “ladder” schemes are to be rejected (190).
*Multi-racial unity among and across oppressed and exploited groups is necessary for a revolutionary alliance that can win, but must be built upon the basis of independent strength within the Black revolutionary movement itself (and in the other oppressed groups as well), not by ceding leadership to others outside that community (192).
*Black (or any) nationalism that is not fundamentally internationalist is reactionary.
*There can be no revolutionary theory divorced from practice (180).
*Listening is primary, often more important than speaking. Many of the best “teachers” are to be found on the street, in prison, and in other unexpected places.
*Revolutionaries need to build and maintain close ties to the masses of people; the isolation of revolutionaries from the people is a great danger, and is one of the enemy’s primary goals (181).
*Revolutionaries cannot depend on dominant institutions (such as the existing educational structures) to do our work for us; new and independent institutions must be constructed, even as struggle is carried on within and around the existing ones.
*The movement for community control over schools and local resources quickly and necessarily raises the question of who controls economic and military power; serious mobilization for reform soon brings up the question of state power and of revolution, and of the need for something like a People’s Liberation Army (182-83).
*Such a People’s Liberation Army needs to be thought of as primarily political, secondarily military. “No people’s war can be won without the support of the masses of people. Armed struggle can never be successful by itself; it must be part of an overall strategy for winning, and the strategy must be political as well as military” (242).
*It is not enough to want to “rebel,” one must want to actually “win.” And to win, one must study so as to develop a scientific approach to making revolution possible. (242).
*Humility and Respect for the People is key, and must be a matter of daily practice; Leftist “revolutionary” arrogance is a major obstacle (218). “I hate arrogance whether it’s white or purple or Black,” Shakur writes, reflecting on a rude and foolish Panther cadre she encounters, “Some people let power go to their heads. They think that just because they have some kind of title in front of their name you’re supposed to bend over and kiss them on the ass.” As she elaborates: “The only great people I have met have been modest and humble. 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).
*Effective revolutionary education means transforming “students” into teachers and “teachers” into students (189). Teacher-student hierarchies may become another form of oppression; restructuring pedagogical approaches can unlock hitherto untapped potential of what appear to be “bad” or resistant students.
*The process of creative, collective struggle itself can function as “medicine” for the people, as they emerge from the existing society with all their wounds and worries: “The more active I became the more I liked it. It was like medicine, making me well, making me whole” (189).
*Political education should meet people where they are at, through dialogue, and by speaking to questions that are on people’s minds, not through the imposition of dogmatic principles and phraseology, and should teach them their own history, not only the history of radical movements elsewhere. An awareness of history is crucial to breaking people from their old (bad) habits of slavish identification with their oppressors.
*The Black Panthers’ audacity captured the imagination of the masses, and drew many cadre to them, but this bold and provocative approach could turn into a hindrance when working among the people. As Shakur reports, “I preferred the polite and respectful manner in which civil rights workers and Black Muslims talked to the people rather than the arrogant, fuck-you style that used to be popular in New York. I said they cursed too much and turned off a lot of people who would otherwise be responsive to what the Party was saying” (204).
*Despite various problematic tendencies, many people in the BPP were sympathetic and responsive to such sharp internal criticisms; such an ability to absorb and encourage criticism and self-criticism must be a key feature of any healthy revolutionary organization.
*The cult of macho personality and martyrdom needs to be rejected, as does the macho approach that encourages non-strategic and non-viable direct confrontation with the state. As Assata paraphrases Mao’s writings on guerrilla warfare: “Retreat when the enemy is strong and attack when the enemy is weak” (227).
* Both the fear and the actuality of state infiltration, disruption, and repression pose real threats to maintaining the culture of revolutionary creativity, openness, and trust that is necessary to any healthy growing organization (231).
* Revolutionaries must work collectively and in a spirit of love to overcome inevitable and often acute differences and misunderstandings. A sectarian failure to reconnect and regroup on the basis of fundamental unities played a key role in the fragmentation and stagnation of the BPP.
*Criticism and Love are not mutually exclusive categories; criticism of other revolutionaries and of one’s own revolutionary organization should come from a place of seeking a new and better unity, which is not at all to say that such criticism should not be sharp, honest, and direct (232).
Assata’s political lessons take the form of criticism (and self-criticism) of tendencies within the radical movement in which she herself participated. She offers a number of criticisms of the BPP, its leadership, culture, and methods of work, while making clear her love for the organization, foregrounding her gratefulness for the way it “really opened my horizons a helluva lot,” and reminding readers of the important barriers to Party work created by COINTELPRO disruption and repression (221). But while recognizing the impact of massive state repression, Assata also reflects on practices that were within the BPP’s power to control. For instance, she asserts that the group—and the radical movement generally—tended to under-emphasize, in both theory and practice, the necessity of serious and mass political education. Further, she argues that even when it did happen, much of the educational work of the Black Panthers and other revolutionary groups was too dogmatic and too focused on conditions, texts, and experiences from elsewhere (such as in revolutionary Russia or China). As she puts it, “They were reading the Red Book, but didn’t know who Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, or Nat Turner were. They talked about intercommunalism but still really believed that the Civil War had been fought to free the slaves. A whole lot of them knew barely any kind of history, Black, African or otherwise” (221). She also laments that political education tended not to focus enough on spreading the tools of organizing beyond the main cadre. While giving a moving account of her participation in Panther breakfast programs and freedom schools, Shakur still laments how the BPP became isolated from the people, not only because of the vicious state attacks it faced, but because it failed to forge new roots with masses beyond the ranks of radical and progressive allies.
She criticizes the arrogance, egotism, and machismo of particular radical leaders, black and white alike (as well as the paternalism and Eurocentrism that pervades the radical white Marxist groups she encounters—even as she offers a persuasive argument, taken up from an Asian Maoist organization on the West Coast, that interracial alignments are essential to any united front strategy). Pointedly, Assata laments the ways in which sectarianism and dogmatism afflict the movement, as different wings and regions of the BPP itself are not able to resolve their differences internally, and the revolutionary movement fails to maintain unity amidst the strife exacerbated by state repression.
More generally, Shakur criticizes herself and others for having acted primarily as “romantic” and “emotional,” rather than “scientific” revolutionaries, overestimating the revolutionary force of spontaneous mass anger and rebellion. As she writes of her political attitudes in Cuba: “I was no longer the wide-eyed, romantic young revolutionary who believed the revolution was just around the corner. I still appreciated energetic idealism, but I had long ago become convinced that revolution was a science. Generalities were no longer enough for me.” She elaborates: “I believed that a higher level of political sophistication was necessary and that unity in the Black community had to become a priority. We could never afford to forget the lessons we had learned from COINTELPRO…I couldn’t see how we could seriously struggle without having a strong sense of collectivity, without being responsible for each other and to each other” (266-7). How to construct such a culture of responsibility, trust, and unity is, to be sure, an ongoing challenge for revolutionary organizing in the US and the world today.
At the same time, Shakur does not disown the idealistic and romantic thrust of her own narrative. She gives us a vivid and personal account of both the revolutionary optimism and the rage of the late 60s, particularly in a long italicized section that carries a representation of her immediate reaction to the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. “I don’t want to rebel, I want to win” she writes (195); Reflecting on the brutal police suppression of the urban uprisings that follow, she adds, “I am tired of watching us lose. They kill our leaders, then they kill us for protesting. Protest. Protest. Revolution. If it exists, I want to find it. Bulletins. More bulletins. I’m tired of bulletins. I want bullets” (196). She does not disown this revolutionary passion and anger, even as she reflects on the need to give it more disciplined and strategic form.
In the end, though Shakur writes the closing lines of her autobiography from the hopeful shores of socialist Cuba, citing the ten million revolutionary people who have “stood up” there as proof that “The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world” (274), Assata offers no facile optimism, and no easy formulas. Despite her expressed faith in the tradition of struggle, she continues to pose the question of revolution precisely as a question, not as a set doctrine, nor a dogmatic catechism. She certainly offers lessons and warnings for radical-minded readers today—but principally she invites us to think and to discuss for ourselves how to answer this question theoretically and practically (with both passion and a scientific critical consciousness) for our own time. Her book sets the table for a conversation that is very much needed, and does so in such a way as to welcome new participants to that table.
Concluding note: on the irony of state repression
Had it not been for the recent (and frankly outrageous) “promotion” of Shakur to “Top Ten Terrorist” (and the subsequent spike in public discussions of her situation), I might well not have learned about Assata’s case, let alone picked up her amazing book—and neither would have my students. What might seem like a ‘coincidence’ here in fact represents the hopeful flip side of overzealous US state repression. Given the proper circulation of her story, this latest attempt by the US authorities to capture and silence Assata Shakur may yet defeat itself, winning Assata a greater readership than ever, fanning the flames of revolutionary consciousness and solidarity, rather than smothering them.
Assata: an Autobiopgraphy brings us a voice that the Amerikan state would strangle into silence. It is a story of courage and revolutionary self-sacrifice, one that is relatable precisely because of the way it foregrounds its embeddedness in the contradictions of capitalism. The revolutionary resonance of this text is a reminder of the opportunities that can emerge when we challenge the silencing of the oppressed that mass criminalization and incarceration represents (and seeks to justify and normalize). Rising repression gives rise to resistance and to new radical voices. The seeds of hope, however (to borrow one of Shakur’s opening metaphors), will only flourish into the sprouts of solidarity – let alone the sky-touched trees of justice – if we can, together, as brothers and sisters, find ways to give them fertile soil, light, and room to grow. If and when we do this, the walls that would bar our humanity cannot but come tumbling down.
1. This essay is dedicated to those who refuse to let their humanity be caged by walls and bars.I would like to thank colleagues, my CME comrades, as well as the students in my “Autobiography and Memoir” class, for the contributions that they made to the thinking that appears below.
2. The gun-fight left Assata’s comrade, Zayd Shakur, as well as State Trooper Werner Foerster dead. Assata herself was seriously wounded during the attack, having been shot in the back.
3. Assata has made several public statements from exile in Cuba, including a 1997 Letter to Pope John Paul II, issued following reports that the FBI had pressured the church leader to petition Fidel Castro to expedite Shakur to the US. This letter can be found online, including at Democracy Now, where it was first broadcast
4. This is Shakur’s legal name—she refers to it as her “slave name.”
5. See the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist” list here:
6. The class met once per week, for three hours in the evenings 6-9pm—many of the students having put in full days at work before attending.
7. I base this assessment on the quality and enthusiasm of class discussions (lecture-guided and spontaneous peer-to-peer responses), on the quality and content of the students’ writing on the text (both weekly response papers and final, formal essays), and on an end-of-semester poll. Of the ten students in the class, half picked Assata as their “favorite” of the semester, while the other half all placed Assata in the top two or three works (of ten) that we read together. Fully half of the students elected to do their final critical essay on Assata.
8. Unlike my students, mainstream critics have lavished praise on Obama’s Dreams from My Father. For a serious radical critique of Dreams, see Barbara Foley’s essay “Rhetoric and Silence in Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father” in Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of theory and practice, http://clogic.eserver.org/2009/foley.pdf. The 2014 convention of the Modern Language Association featured an entire panel focused on the literary legacies of Obama’s book.
9. Shakur spells the word always with a “k,” as in “kangaroo kourt.”
10. As Shakur writes at the start of her second chapter: “The FBI cannot find any evidence that I was born… Anyway, I was born” (Assata, 18).
11. It’s worth underscoring here that all the charges that ostensibly justified Shakur being pursued by New Jersey police on the Turnpike either ended in acquittal or were dropped. The sole charge for which she was ever convicted—a conviction that remains dubious—concerned actions which allegedly transpired following, and were prompted by, this aggressive police pursuit. Shakur maintains her innocence and there was no physical evidence to establish that she fired a shot.
12. Similarly, Shakur’s only child is conceived inside a courthouse cell, where she and her lover/co-defendant Kamau are locked alone for verbally protesting abuses in the courtroom to the point that the judge orders them excluded from the scene of their own trial. She gives birth in prison as well, after a protracted struggle to get access to decent medical care.
13. Indeed, reading Assata drove home to me how important it could be today, in this age of mass incarceration, to use writing as a means to help imprisoned brothers and sisters keep their minds and hearts alive, through letter writing and inmate book programs…pending a more radical abolition of this “New Jim Crow” system.
14. Lest we lapse into romantic fantasy, it’s important to note that such acts, in Assata, are not carried out by any actual police officer, but by personnel such as hospital security guards, nurses, doctors, and others who, though they may be employed and instructed by the systems’ rulers, are not themselves sheer agents of repression.
15. These acts of course are in addition to the countless acts of conscious solidarity that constitute the sustained legal and political campaign to free Assata, the efforts of which are discussed at length in the “Incarceration” chapters. The present essay, with my focus on radical pedagogy, will tend to focus on the “Education” chapters.
16. Again, the word here is potential, not inevitability. The openness of revolutionary potentiality is not an occasion for confidence, passivity, or spectatorship, but for renewed activism, outreach, and an all-sided seizing of contingent opportunities.
17. For a compelling philosophical reconsideration—and defense—of the much derided term voluntarism, see the work Peter Hallward, e.g. his essay. “The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism,” Radical Philosophy 155. May/June 2009.
18. To refer back to Shakur’s opening poem: it can be not only radicalizing, but traumatizing and embarrassing to recognize that what you have been “saluting” for most of your life, are little but “maggots.”
19. Remarkably, at one point, Shakur goes so far as to offer humanizing reflections on how the African American youth who attempt to gang rape her have come to the point of “hating her” so much. Ready to fight these would-be rapists to the death—she is able to drive them off—Assata still concerns herself afterwards with thinking about their dastardly actions not just in moral terms, but in terms of the social and historical forces that are at work through such wretched, violent, sexist ambitions. This astonishing act of understanding reminds me of Marx’s favorite proverb: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
20. The allegory of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” is useful here. What shatters the naked, deluded Emperor’s hegemony over his subjects is not the imparting of any particular new knowledge to the populace, but rather the shifting status of already existing knowledge, prompted by the naïve actions of a child, who says aloud and publicly what everyone else is only thinking silently and privately: “The Emperor has no clothes!” It is in a sense not just the Emperor who is exposed in this moment, but the cynical, cowardly people themselves, who now, stripped of cover by the spontaneous blurting of a child, can (must!) see one another for what they really are. Once this occurs, turning against an Emperor is all but inevitable. See my discussion in “Revolutionary Underground: Critical Reflections on the Prospect for Renewing Occupation,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 26 No. 3, November 2012; also my discussion of Occupy, written as this event unfolded, in the introduction to Cultural Logic’s special issue, Culture and Crisis, www.clogic.eserver.org.
21. She also refuses to capitalize the names of her enemies, and enemy institutions, from the u.s.a. to the names of various judges, police, US presidents, and district attorneys she discusses. The refusal to capitalize in these cases, while it represents a similar refusal of Authority, has a more provocative and antagonistic quality. Shakur does capitalize the names of her friends and allies (and allied organizations).
22. Indeed, Assata’s adopted Yoruban name means literally “Woman in Struggle” or “She who struggles.”