"People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.”
When I was an undergradate at UT, I read a book that had a major influence on me, titled Assata: An Autobiography, from which the above quote is from. Shakur is a pretty controversial figure as she is on the FBI's Most Wanted list with a $1 million dollar reward for any information that leads to her arrest and capture. She joined the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1970, but quickly became frustrated with what she perceived as a lack of a cohesive philosophy and turned to the more radical Black Liberation Army (BLA). Shakur was charged and acquitted of many crimes including burglary and murder in the early '70s. She was eventually convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper in 1977. Shakur was in a car with two other male BLA members at the time. It's unclear precisely what happened, but the state trooper and one of Shakur's companions was shot dead, the other male passenger fled the scene, and Shakur was shot twice wounding her in both arms and a shoulder. She was arrested on the scene, convicted and sentenced to life + 33 years in prison, and labeled a cop-killer by authorities. She served part of her sentence, but escaped from prison in 1979 and within a few years was granted political asylum in Cuba where she still resides.
While the BLA was a violent group and Shakur is unapologetic about their violent stance, Shakur felt violence was the only answer in the face of an FBI initiative, COINTELPRO, to "neutralize" political activists. She believed the progress made on African-American rights was insufficient and her numerous experiences with the justice system reinforced this attitude. In terms of the NJ state trooper case, she maintains her innocence. Shakur has stated that she and her two companions were cooperating and surrendering when the state trooper opened fire, and in court it was presented that the shots fired on Shakur could only have hit the way they did if she were holding her arms in the air. As to the supposed wrongful conviction, Shakur points to the racism of her prosecutors and an all-white jury that could not have sympathy for a black revolutionary. Further, by being labeled a "cop-killer", she claims to have been the target of horrific abuses by the authorities she came into contact with during her imprisonment.
It isn't just Assata Shakur's story that compelled me when I first read her book, but also her philosophy and stance on a number of issues. She, of course, discusses racism in great depth and often focuses on the self-hatred and negative perceptions African-Americans had of themselves during this time. Popular white attitudes pointed to African-Americans as being lazy, unattractive or even beast-like, and unintelligent; attitudes that were internalized by the African-American community. She also takes aim at the politicans of the day and calls out the institutionalization of racism and oppression. She writes beautifully and passionately about freedom and equality. She speaks to anyone who has ever felt oppressed, though she is clear that her fight is for the African-American people.
Though I read her autobiography years ago, it is a book I will never forget. I keep one of her poems on my wall and I often look to passages in her book for inspiration. I cannot say that my personal struggle is anywhere even close to hers or that of the African-American community, but I have been personally inspired by her and continue to share her messages with those that will listen. I am awed that in most of the biographical essays I have read about her it states her occupation as a "revolutionary". She certainly is.
BOOKS and CD
Assata : An Autobiography
Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties
Inadmissible Evidence: The Story of the African-American Trial Lawyer Who Defended the Black Liberation Army
Live Interview in Havana, Cuba (CD)
Assata's personal website
Assata Shakur and My Train of Thought
An interesting piece in which the author relates quotes from Assata Shakur's autobiography to the struggles of women today.
Biography in Context
This is a great database provided by Austin Public Library (you need your library card number to log on from home) for biographical information. The biographical details in this post are from articles I found in this database.
Common: A Song for Assata
Common wrote and performed this song, which became controversial when the rapper was invited to the White House in May of this year. Common did not perform this song at the White House, but NJ police and a number of Republicans expresssed outrage that the White House would invite someone that wrote a song glorifying a "cop-killer". Here's an article that discusses the reaction and here's an opinion piece regarding that reaction.
The Eyes of the Rainbow: An Assata Shakur Documentary
You can watch this for free online.
Prisoner in Paradise: An Interview With Assata Shakur