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Assata: An Autobiography (Book Review)

Revolution, the Black Liberation Army, escape from prison and seeking political refuge in Cuba- Assata Shakur writes about her life

Assata Shakur was born as JoAnne Deborah Byron in 1947, but after getting deep into political activism and fighting to end oppression with the Black Panther Party she changed her “slave name” and adopted the name Assata Shakur. Shakur writes:

“In 1857 the u.s. supreme kourt [sic] ruled that Blacks were only three-fifths of a man and had no rights that white were bound to respect. Today, more than a hundred and twenty-five years later, we still learn less than three-fifths of what white people earn. It was clear to me that we couldn’t look to the kourts for freedom and justice anymore than we could expect to gain our liberation by participating in the u.s. political system, and it was a pure fantasy to think we could gain them by begging. The only alternative left was to fight for them, and we are going to have to fight like any other people who have fought for liberation.”

In 1977 she was convicted of murder and sent to prison by a mostly white jury:

“How could they understand someone becoming a Black revolutionary? They had so little to revolt against. They had brought the amerikan [sic] dream lock, stock and barrel and seemed unaware that, for the majority of Black and Third World people, the amerikan dream is the amerikan nightmare.”

IN 1979 a group of Black Liberation Army (BLA) members broker her out of prison and Shakur escaped to Cuba and was granted refuge as a political refugee. The BLA were an underground group made up mostly of former Black Panther Party members (BPP) and existed as a black nationalist underground urban guerrilla group.

“White people’s fear of black people with guns will never cease to amaze me. Probably it’s because they think about what they would do if they were in our place. Especially the police, who have done so much dirt to Black people- their guilty conscience tells them to be afraid. When Black people seriously organize and take up arms to fight for our liberation, there will be a lot of white people who will drop dead from no other reason than their own guilt and fear.”

Throughout her autobiography, Shakur shares the influences in her life that shaped her into the revolutionary she would become:

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them… White people, whether they are from the North or from the South, whether it was in 1960 or 1980, benefit from the oppression of Black people. Those who believe that the president or the vice-president and the congress and the supreme kourt [sic] run this country are sadly mistaken. The almighty dollar is king; those who have the most money control the country and, through campaign contributions, buy and sell presidents, congressmen, and judges, the ones who pass the laws and enforce the laws that benefit their benefactors.”

Far from becoming a revolutionary through traditional education, Shakur sought out the knowledge that was not taught in school, and sought to learn about the communities whose voices were being suppressed:

“The schools we go to are a reflection of the society that created them. Nobody is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free. Schools in amerika [sic] are interested in brainwashing people with amerikanism, giving them a little bit of education, and training them in skills needed to fill the positions the capitalist system requires. As long as we expect amerika’s schools to educate us, we will remain ignorant.”

Though Shakur was involved with the Black Panther Party, and then later the BLA, she was never worried about questioning political parties opinions and tactics if they did not make sense to her:

“I wasn’t against communism, but i [sic] can’t say that i was for it either. At first, i viewed it suspiciously, as some kind of white man’s concoction, until i read works by African revolutionaries and studied African liberation movements. Revolutionaries in Africa understood that the question of African liberation was not just a question of race, that even if they managed to get rid of the white colonialists, if they didn’t rid themselves of the capitalistic economic structure, the white colonialists would simply be replaced by Black neocolonialists. There was not a single liberation movement in Africa that was not fighting for socialism. In fact, there were not a single liberation movement in the whole world that was fighting for capitalism. The whole thing boiled down to a simple equation: anything that has any kind of value is made, mined, grown, produced, and processed by working people. So why shouldn’t working people collectively own that wealth? Why shouldn’t working people own and control their own resources? Capitalism meant that rich businessmen owned the wealth, while socialism meant that the people who made the wealth owned it.”

Assata herself never joined these socialist groups though, choosing instead the Black Panther groups:

“… I loved to listen to [the socialists], learn from them, and argue with them, but there was no way in the world i could see myself becoming a member. For one thing, I could not stand the condescending, paternalistic attitudes of some of the white people in these groups… I couldn’t relate to the idea of the great white father on earth any more than i could relate to the great white father up in the sky.”

However, there were things that bothered her about all groups, regardless of racial background:

“I hate arrogance whether it’s white or purple or Black. 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. 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.”

Her book, along with her life is a revolutionary work of art we can all learn much from, especially in today’s political climate:

“Arrogance is one of the key factors that kept the white left so factionalized. I felt that instead of fighting together against a common enemy, they wasted time quarreling with each other about who had the right line… Friendship is based on respect. As long as much of the white left saw their role as organizing, educating, recruiting, and directing Black revolutionaries, i [sic] could not see how any real friendship could occur. I felt, and still feel, that it is necessary for Black revolutionaries to come together, analyze our history, our present condition, and to define ourselves and our struggle. Black self-determination is a basic right, and if we do not have the right to determine our destinies, then who does?”

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