Assata Shakur’s conviction in a joke of a trial for a murder she clearly did not commit has not been reversed. She escaped from prison and she lives in Cuba, still a fugitive. The story of how the hell this outrage came about and above all persists is necessary because it outlines so lucidly how the white supremacist capitalist state actively opposes the struggles for liberation and justice and simply peaceful survival of African American people at all costs, whatever politicians say.
Aside from what the trial demonstrates though, Assata’s story is precious to me because she’s an extraordinary woman, so intelligent, clear sighted and candid, and such a fine raconteur, alternating chapters on her intriguing early life with the horrific account of her incarceration so that I was constantly perched on the edge of my seat. She also seasons both with her blazingly beautiful poetry. Her stormy temper, huge capacity for love and gift for articulating oppression all increase her vulnerability in the hostile circumstances, but also her story’s appeal and my admiration for her
There’s also a fascinating flavour here of the strands of Black Power movement and mood in Black USian communities in the late 60s and early 70s. The political climate was extremely hostile and the police behaved lawlessly, but Assata’s narrative gives the impression of loosely united activism and awakening resistance among a wider population socialised into believing white supremacist memes about blackness. Her own growing oppositional knowledge combined with tenacity and confidence make her a superb organiser and speaker, but her radical activities consist principally of running Black Panther breakfasts for kids and teaching remedial maths and literacy.
This is an autobiography of someone whose very self-respect is outlawed, who is denied recognition as a woman (she was repeatedly incarcerated in male prisons), who has been quite absurdly painted as a violent extremist by a media evidently in thrall to state racism. For Assata, singled out to be made a cautionary example, the personal is exhaustingly, tortuously political.
At the end of the book, she reflects on racial dynamics in Cuba, an environment by no means utopian, but certainly full of love and hope.
(I mean no disrespect by using the author’s first name, I just love this chosen name, meaning ‘she who struggles’)