Read A Book - Assata (An Autobiography)

One of the most informative and engaging autobiographies I have ever read, the life of Assata Shakur (JoAnne Chesimard) is filled with pain, loss, heartbreak, struggle, hope, love, and finally - triumph.

Whether or not you believe every detail of the book as recounted by Assata; Whether or not you believe in the institutional and governmental corruption she tries to shed light on; Whether or not you believe she killed that State Trooper on a turnpike in New Jersey in 1973; This book primarily and eloquently details the fears, perils, and dangers of being a strong, educated, and politically aware black woman in 20th century U.S.A.

“Before you can break out of prison, you must first realise you’re locked up.”

The structure of the book as well as Assata’s simple and frank style of writing is so compelling and relatable that it will suit all audiences. Interestingly, the story is not laid out in a linear format but rather jumps from [firstly] that night on the turnpike in May 1973, then back and forth between her childhood and the events directly after the shootout in New Jersey; Eventually all of these experiences zig-zagging between the now and the then are connected in the middle, allowing us to piece together all of the clues she has shared about her life thus far which culminated to create the woman whose words we are absorbing today.

In literature, as the reader we can draw either precise or abstract parallels between our reality and that of the authors. The most potent thing about reading this book in 2014, is the eerie familiarity of the injustices she recounts in relation to society today. This autobiography covers relevant issues such as Racism, Capitalism, Systematic Oppression, Surveillance, Censorship, Sexism, Poverty, Incarceration, Terrorism, Activism, and Political Solidarity.

“For the most part, we receive fragments of unrelated knowledge, and our education follows no logical format or pattern. It is exactly this kind of education that produces people who don’t have the ability to think for themselves and who are easily manipulated.”

One of the most notable qualities of this book is the painfully honest and vulnerable voice of its author. This involves bleak criticisms of not only the systems in place, the people in power, but also of flaws in the many political movements which were coming forth in the 60's, 70's, and 80's, a lot of which she was personally involved in or affiliated with. It is this refreshing candor that is not often enough seen in historical literature. Despite the sobering realities of such an intensely personal battle, everywhere in this book is an underlying message of love, togetherness, mutual struggle, and solidarity with all people experiencing oppression.

"The rich have always used racism to maintain power. To hate someone, to discriminate against them, and to attack them because of their racial characteristics is one of the most primitive, reactionary, ignorant ways of thinking that exists."

‘Assata’ explores not just well-known political events but also details the lesser discussed moments of importance and the plight of those who championed the movements that helped bring about real change. Many of her personal friends were influential members of the Black Panther Party, and later the Black Liberation Army. Hearing their stories (which are largely omitted from history books) through the eyes of someone who was actually present and shared in their fears and realities adds a fascinating and educational depth that cannot be measured. Through this book I learnt a huge amount more about Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, George Jackson, Jonathan Jackson, & The Soledad Brothers.

"No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn't growing, it's stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. The first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the masses of people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us."

Assata Shakur was one of the first women held [at times] in men's maximum security prisons. She was incarcerated in abhorrent conditions - often malnourished and left in complete solitude - for nearly a decade as she was indicted for various crimes including bank robbery, kidnapping, attempted murder, and murder. Six of these seven charges were either dismissed or resulted in her acquittal. It was during this time of imprisonment when, much to the shock, confusion, and dismay of law enforcement, she became pregnant with a daughter. (Conceived with a close friend and fellow member of the BLA who was also on trial, Kamau Sadiki)

In 1977, she was convicted of the murder of New Jersey State Trooper (Werner Foerster) as well as several other felonies relating to the shootout. 2 years later (with the help of 4 BLA members) she escaped from prison, eventually to settle in Cuba in 1984 as a political asylum seeker.

Today - at nearly 70 years old - she is the only woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, with a reward of approx. 2million (USD) for any information that will help lead to her capture. Not in any way an active “terrorist” or threat to society, the inclusion of Assata on this list is a telling insight into what her triumphant freedom represents to the FBI, to other political prisoners, and to anyone who has followed her journey.

Today there is no longer the same fire and urgency in our hearts for bringing about revolution because the flawed systems that make up the fabric of our society are now so deep-rooted, so ingrained that they have become nearly invisible to a large number of us. No longer are the laws openly discriminatory and the villains easy to recognise. Instead they move like snakes in the grass; Invisible, Poisonous, Unpunished.

If Assata has taught me anything, it is that two of the most powerful tools we have as human beings are a mind and a conscience. It is not enough to just read, listen, and actively seek education, we must also let a collective feeling of humanity spur us into action. I urge you to read this book and decide for yourself whether you believe Assata Shakur is innocent; But more importantly, I urge you to read this book and decide who you are, who you want to be, and what you want your life to mean after you’re gone.

*The following poem (included in the book) was written by Assata after she learned of the death of one of her young BLA comrades. At 22, Rema fell 8 stories to his death when trying to escape from a Brooklyn Detention Centre

For Rema Olugbala--Youngblood

They think they killed you.
But I saw you yesterday,
standing with your hands in your pockets
waiting for the real deal to go down.
I saw you smiling your "fuck it" smile, blood in your eyes,
your heart pumping freedom

They think they killed you.
But i saw you yesterday
in the playground.
Black skin, sweaty, shiny,
hurling your ball bomb into the hoop
right on target.
Won't be no game next time
cause you ain't hardly playing.

They think they killed you.
But i saw you yesterday
with your back against the wall,
muscles bulging against the chains,
eyes absorbing truth.
Lips speaking it.
Heart learning how to love.
Head learning who to hate.
Blood ready to flow
towards freedom.

Youngbloods ain't got no blood to waste
in no syringes, on no barroom floors,
in no strange lands
delaying other youngbloods' freedom.
We don't need no tired blood.
No anemic blood. No blood clots
in our new body.

They think they killed you.
But i saw you yesterday.
All them youngbloods
musta gave you a transfusion.
All that strong blood.
All that rich blood.
All that angry blood
flowing through your veins
toward tomorrow.

(Rest easy Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice and all other young black life that has been stolen)