Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

19th Sep 2014

Assata An Autobiography
"Maybe some of you are saying to yourselves, no government would do that. Well, all you have to do is check out for yourselves the history of this country and to look around and see what is going on today. All you have to do is ask yourselves, who controls the government? and who are the victims of that control?" Assata Shakur (1973)

The prophetic words of Assata Shakur’s 1973 court opening statement could have spoken today. In the wake of the killing of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri the re-release of Assata: An Autobiography could not have been more timely. Assata Shakur’s autobiography is a marvel of a memoir. Powerfully an account of an intellectually and socially curious black woman in racially tense 1960s and 1970s America, it contains the brutal revolutionary stance of Malcolm X with the provocative Black feminism of Audre Lorde; Assata is a somewhat underground Angela Davis.

The memoir alternates between her childhood and her time as a prisoner. The juxtaposition of Bildungsroman and true crime makes Assata an enticing, albeit episodic read. We get a glimpse to the attitudes of her Southern grandmother, Lulu Hill who forbade Shakur to play with “alley rats” and instead become part of the so-called Black bourgeoise of Wilmington. We are thrust into the violate world of 1960s New York where “nothing seemed like it was for real,” and Shakur struggled to fit in anywhere.

This instability and need to “experience everything” gives a modernist element to her writing. Choosing to end each chapter with her poetry could be Shakur paying homage to the Harlem Renaissance classic, Cane by Jean Toomer and other literature of that time. She consumed a vast range of literature, from Allen Ginsberg to Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker to Edna St. Vincent Millay, which explains the slight ethereal dips in tone that seem out of place in such a polemical text.

It is worthy as a scholarly text, with nuances to white patriarchal rule, racism, the concepts of Blackness, the prison system, and commentary on state education and its need to distort history for hegemonic status quo.What today’s readers learn is that America has not changed very much at all; racial profiling is still prevalent in the States. It is worthy as a scholarly text, with nuances to white patriarchal rule, racism, the concepts of Blackness, the prison system, and commentary on state education and its need to distort history for hegemonic status quo. While some may place Assata alongside Malcolm X as one of the great African-American texts, the reader must take into account Shakur’s gender.

Self-proclaimed “black lesbian feminist socialist” Audre Lorde stated that “we, like other non-white women, read ourselves in terms of race, class, educational background and sexual orientation.” Assata, written in the 1970s, could stand out as an exploration and reading of the start of revolutionary black feminism. Shakur examines, throughout her prose and her life, how she has defined herself through class, race, education and sex, igniting a debate to whether this has been a hinderance or a drive for her revolutionary endeavours.

Women, especially black women, will read Assata with much of the same dialogue, questioning the violation of women in prison and on the street – Shakur describes in detail the “humiliating and disgusting” internal search, the perceived “sisterhood” – black women were more likely to be in jail for misdemeanours, while white women walked free – and the politics of beauty. As Shakur says, “when you go through your life processing and abusing your hair so it will look like the hair of another race of people, then you are making a statement and the statement is clear.”

Shakur is adept in make such bold statements, constructing erudite arguments on the rigid narratives of slavery in the modern world. The imagery she conjures on prison abuse echoes slavery, with phrases such as “chained”, “beaten”, and “solitude.” She embarks on polemics against Lincoln, revealing his belief in “the massive exportation of Black people anywhere,” and how the abusive behaviour by men towards women can “be traced directly back to the plantation, when slaves were encouraged to take the misery of their lives out on each other instead of their master.” Assata awakens the importance of understanding slave history in America and how it has infiltrated every social, political and economical part of African American life. It is fearlessly construed by Shakur, and adds to the timelessness of her memoir.

Why is Assata still a Cuban exile? Her staunch black revolutionary stance and as a victim of the white patriarchal criminal system may have something to do with it. Assata, in her 1973 court opening statement, consciously puts herself alongside Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey and Lolita Lebron; those who “were all charged with crimes because of their political beliefs.” Her autobiography is an extension of this, her intention to “out” those who have oppressed her, who chained her to her hospital bed while pregnant, those who kept her in solitary confinement while innocent.

The triple-consiousness of Assata’s gender and race, and African-Americaness, adds up into a melting pot of anger, frustration and wandering. She was an exile before she touched the shores of Cuba, she wandered the streets of New York, looking solace anywhere, and everywhere. Luckily, her lifelong intellectual curiosity and courage to speak against injustice has resulted in this courageous and compassionate autobiography.

by Nikki Hall