In a 1974 speech, you could see the workings in Black Panther Party founder Huey P Newton’s brain as he grappled with political change. He and the party had to confront a growing women’s liberation and gay rights movement. They could either work with those who seemed their natural allies, or keep the Black Panther Party a single issue struggle. It wasn’t ideal, he seemed to concede, but they must be worked with. ‘… As we very well know’, he said, ‘sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.’
Take Huey’s character on the basis of this speech, and the Black Panther Party sounds like it was a difficult place for women to thrive. The definitive autobiographies of the lives of those in the party have all been written by men- Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Huey P Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide. A woman’s account of the black liberation movement is something rather special. In 2014, Zed Books have published a new edition of Assata Shakur’s autobiography Assata: An autobiography.
In May of 1973, Assata was accused of killing a police officer after a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. In her autobiography, she recounts the moment when she, alongside Zayd Malik Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, are stopped by police officers for a minor traffic offence - a faulty tail light. That pull over by the police evolved into a shootout. Zayd Malik Shakur and state trooper Werner Foerster both died. To this day she maintains she is innocent. Assata was moved from prison to prison, sometimes held in inhumane conditions. By the time of her arrest, she had left the Black Panthers and become a part of the much more loosely organised Black Liberation Army. It was members of the latter group that helped her break out of prison in 1979.
Written in the first person, the story she tells in her autobiography is a one of relentless state approved violence, courts, the law, and accusation after accusation. Her reflections of her early years- the steadfast respectability politics of her grandparents (who believed that becoming an educated, well dressed and wealthy member of the community could buy her a get out a racism free card), the internalised racism of the other black children in the schoolyard, and the conundrum of a lack of compassion from white teachers in desegregated schools, all set the path for Assata’s later life as a black revolutionary. The lucid insights into racism so early in her life are some of the hardest hitting in the book. At college, she encounters activists who expand her mind and make an indelible mark on her politics. She eventually rejected the name she was given at birth, dismissing it as her slave name.
The book flits between Assata’s early years and her time in courts and prisons. It’s also peppered with her poetry. Her writing is consistently defiant and witty. Despite the dire conditions that she lives through, described in detail, it’s a warm and friendly account of her life that will make you smile. Her wit never fades, with some laugh out loud commentary on political movements and organising.
It’s Assata’s insights on race and racism that continue to be illuminating. Today, we are far from post racial, with an establishment determined to whitewash history and absolve accountability. Tales from black revolutionaries are vital in contextualising what has come before, and how it informs the present. Her hindsight and observations are vital in a society that’s still stuck on how to live together.
When she writes about challenging the student activist, socialist, ‘flabby white boys’ at her college who assert that it’s them and only them who can organise the working classes, you can imagine the glint in her eye, and the smirk on her lips. On liberalism, she writes: ‘History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can… reap the benefits of their white skin privileges, then they are ‘liberals’. On her disagreements in encounters with the aspirational black middle classes, she writes: ‘these black people went around acting as if there was no such thing as prejudice, and that all you had to do was study and you could be president of the world’.
What Assata couldn’t have known whilst writing these words, was that those black middle classes would go on to birth America’s first black president. The respectability politics preached by her grandparents did work effectively enough to lift a select few out of poverty and into politics. But the conservative values of respectability politics were never going to be liberating, and they certainly weren’t going to undo centuries of racist oppression. Instead, it created acceptable, establishment approved stars.
Last year, the FBI added Assata Shakur to its list of most wanted terrorists. To date, she is the first and only woman ever to be included. Given the politics of the time, it’s impossible to know if the state’s accusations - she was tried for murder and bank robbery- were truthful or full of lies. Assata maintains that she was targeted because of her politics and her involvement with the Black Panther Party. To the state, these people were terrorists, concerned only with disrupting the status quo. These were the days of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Programme, commonly abbreviated to COINTELPRO. Covert operations were put in place to maintain what the FBI called the ‘existing social and political order’. Surveillance and infiltration were par for the course. Psychological warfare was waged on those most active in the movement. Characters were smeared, and lies were leaked to the press. Assata writes that at one point, she could barely speak out loud in her own home for fear of it being bugged.
Assata Shakur is currently in exile in Cuba after being granted political asylum in 1984. She is a political prisoner. Her autobiography is essential reading for every political thinker concerned with race, and for every activist who is interested in creating a movement that grows. Her thoughts on why movements fail are as useful as her thoughts on how movements could win.