On Sunday, July 16th, Assata Shakur will turn 70 years old and for 33 of those years she has lived in exile in Cuba.
I met Assata when I was 18.
Now, I don’t mean I physically met her. I met her through her book.
I went to high school in the Bronx, DeWitt Clinton HS to be exact. I took all honors classes and loved my humanities courses. I read a lot of the so-called classics, Pride and Prejudice (this is still one of my favorite books), Catcher in the Rye, Don Quixote, To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, a bunch of Shakespeare….yadda yadda yadda.
I was a ferocious reader and I loved everything I read. I loved being taken away on this journey and seeing the world through the eyes of these amazing protagonists. One of my most favorite books was Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. I mean, that book is phenomenal. I read it the Fall of my Junior year and I thought nothing could be better than that text.
For the first ever, in the Spring of my Junior year, my school offered an African American Lit course. And being who I am, I signed up for that bad boy.
I remember the first book we read, Push by Sapphire. It was new and it was reallllllll. I will admit that it took me a pretty long time to realize “muhva” and “fahva” translated to mother and father.
Don’t judge me.
I was a child of the classics.
I didn’t know what this book was…but I loved it. Mostly because I felt like I was reading about the life of my best friend in lots of ways. And the conversations we had in class about the prose and the climax and good versus evil and the complexity of characters. I was in love.
After that, we read For Colored Girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuff by Ntozake Shange. I thought Push was deep. Now this just f’ed me up.
And with text we would act out the scenes because of course it was a Choreopoem. And though I had never heard of such a thing before, I was excited to embody some of these characters and their pain.
I didn’t know this would be the last time I would read a book written by a Black Woman for some time.
We then read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and ended the year reading Manchild in the Promiseland by Claude Brown.
That’s a lot of books, right? It was probably the most any class had read in one semester. But we devoured them. The books were so real and so close to who we were.
That Summer, my drug dealing boyfriend gave me the book, Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall.
Listen, I didn’t know he sold drugs. He told me he was a counselor at a community center for “at risk” kids. It wasn’t until we broke up that I found out. And the only reason I’m telling you that he sold drugs is because even though he did that, he turned me on to Black Revolutionary Literature and it wasn’t until we started reading together that I really began to see who he was, as a young Black Man in America.
That revolutionary lit was his escape from the everyday prison he lived in.
That Summer we read, McCall and:
Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt by Jack Olsen.
Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu Jamal
After we broke up and I went on to college and I continued in the direction he laid out for me. I read:
Down these mean streets by Piri Thomas
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Nigger by Dick Gregory
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
I read everything I could find on the Black Panthers and COINTELPRO (or so I thought.)
By the end of my Freshmen year, I was a rebel as Bob Marley sang, a soul rebel. I had a fire in my belly that was unstoppable. I had acquired all of this knowledge and had what I thought were all of these tools to restart the revolution.
What I hadn’t realized was that my view was totally distorted. I saw the world only through the eyes of Black Men. I didn’t respect Black Women revolutionaries …because I didn’t know they existed.
Then one day, while at Barnes and Nobles perusing the Black Panther section as I often did, I saw it.
In big red block lettering, it said Assata. She was the only woman in the section. I slowly pulled the book off of the shelf and opened her up.
There were lights and sirens. Zayd was dead. My mind knew that Zyad was dead. The air was like cold glass. Huge bubbles rose and burst. Each one felt like an explosion in my chest. My mouth tasted like blood and dirt. The car spun around me and then something like sleep overtook me. In the background i could hear what sounded like gunfire. But i was fading and dreaming. Page 3
It had been years since I read words written by a Black woman and never a freedom fighter, never a female Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army.
I had real basic questions; Was she related to Tupac Shakur? Was she his auntie? Did he grow up with her? His mom, Afeni Shakur was a Black Panther. Were they friends? How big was this Shakur clan? Were they all blood? Was she still alive? Was she drug free? Was she rotting away in jail?
I read the entire book in about 3 days, forgoing sleep and ignoring calls. By the end, Assata, was my shero. I never knew a Black Woman could be one, a hero. She was the only Black Panther, male or female to make it out of the 60s, free of drugs and alcohol. I didn’t know yet of Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Elaine Brown.
She was alive RIGHT NOW.
The only problem was she was exiled in Cuba. The closest I could ever get to her was through this book and I cherished it.
I often think about Assata Shakur and what her life has been like for the last 33 years in Cuba. I’m from the Caribbean, so I know she has experienced a semblance of freedom and peace that she did not receive in her first 37 years of life. Even if she’s had to always look over her shoulder.
When Obama and Raul Castro ended the embargo, the Black community worried. Would Cuba betray Assata after all these years? And though the United States huffs and puffs, particularly New Jersey, they don’t have enough political power to bring her back here.
I pray she lives a long life, but that it’s a life that ends in the safety of Cuban shores. I pray she has been writing and at the time of her passing her thoughts will be released to the public.
I pray that before I die, teaching about Assata Shakur will be compulsory for all children.
And my last prayer is, that if you’ve never read her autobiography, Assata, that you go on ahead and use that Amazon prime and cop yours today, or by Sunday in honor of her 70th birthday.
I have one question for her though. She choose the name Assata and she knew the meaning; one who struggles. I want to know why, why did she choose the struggle?
Hmmph, it may be in the book. I can’t remember. Which means it’s time for me to read, again.