Assata Shakur’s autobiography – first published in 1988 and newly republished this year by Zed Books – has lost none of its relevance. It remains an essential text for understanding both the prison-industrial complex and the state of race relations in the US, as well as providing a profound insight into the successes and failures of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Born in 1947, Assata Shakur (then JoAnne Deborah Byron) grew up between North Carolina and New York, experiencing the intense racism that prevailed – and prevails – both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. As a black, working class female, she became acutely aware of the special oppression she and others like her faced. As a college student, she came across activists – especially students from newly-liberated Africa – who challenged her anti-communist prejudices and her internalised stereotypes, and encouraged her to get involved in the struggle for black power and against capitalism and imperialism. This led to her membership of the Black Panther Party and, later, the Black Liberation Army.
The larger part of the book is devoted to documenting Assata’s experiences with the ‘justice’ system, in courts and prisons, between her arrest in 1971 and her escape eight years later. Few readers would fail to be shocked at the extent to which this human being, whose real ‘crime’ in the eyes of the state was to be a loud campaigner for justice and equality, was tortured and abused in prison – often at the hands of openly fascistic prison officers.
Her account also serves as a crucial reminder that there remain many political prisoners in the US, languishing behind bars for decades on trumped-up charges. International pressure must be maintained and intensified until Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier, Oscar López Rivera, Kenny ‘Zulu’ Whitmore, Albert Woodfox and all political prisoners are freed. Furthermore we must maintain the fight against an phenomenally unjust prison system which disproportionately targets poor and non-white people (and this is not restricted to the US – a recent study showed that black people in Britain are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned).
Assata’s profound and thought-provoking reflections on the decline of the Black Power movement deserve to be studied and discussed, as they could help illuminate a path for the current generation of organisers and activists. Aside from the objective factor (the FBI’s large-scale covert assault on the Panthers and others), Assata gives a great deal of attention to the subjective factor, in particular an element of adventurism, sectarianism, amateurishness, failure to consistently raise levels of political consciousness, and alienation from the masses.
Assata’s continuing relevance is not lost on the FBI, which last year added her to its list of Most Wanted Terrorists (she is the first female to enjoy this honour – good to see US imperialism doing its bit for gender equality). Thankfully, she is safely in exile in Cuba, a country she describes as “one of the largest, most resistant and most courageous palenques (maroon camps) that has ever existed on the face of this planet.”
‘Assata: An Autobiography’ is essential reading.
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