Assata: In Her Own Words
Assata Shakur, whose first name means “she who struggles,” is a fearless Black female revolutionary whose voice roars in Assata: In Her Own Words, a slim collection of writings by Shakur while in exile in Cuba, where she fled in 1984 after escaping from prison. If you’ve read her autobiography, which I highly recommended, this book serves as a somewhat satisfying companion and much-needed follow up.
On May 2, 1973, Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party, was traveling on the New Jersey turnpike along with two friends who were also active in the Black Liberation Movement, Zayd Malik Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, when they were pulled over and questioned by the police. An altercation followed that resulted in a shootout that badly wounded Assata, and killed Zayd Malik Shakur and state trooper Werner Forester. After two controversial trials, Shakur and Acoli were convicted by an all-white jury of the murders of both state trooper Forester and Zayd Malik Shakur.
At the time of the incident, the climate of racial prejudice was undeniable, and those affiliated with the Black Liberation Movement were being targeted by COINTELPRO, a covert program of the FBI that used illegal methods (including imprisonment) to systematically destroy the Black Panther Party and other organizations committed to fighting racism and oppression. Assata remained in several prisons for six years until, with the help of those she describes as “committed comrades,” she escaped from the maximum security wing of New Jersey’s Clinton Correctional Facility for Women and was granted political exile by Fidel Castro in Cuba.
In “A Letter to the Pope” (written on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1997), Shakur makes a proud appeal to the Vatican in response to the State of New Jersey's announcement that it planned to have her extradited to the United States and request to the Pope to intervene on New Jersey's behalf by lending its support to the extradition. Identifying herself as a longtime revolutionary and freedom fighter, Shakur discusses—among many other injustices—the disproportionate number of Blacks to Whites in prison and on death row in the U.S., the rates and effects of police brutality in Black communities, and the number of political prisoners behind American bars. Near the end of the letter it’s clear that Shakur’s plea is less about her own potential extradition and more about the deliberate and unfair treatment of all Black people. Shakur asks that the Pope “examine the social reality of the United States and to speak out against the human rights violations that are taking place.”
“Women In Prison: How It is With Us” is an engrossing and disturbing account of Assata’s experiences at Riker’s Island Correctional Institution for Women, where she bore witness to pervasive drug addiction, hopelessness, and violence. Her words give voice to the pain and suffering of those women by telling their stories. “To My People” and “Message to My Sistas” are fiery, uplifting, and personal love letters to Black people.
The publication of Assata: In Her Own Words is The Talking Drum Collective's answer to Shakur’s request that the Black and progressive media tell her story, particularly the facts she says have been cruelly distorted by mass media. (The damaging interview with NBC journalist Ralph Penza in 1998 was referenced more than once in the book). Read this powerful and moving testimony of a proud Black woman warrior who continues to fight.