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Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur, book review: Revolutionary from a different time, a different struggle


The revolutionary Black Liberation Army of the 1970s rose out of the ashes of the Black Panther Party to free black people in the United States, this time through armed struggle. The peaceful civil rights movement of the sixties had eliminated segregation but not the racism still endured by African Americans. The United States responded with its white institutional might to bring down the revolutionaries, most notably Assata Shakur.

To everyone’s surprise, suddenly last year Shakur was placed on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list, 40 years after she received a life sentence for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, and nearly three decades after she escaped prison and was offered political asylum in Cuba, where she has since lived quietly.

The story Shakur tells in her autobiography, first published in 1988, is of the inhumane treatment meted out to her while incarcerated in the American prisons she was shunted between while awaiting trial, not only for the murder, but for armed robbery, kidnap and attempted murder. She tells us she was beaten and tortured, imprisoned for some time in an otherwise all-male jail, was put under 24-hour surveillance with the lights on, underwent an unnecessary internal examination and was denied, at various times, her right to legal representation. When she was not in solitary confinement she mixed with the other prisoners, most of whom, she notes despairingly, were black or Hispanic.

It’s hard to keep track of her various court cases between 1973 and 1977, although it transpires that she was cleared of all crimes except the murder. Her supporters, including lawyers and politicians as well as Angela Davis, who wrote the book’s foreword, have accused the criminal justice system of endemic racism.

We also learn about Shakur’s childhood in New York where she was born JoAnne Byron, a “slave name” which she ditched once she had been politicised. She was raised by an extended family of her mother, aunts and grandparents, but as a teenager she fell out with her mother, leaving home and getting involved in scams and all kinds of escapades. Her teenage self was “hard-headed, stubborn, and under the impression that a grave injustice had been done to me”. The same can be said for the adult Shakur, who seems fearless, shouting down prison guards and judges and demanding her rights until she has to be physically subdued.

Shakur is definitely the feisty heroine of her own story, and has long been an iconic figure, now with a $2m bounty on her head. She was godmother to Tupac Shakur and has been eulogised by rappers. But the fact is that the Black Liberation Army lasted less than a decade, by which time its leaders were imprisoned, fugitives or dead.

Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur Zed Books, £8.99