Assata: In her own words
My name is Assata (“she who struggles”) Shakur (“the thankful one”), and I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the US government’s policy towards people of color. I am an ex political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984. I have been a political activist most of my life, and although the U.S. government has done everything in its power to criminalize me, I am not a criminal, nor have I ever been one. In the 1960s, I participated in various struggles: the black liberation movement, the student rights movement, and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. I joined the Black Panther Party. By 1969 the Black Panther Party had become the number one organization targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. because the Black Panther Party demanded the total liberation of black people, J. Edgar Hoover called it “greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and vowed to destroy it and its leaders and activists.
Become informed, visit her website: Assata Shakur
[Editor’s note: Final Call Staff Writer Nisa Islam Muhammad
traveled to Cuba with a group of 15 journalists under the guidance of DeWayne
Wickham and the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies. They are documenting
the African influence in the Americas. While there, she was granted an exclusive
interview with exiled former Black Panther Assata Shakur.]
HAVANA, Cuba (FinalCall.com)—Assata Shakur is a Black American
folk hero. She is a freedom fighter that escaped the chains of oppression. She
made it to the other side. She is a sister that defied the definitions of
expected behavior by a Black woman.
Her life is the subject of books, movies and poetry. In her own
words, she speaks on Cuba and terrorism, differences between Blacks in Cuba and
the U.S., living in exile and her hopes for a new world:
“When I was in the Black Panther Party, they (United States)
called us terrorists. How dare they call us terrorists when we were being
terrorized? Terror was a constant part of my life. I was living under apartheid
in North Carolina. We lived under police terror.
“People have to see what’s really happening. Cuba has never
attacked anybody. Cuba has solidarity with other countries. They send teachers
and doctors to help the people of other countries. It believes in
“To see Cuba called a terrorist country is an insult to
reality. If people come to Cuba, they’ll see a reality unlike what they’re told
in America. This country wants to help, not hurt. The U.S. government has lied
to its people. The U.S. government invents lies like Cuba is a terrorist country
to give a pretext to destroy it.
“Ronald Reagan convinced people that the little country Grenada
was a threat to the big United States, that allowed the U.S. to go into
“The people in the U.S. have to struggle against a system of
organized lies. When President Carter was here they said Cuba was involved in
biotechnology to create bioterrorism, but now they back track and say it isn’t
so. They lied and they continue to lie about Cuba.
“Look at the struggle with Elian (Gonzales). Look at the
terrorism committed by the Miami terrorists, the Miami Mafia. Those people
(Cubans who fled after the revolution) are ex-plantation owners, exploiters of
people. They want to make Cuba the same kind of place it was before but that’s
not going to happen.”
Her name means “she who struggles,” and that is the life she’s
led. From growing up in racist Wilmington, N.C., to her activism with the Black
Panthers and the Black Liberation Army (BLA), Ms. Shakur has struggled:
“My life wasn’t beautiful and creative before I became
politically active. My life was totally changed when I began to struggle.”
But that’s what it means to be Black in the Americas, a life of
struggle. Blacks in Cuba and the United States share a history of slavery yet
their paths separate in how they view their lives. I asked Sis. Assata what she
saw as the differences between Blacks in Cuba and the United States:
“We’ve (Blacks in America) forgotten where we came from. People
in Cuba have not lost their memory. They don’t suffer from historical and
cultural amnesia. Cuba has less material wealth than America but are able to do
so much with so little because they know where they come from.
“This was a maroon country. The maroons escaped from slavery
and started their own community. Everyone needs to identify with their own
history. If they know their history, they can construct their future.
“The Cubans identify with those who fought against slavery.
They don’t identify with the slave master. Those who made the revolution won’t
let the people forget what happened to them. The people here seriously study
“We have to de-Eurocentrize the history we learn. We have to
give the real perspective of what happened. We have to create a world to know
and remember our own. I had no idea how ignorant I was until I came to Cuba. I
had no knowledge of authors, filmmakers and artists outside of America. We
believe we’re free but we’re not. Our world vision is tainted.
“We are oppressed people in the U.S. and don’t even know it. We
have fewer opportunities to be doctors and lawyers as tuition increases. Our
problem is that we want to belong to a society that wants to oppress us. We want
to be the plantation owner. In Cuba, we want to change the plantation to a
The time is 1973 and an incident of what would now be called
“racial profiling” takes place on the New Jersey Turnpike. Ms. Shakur, actively
involved in the Black Liberation Army (BLA), is traveling with Malik Zayad
Shakur (no relation) and Sundiata Acoli. State troopers stop them, reportedly
because of a broken headlight.
A trooper also explains they were “suspicious” because they had
Vermont license plates. The three are made to exit the car with their hands up.
All of a sudden, shots were fired.
That much everybody seems to agree on. What happened next
changed the course of history for Assata Shakur. Shots were fired and when all
was said and done, state trooper Werner Foerster and Malik Shakur were killed.
Ms. Shakur and Mr. Acoli were charged with the death of state trooper
The trial found them both guilty. The verdict was no surprise.
But many question the racial injustice by the all-White jury and admitted
perjury by the trial’s star witness:
“I was shot with my arms in the air. My wounds could not have
happened unless my arms were in the air. The bullet went in under my arm and
traveled past my clavicle. It is medically impossible for that to happen if my
arms were down.
“I was sentenced to life plus 30 years by an all-White jury.
What I saw in prison was wall-to-wall Black flesh in chains. Women caged in
cells. But we’re the terrorists. It just doesn’t make sense.”
In a letter to Kofi Owusu dated August 24, 1973 from the
Middlesex County Jail in New Brunswick, N.J., she describes the life behind
“i (sic) can’t begin to imagine how many sisters have been
locked in this cell (the detention cell) and all the agony they felt and tears
they shed. This is the cell where they put the sisters who are having hard
times, kicking habits or who had been driven mad from too much oppression.
“It’s moods like this that make me aware of how glad i am to be
a revolutionary. i know who our enemy is, and i know that me and these swine
cannot live peacefully on the same planet. i am a part of a family of field
niggas and that is something very precious.
“So many of my sisters are so completely unaware of who the
real criminals and dogs are. They blame themselves for being hungry; they hate
themselves for surviving the best way they know how, to see so much fear, doubt,
hurt, and self hatred is the most painful part of being in this concentration
“Anyway, in spite of all, i feel a breeze behind my neck,
turning to a hurricane and when i take a deep breath I can smell freedom.”
She spent six and a half years in prison, two of those in
solitary confinement. During that time she gave birth to her daughter
In 1979, she was liberated by comrades in a daring escape that
continues to infuriate the New Jersey State Troopers. There was a nation-wide
search for her. In 1984 she went to Cuba and was united with her daughter:
“When I came to Cuba, I expected everyone to look like Fidel
(Castro). But you see everything and everyone is different. I saw Black, White,
Asians all living and working together. The Cuban women were so elegantly
dressed and groomed.
“People would just talk to me in the street. I would wonder why
until I realized that people are not afraid of each other. People in America are
afraid to walk the streets; it’s not like that here.
“I realized that I had some healing to do. I didn’t know the
extent of my wounds until I came to Cuba. I began to heal with my work, raising
my daughter and being a part of a culture that appreciates you.
“Living in Cuba means being appreciated by society, not
depreciated by society. No matter what we do in America, no matter what we earn,
we’re still not appreciated by American society.”
Who are the people on the tiny island nation of Cuba only 90
miles from Florida? Who are these people that dare to say “no” to America? Who
are these 11 million revolutionaries that resist in the face of the most
powerful country in the world:
“Cubans feel like they have power. No matter who they are. They
see themselves as part of a world. We just see ourselves as part of a ’hood.
They identify with oppressed people all over the world.
“When the Angolans were fighting against South Africa, they
asked Cuba for help. Soldiers were sent. They went gladly.
“Cubans have a different perspective of outrage and justice. A
White Cuban soldier came back from fighting and expressed his disdain for the
Whites that were supporting apartheid.
“I just looked at him because in my mind he was White like they
were but that’s not how he saw himself. He couldn’t understand how the South
Africans could support apartheid.
“Anytime you have a country that makes people feel indignant
about atrocities, wherever they are, that country has a special place in my
heart. Cuba is trying to end exploitation and atrocities.”
For nearly 20 years, she has carved out a life for herself in
Cuba. She lives in exile and while many rejoice in her new life, America has not
forgotten her alleged crimes. In 1997, the New Jersey State Troopers wrote to
the Pope asking for the Pontiff’s help in having her extradited.
Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd-Whitman issued a
$100,000 enticement for anyone to assist in the return of Assata Shakur.
Congress issued H.R. 254 calling on Cuba to send her back, which was supported
by most Black congresspersons.
In the absence of normalized relations with Cuba, there is no
binding extradition treaty between Cuba and the United States.
What is it like to live in exile? What is it like to be away
from family and friends:
“Living in exile is hard. I miss my family and friends. I miss
the culture, the music, how people talk, and their creativity. I miss the look
of recognition Black women give each other, the understanding we express without
saying a word.
“I adjusted by learning to understand what was going on in the
world. The Cubans helped me to adjust. I learned joys in life by learning other
cultures. It was a privilege to come here to a rich culture.
“I had a big fear that the Cubans would hate me when I arrived.
They are very sophisticated. They were able to separate the people from America,
like me, from the government.”
What message does she have for the youth of our people? What
does she want people to know about her life:
“I don’t see myself as that different from sisters who struggle
for social justice. In the ’60s it was easier to identify racism. There were
signs that told you where you belonged. We had to struggle to eliminate
apartheid in the South. Now we have to know the other forms that exist
“We had to learn that we’re beautiful. We had to relearn
something forcefully taken from us. We had to learn about Black power. People
have power if we unite. We learned the importance of coming together and being
active. That fueled me.
“We knew what a token was then. Today young people don’t see
Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell as tokens. That’s a problem.
“I realized that I was connected to Africa. I wasn’t just a
Colored girl. I was part of a whole world that wanted a better life. I’m part of
a majority and not a minority. My life has been a life of growth. If you’re not
growing, you’re not going to understand real love. If you’re not reaching out to
help others then you’re shrinking. My life has been active. I’m not a
“We can’t afford to be spectators while our lives deteriorate.
We have to truly love our people and work to make that love stronger.”
Ms. Shakur is finishing another book about her life in exile
and her experiences in Cuba.
Final Call, Web Posted 06-11-2002