#BookReview of Assata: An Autobiography

Content Warning: use of racially charged language and labels, some descriptions of violence, negative descriptions of and labels for police, and very brief talk of abortion/miscarriage.

Assata Shakur is a Black revolutionary who was born JoAnne Byron in 1947 in New York City. She spent a lot of time as a girl in North Carolina with her grandparents, though. While she spent some time trying to be a grown-up on the streets of NYC when she was just an adolescent, she ultimately went to college and discovered political movements fighting for Black liberation. Traveling to the west coast, Assata discovered different political groups — Latino, Asian, Black — and joined the Black Panther Party back in NYC.

As a member of the BPP, Assata criticized the lack of organization and open sexism in the party and eventually left. At some point, Assata joins the Black Liberation Movement. In the climax that leads to her imprisonment, Assata explains that she was shot by police on the New Jersey turnpike, and the men in the car with her would not fare well: one was dead, and the other was arrested. Assata: An Autobiography, published in 1987, tells the story of the author’s arrest, time spent in prison while awaiting trials, and her new home in Cuba after she escapes from prison. Between each “present day” chapter (while in prison) is one from the past describing how she got there.

young assata

While the autobiography is engrossing, it’s hard to ignore how much is left out. Can I trust what she says? The first page describes how Assata was laying on the New Jersey turnpike in 1973, almost dead after being shot by police. Why was she there? Why did the police stop her? This, we never learn. Wikipedia explains that the car was stopped for a broken tail light and slight speeding. The site also claims Assata had taken part in robberies and help others organize police killings. She doesn’t mention this in her book. Is she leaving information out, or is Wikipedia incorrect? Or are the police lying? It’s hard to tell. There is a lot of evidence of police tampering with witnesses, lawyers, and evidence, but this information all comes from one person, Assata. It’s not that I dismiss what she’s saying. I typically listen to multiple sources to determine the best trust I can find in a situation when the primary source conceals information.

We also don’t learn how she escapes the prison at the very end of the autobiography, probably so no one will get in trouble. However, news reports would have described what happened even if they couldn’t identify who. And according to Wikipedia, members of the Black Liberation Party stole $105,000 to aid in her escape. Using guns and dynamite, they took hostages and commandeered a van to get away. While no one was hurt during the prison break, two of the four people who helped Assata escape were later captured and imprisoned. Because Assata leaves out information that could make her sound criminal, it’s hard to trust everything else she says. All the reader gets is Assata in prison claiming it’s time to leave and then her in Cuba five years after her escape when she finally feels it’s safe to call her family.

On the other hand, each time she is tried in court, the defense sound like so much evidence was corrupted by police to make Assata sound guilty. The parts on Wikipedia that make her sound like a violent criminal are not included in the book. She only covers what she is charged with and the nine criminal trials she attends while held in prison for four years, most of it in solitary confinement. However, note that she was targeted by the FBI during a time when J. Edgar Hoover ordered wire taps — illegally — on many Black revolutionaries, having them followed, harassed, and even shot in the middle of the night in their beds. Further evidence of Assata’s innocence (which suggests she’s trustworthy in her narrative) is she was in court ten times over seven criminal charges, and only once was found guilty.

rikers_island
Assata was held at Riker’s Island for 21 months in solitary confinement.

Jumping back to her time as a college student, I was happy to see Assata shine truth and bring criticism to the Black Panther Party. She demonstrates her independence as a writer and thinker. Most memorable to me, the BPP served free breakfast to Black children after reading a study that shows children who eat breakfast do better in school. They also donated and distributed winter clothes to poor Black children. They did a lot that I admire. Yet, many new members felt that the BPP would give them a gun and point them toward a cop, which Assata felt exhibited the lack of knowledge and organization in the party. She criticizes Huey Newton, the co-founder of the BPP who eventually becomes paranoid. Assata writes:

When Huey changed his title from defense minister to the ridiculous-sounding “Supreme Commander” and then the to the even more ridiculous “Supreme Servant,'”damn near nobody said a word. That was one of the big problems in the Party. Criticism and self-criticism were not encouraged…

Assata opens herself up to share her beliefs, some of them as unpopular as her criticisms of the Black Panther Party, making her more trustworthy.

Assata: An Autobiography is worth reading, especially since it’s still relevant today. Assata’s comments on education are still true today. Like most of us today, her education was polished so as to leave out the “bad stuff,” such as the North didn’t free slaves for moral reasons, but economic. “Back in those days i used to think the Northerners were the good guys,” she explains. Assata supported segregated schools in her book. She claims, “…Black children encountered support and understanding and encouragement instead of the hostile indifference they often met in the ‘integrated’ schools.” There was one teacher who showed Assata’s class that the different disciplines are all connected: art and history, philosophy and science, etc. She believes that if students are not taught to connect disciplines, they can’t become critical thinkers, which is a good way to keep people controlled. I still see this problem with my students; they take five classes per semester and have to be told why all the information is related because they never learned that before.

She also comments on violence against police, which we still see today. At one point, she learns on the TV that some police officers were murdered. She didn’t simply feel happy; she “felt sorry” for the children and spouses left behind, but also admits she’s glad she didn’t see on the news yet another black person murdered.

Assata describes her treatment as a Black woman in prison. I’ve read articles about women being denied basic healthcare, the struggle to get sanitary items, and even being chained to a bed during childbirth. During one of her trials (there are many), she and a man named Kamau decide to be tried together. They are held in contempt of court many times, so they are kept in a cell together during the trial. Realizing they feel romantically, Kamau asks if she wants to have a baby. Assata thinks on it:

 

Since i was a teenager i had always said that the world was too horrible to bring another human being into. And a Black child. We see our children frustrated at best. Noses pressed against windows, looking in. And, at worst, we see them die from drugs or oppression, shot down by police, or wasted away in jail. . . . I’m gonna live as hard as i can and as full as i can until i die. And i’m not letting these parasites, these oppressors, these greedy racist swine make me kill my children in my mind, before they are even born.

While she was pregnant, the prison doctor told her she should have an abortion because she would miscarry anyway. Assata and her lawyer had to fight for her to see a doctor and receive proper medical treatment so she could deliver a healthy baby — while in prison. Looking at rampant racism supported by the president in the U.S., I’m sure there are Black Americans looking at the country and wondering if it’s safe to even consider having a child in such violent, frightening times.

Assata Shakur is still wanted by FBI for a reward of $2,000,000. She lives in Cuba under political asylum.

wanted poster

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24 thoughts on “#BookReview of Assata: An Autobiography

  1. Fascinating! I’ve never heard of her and don’t know that I’m tempted to read this book, but I found your review really interesting. It’s always so hard with memoirs to know how much it’s being skewed to give a particular impression. Sometimes of course the writer may not even be aware that s/he’s only giving half a picture. But it does seem in this case as if she has deliberately chosen to leave out the bits that might show her in a bad light. I’m also facinated by the size of the reward – they must want her pretty bad, more surely than for a prison escape.

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    1. I plan on reading Angela Davis’s memoir soon. She was another black activist from the same time period. Davis went to court, fought her case, and was acquitted, but that’s all I know. I also want to read two books to examine Malcolm X more closely; one is by his daughter, and the other author interviews the people Malcolm discussed in his autobiography.

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  2. The problem with revolutionary parties is not their objectives or even their means but the propensity of their leaders to become increasingly autocratic. As for the bits she’s left out – to include them would be to admit to crimes and would add to the evidence against her. The ruling class will always define as criminal anything that threatens them. When I was young it was criminal to argue that young men should disobey conscription. Today it is criminal to reveal that the police have questioned you about terrorism. Of course, nothing short of Revolution is going to decriminalize robbing banks, but Assata can hope can’t she.

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  3. I loved your review of this book! I suspect I would have felt the same as you should I read it too, I’m always suspicious of hearing just one side Of the story, and the huge gaps she left out are concerning. Violence should not be acceptable in any form BUT I’ve never been in the position of some of these activists being a white Canadian woman so I also try to reserve judgement until I get all the facts, which is sometimes impossible!

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  4. Interesting sounding read! I don’t know a whole lot about the Black Panther Party, and have never heard of this lady before, and the history here sounds interesting and informative. You make a great point about things being left out of the narrative. Makes me wonder what can be believed and what is “spun” for a specific angle.
    And I must say, your content warnings keep getting better and better! They are really helping me get a feel for what is in each book you review.

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    1. I try to think of what would really turn a reader off. Usually, I think about my husband, who is more sensitive to certain topics than I. For instance, for personal reasons, he doesn’t like stories about children who don’t know who their biological parents are. I can see why that’s upsetting, so I try to think bigger than what could turn me off of make me very uncomfortable. The is a great documentary on the Black Panther Party–unbiased, too–from PBS: independentlens/films/the-black-panthers-vanguard-of-the-revolution/

      I think it’s on Netflix right now.

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      1. thanks for the Netflix recommendation! I added it to my queue – hopefully I’ll get a chance to watch it before it goes off instant viewing.
        We don’t really know what others may find sensitive, but I really appreciate the detail in the content warnings. It isn’t so detailed as to give away any of the plot, but just enough to give a reader a good picture of what could be troubling.

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  5. Yes, this autobiography sounds highly relevant to events happening today. I don’t know what she might be leaving out, but it seems like “a broken taillight” is a typical excuse for racial profiling by police. I’m going to add this autobiography to my TBR.

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  6. Wow. Melanie! There is SO MUCH IN HERE. Where do I even begin?!

    First of all, I appreciate your critical eye to Assata’s very biased tale. But, that’s why I love reading autobiographies. I find that being able to take a critical lens to how someone views their life and shares their story helps me identify my own biases. That said, it’s hard to know how much Assata left out to protect people, but I’m sure some of it is because she doesn’t think that information is relevant or worthwhile. I wonder how much of my own personal narrative is corrupted by my own bias?

    I also appreciate the open criticism of the BPP. Just as you point out Assata’s education focused on how “good” everything was, I feel that my American public education failed me in some ways there, too. I didn’t even realize that the BPP wasn’t evil until recently. I had just been taught that they were thugs. And, honestly, the fact that I never questioned that narrative until the last decade of my life makes me sad. As you pointed out in a previous comment to me– it’s important to challenge and review everything. We need our own opinions.

    I will certainly keep an eye out for this autobiography at my local library. Can you think of some other books which might complement this book and provide some alternative perspectives to Assata’s tale?

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  7. This is so sad: “…i’m not letting these parasites, these oppressors, these greedy racist swine make me kill my children in my mind, before they are even born.” What an awful feeling that would be.

    This book sounds fascinating, but I would also be worried about what she’s leaving out. Although maybe she’s just afraid for her life to put *everything* in the book. I would be especially interested in reading about her time in prison – isolation fascinates me.

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    1. When Africans were enslaved, they were given their master’s last name. New master? New last name. Malcolm X helped bring attention to this fact, so many people in the 60s and 70s changed their names to reflect their African roots and “kill” their slave name (even though this happened late enough in history that she wasn’t named by a slave master, but her relatives were, and the last name gets passed down).

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