Radical Knowledge for Radical Action: Assata Shakur’s Autobiography

In Featured, Feminism, Intervention by Ian Kennedy

“The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free. Schools in amerika are interested in brainwashing people with amerikanism, giving them a little bit of education, and teaching them the skills needed to fill the positions the capitalist system requires. As long as we expect amerika’s schools to educate us, we will remain ignorant.” Assata: An Autobiography (181)

As a white anti-racist, I claim that I want to undo white supremacy and systemic racial oppression, but such action, if it is to be helpful, must be based on clear knowledge. Given that my experiences of that system are from the perspective of powerful oppressor, how can I, and other white anti-racists, build knowledge that will give my actions direction? I’ve learned a lot in schools, trying to read beyond the brainwashing. I’ve learned a lot from, theory, history, and memoirs written by all kinds of folk.

But many activists of color justifiably and necessarily distrust the commitment of white allies like me. They should, because looking at myself I see the strength of white supremacist thought and impulse every day. The knowledge I seek, then, isn’t the facts about discrimination, nor an account of oppression (though both are essential). Instead of changing my opinions, I want to change my mind and re-wash my brain. I turn to Assata Shakur’s life for lessons in how opening oneself to communities of difference spurs growth, understanding, and action.

Shakur’s story is misrepresented  by the (ongoing) propaganda campaign which portrays her as an unrepentant criminal on the lam. It is hard for her to speak up against this other than through her memoir; her status in exile in Cuba, separated from her daughter, requires a low profile. The Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army — organizations she was affiliated with — are only themselves recently getting the attention they deserve for leading the fight for racial justice in the 1970s. Most worrisome to me, though, is that Assata isn’t someone that the white people around me talk about; she isn’t part of the story mainstream US society tells itself and its children for 28 days each winter. That might be because, despite the rise in the use of the term intersectional, white male liberals like me still mistakenly like to keep racial and gender issues separate.

Some of that is changing. Many groups, most notably the Women’s March, publicly celebrated Assata’s birthday last month, and stood up to sharp critique from conservative groups for it. Which makes now a great time to pick up her book, which interweaves her account of being shot by police, arrested, mistreated and tortured, and court debacles, with her experiences growing up in New York.

Both the autobiographical and the activist narrative are interesting and enlightening. I am especially interested in the large portion of the book taken up by stories of learning. Shakur documents when, how, and with whom she came to various realizations: that standards of beauty are enforced by white supremacy, how to show her femininity, what the real relationship between communism, black americans, and the Vietnam war was. In each case looking at Shakur’s methods of gaining knowledge can help me and other readers refine our own methods.

A key opportunity for that refinement comes in the sources of knowledge outlined in Assata. It is trite to say that we learn more outside of school than within it, but the idea regains usefulness when it turns from questioning classroom pedagogy, to the book’s detailed account of revelations gained not only from books, lectures or contemplation (though Shakur is familiar with all three), but also from important relationships, often with women.

One of the first women Assata cites as an inspiration for learning was her 5th grade teacher, whom she  credited with revealing the interconnection of the normally separated school subjects like history, science, and literature. She also speaks highly of her experience in the CUNY university system at both BMCC and City College. In all cases, it is less the classes and more the connections with other students and student groups that she says she gained the most from.

True to her stated antipathy for institutions of learning, though, much of Shakur’s education came from “informal instructional settings,” which meant not only experiential learning on the streets of New York, but also constant engaged discussion and investigation. She recounts running away from her childhood Brooklyn home and learning the extra-legal means residents used to get by, stealing, hustling, working a stint as a paid drinking companion. Many of these experiences are far from what we would consider uplifting. Of those experiences, however, her friendship with Ms. Shirley, a black trans woman and sex worker, stands out for its suffusion with warmth and support. Almost everyone else Shakur meets in her adventures in Greenwich Village wants to take advantage of her, use her for sex or crime, or rebuffs her as a runaway who needs to get along home. Ms. Shirley, though, offers Shakur a friendship between women, gets her a place to stay, to work, and guides her away from the most risky situations. Under Shirley’s tutelage, Shakur learns femininity in the form of ‘putting her face on.’ (109).

This is the first of many important adult friendships with women which guide Shakur through her engagement with radical politics and her trials in what she calls the kourts, most notably her aunt, and notable lawyer, Evelyn, who she also spends a portion of her youth with, and who stands with Assata as her defense attorney.

What Shakur’s method brings me is the importance of opening myself to interpersonal connections as sites for strength and learning. I’m not going to read or listen or think my way to a lived experience, that’s what makes lived experience both so important and so precious. But, I can open my ears and mind and heart to others the way Assata does, maybe I can get off my ass and do the right thing.