Assata Shakur was an important figure during and after the civil rights movement. Being an African American woman, she was disadvantaged both in terms of race and gender. Hence her social activism served a two-fold purpose. But her association with the militant wings of the civil rights movement, such as the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army are the most studied in academic circles. Her autobiography simply titled Assata: An Autobiography narrates her struggles and successes in progressing the cause of her fellow blacks. She gives a first hand account of her involvement in the New Jersey Turnpike shootout. The series of legal trials brought against her including the Bronx bank robbery trial, the charge of attempted murder leveled against her, the kidnapping trial and the Queens bank robbery trial were also dealt with by the author. There is also coverage of Assata’s escape from prison and her seeking of political asylum in Cuba. The United States government could not get its extradition request honoured by the Cuban government, which reflected the prevailing diplomatic tension between the two countries. The book should serve as an important source of information for students of American history, race and gender studies.
One striking aspect of the book is the poignancy with which the author describes her struggles and her participation in the movement for black emancipation. Although Assata indulged in many subversive and illegal activities, the absence of any strong sense of guilt is quite understandable. She seems to suggest that civil disobedience is a valid and proper political tool to be employed when situation so warrants. And the life of the narrator is a long series of such disobedient acts. But rather than following Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violent protestation, Assata allied herself with militant elements in the black empowerment movement. This crucial choice in her life will make her a target of criticism from mainstream commentators and analysts. While she is seen by fellow blacks as a leader worthy of following, the rest of America saw her as a trouble maker and as someone who spoiled civil harmony. Another aspect of the book that interested me is the account of the author’s childhood. Born to parents of low socio-economic background, the formative years were marked by chaos and confusion. The lack of feeling of being loved and being secure had in no small way contributed to the formation of aggressiveness and non-deference toward institutions of authority. Hence I was impressed by the author’s own psychological insights into her character.
Reading through the book, I got the feeling that there is a self-favoring bias on part of the author, which is understandable in a work of autobiography. There is also scant coverage of her personal relationships, which makes it a political autobiography rather than a personal one. But despite deficiencies in these areas, the book captures the internal conflicts and tribulations of the radical activist author. It is because of sincere dedication to positive social change on part of activists like Assata that the United States is a more civil and equitable society than what it was fifty years back. The seeds of progress that were sown by leaders like Assata has fructified into measurable change in American socio-political landscape. The rise of Barack Obama to the office of Presidency in late 2008 is the most symbolic expression of this progress.
Shakur, Assata. (1987). Assata: An Autobiography. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.