Assata Shakur Speaks from Exile
Post-modern maroon in the ultimate palenque
An interview by Christian Parenti
What happens to old Black Panthers? Some wind up dead, like Huey P. Newton.
Some join the Moonies and the Republican Party, like Eldridge Cleaver.
Some, like Mumia Abu Jamal, languish in prison. But a few, like Assata
Shakur, have taken the path of the "maroon," the runaway slave of old who
slipped off the plantation to the free jungle communities known as
Two decades ago Shakur was described as "the soul of the Black Liberation
Army (BLA)," an underground, paramilitary group that emerged from the
rubble of east coast chapters of the Black Panther Party. Among her closest
political comrades was Ahfeni Shakur, Tupac Shakur's mother. Forced
underground in 1971, by charges that were later proved false, Assata was
accused of being the "bandit queen" of the BLA; the "mother hen who kept
them together, kept them moving, kept them shooting." The BLA's alleged
actions included: assassinating almost ten police officers, kidnapping drug
dealers (one of whom turned out to be an FBI agent), and robbing banks from
coast to coast.
Throughout 1971 and 1972 "Assata sightings" and wild speculation about her
deeds were a headline mainstay for New York tabloids. Then, in 1973, Shakur
and two friends were pulled over by state troopers on the New Jersey
Turnpike. During the stop, shooting erupted. A trooper and one alleged BLA
member were killed, another trooper was slightly hurt and Assata-or Miss
Joanne Chesimard, as authorities preferred to call her-was severely wounded
by a blast of police gunfire. Left to die in a paddy wagon, she survived
only to be charged for the trooper's death and sentenced to life in prison.
During the next six years (much of it spent in solitary confinement),
Shakur beat a half dozen other indictments. In 1979-after giving birth in
prison, only to have her daughter taken away in less than a week-Assata
Shakur managed one of the most impressive jailbreaks of the era. After
almost a year in a West Virginia federal prison for women, surrounded by
white supremacists from the Aryan Sisterhood prison gang, Shakur was
transferred to the maximum security wing of the Clinton Correctional Center
in New Jersey. There she was one of only eight maximum security prisoners
held in a small, well-fenced cellblock of their own. The rest of
Clinton-including its visiting area-was medium security and not fenced in.
According to news reports at the time, Shakur's November 2 escape proceeded
as follows: Three men-two black, one white-using bogus drivers licenses and
Social Security cards, requested visits with Assata four weeks in advance,
as was prison policy. But prison officials never did the requisite
background checks. On the day of the escape, the team of three met in the
waiting room at the prison entrance, where they were processed through
registration and shuttled in a van to the visiting room in South Hall. One
member of the team went ahead of the rest. Although there was a sign
stating that all visitors would be searched with a hand held metal
detector-he made it through registration without even a pat-down.
Meanwhile, the other two men were processed without a search. As these two
were being let through the chain-link fences and locked metal doors at the
visiting center one of them drew a gun and took the guard hostage.
Simultaneously, the man visiting Shakur rushed the control booth, put two
pistols to the glass wall, and ordered the officer to open the room's metal
door. She obliged.
From there Shakur and "the raiders"-as some press reports dubbed them-took
a third guard hostage and made it to the parked van. Because only the
maximum security section of the prison was fully fenced-in the escape team
was able to speed across a grassy meadow to the parking lot of the
Hunterdon State School, where they meet two more female accomplices, and
split up into a "two-tone blue sedan" and a Ford Maverick. All the guards
were released unharmed and the FBI immediately launched a massive hunt. But
Shakur disappeared without a trace.
For the next five years authorities hunted in vain. Shakur had vanished.
Numerous other alleged BLA cadre were busted during those years, including
Tupac's uncle, Mutula Shakur. In 1984 word came from 90 miles off the coast
of Florida. The FBI's most wanted female fugitive was living in Cuba,
working on a masters degree in political science, writing her
autobiography, and raising her daughter.
Cut to 1997. It's a stunningly hot summer afternoon in Havana, Cuba-the
ultimate palenque-and I am having strong, black coffee with Assata Shakur
who just turned 50, but looks more like 36. She keeps a low profile,
security is still a big concern. She's finishing her second book. Given how
much the Fed's want this woman locked up, I feel strange being in her
house, as if my presence is a breach of security.
PARENTI: How did you arrive in Cuba?
SHAKUR: Well, I couldn't, you know, just write a letter and say "Dear
Fidel, I'd like to come to your country." So I had to hoof it-come and wait
for the Cubans to respond. Luckily, they had some idea who I was, they'd
seen some of the briefs and UN petitions from when I was a political
prisoner. So they were somewhat familiar with my case and they gave me the
status of being a political refugee. That means I am here in exile as a
How did you feel when you got here?
I was really overwhelmed. Even though I considered myself a socialist, I
had these insane, silly notions about Cuba. I mean, I grew up in the 1950s
when little kids were hiding under their desks, because "the communists
were coming." So even though I was very supportive of the revolution, I
expected everyone to go around in green fatigues looking like Fidel,
speaking in a very stereotypical way, "the revolution must continue,
Companero. Let us, triumph, Comrade." When I got here people were just
people, doing what they had where I came from. It's a country with a strong
sense of community. Unlike the U.S., folks aren't as isolated. People are
really into other people.
Also, I didn't know there were all these black people here and that there
was this whole Afro-Cuban culture. My image of Cuba was Che Guevara and
Fidel Castro, I hadn't heard of Antonio Maceo [a hero of the Cuban war of
independence] and other Africans who had played a role in Cuban history.
The lack of brand names and consumerism also really hit me. You go into a
store and there would be a bag of "rice." It undermined what I had taken
for granted in the absurd zone where people are like, "Hey, I only eat
uncle so and so's brand of rice."
So, how were you greeted by the Cuban state?
They've treated me very well. It was different from what I expected, I
thought they might be pushy. But they were more interested in what I wanted
to do, in my projects. I told them that the most important things were to
unite with my daughter and to write a book. They said, "What do you need to
do that?" They were also interested in my vision of the struggle of African
people in the United States. I was so impressed by that. Because I grew
up-so to speak-in the movement dealing with white leftists who were very
bossy and wanted to tell us what to do and thought they knew everything.
The Cuban attitude was one of solidarity with respect. It was a profound
lesson in cooperation.
Did they introduce you to people or guide you around for a while?
They gave me a dictionary, an apartment, took me to some historical places,
and then I was pretty much on my own. My daughter came down, after
prolonged harassment and being denied a passport, and she became my number
one priority. We discovered Cuban schools together, we did the sixth grade
together, explored parks, and the beach.
She was taken from you at birth, right?
Yeah. It's not like Cuba where you get to breast feed in prison and where
they work closely with the family. Some mothers in the U.S. never get to
see their newborns. I was with my daughter for a week before they sent me
back to the prison. That was one of the most difficult periods of my life,
that separation. It's only been recently that I've been able to talk about
it. I had to just block it out, otherwise I think I might have gone insane.
In 1979, when I escaped, she was only five years old.
You came to Cuba how soon after?
Five years later, in 1984.
I know it's probably out of bounds, but where were you during the
I was underground. But I don't talk about that period. To do so would put
a lot of people who helped me in jeopardy.
Right, I hear you. You've talked about adjusting to Cuba, but could you
talk a bit about adjusting to exile.
Well, for me exile means separation from people I love. I didn't, and don't
miss the U.S., per se. But black culture, black life in the U.S., that
African American flavor, I definitely miss. The language, the movements,
the style, I get nostalgic about that.
Adjusting to exile is coming to grips with the fact that you may never go
back to where you come from. The way I dealt with that, psychologically,
was thinking about slavery. You know, a slave had to come to grips with the
fact that "I may never see Africa again." Then a maroon, a runaway slave,
has to-even in the act of freedom-adjust to the fact that being free or
struggling for freedom means, "I'll be separated from people I love." So I
drew on that and people like Harriet Tubman and all those people who got
away from slavery. Because, that's what prison looked like. It looked like
slavery. It felt like slavery. It was black people and people of color in
chains. And the way I got there was slavery. If you stand up and say, "I
don't go for the status quo." Then "we got something for you, it's a whip,
a chain, a cell."
Even in being free it was like, "I am free but now what?" There was a lot
to get used to. Living in a society committed to social justice, a third
world country with a lot of problems. It took a while to understand all
that Cubans are up against and fully appreciate all they are trying to do.
Did the Africanness of Cuba help, did that provide solace?
The first thing that was comforting was the politics. It was such a
relief. You know, in the States you feel overwhelmed by the negative
messages that you get and you just feel weird, like you're the only one
seeing all this pain and inequality. People are saying, "Forget about that,
just try to get rich, dog eat dog, get your own, buy, spend, consume." So
living here was an affirmation of myself, it was like "Okay, there are lots
of people who get outraged at injustice."
The African culture I discovered later. At first I was learning the
politics, about socialism-what it feels like to live in a country where
everything is owned by the people, where health care and medicine are
free. Then I started to learn about the Afro-Cuban religions, the
Santaria, Palo Monte, the Abakua. I wanted to understand the ceremonies and
the philosophy. I really came to grips with how much we-Black people in the
U.S.-were robbed of. Whether it's the tambours, the drums, or the dances.
Here, they still know rituals preserved from slavery times. It was like
finding another piece of myself. I had to find an African name. I'm still
looking for pieces of that Africa I was torn from. I've found it here in
all aspects of the culture. There is a tendency to reduce the Africanness
of Cuba to the Santaria. But it's in the literature, the language, the
When the USSR collapsed, did you worry about a counter revolution in Cuba
and, by extension, your own safety?
Of course. I would have to have been nuts not to worry. People would come
down here from the States and say, "How long do you think the revolution
has-two months, three months? Do you think the revolution will survive? You
better get out of here." It was rough.
Cubans were complaining every day, which is totally sane. I mean, who
wouldn't? The food situation was really bad, much worse than now, no
transportation, eight-hour blackouts. We would sit in the dark and wonder,
"How much can people take?" I've been to prison and lived in the States, so
I can take damn near anything. I felt I could survive whatever-anything
except U.S. imperialism coming in and taking control. That's the one thing
I couldn't survive.
Luckily, a lot of Cubans felt the same way. It took a lot for people to
pull through, waiting hours for the bus before work. It wasn't easy. But
this isn't a superficial, imposed revolution. This is one of those gut
revolutions. One of those blood, sweat and tears revolutions. This is one
of those revolutions where people are like, "We ain't going back on the
plantation, period. We don't care if you're Uncle Sam, we don't care about
your guided missiles, about your filthy, dirty CIA maneuvers. We're this
island of 11 million people and we're gonna live the way we want and if you
don't like it, go take a ride." And we could get stronger with the
language. Of course, not everyone feels like that, but enough do.
What about race and racism in Cuba?
That's a big question. The revolution has only been around 30-something
years. It would be fantasy to believe that the Cubans could have completely
gotten rid of racism in that short a time. Socialism is not a magic wand:
wave it and everything changes.
Can you be more specific about the successes and failures along these lines?
I can't think of any area of the country that is segregated. Another
example, the third congress of the Cuban Communist Party was focused on
making party leadership reflect the actual number of people of color and
women in the country. Unfortunately by the time the Fourth Congress rolled
around the whole focus had to be on the survival of the revolution. When
the Soviet Union and the socialist camp collapsed Cuba lost something like
85 percent of its income. It's a process but I honestly think that there's
room for a lot of changes throughout the culture. Some people still talk
about "good hair" and "bad hair."
Some people think light skin is good, that if you marry a light person
you're advancing the race. There are a lot of contradictions in peoples'
consciousness. There still needs to be de-eurocentrizing of the schools,
though Cuba is further along with that than most places in the world. In
fairness, I think that race relations in Cuba are 20 times better than they
are in the States and I believe the revolution is committed to eliminating
I also feel that the special period has changed conditions in Cuba. It's
brought in lots of white tourists, many of whom are racists and expect to
be waited on subserviently.
Another thing is the joint venture corporations which bring their racist
ideas and racist corporate practices, for example not hiring enough blacks.
All of that means the revolution has to be more vigilant than ever in
identifying and dealing with racism.
A charge one hears, even on the left, is that institutional racism still
exists in Cuba. Is that true? Does one find racist patterns in allocation
of housing, work, or the functions of criminal justice?
No. I don't think institutional racism, as such, exists in Cuba. But at the
same time, people have their personal prejudices. Obviously these people,
with these personal prejudices, must work somewhere, and must have some
influence on the institutions they work in. But I think it's superficial to
say racism is institutionalized in Cuba.
I believe that there needs to be a constant campaign to educate people,
sensitize people, and analyze racism. The fight against racism always has
two levels; the level of politics and policy but also the level of
individual consciousness. One of the things that influences ideas about
race in Cuba is that the revolution happened in 1959, when the world had a
very limited understanding of what racism was. During the 1960s, the world
saw the black power movement, which I, for one, very much benefited from.
You know "black is beautiful," exploring African art, literature, and
culture. That process didn't really happen in Cuba. Over the years, the
revolution accomplished so much that most people thought that meant the end
of racism. For example, I'd say that more than 90 percent of black people
with college degrees were able to do so because of the revolution. They
were in a different historical place. The emphasis, for very good reasons,
was on black-white unity and the survival of the revolution. So it's only
now that people in the universities are looking into the politics of identity.
What do you think of the various situations of your former comrades? For
example, the recent releases of Geronimo Pratt, Johnny Spain, and Dhoruba
Bin Wahad; the continued work of Angela Davis and Bobby Seale; and, on a
downside, the political trajectory of Eldridge Cleaver and the death of
There have been some victories. And those victories have come about from a
lot of hard work. But it took a long time. It took Geronimo 27 years and
Dhoruba 19 years to prove that they were innocent and victimized by
COINTELPRO. The government has admitted that it operated COINTELPRO but it
hasn't admitted to victimizing anyone. How can that be? I think that people
in the States should be struggling for the immediate freedom of Mumia Abu
Jamal and amnesty for all political prisoners. I think that the reason
these tasks are largely neglected reflects not only the weakness of the
left, but its racism.
On the positive side, I think a lot of people are growing and healing. Many
of us are for the first time analyzing the way we were wounded. Not just as
Africans, but as people in the movement who were, and still are, subjected
to terror and surveillance. We're finally able to come together and
acknowledge that the repression was real and say, "We need to heal." I have
hope for a lot of those people who were burnt out or addicted to drugs or
alcohol, the casualties of our struggle. Given all that we were and are up
against I think we did pretty well.
What effect do you think Rap music has on the movement for social justice
Hip Hop can be a very powerful weapon to help expand young people's
political and social consciousness. But just as with any weapon, if you
don't know how to use it, if you don't know where to point it, or what
you're using it for, you can end up shooting yourself in the foot or
killing your sisters or brothers. The government recognized immediately
that Rap music has enormous revolutionary potential. Certain politicians
got on the bandwagon to attack Rappers like Sister Soldier and NWA. You've
got various police organizations across the country who have openly
expressed their hostility towards Rap artists. For them, most Rappers fall
in the category of potential criminals, cop killers, or subversives.
If you don't believe that the FBI has extensive files on every popular Rap
artist, you probably believe in the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy. It's a
known fact that more than a few Rappers are under constant police
There's been speculation that Tupac Shakur was set up on those rape
charges. He makes reference to it in one of his songs. Do you think there
is a COINTELPRO program against Rappers?
It's a definite possibility. Divide and conquer is what the FBI does best.
Just look at the history. The FBI engineered the split in the Black Panther
party. The police and the government have pitted organizations against
each other, gangs against each other, leaders against each other. Now
you've got this East coast versus West coast thing.
Look, we came over on the same boats, we slaved on the same plantations
together, and we're all being oppressed, brutalized, and incarcerated
together in mega numbers, what sense does it make for us to be fighting
each other? So yes, I believe the government encouraged this in-fighting,
and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that they set Tupac up more than once.
What did you think of Tupac's music?
I think Tupac was a genius. He had so much talent. I love his music, even
when I don't agree with what he's saying or the premises he's operating on.
He was able to touch so much gut stuff, that most people don't even
recognize, much less have the ability to express.
What are your thoughts on his contradictory role as child of the movement
and, on the other hand, a gangster Rapper?
That contradictory consciousness you're talking about is all over the
place. Unfortunately it's nothing new. In the 1960s and the 1970s people
like Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, clearly exhibited aspects of that
confusion, and mixed up revolutionary politics with gangsterism. The mind
destroying machine works overtime, getting us to crave power and money
instead of justice. We've all been a bit brainwashed and confused.
I don't care who you are, Hollywood has crept into your head. The act of
being free has a lot to do with becoming unbrainwashed. I hear all these
Rappers talking about keeping it real and, at the same time, they're
selling big-time fantasies. These Rap videos made in fancy clubs, casinos,
rented mansions, around rented swimming pools, rented yachts, rented
private planes, rented helicopters. Most of the people in the Rap business
are barely making it.
Tupac was an exception. He was only 25 when he died, and one of the things
that makes me sad is that there was no strong community of African
revolutionaries to protect him and help educate him. Those who loved him
did all they could, but they were competing with some very forceful,
seductive, negative influences.
As a movement, I think we have to become much more involved in educating
and supporting our young people. Black people, African people are just as
discriminated against and brutalized as we were in the 1960s, and racism is
very much on the agenda of both the Republican and Democratic parties. We
need to rebuild a movement capable of liberating our people. There's
nothing we can do to bring Tupac back, but we can learn from his death. You
can hear a lot of love in Tupac's work. We need to work to create a world
where the Tupacs of the world can grow and love and not be afraid that some
fool with a Glock is going to blow their brains out.
As far as I'm concerned Rappers need to be spending a lot more time
studying and struggling. As for the myth of Tupac being alive, the last
thing we need is more nonsense. I don't care who you are or what you do,
when they put that microphone in front of you, try to make sure you have
something worthwhile to say.
Are you still a revolutionary?
I am still a revolutionary, because I believe that in the United States
there needs to be a complete and profound change in the system of so called
democracy. It's really a "dollarocracy." Which millionaire is going to get
elected? Can you imagine if you went to a restaurant and the only thing on
the menu was dried turd or dead fungus. That's not appetizing. I feel the
same way about the political spectrum in the U.S. What exists now has got
to go. All of it: how wealth is distributed, how the environment is
treated. If you let these crazy politicians keep ruling, the planet will be
In the 1960s, organizations you worked with advocated armed self-defense,
how do you think social change can best be achieved in the States today?
I still believe in self-defense and self-determination for Africans and
other oppressed people in America. I believe in peace, but I think it's
totally immoral to brutalize and oppress people, to commit genocide against
people and then tell them they don't have the right to free themselves in
whatever way they deem necessary. But right now the most important thing is
consciousness raising. Making social change and social justice means people
have to be more conscious across the board, inside and outside the
movement, not only around race, but around class, sexism, the ecology,
whatever. The methods of 1917, standing on a corner with leaflets, standing
next to someone saying, "Workers of the world unite," won't work. We need
to use alternative means of communication. The old ways of attaining
consciousness aren't going to work. The little Leninist study groups won't
do it. We need to use video, audio, the Internet.
We also need to work on the basics of rebuilding community. How are you
going to organize or liberate your community if you don't have one? I live
in Cuba, right? We get U.S. movies here and I am sick of the monsters; it's
the tyranny of the monsters. Every other movie is fear and monsters.
They've even got monster babies. People are expected to live in this world
of alienation and fear. I hear that in the States people are even afraid to
make eye contact on the streets. No social change can happen if people are
that isolated. So we need to rebuild a sense of community and that means
knocking on doors and reconnecting.
Christian Parenti teaches sociology at the New College of California in San
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