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Mngxitama, Andile  (2005) About Life: A Review of the Autobiography of Assata Shakur.  : -.

In May this year the United States government placed a $1 million bounty for the abduction of Assata Shakur from Cuba, where she has been in exile since 1984. Who is Assata Shakur, and what is her crime? These questions are excellently answered in the brilliant and easy to read autobiography of Assata, written after being given a life sentence by an all white jury in 1977 for crimes she did not commit. This is not a life story of one Black woman in America, it’s a statement of what life has been like for Blacks in that country since their arrival there as slaves from the African continent. For most of the world, Hurricane Katrina shattered the lie of racial harmony and equality in the USA, and rapidly replaced the sanitized images of Black America which are peddled by bling-bling promoting MTV and Hollywood. The moment Hurricane Katrina struck, distinctions between Darfur and New Orleans were blurred, and many a commentator was left wondering: is this America?

Assata’s biography tells the story of America’s war against Black people since the time of chattel slavery. At the same time , the biography is a bold testament of the heroic feats of Blacks in America who were able to stay alive against all the odds. When America bombs Iraq for its oil, it is really just the externalization of the internal war it has waged against Black people for centuries, and this autobiography gives us a sense of what it really means to be Black and conscious in America.

Assata takes us through her stages of coming into “consciousness”, and as she does this, we can see the intestines of Black life under the jackboot of racist America after the formal end of slavery, and how Blacks constantly lived their lives with their backs against the wall. The opening chapter takes us to the night of Assata’s violent capture in May 1973 on the New Jersey Turnpike. She was shot, and as her comrade lay dying, fists and kicks rained down on her wounded body with hatred that can only be explained by a desire to eradicate her very being. When she and her companions were stopped that night, she was wanted by the police for numerous alleged crimes, none of which she was eventually convicted for. These arraignments, which could not stand even in loaded courts, pointed to the state-sanctioned harassment of Blacks but, more specifically, those who chose to speak out and fight back. The judicial harassment, which followed her arrest, forms part of the attack on Black resistance, which has led to the violent destruction of the Black Panther Party. Assata relates how the whole judicial machinery functions to deny Blacks any semblance of justice. She was there in six such circumstances. Reading her encounter with the criminal justice system explains two important aspects of Black lives in America. Firstly, the disproportionate number of Blacks in prison and on death row, and secondly, that prison is the continuation of slavery by other means. In fact, we learn from the autobiography that the American Constitution allows for slavery in prison.

When Assata describes prison conditions one immediately understands how prison has become a place to break the souls of Black people to ensure that no resistance ever occurs against the racist regime in America. Her sin was to face white racist America by joining the Black Panthers. As a result she was followed, shot and thrown into jail. The FBI declared her “the mother hen who kept them together, kept them moving, kept them shooting”. The subtext is clear, she must be destroyed, and this they tried to do through various means, including judicial lynching.

This book takes us through one of the most important moments of Black Pride - the rise of the Black Panther Party, which stood up against the violent oppression of Black people. Assata takes us through a journey of the beauty of resistance against death, which the Panthers introduced, but she does not gloss over the internal weaknesses of the resistance. The Panthers were destroyed because they dared to face the beast and declared: “We are a people ”! They were destroyed for the same reason Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and 2Pac Shakur were destroyed.

Assata writes as eloquently about life as she does about hope and despair in the presence of death. She never loses hope and through her love we are implored to never lose hope in the capacity of the oppressed to fight for justice. You will laugh at the levels of stupidity which come with racism; you will be angered by the wanton destruction of life to maintain an inhumane system built on arrogance and greed; and you will cry when she relates her story of how she got pregnant in jail and later gave birth to her daughter. The opportunity to bring new life was afforded, ironically, by the very evil spiteful intentions of the criminal justice system. In this case she was charged with another Panther named Kamau. The whole court procedure was such a blatant denial of any fair trial that they both decided not to have lawyers and to speak unguarded truths about their legal lynching. As punishment, they were locked up together in a freezing dark room for each court appearance. That was, she tells us, better than the bizarre goings- on in court. The pair, having grown romantically close, had to face the question of a possible pregnancy. At this point, Assata takes us to the depths of what it means to be Black in America. She had long decided not to have children, because she writes: “the world was too horrible to bring another human being into”. She struggles with her thoughts, enumerating the kinds of evil things which visit the life of the Black child. But finally she decides she is “about life”, and that she is not going to allow the racist system to make her kill her children in her mind, before they are even born. The struggle to keep her pregnancy and make sure that her daughter was born healthy in the face of the determination of the prison authorities to harm her unborn child, is heart wrenching. She had to resist to ensure that her child could exist.

Today, Assata Shakur lives under the protection and revolutionary generosity of the Cuban people and government, while the USA is hell-bent on returning her to the plantation as a run-away slave. It is heart-warming to know that some students of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg have started the Hands Off Assata Campaign in South Africa. It is Assata herself who writes, “The defeat of Apartheid in South Africa will bring Africans all over the planet closer to liberation”.

Andile Mngxitama is a patron of the Hands Off Assata Campaign in South Africa.


The HANDS OFF ASSATA campaign is a coming together of organizations and individuals, who are outraged by the heightened attempts by the United States government to illegally force the kidnapping and return of Assata Shakur from Cuba. The HANDS OFF ASSATA SOUTH AFRICA campaign is part of a global solidarity campaign aimed at creating awareness about the condition of Assata Shakur and the many other soldiers of the liberation that face the same fate of unjust incarceration and persecution – like that of Mumia Abu Jamal and Sundiata Acoli.

We believe that it is morally incorrect to knowingly allow for such inequalities to happen in other parts of the world. We believe that it is important to build solidarity with the African Diaspora, who are often minorities, and therefore treated unfairly, even in the wealthiest of countries. This is an issue of justice and an issue that affects all of us – regardless of race or creed, so ACT NOW!

Take these steps now:


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