Assata Shakur Taught Me…Poetry

The past year has seen the smoldering edge of US society explode, from Missouri to New York to Maryland and beyond, giving us uprising in Ferguson (#HandsUpDontShoot), the mass protests in support of Eric Garner (#WeCantBreathe) the street battles in Baltimore (#JusticeforFreddieGray) and many other expressions of what has become widely referred to as the #BlackLivesMatter movement. [1] This upsurge against police brutality and systemic racism has witnessed new groups stepping into political life, seasoned veterans returning to the fray, as well as established NGOs and left organizations seizing the moment (or trying to).  Not surprisingly, it has proven to be a very diverse, even amorphous, mobilization, one that has been able to unite in the face of graphic police abuses and judicial injustice, but is far from united in terms of its sense of underlying mission, long-term strategy, methods and tactics, or political outlook. [2]

Contending inspirations are reflected in the outward manifestations of protest, ranging from the slogans and songs that fill the air, to the signs displayed (in the streets as well as on social media), including the historical figures that are held aloft as banners and as beacons. [3] Not just Martin Luther King Jr. but Malcolm X, not just Maya Angelou, but Mumia Abu-Jamal, not just Al Sharpton, but Fred Hampton have been common sightings.  The iconography of this upsurge has implied a will not just to protest but to resist, a commitment not just to non-violence but to self-defense, not just to piecemeal reform but to systemic change.  Those rallying in the streets have appealed to the ‘best aspirations’ of America, but they have also denounced what they see as the fundamental illegitimacy of ruling US institutions.  The long-standing protest chant, “What Do We Want?  Justice!  When Do We Want It? Now?” has been supplemented with a significant addition” “If We Don’t Get It?  Shut it Down!”  Those who chant such words are not satisfied with appealing to existing authorities; they are prepared to disrupt, delegitimize, or topple them.

Among the more strikingly radical figures invoked by organizers has been exiled Black revolutionary, Assata Shakur.  The former Black Panther, dubiously convicted “cop killer,” and wanted “terrorist” fugitive has become a recognized emblem in the movement, even though Assata herself, underground in Cuba, remains publicly quiet regarding the recent upsurge. Nonetheless, at demonstrations across the US, lines from Shakur’s autobiography have been turned into a kind of movement mantra.  I’ve heard it on the streets in Boston and beyond:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains (52). [4]

The lines have even been reprinted on the backs of hoodies designed by Ferguson organizers, sweatshirts that proclaim in all caps: “ASSATA TAUGHT ME.” [5]

What explains the particular appeal of Assata to the recent upsurge? When youth organizers and new activists proclaim that “Assata Taught Me,” what are they saying?

What can we learn about the current upsurge — its aspirations, its insights, its contradictions — by more closely examining the work of one of its key icons?

How deeply have the leaders of this movement examined Assata’s actual writings?

What has this movement learned from Assata?  And what could it?

Assata’s Symbolic Appeal

Assata represents a rare mix of continuity and difference with radicalisms past. She is a veteran of the Black Panther Party (as well as the Black Liberation Army), considered by many to be a high-point in revolutionary struggle and organization in the United States.  Moreover, she is a prominent survivor from a movement where so many were killed, incarcerated, or driven to destruction. [6]  She is, furthermore, a prominent female voice from an organization that, with all its merits, remained notoriously male-dominated (even as women did so much of the behind-the-scenes work necessary to sustain organization), a reality that reflected both the state of the New Left as well as the broader US society from which it emerged.

As a revolutionary black working-class woman, Assata meets the test of a movement that is often informed by theories of “intersectional” oppression, while her BPP/BLA history makes her an apt symbol for taking such theory to the streets. Assata here signifies a bit like bell hooks with a gun. Despite their invaluable contributions, it would be difficult to imagine BPP founders Huey Newton or Bobby Seale being picked up by #BLM in quite the same way today — not to mention a controversial figure such as Eldridge Cleaver.

Beyond her particular “subject-position,” however, Assata holds the political bar high, defining liberation as requiring a revolution not only against racism, but against capitalism and sexist patriarchy as well. Her presence thus suggests the radicalism of those who uphold her example, as well as their militancy. For though she has always upheld her innocence of the crime for which she was convicted, and though the state has been shown to lack any plausible evidence proving her guilt, the fact remains that Assata Shakur is a woman that openly proclaimed the need for armed revolutionary insurrection, someone whom the US government and the police consider to be a cop killer and a domestic terrorist. To square off with riot police in the wake of police shootings, openly bearing the name and image of someone the state consider to be a cop-killing “terrorist” suggests the confrontational desire and the courage at the cutting edge of this upsurge.

Assata’s physical absence from the American scene for the last three decades may have further strengthened her appeal as a symbolic rally point. She is a reminder of the severity of US ruling class repression. At the same time, Assata’s forced exile to Cuba, where she lives with a $2 million FBI bounty on her head, has kept her from being directly involved with—and thus diminished by — the various retreats, compromises, and demoralizations that have characterized so much of political life left of center in the USA since the mid-1970s . Retaining the aura of the outlaw, Assata has also avoided the taint of the post-revolutionary “sell-out,” or, for that matter, the assimilated academic. The insurgent revolutionary politics of her autobiography have been preserved in a kind of historical amber. Assata has never shilled for Obama.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Assata Shakur is someone who has been a target of aggressive state persecution, prosecution, and incarceration, but who managed to slip the noose and burst the prison walls (with the help of comrades).  Her fugitive position just off-shore in post-revolutionary Cuba adds to her anti-imperialist appeal, while her miraculous defiance of the prison system makes her a powerful symbol for a movement increasingly concerned with racialized mass incarceration, as well as police violence. [7] Her miraculous prison-break is further elevated to almost legendary status by the way Assata was able to overcome state restriction even while she was still incarcerated: most notably by conceiving and safely delivering a child (her daughter Kakuya) while in state custody.

Indeed, the arc of motherhood — including the struggle to conceive and to give birth, but also the struggle to connect with her daughter Kakuya while in prison and to reunite with her after escaping to Cuba — provide some of the most poignant moments of Shakur’s autobiographical narrative. Assata’s love-making (with fellow revolutionary Kamau Sadiki) as well as her child-bearing stands as a powerful symbol of her refusal to give up on human connection and the possibility of a transformed future, even as she is trapped in the dark dungeon of repression.  It testifies to the limits of a super-power state that aspires to full-spectrum dominance, and to the possibility of keeping humanity alive even amidst the most dehumanizing circumstances.

Assata thus stands as living proof that it is possible to challenge the empire in the most stark terms, to stare — and even to swear — right into the dripping fangs of repression, and yet live to tell the tale.

And to tell it eloquently.

It is this eloquence, what we might call the political lyricism of Assata, that I would like to discuss in this essay, picking up and expanding upon my prior exploration of Shakur’s general rhetorical strategies, what I have called elsewhere her autobiography’s “revolutionary relatability.” [8]

More precisely, this essay will focus primarily on Assata’s deft use of poetry throughout her narrative, a focus that will take us into political matters as well as literary ones. (For a more direct discussion of Assata’s political ideas, I refer readers to that prior essay.)

Assata’s Poetry: Reflections on Revolutionary Love

As I wrote in my previous discussion of teaching Assata, her poems present Shakur to us as not only a “militant” activist, and not only a victim of state violence, but as a writer, and not just as a critic or polemicist, but as a lyricist: a creature of human emotion, imagination, and love, as well as intellect and organizational commitment. From within a situation where there is often painfully little that she can control, writing gives Shakur a means of imposing her ideas and will on the madness around her, while keeping that madness from wrecking her own mind.

I then offered an interpretation of Assata’s opening poem, “Affirmation,” a text which “gives us a useful map of some of Assata’s major themes.” [9] I singled out the way her poem combines both a revolutionary optimism — grounded in a deep grasp of the potential for transforming consciousness — and a deeply self-critical humility that is attuned to the way that oppressive systems have at times distorted her own consciousness as much as anyone else’s.

In the present essay, I will develop my close readings and reflections on Assata’s poetry into a more comprehensive account of how these texts function, both as lyrics in themselves and in relationship with the social and political themes of her powerful narrative.

Though they are in some ways an eclectic mix, the poems interspersed across Assata develop common and interrelated themes. Many pay tribute to strong black women who have played important roles in Shakur’s life. A number reflect on motherhood (and daughterhood), as well as the relationship between love and politics, oppression and resistance. At their best, the poems represent exemplary reflections, concise, accessible attempts to relate the personal to the political, the new to the old, the past to the present, and to the future. They relate individual struggles for survival to the horizon of social transformation, often in ways that enrich (and are enriched by) her surrounding prose narrative.


Located mid-way through that narrative, just after she learns that her trial has been postponed due to her newly discovered pregnancy, Shakur’s short poem “Love” captures something crucial about Assata’s philosophy, making it a fitting place to start.

Love is contraband in Hell,
cause love is an acid
that eats away bars.

But you, me, and tomorrow
hold hands and make vows
that struggle will multiply.

The hacksaw has two blades.
The shotgun has two barrels.
We are pregnant with freedom.

We are a conspiracy.  (130)

Among Assata’s most striking features is the way the text brings together a fierce and unapologetic revolutionary determination with unabashed expressions of love for particular people (and for the people in general). As “Love” suggests, this fusion yields a commitment to collectivity and to hope, even in the most difficult of circumstances.  The joining of two — “you, me” gives birth to the horizon of a third — “tomorrow.” Similarly, the structure of that line implies that the very act of “making vows” together is itself a part of the struggle that one hopes to multiply.  It may be this combination — of love and armed struggle — that makes the book so popular and resonant, and potentially so dangerous, from a ruling class standpoint: the soft, loving, caring quality of Assata so clearly defies the hard-core militant “cop-killer” image that authorities have tried to pin her down with for decades.

Not unlike the Black Panther’s breakfast programs, which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saw as constituting the most threatening of all the BPP initiatives, Assata’s expressions of revolutionary love make it possible for her to gain sympathy from, and to begin dialogue with, even those readers not predisposed to radical politics — even, I would argue, from those who come to her text prepared for antagonism. Her love poems, her professions of care, her admissions of vulnerability, defy the hard image that has been painted upon her.  These texts help to melt the hardness of the reader, to “eat away the bars” that would keep others seeing her as an “enemy,” a “criminal” incapable of reason or feeling, to be dealt with through violence. At the same time, as a literary equivalent of the Panther Breakfast programs (which that Assata also helped to organize), the poems offer the radical reader sustenance amidst dark and hungry times. Her writing both seeks to eat away the enemy bars, and to feed those still locked behind them.

“Rhinocerous woman”

Among the sisters in struggle that we meet behind bars in Assata is Eva, the “300-pound” “hell-raiser” that befriends Shakur in the women’s workhouse while awaiting trial. “Rhinocerous woman” pays homage to Eva, “one of the few people that I have met in life who have the courage to be almost totally honest” (59-60). [10] She is a woman labelled “crazy” by dominant society for refusing to obey the orders or to aspire to the norms of her oppressors.  In a series of reversals, the text rewrites “craziness” as resistance to socially sanctioned “madness,” recasting “scars” (physical and mental) as “jewelry…bought with blood.”  Through her reflection on Eva, Assata challenges dominant ideas about female body image, installing the “shining light” of struggle as the highest form of beauty.

Rhinoceros woman
Who nobody wants
and everybody used.
They say you’re crazy
cause you not crazy enough
to kneel when told to kneel.

They hate you momma
cause you expose their madness.
And their cruelty.
They can see in your eyes
a thousand nightmares
that they have made come true.

hile the text is a kind of sisterly love poem, it is as much about the oppressors (mis)perception of the resistant subject as it is about Eva herself. Eva’s refusal provokes hate from the rulers, not simply because of what she herself is or does, but because of what she brings out of them, the way her resistance forces to the surface underlying “madness” and “cruelty,” mental and physical ugliness which can ordinarily be masked by the cover of routine and regulation, etc… but only so long as the subjects accepts their subjugation.  It is the resistant subject that forces the oppressors to admit and confront what they have become, what they have done and are doing. They cannot bear to look into the eyes of the one who resists, for fear of catching a glimpse of the “nightmares” they have caused. Whatever remnant of human sympathy or regret that remains on the part of the oppressor, in a sadistic (and perhaps also masochistic) act of bad faith, becomes twisted into hate.  For to admit the existence of such human sympathy would be to open the locked box of their own imprisoned subjectivity, to admit that they too have a choice to make, confronting them with the fact that the world is not the fixed, static, unchangeable thing that bureaucratic habit would make it out to be, but is rather constituted (in part) by their own praxis. Hate here is as much about stifling the oppressor’s intolerable human freedom as it is about any particular feature of the hated object. The poem recasts the hatred and blindness of oppressors as a kind of squinting to avoid fully seeing the truth that resistance reveals.

The poem further explores how this hate takes a toll on its victim, attending to the vulnerability and personal pain that the “rhinocerous woman” endures.

You gave them love.
They gave you shit.
You gave them you.
They gave you hollywood.
They purr at you
cause you know how to roar
and back it up with realness.
Rhinoceros woman.
Big momma in a little world.
You closed your eyes
and neon spun inside your head
cause it was dark outside.
You read your bible
but god never came.

They call you mad.
And almost had you believing
that shit. 

They called you ugly.
And you hid yourself
behind yourself
and wallowed in their shame. (63-64).

Able to make her jailers “purr” for the fear of her “roar,” the rhino woman is strong but still vulnerable, not only to the direct “shit” of her oppressors — at 300 pounds, Eva can intimidate even her guards — but to having her own strength turned against her. For as toxic as the “shit” of the oppressors may be, it is “believing that shit” that poses the greatest risk, compounding that “shit” with “shame.” Subjugation here threatens to turn into subjectification, as the system seeks to turn the oppressed against herself, to strip her of her confidence, to make her accept her subordinate position.

Shakur’s poem conducts a lyric struggle against that oppressive subjectification. In writing it, Assata demonstrates her belief that, at least at this level of consciousness, the oppressed subject can exert some control over a situation that may otherwise escape her grasp. The text holds out hope that, even in the context of incarceration, it is still possible for comrades to sustain one another in the truth of their resistance. As the poem concludes:

Rhinocerous Woman—
This world is blind
and slight of mind
and cannot see
How beautiful you are.

I saw your light.
And it was shining (64).

The conclusion signals the importance of supporting others in the face of a system that does not only deny people human dignity, but seeks their complicity in that denial.  “Rhinocerous Woman” reminds us of how even — and perhaps especially — the “baad” and the “crazy” need to be reminded that the source of the madness lies not in themselves, but in the society that surrounds them. The text speaks to the power of seeing — and speaking — the truth of another in a world that is “blind and slight of mind” and “cannot see.”


If “Rhinocerous Woman” communicates to the suffering prisoner that she can still be seen even in a world that refuses to see her, the five-line poem, “Stranger,” addresses failures of social recognition, where people fail to see and to understand one another, despite their physical proximity. The short text appears at the end of Chapter 8, a chapter that closes with a discussion of Assata’s changing political views, particularly her evolving ideas on US patriotism and her increasing pessimism about the (im)possibility of (white) America’s changing through peaceful reform.

Everything you love
is from a different world.
you turn up your nose
at my peas and rice.

If we are to make sense of this short text, however, it needs to be read in relation to the opening of Chapter 8 as well, where Shakur discusses what she calls “my first clear glimpse of the hierarchy of amerikan society,” (131). Recounting her teenaged wanderings across Manhattan, Assata maps the class and race character of the neighborhoods near where she grew up. There was a “world of difference,” she notes, between adjacent streets. “The people on 79th Street wouldn’t dream of socializing with the [poor] people on 80th Street,” and the wealthy people of 81st street, “were, for the most part, all white and not even slightly aware of the people who live only a block away” (132). The limited awareness of the privileged finds its flip side in the case of a girl named Lil Bit, a poor black schoolmate who lives on 84th Street, in a “horror house” of cramped squalor, with a mother who is dependent on welfare, having been being seriously injured at work. “Lil Bit’s mother never went anywhere except to the clinic or to the welfare office or to the bar on Amsterdam… She didn’t know anything about what was going on in the world and she didn’t seem to care. Eighty-fourth Street was her world and other worlds didn’t really exist” (134). A major theme of this chapter is thus how the social inequalities of US society — even in the more diverse mix of New York City — leaves people “strangers” to one another.

The chapter underscores the importance of the young Joanne’s [11] geographic mobility.  Her explorations of social difference express and enrich her curious mind and rebellious spirit, laying the basis for later leaps of consciousness. Walking through the East Side, Assata notes, “When I’d walk through those streets, some looked at me as if i was an object from a museum or something… But I kept walking and looking” (132, emphasis added). At the same time, Assata’s explorations sensitize her to the plight of those who, like Lil Bit’s mother, have become so isolated by social conditions as to have been stripped of meaningful social awareness or agency. On a more general level, these explorations suggest how social structure determines consciousness — people can’t come to know or to act up on things that they don’t see or aren’t aware of — but also how ideology and social class can keep people from seeing what is in fact right in front of them.

This account of the social distance between ostensive neighbors occasions Assata’s withering comments versus what she calls “liberals.” Digressing from recollections walking through the“liberal stronghold” of the Upper West Side, Assata admits that “I have never really understood exactly what a ‘liberal’ is…

As far as i can tell, you have the extreme right, who are fascist, racist, capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they are coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere between those two points is the liberal. As far as I’m concerned “liberal” is the most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private school, and reap the benefits of their white skin privileges, then they are “liberals.” But when times get hard and money gets tight, they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges (132-133).

It is not difficult to see connections between #BlackLivesMatter protest-antagonism towards “white supremacist liberals” and these passages from Assata. Similarly, a prevalent movement skepticism, or even outright hostility, to so-called “respectability politics” might be seen as a kind of symbolic siding with the “Rhinocerous woman,” in its staunch refusal to cater to the desires or expectations of hostile authority.

With similar bluntness, the chapter deals with the social estrangement that characterizes the public school system, where the white teachers are shown to be deeply disconnected from — and ignorant about — the students that they are supposedly teaching. The “music teacher,” Assata recalls…

talked to us as thought we were inferior savages, incapable of appreciating the finer things in life… She would scream at us and call us names like hooligans and ignoramuses.  And we returned her insults. 

We hated her because she thought the music she liked was so superior. She didn’t recognize that we had our own music and that we loved music. For her there was no other music except Bach and Mozart. To her, we were uncultured and uncouth. She was a racist who would have denied it to the bitter end. A lot of people don’t know how many ways racism can manifest itself and in how many ways people fight against it. When I think of how racist, how Eurocentric our so-called education system in amerika is, it staggers my mind. And when I think back to some of those kids who were labeled “troublemakers” and “problem students,” I realize that many of them were unsung heroes who fought to maintain some sense of dignity and self-worth. (139-140)

Against this backdrop, “The Stranger” can be read as a reflection on the seemingly unbridgeable social barriers separating the speaker from the imagined addressee. The wealthy neighbors, the privileged white liberals, the white public school teachers, all exist in close proximity with the young Joanne and her peers, but they might as well be from a different planet. This series, contrasted with the suffering and squalor of Lil Bit, and coupled with Shakur’s immediately preceding — increasingly pessimistic — reflections on race politics in Amerika, suggests that “The Stranger” is to be read as a kind of epigraph to the (im)possibility of interracial understanding, and to integrationist American politics, if not to interracial political alliance as such. [13] Once again, it is not difficult to find a similar pessimism, and a similar hostility towards “white liberals” (or even white leftists) present within the current Black Lives Matter movement.

But the very fact that Assata’s poem is structured as speaking to the “stranger,” raises a question: If the “stranger” is in fact incapable of transformation — if (white) people can never understand or never hear, never be made to care about the needs and demands of oppressed Black people — than why bother addressing them like this in the first place?

The “stranger” here, we should note, is described as “hungry.” Is it possible that this hunger — which marks that stranger as in some sense incomplete and lacking — provides the basis for struggle, for connection, and potential transformation?  This short (and deceptively simple) poem thus points to the gap between perception and reality, ideology and experience, gesturing towards the possibility that the foolish stranger (who turns his nose up at food) might be shaken from his imagined separation and superiority, compelled to come down and eat “peas and rice” with the masses. Not simply because he is forced to, but because he in some sense needs to.

While making no predictions or guarantees, the poem’s very form holds out the prospect of the stomach’s needs overpowering the nose’s learned aversions, of necessity overcoming social distance, of the stranger becoming familiar.  Of hunger laying the basis for common humanity.

An Aside: Assata on Race and Class, Strangers vs. Enemies

This gives us a chance to delve a bit more into Assata’s explicit treatment of race and class (in this same chapter, and elsewhere in her book). It is a complicated treatment. On the one hand, Assata writes, “The rich have always used racism to maintain power. To hate someone, to discriminate against them, and to attack them because of their racial characteristics is one of the most primitive, reactionary, ignorant ways of thinking that exists.” Such a comment implies that a particular class bears primary responsibility for and reaps the main benefits from the system of racial oppression. To this she adds, “Those who believe that the [elected] president or the vice-president and the congress and the supreme kourt run this country are sadly mistaken. The almighty dollar is king; those who have the most money control the country and, through campaign contributions, but and sell presidents, congressmen, and judges, the ones who pass the laws and enforce the laws that benefit their benefactors” (139). She emphasizes the economic class function of racism, and the control of the state by the wealthy. [14]

Yet just a few lines earlier, Assata writes that “White people, whether they are from the North or from the South, whether it was in 1960 or 1980, benefit from the oppression of Black people.” (139) Granted, she does not write *all* white people, but neither does she draw here any categorical exceptions. The seemingly seamless way in which Shakur moves from generalizing about white people benefiting from the oppression of black people to a discussion of the economic and political basis of class rule should not keep us from discerning a real tension here, especially as it is a tension that can be seen running through the anti-racist movement of today as well.

Is there a basis for Black Liberation uniting with white people (some?  most?) against the ruling class that runs things?  Or are white people (most? all?) so enmeshed in the benefits and privileges passed down by a white supremacist capitalism that, for all intents and purposes, Black folks fighting for liberation are effectively on their own?  How one answers this question has fundamental political consequences.

A similar tension runs through Shakur’s closing comments on the possibility of “race war” in the United States. She stands against such a prospect, writing that:

A war between the races would help nobody and free nobody and should be avoided at all costs. But a one-sided race war with Black people as targets and white people shooting the guns is worse. We will be criminally negligent, however, if we do not deal with racism and racist violence, and if we do not prepare to defend ourselves against it. (139-140)

On the one hand, Assata clearly states her opposition to a “war between the races.” One the other, she suggests the need for Black people to prepare to defend themselves against just such a “race war.” She opposes the polarization of social conflict along racial lines.  Presumably, as the Black Panthers put it, the polarization should be one that casts the people who are on the side of liberation against those who want to defend the system of capitalist-imperialism. The BPP stands not against white people but against white racism. And yet still Shakur voices the need to organize in light of that racist polarization, to prepare to fight on the enemy’s chosen terrain, though one would prefer to fight on one’s own. How to defend oneself and one’s movement against white racism, without treating potential white allies in a hostile manner that drives them into the ruling class enemy camp? How to prepare to withstand the assault of the state without walling oneself off from the people? These are far from easy questions.

Connecting back to the poem above, we might say that so long as so many white people, including so many would be “liberal” allies remain “strangers,” this perceived necessity of preparing for a kind of “race war,” is likely to persist.

At the same time, the stranger, Assata implies, is not the same as the enemy.  And the difference is crucial.


1. A recent review of the last year’s of protest can be found at The Guardian, July 19, 2015, “#Black Lives Matter: Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement” by Elizabeth Day:  It is of course important not to equate the movement with the organization Black Lives Matter.  See Black Agenda Report for some sharp criticisms of the organization BLM’s recent strategies, or the lack thereof.

2. Recent #BLM action around Democratic Party candidates have prompted renewed discussion and sharp debate about the way forward for this movement. See for instance Glen Ford’s essay at Black Agenda Report regarding recent #BLM actions. The question of how the movement handles, or should handle, these various differences, of how to disentangle what we can call ‘contradictions among the people’ from ‘contradictions between the people and the enemy” — that is, those contradictions that can be worked through non-antagonistically from those that cannot — is a crucial one, albeit one that for the most part falls beyond the scope of this essay.
3.  I’ve written some on the prominent slogans, chants, and songs of the movement here:
4. Culled from the end of “To My People,” Assata’s taped July 4, 1973 prison broadcast, these four sentences pack some punch.  Not only do they frame the struggle as a matter of “duty,” with the commitment to a greater Cause that entails, but they emphasize the need to actually win, not just to voice opposition or to “be heard,” but to take power and enforce change.  This focus on victory over (not just compromise with) enemy forces, is coupled with a call to love and support fellow members of the movement.  The lines thus draw a stark “friend-enemy” distinction, advocating radically different ethics for dealing with one versus the other.  The enemy is to be fought and defeated; friends are to be loved and supported.  The last line, of course, is taken from the closing of The Communist Manifesto, suggesting broad and universal revolutionary aspirations.
5. The Assata hoodies, designed by Ferguson organizer, Ashley Yates, are mentioned in the NYTimes Magazines major article on the #BLM movement:  The hoodies can be ordered here:

6. See for instance Bloom and Martins’ recent book, Black Against Empire: the History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. (University of California Press, 2013)
7. Loic Wacquant, in his thoughtful contribution to Socialism and Democracy’s special issue on “The Roots of Mass Incarceration,” makes a compelling case for shifting our language to speak not of *mass* incarceration, but rather hyper-incarceration of particular communities, selected by class, race, and geographical location.
8. Originally published at Socialism and Democracy, this essay can be found in two parts at Red Wedge Magazine:  and also here:

10.While dabbling in the mysticism of “astro-space projection,” the protective Eva offers Assata worldly advice as well: “You’ll be in jail wherever you go,” she says, prompting Assata to reflect on how Black people in Amerika, even those not behind bars are still not free, but rather in a kind of “low security prison.” During a confrontation with guards, Eva stands with Assata, declaring that “I am JoAnne Chesimard,” confusing and deterring guard aggression. (“When the guards took one look at Eva and saw how big she was, their tone changed immediately” (61). For her part in the “riot” that follows, Eva is removed from general population to the “‘hospital’ for the criminally insane” for three weeks.  It was during her absence, Assata tells us, while still incarcerated, that she pens “Rhinocerous Woman.”

11. Joanne Chesimard was Assata’s birth name, or as she has called it, her “slave name.”

12. The flip side of this teacher’s lack of cultural appreciation and respect would appear expressed in Assata’s short poem, “Culture” (found at the end of Chapter 10).
i must confess that waltzes
do not move me.
i have no sympathy
for symphonies.
i guess i hummed the Blues
too early,
and spent too many midnights
out wailing to the rain (159).

This is the first part of a two-part essay series. The second part will be published in the October issue of Red Wedge.

This piece first appeared in Red Wedge.