Growing Up Panther: An Interview With K’sisay Sadiki

“Kamau.” Painting by Sophie Dawson.

“As we left the courtroom, [a friend] was standing in the hallway with K’Sisay, Kamau’s two-year-old daughter. As Kamau walked near her, she held out her arms to him. Kamau took two steps toward her and the marshals jumped him and began beating him. … I will never forget the haunting scream of that child as she watched her father being brutally beaten.”

–Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography

That two-year-old, K’Sisay Sadiki, is now in her forties with kids of her own. She has lived her life in two worlds. She’s attended prestigious dance and film schools, holds down a steady job, pays taxes. And, as the child of Black Panthers, she’s lived underground, raised by people dedicated to overturning white supremacy. Her father, Kamau, also has a daughter – K’Sisay’s sister – by Assata Shakur, who famously escaped from prison in 1979 and now lives in Cuba as a “dangerous fugitive,” hunted by the US government. Kamau is in a Georgia prison, serving a life-plus-ten-years sentence for the 1971 fatal shooting of a police officer – a cold case, resurrected in the post-9/11 world.

K’Sisay tells me about how she’s making sense of her life. “I need people to know who my parents are. Who I am, too, as a woman who has lived in the background, not feeling comfortable with sharing my father’s story.” On January 31 and February 1, she will perform “The Visit,” her one-person show, at University Settlement in Lower Manhattan. Part of an installation by the artist Sophia Dawson, “The Visit” is K’Sisay’s work in progress, an exploration of her double reality – and a way to educate people about her father.

K’SISAY: I was born into activism. Both my parents were Black Panthers in the Queens branch of the Party. When I was a baby, my father was arrested for a robbery and served five years in prison. He wrote me letters, like, “Oh, my baby’s sick. When I get out I’m going to be there for you.”

My mom and I would visit my father when I was a toddler. Once we went to visit – my mom said he’d gotten his GED. So I thought we were there to celebrate something. They put my mother and me in a room and said he’d be out soon. But he didn’t come. My mother and I were there for hours, so long that I peed on myself and started screaming. Then they brought my father in.

My mother didn’t want him to react with anger: “This is my family – look what you did to them!” She tried to calm him down, calm me down, make the best of the situation. My mom would always try to make things brighter. She’d pack picnic lunches. “We’re going to see your father, then we’re going to the lake!” But there are photographs of me as a little girl, and you can see the stress. Going to court and stuff, I experienced trauma. My grandmother told my mother, “You can’t expose her to that, you have to make a decision.”

So I was also raised going to art camps, being exposed to theater, knowing my family wanted the best for me: “Whatever your dreams are, let’s cultivate them.”

SD: Is there’s a similarity between you as a Panther kid and kids growing up in the 1950s Red Scare, whose parents were Communists?

KS: Yeah, we definitely couldn’t say certain things, and we were taught a code. At school, I never stood up to say the Pledge of Allegiance. That was something my mom taught me as a little girl.

I went to a predominantly white school in Queens, and I thought, “Damn. Why are these teachers so mean to me? Like they loved their little white girls, but they hated me. Then there was me not standing up to say the Pledge…

My mother was comrades with this other woman from the Panthers. Her daughter and I were raised together. They would dress us up and take us to Broadway plays and stuff, and we’d wear these little pink dresses or whatever. They just liked dressing us up.

But I was raised around kids of Panthers, and taught that we were blood cousins. It was like, OK, we know we’re different.

SD: Your father got out of prison in 1979. In an earlier version of your show, you talked about him training you as a kid in Panther drills and calisthenics.

KS: It’s funny, my father did want me to be this soldier. But my mom said, “This is a little girl. She likes dancing school. Your approach has to be different.”

SD: Your dad was released about the time Assata escaped and went underground.

KS: I barely knew that; my mom and dad kept some things from me. I didn’t know that my parents were being threatened. The FBI was telling my mom, “We’re going to kidnap your daughter.” I had no idea. I lived through a child’s lens.

My mom did have a room where she kept old Panther newspapers and articles. I would look at them but they made me afraid.

The photo of K’Sisay and Kamau, from a prison visit.

SD: A few years later, from Cuba, Assata published her autobiography. In it she wrote about your dad – and you.

KS: A lot of my friends on the block read Assata’s book. They said, “K’Sisay, how come you didn’t tell me you’re related? What’s your story?”

I’d say, “I don’t want to talk about that.” Because I felt shame. Yeah, I felt like I was living two lives.

SD: Tell me about your dad.

KS: He worked for the telephone company. He was a man of the community. He loves storytelling and reading, especially science fiction, parallel worlds and stuff. He used to show up in his truck and gather the kids around him, “Come on, everybody…” and he’d tell the kids these stories. They were all [mimes amazement] “WOW!” He exposed me to Octavia Butler, like Wild Seed: “K’Sisay! I got this BOOK…”

I moved to Brooklyn in 4th grade, but my father and I always lived close. He and my mother could never live together but he always lived in the neighborhood. I had a key. He just liked life simple. He loved his books. He’d be into Apple gadgets, the latest stereo system.

SD: So you grew up, went to school, got a job, got married, had kids. You’re in your 30s, and suddenly, in 2002, your father is arrested for child abuse. Then he’s charged with the 1971 killing of a police officer.

KS: By now, he’s a grandfather, thinking about retiring. I couldn’t believe this was happening. To see my father in the newspapers – humiliated that way. Even for people who support the Panthers, to question whether that was true. I think that the woman he’d been seeing set him up

SD: The molestation charge didn’t stick, but it must have made it hard for people to support his case. Your dad was convicted in 2003 of the shooting.

KS: Even though they had no direct evidence. They tried to get him to turn Assata in, but of course he wouldn’t. I went to see him at court in Brooklyn.

My dad kept looking at me so very apologetic. He just put his head down, like, “I’m so sorry this is happening.” The kids, we were all there. Then my mom and I went to see him at the Brooklyn House of Detention. I had not been in that situation for years, going through security, being patted down. I never got to see him again in New York.

It was more devastating for me as an adult to see him in prison than it was when I was a child. I was in denial. That took years to deal with.

SD: Your dad is now turning 67 at the Augusta Medical State Facility in Georgia. Tell me about your last visit.

KS: I visited him last summer. It was wonderful to see him. But he has serious health issues and the conditions there are horrible.

SD: What, above everything, have you learned from your father?

KS: Strength. Humility. He’s my hero. He made a commitment to deal with injustice. He was that person even before he joined the Black Panther Party.

I couldn’t always talk about this. I’ve been silent for a long time. Now, I am his voice. I may not be able to physically see him, but he’s with me always. I dream about him and he’s free – I never dream about him in prison.

OK, he’s free – but he’s WANTED. [Laughs]. I’m always looking for an Underground Railroad. “Come on, Daddy, we can go here!”

But he’s always free.

© susie day, 2020


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