Assata: An Autobiography


Tiffany R. Holloman and  LaTonia A. Siler-Holloman

I felt the spirits of those sisters feeding me, making me stronger . . . struggling and helping each other to survive the blows of life since the beginning of time.


The name of Assata Shakur is associated with her status as the first woman named to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, accused of murdering a New Jersey state trooper. Since the 1971, she continues to be portrayed by some American media outlets as one of the most notorious female criminals of the United States. In contrast, supporters of Shakur speak with outrage about the constructed legal cases against her that are noticeably free of solid evidence or credible witnesses. It is this part of Shakur’s story that is addressed in the forward by Dr. Angela Davis and Lennox Hinds, two of the foremost intellectuals of the U. S. Black Power Movement and intimate friends of Shakur. They provide a rich political, economic, and social context of the racially-charged 1960s and 70s, in addition to, relating their personal experiences with and impressions of the activist.


However, it is Shakur’s personal experiences with and impressions of the women in her life that make her autobiography deeply interesting. All too often the work and thoughts of female activists is unseen, unheard, and undervalued within human rights organisations and the broader society. Shakur, a self-described revolutionary, provides us with a rare study of how these women nurtured her development as an activist and supported her work in civil rights.


Employing an unusual technique of alternate flashbacks to tell her story, Shakur relates horrific details of the physical and mental abuse she sustained by law enforcement officials in the first moments of her violent arrest on the highway and throughout her incarceration. Just as the dramatic details seem too much to bear, she gives the reader a respite in the form of flashbacks to her childhood. It is in these scenes that Shakur shares how her female relatives, friends, and associates laid the foundation of her revolutionary ideology.


In the overtly racist Southern region of the U. S., Shakur tells of her first lessons in assertiveness, reciprocal respect, and resistance to the status quo. Her grandmother insisted that Shakur loudly and clearly “speak up like [she] got some sense’ when conversing with adults, particularly the white citizens who were accustomed to deference from Black people.  Shakur’s mother, a teacher, and her aunt, a human rights lawyer, provided examples of independent women who valued formal education and progressive ideas that challenged discrimination. Despite the risk of great personal harm from male authorities, these women defied the norms by vocally challenging racism and patriarchy.


In adulthood, Shakur wrote about instances when she modelled her female relatives. For instance, as a dedicated member, she shared her criticisms of the direction and administration of the Black Panther Party (BPP) with its leaders. Later, she used her loud and clear voice to express her repugnance of her prison living conditions. In defiance of the media onslaught, she recorded a radio message from her prison cell to ‘let [her audience] know what [she] was about, where [she] was really coming from’. Implementing a risky strategy, Shakur presented her thoughts of her wrongful imprisonment and her political ideology in an opening trial arguments to unfriendly jury members.


When faced with repercussions, such as police beatings, callous prison gynaecological exams, and invasive FBI surveillance due to her vocal challenges to oppression, Shakur was comforted, healed and supported by women—headstrong prison nurses, cellmates, work colleagues, fellow students and BPP comrades. Under their tutelage, Shakur learned skills she needed to negotiate complex environments and form her identity as a Black female revolutionary.


The readers of today can link current international events with her personal experiences—the unchecked police savagery, the silencing of political dissenters, the dramatic protests, as well as, the literal and figurative assassinations of human rights leaders. Still, the true gift of Shakur’s autobiography may well be the revelation that women play a huge role in the creation and reproduction of revolution by performing many small yet powerful acts. This message alone may warrant deeper investigations into the lives of other female ‘militants’ and the women who nurture them.


Tiffany R. Holloman and LaTonia ‘Toni’ Siler-Holloman are first year PhD students in the Sociology and Social Policy department at the University of Leeds.