By Margot Pepper
Assata Shakur, (godmother of Tupac Shakur) is a former convicted Black Panther who fled to Cuba in 1984. There is a million dollar bounty on her head. I met Assata in 1992, when I was working in Cuba as a journalist and translator along with my partner, aka “Guillermo.” The following is an excerpt from Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, a memoir about the post-peak oil Special Period.
The sea, imminent. Even in the weeds growing in the driveway. A house by this sea. Modest. Simple. White Grecian walls, low ceilings, but airy. Guillermo and I marvel at the indoor jungle. Rubber tree, elephant ear, spotted Pothos and red and yellow coleus springing from flower boxes to claim the room.
“This used to be a carport,” Assata explains, “with bars. I couldn’t stand to look at them.”
Building her own house Cuba’s hands are clean. It will be a house for all, a beautiful and simple house, a house for bread and water, a house for air and for life, wrote the Mexican poet, Jaime Sabines.
It’s satisfying to see Assata Shakur here in Cuba after what she’s suffered. If only all the other U.S. prisoners of conscience like Mumia Abu Jamal could get the same justice.
She leads us to the living room. Guillermo takes a seat on the white couch, fumbles for his note pad. Assata smiles. It’s difficult to believe this exquisitely beautiful, high-cheek-boned former Black Panther seated on a throne of white wicker, her crown of flowing braids woven with pooka shells; this calm woman with a college education and the dimpled laughter of a child, has been shot, tortured, forced to give birth in chains, then separated from her daughter, for merely sharing the same ideals as the eight-year-olds I teach. One would think she’d look positively haggard.
The United Nations Commission of Human Rights defines Assata Shakur as a U.S. political prisoner. According to the report, she belongs to a “class of victims of FBI misconduct through the COINTELPRO strategy… who as political activists have been selectively targeted for … false arrests, fabrication of evidence….”
Assata became the most wanted woman in the States. Officers on T.V. news vowed to “shoot to kill on the spot.”
New Jersey State troopers pulled her and two other Black Panthers over and fired into her back and under one of her two arms raised in surrender. She was arrested and chained to a hospital bed, where she was repeatedly hit and jabbed with shotgun butts. Once detectives began interrogating her, the torture was confined to things that left no traces, like Nazi slogans and burning substances applied to her eyes. A German nurse took pity and gave Assata a button to ring whenever tormentors appeared.
“One of the worst cases,” the UN Commission of Human Rights report elaborated, “is that of Assata Shakur, who spent over twenty months in solitary confinement in two separate men’s prisons subject to conditions totally unbefitting any prisoner.” (The report was issued by seven jurists in response to a 1978 petition to The United Nations Commission of Human Rights by Lennox Hinds on behalf of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and other organizations)
When activists made known the abominable conditions of Assata’s confinement, she was moved to a high security women’s prison with Aryan Nation inmates who had an inclination toward setting the cells of minority women ablaze with alcohol.
One day, Assata’s Grandmother traveled from North Carolina to tell Assata the strange dream she had. “You’re coming home soon,” she told her grandchild. “You’re getting out of here.” Not long after, miraculously, mysteriously, Assata was broken out. Perhaps she was aided by the same white dove that landed on Fidel Castro’s shoulder just after the revolution triumphed, the one the Santeros say indicates Fidel is protected. Assata followed this dove to Cuba primarily because she admired the revolution, as did so many people of color around the world. “Well I’m here,” she laughed. “What you all gonna do about it.”
As I glance around Assata’s simple, elegant white living room, I recall her words to a Global Exchange tour late last year. “One of the first things the Cubans did when my daughter Kakuya arrived in Cuba was suggest therapy for us both. Until then, I’d never stopped long enough to concentrate on myself. I feel secure, probably for the first time. The Cubans have taken me in and cared for me the way no other society ever has.”
“Moving here was difficult,” Assata told the group “I had to adjust my expectations. I remember,” she laughed, bringing to life dimples many have probably found irresistible, “when I first arrived, I expected to see everyone walking around in guerrilla uniforms. Like Fidel—”
“Now that you’ve lived here a while, how does the racism compare?’ I ask leaning forward on the couch. Racism in Cuba has a unique twist. Because on the surface it appears as though everyone has equal opportunity to education and jobs, any shortcomings in the social standing of Afro-Cubans is sometimes misattributed to genetic inferiority.
Assata shakes her head vigorously. “At least in Cuba, racism’s not institutionalized.”
She has a melodic way of speaking, her intonations and cadence as compelling as her message.
“How do you feel about armed struggle?” Guillermo’s got to know.
Armed struggle shouldn’t be stressed over educating and politicizing the population. Guerrilla fighters can also become totalitarian leaders. Armed struggle is not the most important strategy, though it might be necessary, when all else fails.
She gets up suddenly, uneasily. “Would you like to eat something now?”
She leads us toward the back of the house, into a small, narrow dining room, green with plants. A seafood medley with squid, fish and vegetables is placed before us. It’s the most sumptuous dinner we’ve eaten since our arrival. Royalties from Assata’s autobiography sales and talks are good, but not enough to pay for this kind of meal often. Like a typical Cuban, she’s offered us, near strangers, the best, perhaps the last, of what she has.
Suddenly, we’re plunged into darkness. But the blackout’s romantic, Assata says, lighting candles. She begins speaking to us as though to trusted friends. No, the government didn’t educate the population sufficiently. They used to have more open discussions in party cells. They used to precede films with the political and historical context, followed by discussion. There’s not enough debate on TV. With rectification they pointed fingers here and there, but didn’t point them at the Party. Rather, they covered their mistakes up. Nonetheless, mistakes are bound to happen. Non-tribal, industrial socialism’s only been on the planet, what, 80 years? Cuba’s a miracle, really, considering what it has achieved. Isolated revolutions are up against too much. We have to fight back at an international level. That’s why talk of Latin American unity is music to the ears.
Guillermo is nodding emphatically. There’s something about this visionary woman that renews people’s joie de vivre and inspires thought-crimes.
Should humanity one day overcome the self-destructive aspects of our present global economic system and global warming, it may wonder how the majority of us consented to fork over most of the wealth on the planet created by our own labor to a handful of colorless men, when our basic needs weren’t even being met. I like to think by then that terms like “colorless” and “of color” will reflect our cultural and class alliances, instead of skin color. “Colorless” could be used to describe those whose primary identification is with corporate culture; “of color” for identifying cultural or working class alliances. Thus it would be possible to have a person of color of European descent, like Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, and a colorless person of African descent, like Colin Powell.
But how do you stop our lemming’s march toward self-annihilation? The effects of a corporate economy is like Frankenstein’s monster, who is not only defecating on all of us “little people,” it’s defecating in its master’s bed. “This is hell,” the founder of Union Carbide admitted, referring to the damage the corporate monster they had created is wreaking on the entire planet, including the monster’s creators.
“How do you reach people?” Come on Assata, we’ve broken through the blockade to hear your answer.
“It sounds corny but think globally, act locally,” she says. “International strikes. But you can’t talk at people with Marx and all that archaic, boring dry exclusive political rhetoric that is so devoid of humor,” she says, pointing out that she’s had to read plenty of Marx to write her book. “Talk to me in a way I can understand you.”
Margot Pepper is a former Venice poet, now living in Oakland.