Assata: Revolutionary Relatability (part 2)

Editors’ note: This is the second part of a two-part article first published at Socialism and Democracy. Part one can be viewed here

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“I was a puppet, and I didn’t even know who was pulling the strings.”

 Assata’s long line of social self-criticism starts in the living room, with a discussion of Television, and how watching it as a child led her to internalize dominant images of beauty, domesticity, and (white) middle class normativity, so pervasive and insidious in 1950s America. Shakur harshly recounts her unsympathetic and judgmental attitude towards her own mother for “failing” to recreate the middle-class consumer ideal as depicted on TV. “Why didn’t my mother have freshly baked cookies ready when i came home from school?” she writes, “Why didn’t we live in a house with a backyard and a front yard instead of an ole apartment? I remember looking at my mother as she cleaned the house in her old raggedy housecoat with her hair in curlers. ‘How disgusting,’ i would think. Why didn’t she clean the house in high heels and shirtwaist dresses like they did on television” (37). She shows her younger self to be an ingrate and a complainer, an unfair judge of her working-class, single mother. “I was a puppet,” Shakur reflects later, “and i didn’t even know who was pulling the strings” (38).

At the same time, Shakur frames this embarrassing self-critique as a social commentary on the cultural apparatus that enabled and encouraged her anti-social and deluded ideology. It was not something she came to “on her own”; she is both an object and a subject in this process. In framing matters so, Assata not only offers a model of humility and self-critique, she targets particular – and pervasive — social institutions and ideologies in such a way as to welcome readers to interrogate (and perhaps confront and transcend) the influence of these same institutions and ideologies in their own lives. The influence of mass media commodification and consumer ideology, of course, is as pervasive today as ever, making her discussions all the more relevant to contemporary readers.

A particularly memorable self-critical exposure comes soon after this, with Shakur’s account of how, as a child, she publicly denigrated her close friend — and would-be boyfriend — Joe, a boy she honestly likes. She tells off Joe, stating that he is “too black and ugly” to ever date. The young Joanne does this to avoid the scorn of peers, who make fun of Joe at school as looking like a “black frog.” “I will never forget the look on his face,” Shakur writes, reflecting on her own opportunistic complicity. “He looked at me with such cold hatred that I was stunned. I felt so ugly and dirty and depraved. I was shaken to the bone. For weeks, maybe months afterward, I was haunted by what happened that day, the snakes that had crawled out of my mouth. There was nothing I could do but change myself. Not for him, but for me” (72). Across the board, students were moved by this moment, as well as by Assata’s later historical and theoretical reflections on how such internalization of racism and black-on-black dehumanization can be traced all the way back to habits and rituals forcibly imposed on Black people in the context of plantation slavery. Again, Assata’s (self-)critical reflection on a particular bad practice is tied to an argument that foregrounds the larger structural and institutional forces at work through these practices. In the process, the text offers us living proof of how important a grasp of history and of social power relations can be for a critical navigation of everyday life, even as it also lays the basis for imagining an inclusive and welcoming political collectivity, one that will include not just those subjects who have somehow (allegedly) come through racist-imperialist, patriarchal capitalism unscathed, but also, crucially, those who have been in various ways damaged by this process, even to the point of victimizing others. Shakur presents herself as having been ensnared in the very contradictory net that traps so many others, and that she is working to escape, and to shred for good.[1] By connecting, contextualizing and politicizing the “personal” wounds that the system has inflicted on herself and on others (including those wounds that she has helped to inflict on others!), Assata challenges readers to refuse the divide and conquer strategies — both ideological and repressive — that serve ruling class-ends, by turning people with so much in common against one another, and against themselves. Shakur’s narrative shows us how humble yet bold reflection can transform what turns us against one another into what unites us, laying the basis for building a common, revolutionary strength.

Notably, in this early episode with young Joe, Shakur describes her participation in this black-on-black “colorism”without herself believing in it; her only drive is to “desperately be one of the pack” (71). In pursuing this goal, Joanne harms not only Joe, but herself, insofar as she and her family both have grown fond of Joe’s innocent flirtations and affections. Thus, in a manner that once again welcomes readers into parallel self-interrogations,Assata’s self-critique extends from the phenomenon of internalized racism (in particular, racism within the oppressed community) to the broader practice of succumbing to peer pressure, cynically going along with the dominant fashion, even when at some level one knows better.

As Shakur puts it later, provocatively, if in a different context: “Everything is a lie in amerika…the thing that keeps it going is that so many people believe the lie” (158). Shakur’s account of denigrating young Joe shows us that it is not necessary for people — be they kids or adults — to actually believe the “lie” in order keep to that lie going; all that is necessary is to act as if one believes. Objective belief — and the reproduction of ideology — does not require subjective sincerity, but only a cynical going through the motions, a willingness to stifle one’s own true(r) feelings and thoughts for the sake of keeping up appearances, and avoiding conflict with other “believers.” Adding to the tragic irony here, but also laying further basis for revolutionary rupture, is the distinct possibility that those “believers” whom one fears offending are themselves not sincere subjects of the bad ideology (racism, colorism, etc), but are equally cynical — which is also to say cowardly — participants in the performance of a ritual that they don’t “really believe” in either. The revolutionary hope here lies in the potential implied by this shallow shell of cynical conformity; once one of these tight-packed eggs cracks…others may quickly do the same.[2]

Later, in a more overtly political vein, Shakur discloses how she was spurred toward rethinking her views of “America” and its foreign policy, in 1964, before the anti-war movement really blew up, not first by her own studies, but by being publicly embarrassed, confronted with her own ignorance — and her cynical parroting of half-baked ideology. Fancying herself “an intellectual” coming out of high school, she spouts off patriotically to a group of African students regarding the Vietnam War, saying that both the war and the broader American struggle of “Democracy” against “Communism” are “all right.” The African students leap to refute her. After hearing all the historical and political knowledge they bring to bear regarding French and US colonialism, corporate interests, and more, Shakur recalls that “my mind was blown.” Yet,” she adds:

I continued saying the first thing that came into my head: that the u.s. was fighting communists because they wanted to take over everything. When someone asked me what communism was, i opened my mouth to answer, then i realized i didn’t have the faintest idea. My image of a communist came from a cartoon.… The Africans rolled with laughter. I felt like a bona fide clown. (151)

Again, Shakur follows up this account with a more general reflection on her particular embarrassment, one that welcomes readers to apply her general insight to the texts of their own lives: “I never forgot that day,” she writes,

We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea of what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.… I never thought i could be so easily tricked into being against something that i didn’t understand. It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.

“After that,” she adds, “I began to read about what was happening in Vietnam” (152).

Obviously, as a wanted “terrorist” who continues to be subject to character assassination (and perhaps to actual assassination attempts) by the US government, Shakur’s warning about believing in “bogeymen,” and especially in “bogeymen” constructed by one’s enemies, resonates not only in relation to the issue of communism — though students were still sparked by this aspect — but also in relationship to her particular case, and, by extension, to the entire contemporary US discourse around “terrorism.” She implicitly asks readers to reflect critically on the extent to which the US government continues to do our thinking for us, deciding who is an “enemy” and who is not. She prompts readers to admit how they too, like the young Joanne, may at times have found themselves mouthing official ideologies that they don’t even understand — and how these very moments of cynical, quasi-robotic conformity may, if brought to consciousness, mark out fault-lines of potentially radical self-shattering. Being able to admit such embarrassing, complicit moments is key to Assata’s process of transformation, and to the effective radical pedagogy of her text. She models the humility and the courage of self-critical practice.

At a typographical level, Assata’s revolutionary humility is symbolized by her refusing the convention of capitalizing the first person singular, “i” throughout her book.[3] In this way, Shakur sets off her narrative from more self-congratulatory accounts by self-proclaimed political “leaders,” including various “cults of personality” that afflicted so much of the New Left, and even the BPP itself. With this move, she refuses the mantle of individual heroism, suggesting that her “self” is but a moment in an evolving and collective process of constant, self-reflexive struggle and transformation. The “self” she has become was not something she was born into, or something that she herself determined through sheer will or wisdom, but a product of collective struggle.[4] In bringing out the necessarily contradictory nature, and the transformative potential of both her own subjectivity and that of others — and of their mutual dependence — Assata provides us with an account of becoming revolutionary that is as relatable as it is radical, as humble as it is hopeful. It is, I believe, an exemplary mode of revolutionary self-representation for dark, cynical times like ours.

Assata’s Political Lessons

What makes Assata an outright revolutionary text, and not just a radical one, is that Shakur does not confine critical thinking to her own private or personal experiences, but applies it also to her self-consciously political, collective, outward-oriented activities, as an organizer in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, a member of the Black Panther Party, and a cadre in the Black Liberation Army. Her story of “personal” transformation is one that includes extended discussion of revolutionary theory and practice, strategy and tactics. Her rhetorical and pedagogical strategies, as detailed above, are of interest in themselves, for the humble-hopeful method they enact, but also because they function as effective means for stimulating broad and sustained engagement with radical and revolutionary “contents.”

A full discussion of the strictly political content of Assata’s autobiography falls beyond the scope of this essay. But her key insights include the following:

* We must be clear about what we mean by “revolution.” For Shakur this means “the revolutionary struggle of Black people had to be against racism, capitalism, imperialism and sexism and for real freedom under a socialist government” (197).

* We must define the enemy in a sharp yet open way. “One of the most important things the [Black Panther] Party did was to make it clear who the enemy was, not the white people, but the capitalist and imperialistic oppressors. They took the Black liberation movement out of a nationalist context and put it in an international context” (203).

* Colonialism is not just about race, but about class. Blacks can become oppressors and exploiters just as whites have (191).

* Being for racial equality or black liberation in the USA requires being anti-capitalist, for as long as there is a class hierarchy race will be used to justify and reproduce the exploitation at the bottom of it.

* Those who speak of “climbing the ladder of success” are accepting class inequality, a system with a “top” and a “bottom,” where some stand over others. Such “ladder” schemes are to be rejected (190).

* Multi-racial unity among and across oppressed and exploited groups is necessary for a revolutionary alliance that can win, but must be built upon the basis of independent strength within the Black revolutionary movement itself (and in the other oppressed groups as well), not by ceding leadership to others outside that community (192).

* Black (or any) nationalism that is not fundamentally internationalist is reactionary.

* There can be no revolutionary theory divorced from practice (180).

* Listening is primary, often more important than speaking. Many of the best “teachers” are to be found on the street, in prison, and in other unexpected places.

* Revolutionaries need to build and maintain close ties to the masses of people; the isolation of revolutionaries from the people is a great danger, and is one of the enemy’s primary goals (181).

* Revolutionaries cannot depend on dominant institutions (such as the existing educational structures) to do our work for us; new and independent institutions must be constructed, even as struggle is carried on within and around the existing ones.

* The movement for community control over schools and local resources quickly and necessarily raises the question of who controls economic and military power; serious mobilization for reform soon brings up the question of state power and of revolution, and of the need for something like a People’s Liberation Army (182-83).

* Such a People’s Liberation Army needs to be thought of as primarily political, secondarily military. “No people’s war can be won without the support of the masses of people. Armed struggle can never be successful by itself; it must be part of an overall strategy for winning, and the strategy must be political as well as military” (242).

* It is not enough to want to “rebel,” one must want to actually “win.” And to win, one must study so as to develop ascientific approach to making revolution possible. (242).

* Humility and Respect for the People is key, and must be a matter of daily practice; Leftist “revolutionary” arrogance is a major obstacle (218). “I hate arrogance whether it’s white or purple or Black,” Shakur writes, reflecting on a rude and foolish Panther cadre she encounters, “Some people let power go to their heads. They think that just because they have some kind of title in front of their name you’re supposed to bend over and kiss them on the ass.” As she elaborates: “The only great people I have met have been modest and humble. You can’t claim that you love people when you don’t respect them, and you can’t call for political unity unless you practice it in your relationships. And that doesn’t happen out of nowhere. That’s something that has got to be put into practice every day” (218).

* Effective revolutionary education means transforming “students” into teachers and “teachers” into students (189). Teacher-student hierarchies may become another form of oppression; restructuring pedagogical approaches can unlock hitherto untapped potential of what appear to be “bad” or resistant students.

* The process of creative, collective struggle itself can function as “medicine” for the people, as they emerge from the existing society with all their wounds and worries: “The more active I became the more I liked it. It was like medicine, making me well, making me whole” (189).

* Political education should meet people where they are at, through dialogue, and by speaking to questions that are on people’s minds, not through the imposition of dogmatic principles and phraseology, and should teach them their own history, not only the history of radical movements elsewhere. An awareness of history is crucial to breaking people from their old (bad) habits of slavish identification with their oppressors.

* The Black Panthers’ audacity captured the imagination of the masses, and drew many cadre to them, but this bold and provocative approach could turn into ahindrance when working among the people. As Shakur reports, “I preferred the polite and respectful manner in which civil rights workers and Black Muslims talked to the people rather than the arrogant, fuck-you style that used to be popular in New York. I said they cursed too much and turned off a lot of people who would otherwise be responsive to what the Party was saying” (204).

* Despite various problematic tendencies, many people in the BPP were sympathetic and responsive to such sharp internal criticisms; such an ability to absorb and encourage criticism and self-criticism must be a key feature of any healthy revolutionary organization.

* The cult of macho personality and martyrdom needs to be rejected, as does the macho approach that encourages non-strategic and non-viable direct confrontation with the state. As Assata paraphrases Mao’s writings on guerrilla warfare: “Retreat when the enemy is strong and attack when the enemy is weak” (227).

* Both the fear and the actuality of state infiltration, disruption, and repression pose real threats to maintaining the culture of revolutionary creativity, openness, and trust that is necessary to any healthy growing organization (231).

* Revolutionaries must work collectively and in a spirit of love to overcome inevitable and often acute differences and misunderstandings. A sectarian failure to reconnect and regroup on the basis of fundamental unities played a key role in the fragmentation and stagnation of the BPP.

* Criticism and Love are not mutually exclusive categories; criticism of other revolutionaries and of one’s own revolutionary organization should come from a place of seeking a new and better unity, which is not at all to say that such criticism should not be sharp, honest, and direct (232).

Assata’s political lessons take the form of criticism (and self-criticism) of tendencies within the radical movement in which she herself participated. She offers a number of criticisms of the BPP, its leadership, culture, and methods of work, while making clear her love for the organization, foregrounding her gratefulness for the way it “really opened my horizons a helluva lot,” and reminding readers of the important barriers to Party work created by COINTELPRO disruption and repression (221). But while recognizing the impact of massive state repression, Assata also reflects on practices that were within the BPP’s power to control. For instance, she asserts that the group — and the radical movement generally — tended to under-emphasize, in both theory and practice, the necessity of serious and mass political education. Further, she argues that even when it did happen, much of the educational work of the Black Panthers and other revolutionary groups was too dogmatic and too focused on conditions, texts, and experiences from elsewhere (such as in revolutionary Russia or China). As she puts it, “They were reading the Red Book, but didn’t know who Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, or Nat Turner were. They talked about intercommunalism but still really believed that the Civil War had been fought to free the slaves. A whole lot of them knew barely any kind of history, Black, African or otherwise” (221). She also laments that political education tended not to focus enough on spreading the tools of organizing beyond the main cadre. While giving a moving account of her participation in Panther breakfast programs and freedom schools, Shakur still laments how the BPP became isolated from the people, not only because of the vicious state attacks it faced, but because it failed to forge new roots with masses beyond the ranks of radical and progressive allies.

She criticizes the arrogance, egotism, and machismo of particular radical leaders, black and white alike, even as she offers a persuasive argument that interracial alignments are essential to any united front strategy. Pointedly, she laments the ways in which sectarianism and dogmatism afflict the movement, as different wings and regions of the BPP itself are not able to resolve their differences internally, and the revolutionary movement fails to maintain unity amidst the strife exacerbated by state repression.

More generally, Shakur criticizes herself and others for having acted primarily as “romantic” and “emotional,” rather than “scientific” revolutionaries, overestimating the revolutionary force of spontaneous mass anger and rebellion. As she writes of her political attitudes in Cuba: “I was no longer the wide-eyed, romantic young revolutionary who believed the revolution was just around the corner…. I had long ago become convinced that revolution was a science. Generalities were no longer enough for me.” She elaborates: “I believed that a higher level of political sophistication was necessary and that unity in the Black community had to become a priority. We could never afford to forget the lessons we had learned from COINTELPRO…. I couldn’t see how we could seriously struggle without having a strong sense of collectivity, without being responsible for each other and to each other” (266-67).

At the same time, Shakur does not disown the idealistic thrust of her own narrative. She gives us a vivid account of both the revolutionary optimism and the rage of the late 60s, particularly in a long italicized section describing her immediate reaction to the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. “I don’t want to rebel, I want to win” she writes (195). Reflecting on the brutal police suppression of the urban uprisings that follow, she adds, “I am tired of watching us lose. They kill our leaders, then they kill us for protesting. Protest. Protest. Revolution. If it exists, I want to find it. Bulletins. More bulletins. I’m tired of bulletins. I want bullets” (196). She embraces this revolutionary passion and anger even as she reflects on the need to give it more disciplined and strategic form.

In the end, although Shakur writes the closing lines of her autobiography from the hopeful shores of socialist Cuba, citing the ten million revolutionary people who have “stood up” there as proof that “The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world” (274), Assata offers no facile optimism, and no easy formulas. Despite her expressed faith in the tradition of struggle, she continues to pose the question of revolution precisely as a question, not as a set doctrine, nor a dogmatic catechism. She certainly offers lessons and warnings for radical-minded readers today — but principally she invites us to think and to discuss for ourselves how to answer this question theoretically and practically (with both passion and a scientific critical consciousness) for our own time. Her book sets the table for a conversation that is very much needed, and does so in such a way as to welcome new participants to that table.


  1. Remarkably, at one point, Shakur goes so far as to offer humanizing reflections on how the African American youth who attempt to gang rape her have come to the point of “hating her” so much. Ready to fight these would-be rapists to the death — she is able to drive them off — Assata still concerns herself afterwards with thinking about their dastardly actions not just in moral terms, but in terms of the social and historical forces that are at work through such wretched, violent, sexist ambitions. This astonishing act of understanding reminds me of Marx’s favorite proverb: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
  2. The allegory of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” is useful here. What shatters the naked, deluded Emperor’s hegemony over his subjects is not the imparting of any particular new knowledge to the populace, but ratherthe shifting status of already existing knowledge, prompted by the naïve actions of a child, who says aloud and publicly what everyone else is only thinking silently and privately: “The Emperor has no clothes!” It is in a sense not just the Emperor who is exposed in this moment, but the cynical, cowardly people themselves, who now, stripped of cover by the spontaneous blurting of a child, can (must!) see one another for what they really are. Once this occurs, turning against an Emperor is all but inevitable. See my discussion in “Revolutionary Underground: Critical Reflections on the Prospect for Renewing Occupation,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 26 No. 3, November 2012; also my discussion of Occupy, written as this event unfolded, in the introduction toCultural Logic’s special issue, Culture and
  3. She also refuses to capitalize the names of her enemies, and enemy institutions, from the u.s.a. to the names of various judges, police, US presidents, and district attorneys she discusses. The refusal to capitalize in these cases, while it represents a similar refusal of Authority, has a more provocative and antagonistic quality. Shakur does capitalize the names of her friends and allies (and allied organizations).
  4. Indeed, Assata’s adopted Yoruban name means literally “Woman in Struggle” or “She who struggles.”

Joseph G. Ramsey is a co-editor at Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, and a contributing board member at Socialism and Democracy.