This is the second in a continuing series examining the poetry of Black revolutionary and political exile, Assata Shakur. It is the fourth essay in Red Wedge examining the literary and political significance of Shakur’s influential autobiography Assata. Previous parts of the series can be found here and here and, most recently, here.
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“To My People”
Alongside the poems that interrupt, enrich, and prompt us to reflect on her autobiographical narrative, Assata Shakur also includes in her text a number of less lyrical writing samples, including speeches she reads at trial to contest her accusers, and political statements that she issues from prison. Even behind walls and in chains, her voice continues to resonate, as it resonates still today, from exile in Cuba.
Addressed to “Black brothers, Black sisters,” Shakur’s statement from prison “To My People” makes clear that while her project is anchored in the struggles facing African Americans, the enemy is to be understood in political and in class terms.  As she writes, “I have declared war on the rich who prosper on our poverty, the politicians who lie to us with smiling faces, and all the mindless, heartless robots who protect them and their property” (50).  And yet, while hers is a political and class “war” with universal aspirations, its principal task in the short term is to combat the racist oppression facing Black people.
Thus, much of “To My People”— which Shakur incorporates fully into her autobioography, Assata — focuses on refusing and reversing the accusations of criminality that have been foisted on the Black Liberation Movement (and the Black Liberation Army in particular) by the ruling establishment. Undoubtedly this aspect of her rhetoric resonates with a new generation of activists so concerned about the criminalization of Black lives.
It should also be clear to us by now who the real criminals are…
They call us murderers, but we did not murder over two hundred fifty unarmed Black men, women, and children or wound thousands of others in the riots they provoked during the Sixties. The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives. They call us murderers, but we were not responsible for the twenty-eight brother inmates and nine hostages murdered at attica [prison]. They call us murderers, but we did not murder and wound over thirty unarmed Black students at Jackson State — or Southern State either….
They call us thieves and bandits. They say we steal. But it was not we who stole millions of Black people from the continent of Africa…They call us bandits, yet every time most Black people pick up our paychecks we are being robbed. Every time we walk into a store in our neighborhood we are being held up. And every time we pay our rent the landlord sticks a gun into our ribs.
They call us thieves, but we did not rob and murder millions of Indians by ripping off their homeland, then cal ourselves pioneers. They call us bandits, but it is not we who are robbing Africa, Asia, and Latin America of their natural resources and freedom while the people who live their are sick and starving. The rulers of this country and their flunkies have committed some of the most brutal, vicious crimes in history. They are the bandits. They are murderers. And they should be treated as such. These maniacs are not fit to judge me, Clark, or any other Black person on trial in amerika. Black people should and, inevitably, must determine our destinies (50-51).
Here and elsewhere Assata poses a sharp challenge to those who would criminalize Black lives by casting resistance to oppression as de-politicized ‘thuggery.’ Exposing the bloody criminality that is covered up by Amerika’s whitewashed veil of judgment, she demands that those in power be the ones put on trial. Her irreverent prose and poetry alike seek to shift consciousness to the point that oppressors will be denied their pedestal of one-way judgment.
“Leftovers — What is Left”
Exploring the depths of suffering, alienation, and insight to which the extremes of criminalization can push a prisoner, Assata’s poem “Leftovers — What is Left,” appears at the end of Chapter 10, just as Shakur has been released back into general population, following a month in solitary confinement after the birth of her child, Kakuya. The text offers a powerful reflection on survival in the face of the most extreme deprivation — while confronting us with the depths and dangers of that brutalization.
There are thirteen short stanzas. Each ends with the same question: “What is left?”
After the bars and the gates
and the degradation,
What is left?
After the lock ins and the lock outs
and the lock ups,
What is left?
Proceeding through a litany of brutalities, sufferings, and disillusionments, the poem grapples with the way in which external repression can threaten to penetrate the very minds of the oppressed:
I mean, after the chains get entangled
in the grey of one’s matter,
After the bars that get stuck
in the hearts of men and women,
What is left?
The apparatus of incarceration — “chains,” “bars” — is shown not only to restrain the bodies of the imprisoned, but to become “entangled in” their very “grey of one’s matter,” affecting not only the prisoners’ bodies, but their “hearts” as well.
The very phrase “grey of one’s matter” is worth parsing; playing off of the colloquialism that equates “gray matter” with the human brain, Shakur tweaks the commonplace in a way that suggests how a change in the brain — or in the mind — effectively colors how the rest of one’s “matter” appears. The unappealing prospect here is of objective conditions coloring subjectivity itself, of the prison literally colonizing the body, mind, and soul of the imprisoned.
The stanzas that follow enumerate a series of sufferings, both physical and emotional, repressive encounters with direct state repression, and their effects: “Tears and disappointments” and “lonely isolation” “cut wrists and the heavy noose,” “murderburgers and goon squads” “the bulls and the bull pens and the bull shit.” The supposedly benevolent too are revealed as equally complicit; the “shrink” is revealed as a “pusher” the “word” as “whip.”
Midway through the poem, however, the text takes a turn, emphasizing not just the violence, loss, and suffering encountered in prison, but the way that these losses and sufferings themselves lay the basis for something new. The second half of the text charts how the negation of the imprisoned subject’s life may in fact give rise to a new perspective, not exactly a positive substance, but a way of seeing and hearing and relating to an environment; the objective world in one sense remains unchanged, but in another sense is radically transformed — rendered permeable— by the new way of looking.
After you know that the dead
are still walking,
After you realize that silence
that outside and inside,
are just an illusion,
What is left?
The newfound knowledge here complicates the subject’s relationship to three ideas (each grasped in relationship to its supposed opposite): death (vs. life), silence (vs. talking), and outside (vs. inside). As recast here, those who have died (and too often been killed) are still in a sense alive, insofar as they are remembered, insofar as they continue to haunt the earth of the living like ghosts. Conversely, those who are technically alive, insofar as they are physically walking are in a sense “dead,” deprived of true life by the social conditions to which they have succumbed. The realization that “silence is talking” and that “outside and inside are just an illusion” signify on multiple levels, from the standpoint of speaking and from that of listening. That is, the subject may have learned that it is possible to speak while remaining silent, but also that the silence itself may speak, if one listens to it in the right way. The dissolving of the distinction between “outside” and “inside” resonates with the opposition created by the prison walls: between jailed and free. Yet, at the same time, it can also be read somewhat more metaphysically as applying to the inside/outside, body-mind, object-subject division. The poem explores a refusal to accept an “inside/outside” distinction, a deep recognition of the way the subjectivity and the outside world are mutually determining.
I mean, like, where is the sun?
Where are her arms and
where are her kisses?
There are lip-prints on my pillow—
i am searching.
What is left?
The speaker points us to the fact that the “sun” itself cannot be grasped — or perhaps not even glimpsed, from the confines of a cell without a window. It cannot be known directly, and yet is visible and ‘known’ by way of the “lip prints” left on a pillow.
I mean, like, nothing is standstill
and nothing is abstract.
The wing of a butterfly
can’t take flight.
The foot on my neck is part
of a body.
The song that I sing is part
of an echo.
What is left?
This stanza emphasizes the connectedness of things, and the changing nature of reality. It emphasizes the ways in which parts are related to wholes, and to other parts without which they, like the lone wing of a butterfly “can’t take flight.” Strikingly, this insistence on seeing nothing as “standstill” or as “abstract” shifts the speakers view of both oppression and resistance. Recognizing that the “foot on my neck is part of a body” foregrounds the subjective component, the human participation, in what may seem like an objective or inhuman ‘machine.’ It implies responsibility, but also the potential for change; whether because that body implies the existence of a brain (and a mind that might be changed) or because that body, unlike the steel toed boot, is fleshy and vulnerable. Similarly, the prison-penetrated psyche of the speaker realizes that the particular song she sings is not an isolated tune, but a reverberation of those who have sung before; her resistance is part of a larger tradition. 
I mean, like, love is specific.
Is my mind a machine gun?
Is my heart a hacksaw?
Can i make freedom real? Yeah!
What is left?
Moving towards conclusion, the poem imagines the “mind” and the “heart” as material weapons and tools, means of violence and of escape. The speaker moves from awareness of connectedness, changeability, and contingency, to locating “freedom” in consciousness itself, in the sheer individual will to “make freedom real.” (“Yeah!”)
Assata here seems to steer into the kind of new age magical thinking represented by her prison sister Eva’s “astro-space projection.” As Eva insists earlier in the narrative: ‘I can go anywhere I want to, whenever I want to…You just have to project yourself” ( 59). What I have referred to (echoing philosopher Peter Hallward) as Assata’s dialectical voluntarism would appear to stretch to the breaking point, voluntarism verging on mysticism.
Can something really be conjured out of nothing? How can freedom be conjured out of will alone?
Is the speaker here on the verge of madness? Here we need to bear in mind also the traumatic events that have immediately preceded the poem in the narrative: Assata’s child has been taken away from her.
I am at the top and bottom
of a lower-achy.
I am an earth lover
from way back.
I am in love with
losers and laughter.
I am in love with
freedom and children.
The speaker’s world has been stripped almost bear, and yet (in a kind of refusal of the madness with which the previous stanza flirts) she finds that she still has love, both love for what is present and cannot be taken away, and what is absent, for which she still longs. The playful reversal of hierarchy into “lower-archy,” a reversal that fancifully places the speaker at both “top and bottom,” suggests a kind of freedom in embracing the fact that she no longer has anywhere to fall, nor a desire to ‘rise’ within the existing structure. It can be read as a kind of attempt to embrace that communist phrase about having “nothing to lose but one’s chains.” “What is left,” (this poem’s title) in the end, would appear to be: Love. And love with an edge, for though reduced to the confines of a prison, it has not accepted those limits; it remains a fighting spirit.
Love is my sword
and truth is my compass.
What is left?
Assata’s poet-speaker has barely survived a brush with madness; the steel and stone oppression that threatened to collapse the distinction between herself and her immediate environment has not (quite) crushed her love and longing for that which lies beyond the prison walls. The system has stripped her of almost everything… but not her will and her wisdom; these are perhaps even sharpened in the process.
“To My Momma”
Returning us to love and struggle outside the prison walls, Assata’s poem “To My Momma” (included between the 12th and 13th chapters of the autobiography) demonstrates in a poignant and concentrated way Assata’s exemplary method of developing critical love for others, through revolutionary reflection on lived conflict.
The poem presents a working through of differences, moving from an account of contradictions and impasses towards a future-oriented love, one that is rooted in an understanding that what appear to be individual or personal failings are in fact collective and historical symptoms of suffering, scars that double as also signs of underlying struggle and strength. Through the text, Shakur rewrites sources of inter-personal and intergenerational conflict as providing a basis for unity. Blockages, revealed in the proper light, become building blocks.
“To my momma,” the poem opens, framing a phrase that recurs at the head of virtually every stanza,
who has swallowed the amerikan dream
and choked on it.
To my momma, whose dreams have fought each other—
but cannot bear to see.
A volcano eating its own lava.
Shakur opens the tribute by emphasizing the contradictions that have structured her mother’s existence. We are presented with the portrait of a woman who has swallowed a dream that chokes her, whose dreams are at odds with one another, who sees but cannot bear to see, a volcano that is eating its own lava. She is a subject who is holding back the energy that nonetheless bubbles and churns within her. Failing to project it out into the world, it eats away at her own insides.
To my momma,
who couldn’t turn
hell into paradise
and blamed herself.
Who has always seen
reflected in her mirror
and ugly duckling.
Assata here recalls her mother’s struggles to change the world for the better, even while suggesting the limits of the forms in which she struggled. The poem suggests that her mother’s struggle has been an individualistic one, and that her mode of summing up these failed attempts — blaming herself — has been individualistic as well. In this sense, the problem here is not just that momma sees a negative image of herself reflected in the mirror she looks into — as if replacing the ‘negative’ self-image with a ‘positive’ one (the “ugly duckling” with a “swan”) would do the trick! — but that she is looking into a mirror at all. As opposed to, say, looking out into the world, at the nature of the system, or to other people as allies (or comrades). In this sense, we might say that Assata here suggests momma is wrong to blame herself as she does — because she ought to be in fact blaming her Self, that is, the individualist ideology and method of practice that actively undermines the very desire for “paradise” that she holds so dear.
The critique of self-sacrificing and materialistic individualism — explored as a symptom of a lack of confidence in self and others — continues :
To my momma,
who makes no demands of anyone
cause she don’t think she can afford to.
Who thinks her money talks
louder than her womanhood.
In keeping with her spirit of generosity, Assata unites with the feminist aspect of her momma’s struggle for independence, making it clear that her mother’s individualist approach emerged as a response to a genuine need: to survive without depending on the support of a man.
To my butchfem momma,
who has always
taken care of business.
Who has never drifted
hazily to sleep
thinking, ‘He will take care of it.’
Who has schemed so much
she sometimes schemes against herself.
Once again, Assata reminds us of the contradictory nature of individualism among the oppressed; what may be justifiable and even necessary as self-defense in one context can become self-undermining in another. Short-term coping methods can ossify into schemes that lock one into a cage of one’s own making. Shakur thus explores the contradictory dynamics of her mother’s feminist-individualism, recognizing the accomplishment of her independence, the struggle of its achievement, but also the way that that very defense mechanism of a feminist-inflected individualism can cut her off from other people, and even turn her against herself.
To my sweet, sweet momma.
Who is uneasy with people
cause she don’t know how to be phony,
and is afraid to be real.
Who has longed for sculptured gardens.
Whose potted plant
dies slowly on the window sill.
Recognizing both her mother’s authenticity and her fear, Shakur draws out the gap between her momma’s longings and her present reality, emphasizing not only the disconnect between consciousness and material conditions, but the way that the former can become a means of deflecting and denying the latter. We have the portrait of a woman who is incapable of both phoniness and real-ness. Though she can’t be phony, she is far from liberated — a paralyzed subject. Her transcendent dreams do not point her towards overcoming her constrained conditions, but rather help to confine her to them.
From this extended dedication and ambivalent recognition, the poem shift towards a collective and a historical frame:
We have all been infected
with a sickness
that can be traced back
to the auction block.
The new frame displaces guilt and responsibility away from the individual, away from her mother, and onto the history of oppression that has set the terms of her struggles. It is then from this collective and historical vantage point that Shakur begins to speak not just about but to her mother in the text. “To my momma” hereon resonates not merely as dedication but as direct address. This means that Assata no longer speaks of her mother as a figure completely fixed or frozen by personality, biography, or history, but as a subject herself capable of reflection and of transformation.
You must not feel guilt
for what has been done to us.
Only the strong go crazy.
The weak just go along.
As with “Rhinocerous Woman,” (explored in the previous section of this essay) the allusion to her mother having gone “crazy” (the details of which are not spelled out in either the poem or the narrative) is reframed as a sign of strength rather than weakness. Similarly, Shakur’s own memories of harsh parenting practice is reframed in a much more sympathetic light:
And what I thought was cruelty,
I understand was fear
that hands, stronger than yours,
and whiter than yours,
would strangle my young life into oblivion.
Reflecting on her mother’s contradictions, and the relationship of those contradictions to a common history, Assata herself moves to reflect critically on her *own* prior assumptions, complicating the more judgmental views of her youth. Assata thus comes to affirm her mother as a symbol of the revolutionary struggle to which she has committed herself, not despite but because of the contradictions which, from Assata (her name at that time was Joanne)’s earlier and less mature vantage point, made her mother appear as someone antithetical to black liberation politics.
Momma I am proud of you
I look at you
and see the strength of our people.
I have seen you struggle
in the dark;
and the world beating on your back,
dragging your catch
back to our den.
A mop in one hand.
A pencil in the other,
marking up my homework
with your love.
Rewritten as signs of struggle, symptoms of history, and strategies for survival, the hampering habits, contradictory dreams, and self-destructive tendencies of her mother — and by extension of oppressed people more generally — provide a source of inspiration, a basis for unity in the struggle, even as they may call for transformation. Shakur thus declares, in more universal terms:
The injured have no blame.
Let it fall on those who injure.
Externalizing the blame in this way, shifting it from the victims of oppression to their oppressors, thus allows Shakur to imagine moving forward into the future together with her previously estranged mother:
Leave the past behind
where it belongs—
and come with me toward tomorrow.
She closes the poem by inscribing herself as the product of her mother’s labor and life, recognizing that, whatever strengths Assata may have that her mother may lack, it is only because of her mother and her efforts that Assata has come to develop them.
I love you mommy
cause you are beautiful,
and I am life that springs from you:
part tree, part weed, part flower.
My roots run deep.
I have been nourished well.
Assata finally returns to the image of the plant on the windowsill. But unlike the potted plant that is slowly dying in the earlier reference, here at the end of the poem the speaker-daughter’s roots run deep and she is healthy. Healthy again, the poem suggests, not despite the mother’s struggles, and not despite the contradictions of her condition and her character, but in fact at least in part because of them.
The nourishment that Assata has received from her mother, as illuminated through this poem, does not consist only of the material support this strong independent woman has provided her, but also of the the living example of contradiction that she has presented throughout their life together. It is through struggle with her mother’s different tendencies that Assata has become the strong and courageous revolutionary woman that she has become.
It is worth noting that “To My Momma” appears in the text following a prose section where Shakur reflects on the factionalism, arrogance, and sectarianism that she sees afflicting the (white-led) radical left, a diagnosis that informs her stated belief that black revolutionaries should unite with white revolutionaries to fight against a common enemy, but on the basis of power and unity within the black community. “I felt, and still feel,” she writes, “that it is necessary for Black revolutionaries to come together, analyze our history, our present condition, and to define ourselves and our struggle” (192). The poem can be read as precisely an attempt to struggle through differences towards unity within the black community, as well as an implicit modeling of such principled non-antagonistic struggle for a white left stricken by the plague of sectarianism, an affliction that the Black Panther Party would not escape either.
In a sense, one can read “To My Momma” as putting forth an alternative method for working through differences between subjects who are fundamentally on the same side of history, but which may appear, from a partial standpoint, as antagonistic. More than a mere autobiographical or lyrical interlude interrupting an extended political discussion of problems afflicting the left, Assata’s “To My Momma” can be seen as offering would-be revolutionaries a more fruitful method of mediating generational difference, and contradictory ideas alike, a critical yet loving method of working through contradictions and conflicts among the people, in light of their common history, the common essence of their human aspiration, and their common enemies.
- The entirety of “To My People” can be found online at http://www.thetalkingdrum.com/tmp.html
- The class aspect of her Black revolutionary vision is even more clear in later public statement to the jury.—also included inserted in her narrative, (166-171).
- “Tradition” in fact is the title of the long poem that closes the book. I will return to this text in a later installment.
Joseph G. Ramsey is a writer, educator, editor, and activist, residing in the Boston area. He is co-editor of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of theory and practice, a contributing board member at Socialism & Democracy, and a contributing editor at Red Wedge, where he writes the blog "Write to Rebel." He is currently working on a book about Richard Wright.