Image: Assata: An Autobiography (Lawrence Hill Books

Publisher Synopsis: On May 2, 1973, Black Panther Assata Shakur (aka JoAnne Chesimard) lay in a hospital, close to death, handcuffed to her bed, while local, state and federal police attempted to question her about the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that had claimed the life of a white state trooper. Long a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to defame, infiltrate, and criminalize black nationalist organizations and their leaders, Shakur was incarcerated for four years prior to her conviction on flimsy evidence in 1977 as an accomplice to murder.

This intensely personal and political autobiography belies the fearsome image of JoAnne Chesimard long projected by the media and the state. With wit and candor, Assata Shakur recounts the experiences that led her to a life of activism and portrays the strengths, weaknesses, and eventual demise of Black and White revolutionary groups at the hand of government officials. The result is a signal contribution to the literature about growing up black in America that has already taken its place alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the works of Maya Angelou. Two years after her conviction, Assata Shakur escaped from prison. She was given political asylum by Cuba, where she now resides.

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I read this book during a time in college where I was ready to burn down everything in the name of blackness. If there was a book written by a revolutionary, I was reading it. Because I went to an HBCU in the ’90s, every Friday you could find vendors selling shirts that said things like Nat Turner University and Son of a Field Negro, etc. I even remember going to a store in Alabama and having a T-shirt made of the confederate flag made into red, black and green right around the time the Nu South store opened in Charleston, S.C.

Assata was (and still is) a hero of mine for many reasons, but back in the late ’90s? And on an HBCU campus? Her book might as well have been a bible. And then Common wrote “A Song for Assata” on his 2000 album, Like Water for Chocolate. Point is, Assata, and in particular her book, seems to have taken a hold of a great many of us in the late ’90s as the seeds of a new black power movement were sowed.

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I assume that most folks who are avid readers, especially of black literature and stories, have read her story. It resonated with me because of her background and how she was raised and how she got involved and eventually left the Black Panther Party. Of course, her escape from prison and living in Cuba are part and parcel to her story. Ultimately, Assata’s story is one that everybody interested in Black Power and understanding how the government can railroad you is a must read.

Assata: An Autobiography (1987) by Assata Shakur