An Interview with Assata Shakur
By Evelyn C. White
As Assata Shakur writes in her poetic 1987 memoir, "Assata: An Autobiography," her name means "she who struggles" and the "the thankful." Although she has been exiled in Cuba for nearly two decades, the former JoAnne Chesimard continues to fight by speaking out against inequality and oppression.
Our conversation took place on a sun-drenched afternoon in Havana. With her glistening dreadlocks hanging to mid-spine, Assata came wearing mauve-colored cotton shorts and a beige T-shirt with a black design. Around her long elegant neck was a golden Ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life. On her feet, she wore a pair of Asics sneakers-the shoes that cushion her stride as she jogs through the streets of the palm lined island that has become her home.
"Yes, we see her running," Cuban children respond gleefully when asked about Assata. "Ella es muy hermosa (She is very beautiful)."
Beautiful, that is not what the feds thought in 1977 when Assata was convicted of being the accomplice to the murder of a White New Jersey state trooper. During the 1973 shoot-out, in which the officer and Black activist Zayd Shakur (no relation) were slain, Assata Shakur took two bullets. One nearly ripped off her right arm. The other shattered her clavicle and remains lodged near her heart.
The all-White jury gave short shrift to forensics experts who testified that Assata massive injuries could have only been sustained while her hands were in a position of surrender. They ignored the absence of gun residue on her fingers-there was no evidence she had fired a weapon. She was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 30 years ("for refusing to stand when the judge read the sentence" Assata explains).
Two years after her conviction, Assata masterminded one of the most daring prison escapes in U.S. History. Noting that details about her escape could be detrimental to people who are currently incarcerated, Assata declined to elaborate on exactly how she slipped out of the maximum security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey in 1979.
She is similarly reticent about the years she spent underground before being granted political asylum in Cuba in the early eighties. On the topic of her escape, she simply offers these words with determination and pride: "I was like Houdini. I plotted day and night. There was no way I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison for something I didn't do."
Evelyn C. White: What do you want people to know about your life now?
Assata Shakur: I'm still very active in political work. I'm putting finishing touches on another book. I talk about gender relations, Rap music, crime and so forth, in a question-and-answer format. I ask my own question and then answer myself (laughs) so the book is a bit shizy. But it's the form that I thought would best get across the points I want to make.
What has life been like for you in Cuba?
It's been good. It was hard at the beginning because I had to adjust to another culture and learn another language. I had to adjust to living in a Third World country, which means that things people in the U.S. take for granted-like hot running water whenever you turn on the tap-are not always available here. But it's been a growing and happy experience for me in many ways. Another thing I've been able to do in Cuba is rest. You live such an intense life in the States. And my life has been more intense than most (laughs). Being in Cuba has allowed me to live in a society that is not at war with itself. There is a sense of community. It's a given in Cuba that, if you fall down, the person next to you is going to help you get up.
How do you relax?
I run. I live here on an island surrounded by all this water and I'm a lousy swimmer (laughs). It's pitiful. I've started to crochet again, which is something I learned in prison. I'm going to be a grandmother soon, so with the crochet, I can make gifts for my daughter and the baby. I'm totally into this grandmother thing. I'm starting to paint and write fiction. I'm in a more creative stage of life.
There's something about approaching 50 that's very liberating. Political struggle has always been a 24-hour-a-day job for me. I felt I could never take time out for myself. Now I feel I owe it to myself to develop in ways I've been putting off all my life. I'm crafting a vision of my life that involves creativity. And Cuban society allows me to do this. I know it's harder in the U.S. where so many people are just grateful to have a job.
What types of jobs have you had in Cuba?
I've worked in different study centers as a translator. But I've tried as much as possible to avoid the standard nine-to-five thing. I've tried to organize my life so that I can move around, change the rhythm and the tempo. I'm invited to give lots of presentations to people who come here. I talk about human-rights violations and political prisoners in the United States.