Prisoner in Paradise An Interview with Assata
Shakur by Evelyn C. White
(Originally published in Essence Magazine in 90s)
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"
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."
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.
Do the Cuban people know your life story?
No, the average Cuban does not. And I really prefer
to be kind of anonymous. Because when people know your whole history,
they have a tendency to relate to you differently and maybe put
you up on a pedestal. I want people to just be normal with me. I
just want to live my life.
When Cubans ask about your background how do
I tell the truth. I say I'm a political prisoner
from the United States who is living here in exile. That's not uncommon.
There are many people here from Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El
Salvador and other places who have been granted political asylum.
Cubans understand that theirs is a country that provides sanctuary
for people fleeing oppression. As a nation, they are very proud
of this stance. They don't care how much the U.S. government badgers
or attacks them. Cuba has its own moral system and priorities. That's
what keeps it going, the belief that the country can control its
Is there anything you've discovered about yourself
that has surprised you since coming to Cuba?
Becoming aware of my own vulnerability and sensitivity
and being able to express those feelings has been a surprise. In
the States, I always had to be tough and ready to take care of business.
Here I can look at sides of me that are more delicate and fragile.
That was kind of a shock to me. I think that, like many sisters,
I was raised to be a Superwoman. I am a serious woman, and I want
to be taken seriously, but here I don't have to live up to that
Superwoman myth. I can cry and be human and lean on people who take
care of me. That can be very liberating.
What do you think will happen to you if Fidel
Castro is overthrown?
If the U.S. succeeds in destroying the revolution,
my status will be like that of most Cubans: I'll be up a creek without
a paddle. It will be devastating for people worldwide who believe
in justice. It's a threat I live with every day, because the U.S.
doesn't recognize the laws of Cuba. They can kidnap anybody and
bring them back to the States to face the so-called justice system.
There's no telling what the U.S. government will do to me. I'm in
constant danger; I guess I've gotten used to it.
How do you mange to stay connected with the
I stay connected in my head. I'm spiritually and
psychologically connected to African-Americans. They are my people,
and that will never change. And I'm truly blessed, because many
of my friends come to Cuba. They like it here-they can relax and
not worry about drive-by shootings or getting raped. I meet all
kinds of people. I'm a news freak; I read books, magazine, listen
to tapes, anything I get my hands on. And a lot of contemporary
American culture makes its way to this county. Cuba is not some
gray, isolated backwater. This is a happening place.
Do you think you will ever return home?
I don't know. I think it will be hard. It's funny.
People ask me if I miss the States. I miss African Americans. But
not the U.S. government or all the things they put me through. I
miss African American culture, our speech, dance and cooking. I
miss friends and family. If it weren't for visits from old friends
and other African Americans I meet who come to Cuba, I'd probably
be in some kind of time warp. I learn so much from my sisters and
brothers who come here. I get recharged and energized and reminded
of how beautiful we are as a people. African people just shine.
And people come telling the truth. When I ask how thing are in the
States, they don't give me the okeydoke. They say, "Honey, things
are hard." It reminds me I have to keep struggling.