exile with love: Former
Black Panther Assata Shakur speaks to America from Cuba
[Editor’s note: Final Call Staff Writer Nisa
Islam Muhammad traveled to Cuba with a group of 15 journalists under
the guidance of DeWayne Wickham and the Institute for Advanced Journalism
Studies. They are documenting the African influence in the Americas.
While there, she was granted an exclusive interview with exiled
former Black Panther Assata Shakur.]
HAVANA, Cuba (FinalCall.com)—Assata Shakur
is a Black American folk hero. She is a freedom fighter that escaped
the chains of oppression. She made it to the other side. She is
a sister that defied the definitions of expected behavior by a Black
Her life is the subject of books, movies and poetry.
In her own words, she speaks on Cuba and terrorism, differences
between Blacks in Cuba and the U.S., living in exile and her hopes
for a new world:
"When I was in the Black Panther Party, they
(United States) called us terrorists. How dare they call us terrorists
when we were being terrorized? Terror was a constant part of my
life. I was living under apartheid in North Carolina. We lived under
"People have to see what’s really happening.
Cuba has never attacked anybody. Cuba has solidarity with other
countries. They send teachers and doctors to help the people of
other countries. It believes in solidarity.
"To see Cuba called a terrorist country is
an insult to reality. If people come to Cuba, they’ll see
a reality unlike what they’re told in America. This country
wants to help, not hurt. The U.S. government has lied to its people.
The U.S. government invents lies like Cuba is a terrorist country
to give a pretext to destroy it.
"Ronald Reagan convinced people that the little
country Grenada was a threat to the big United States, that allowed
the U.S. to go into Grenada.
"The people in the U.S. have to struggle against
a system of organized lies. When President Carter was here they
said Cuba was involved in biotechnology to create bioterrorism,
but now they back track and say it isn’t so. They lied and
they continue to lie about Cuba.
"Look at the struggle with Elian (Gonzales).
Look at the terrorism committed by the Miami terrorists, the Miami
Mafia. Those people (Cubans who fled after the revolution) are ex-plantation
owners, exploiters of people. They want to make Cuba the same kind
of place it was before but that’s not going to happen."
Her name means "she who struggles," and
that is the life she’s led. From growing up in racist Wilmington,
N.C., to her activism with the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation
Army (BLA), Ms. Shakur has struggled:
"My life wasn’t beautiful and creative
before I became politically active. My life was totally changed
when I began to struggle."
But that’s what it means to be Black in the
Americas, a life of struggle. Blacks in Cuba and the United States
share a history of slavery yet their paths separate in how they
view their lives. I asked Sis. Assata what she saw as the differences
between Blacks in Cuba and the United States:
"We’ve (Blacks in America) forgotten
where we came from. People in Cuba have not lost their memory. They
don’t suffer from historical and cultural amnesia. Cuba has
less material wealth than America but are able to do so much with
so little because they know where they come from.
"This was a maroon country. The maroons escaped
from slavery and started their own community. Everyone needs to
identify with their own history. If they know their history, they
can construct their future.
"The Cubans identify with those who fought
against slavery. They don’t identify with the slave master.
Those who made the revolution won’t let the people forget
what happened to them. The people here seriously study history.
"We have to de-Eurocentrize the history we
learn. We have to give the real perspective of what happened. We
have to create a world to know and remember our own. I had no idea
how ignorant I was until I came to Cuba. I had no knowledge of authors,
filmmakers and artists outside of America. We believe we’re
free but we’re not. Our world vision is tainted.
"We are oppressed people in the U.S. and don’t
even know it. We have fewer opportunities to be doctors and lawyers
as tuition increases. Our problem is that we want to belong to a
society that wants to oppress us. We want to be the plantation owner.
In Cuba, we want to change the plantation to a collective farm."
The time is 1973 and an incident of what would
now be called "racial profiling" takes place on the New
Jersey Turnpike. Ms. Shakur, actively involved in the Black Liberation
Army (BLA), is traveling with Malik Zayad Shakur (no relation) and
Sundiata Acoli. State troopers stop them, reportedly because of
a broken headlight.
A trooper also explains they were "suspicious"
because they had Vermont license plates. The three are made to exit
the car with their hands up. All of a sudden, shots were fired.
That much everybody seems to agree on. What happened
next changed the course of history for Assata Shakur. Shots were
fired and when all was said and done, state trooper Werner Foerster
and Malik Shakur were killed. Ms. Shakur and Mr. Acoli were charged
with the death of state trooper Foerster.
The trial found them both guilty. The verdict was
no surprise. But many question the racial injustice by the all-White
jury and admitted perjury by the trial’s star witness:
"I was shot with my arms in the air. My wounds
could not have happened unless my arms were in the air. The bullet
went in under my arm and traveled past my clavicle. It is medically
impossible for that to happen if my arms were down.
"I was sentenced to life plus 30 years by
an all-White jury. What I saw in prison was wall-to-wall Black flesh
in chains. Women caged in cells. But we’re the terrorists.
It just doesn’t make sense."
In a letter to Kofi Owusu dated August 24, 1973
from the Middlesex County Jail in New Brunswick, N.J., she describes
the life behind bars:
"i (sic) can’t begin to imagine how
many sisters have been locked in this cell (the detention cell)
and all the agony they felt and tears they shed. This is the cell
where they put the sisters who are having hard times, kicking habits
or who had been driven mad from too much oppression.
"It’s moods like this that make me aware
of how glad i am to be a revolutionary. i know who our enemy is,
and i know that me and these swine cannot live peacefully on the
same planet. i am a part of a family of field niggas and that is
something very precious.
"So many of my sisters are so completely unaware
of who the real criminals and dogs are. They blame themselves for
being hungry; they hate themselves for surviving the best way they
know how, to see so much fear, doubt, hurt, and self hatred is the
most painful part of being in this concentration camp.
"Anyway, in spite of all, i feel a breeze
behind my neck, turning to a hurricane and when i take a deep breath
I can smell freedom."
She spent six and a half years in prison, two of
those in solitary confinement. During that time she gave birth to
her daughter Kakuya.
In 1979, she was liberated by comrades in a daring
escape that continues to infuriate the New Jersey State Troopers.
There was a nation-wide search for her. In 1984 she went to Cuba
and was united with her daughter:
"When I came to Cuba, I expected everyone
to look like Fidel (Castro). But you see everything and everyone
is different. I saw Black, White, Asians all living and working
together. The Cuban women were so elegantly dressed and groomed.
"People would just talk to me in the street.
I would wonder why until I realized that people are not afraid of
each other. People in America are afraid to walk the streets; it’s
not like that here.
"I realized that I had some healing to do.
I didn’t know the extent of my wounds until I came to Cuba.
I began to heal with my work, raising my daughter and being a part
of a culture that appreciates you.
"Living in Cuba means being appreciated by
society, not depreciated by society. No matter what we do in America,
no matter what we earn, we’re still not appreciated by American
Who are the people on the tiny island nation of
Cuba only 90 miles from Florida? Who are these people that dare
to say "no" to America? Who are these 11 million revolutionaries
that resist in the face of the most powerful country in the world:
"Cubans feel like they have power. No matter
who they are. They see themselves as part of a world. We just see
ourselves as part of a ’hood. They identify with oppressed
people all over the world.
"When the Angolans were fighting against South
Africa, they asked Cuba for help. Soldiers were sent. They went
"Cubans have a different perspective of outrage
and justice. A White Cuban soldier came back from fighting and expressed
his disdain for the Whites that were supporting apartheid.
"I just looked at him because in my mind he
was White like they were but that’s not how he saw himself.
He couldn’t understand how the South Africans could support
"Anytime you have a country that makes people
feel indignant about atrocities, wherever they are, that country
has a special place in my heart. Cuba is trying to end exploitation
For nearly 20 years, she has carved out a life
for herself in Cuba. She lives in exile and while many rejoice in
her new life, America has not forgotten her alleged crimes. In 1997,
the New Jersey State Troopers wrote to the Pope asking for the Pontiff’s
help in having her extradited.
Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd-Whitman
issued a $100,000 enticement for anyone to assist in the return
of Assata Shakur. Congress issued H.R. 254 calling on Cuba to send
her back, which was supported by most Black congresspersons.
In the absence of normalized relations with Cuba,
there is no binding extradition treaty between Cuba and the United
What is it like to live in exile? What is it like
to be away from family and friends:
"Living in exile is hard. I miss my family
and friends. I miss the culture, the music, how people talk, and
their creativity. I miss the look of recognition Black women give
each other, the understanding we express without saying a word.
"I adjusted by learning to understand what
was going on in the world. The Cubans helped me to adjust. I learned
joys in life by learning other cultures. It was a privilege to come
here to a rich culture.
"I had a big fear that the Cubans would hate
me when I arrived. They are very sophisticated. They were able to
separate the people from America, like me, from the government."
What message does she have for the youth of our
people? What does she want people to know about her life:
"I don’t see myself as that different
from sisters who struggle for social justice. In the ’60s
it was easier to identify racism. There were signs that told you
where you belonged. We had to struggle to eliminate apartheid in
the South. Now we have to know the other forms that exist today.
"We had to learn that we’re beautiful.
We had to relearn something forcefully taken from us. We had to
learn about Black power. People have power if we unite. We learned
the importance of coming together and being active. That fueled
"We knew what a token was then. Today young
people don’t see Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell as tokens.
That’s a problem.
"I realized that I was connected to Africa.
I wasn’t just a Colored girl. I was part of a whole world
that wanted a better life. I’m part of a majority and not
a minority. My life has been a life of growth. If you’re not
growing, you’re not going to understand real love. If you’re
not reaching out to help others then you’re shrinking. My
life has been active. I’m not a spectator.
"We can’t afford to be spectators while
our lives deteriorate. We have to truly love our people and work
to make that love stronger."
Ms. Shakur is finishing another book about her
life in exile and her experiences in Cuba.
Final Call, Web Posted 06-11-2002