Assata Shakur talks to Pastors for Peace
(I am providing
a summary here because we are missing the first few questions and
answers due to problems with the tape recorder. In this first part
Assata spoke about how she became a Black Panther in the 1960s and
was targeted by the FBI. She spoke of the role of the press in collaborating
with this campaign until she and other compañeros were finally
forced underground. She told how she was captured in 1970 and accused
of killing a New Jersey policeman, although medical testimony showed
that she had been shot twice -- once with her arms up in the air
-- and so could not possibly have shot anyone after that. Nevertheless,
she was convicted by an all-white racist jury to a sentence of life
+. She spent 6 1/2 years in prison, two of them in solitary confinement.)
The remaining part consists of Assata's own words, with some gaps
or summaries, when questions or parts of answers could not be heard,
and some corrections made by Assata afterwards.
"In 1979 I was liberated by some comrades
and friends, and in 1984 I came to Cuba, where I was united with
my daughter and was able to bond with her for the first time. And
to begin healing the wounds. Here, I worked, studied, mothered and
continued to be an activist.
I found that Cuba was much different from the US;
its government was genuinely trying to erase racism. But racism
had grown out of slavery and exploitation and was very hard to eradicate
quickly and completely. Cuba has been undergoing a process to eliminate
...Cuba like every other place has got to struggle
against the whole racist ideology that it inherited, the culture,
the eurocentric way of viewing the world where Europe is this big
(shows with her hands) and Africa and Asia and Latin America are
these little microscopic dots on the map. That's a process that
has to be helped and contributed to by everybody, because the whole
way the world is viewed now, the way that science, literature and
history are used, is totally distorted and eurocentric. In order
for the world to be free of racism that is a struggle that has to
be waged on all fronts by all people.
I think that more than anything, the whole cultural
imperialism that is going on today where people, whether they're
in Senegal, South Africa, Indonesia, are looking at this USA vision
of the world that is totally distorted, totally unreal, that really
diminishes and minimalizes the cultural values and wisdom of people
all over the world, and sells this kind of McDonald-ized vision
of the world that everybody is supposed to aspire to.
Cuba is very important in that struggle, because
Cuba is not only talking about racism in abstract terms, but connecting
it with imperialism, which is the underlying motor of racism today.
The underlying reason that racism keeps on being promoted in all
of its various forms today. I think anybody who is honestly struggling
against racism must struggle against imperialism and vice versa.
Question: You could have gone
to many countries for asylum. Why did you choose Cuba?
Assata: I decided to come to Cuba
for a variety of reasons. One, because it was close to the United
States, and I considered it to be a very principled country. It
has a long history of supporting victims of political repression,
not only of people in the United States, like Huey Newton, Robert
Williams, Eldridge Cleaver (a long list of people), but also people
who were victims of political repression in other places, like Chile,
the apartheid government of South Africa, Namibia, etc. I felt this
was a place that held the principle of internationalism very close
to heart, so I felt comfortable coming here. It was geographically
close, so I wouldn't be separated from my family and friends. And
I really wanted to see for myself what happens in a place that is
trying to build socialism, that's trying to construct some form
of social justice. That's trying to feed people, to make health
care and education a right.
When I came I had some very silly ideas, to be
honest. My fantasy of Cuba was that everybody was going to be going
around looking like Fidel, with green uniforms -- it was very different
from my vision of how Cuba really was. People in Cuba are really
very varied and everybody has his or her own personal style. I also
found that people had all kinds of levels of consciousness, all
kinds of levels of education, but that Cubans in general were very
educated politically. I could go sit on a bus and get into a conversation
with someone and find that person had a wealth of knowledge. And
energy! What most impressed me about Cuba was the optimism.
There are 11 million people on this island who
have an incredibly optimistic vision of the world. My mother put
it into words most clearly when she said: "If these people
had not won, had not taken power, everybody would think they were
insane!" (Laughs). People would think the whole revolutionary
process was totally insane. How DARE these 11 million people on
this little island think they can change the way that this planet
is going? How dare they think they can stand up against the United
States? That they can have their own system. But that is the kind
of magic of Cuba - that people have this optimism, this pride, this
belief- not only in themselves but in other people.
That to me has been one of the psychic vitamins
that has fed me since I've been here and that has taught me the
power of people. I was a member of the Black Panther Party, and
we used to say "Power to the People", but here in Cuba
is where I've seen that put into practice, where I've seen that
internalized by people in such a way that people feel empowered
to build this planet and to change it. And to contribute and feel
privileged to do that. Feel that when they go to sleep at night
that all is not in vain. There is some sense in living on this planet.
That there is some beauty in constructing something better and giving
to other people. And work is a source of pride, not "Oh, I've
gotta go to work in the morning". It's another way of looking
at the world and another way of living on this planet.
Question: Describe experience
of being in Cuba, being exiled here. To what extent have you been
able to continue being the political person you were in the United
Assata: Well, exile is difficult.
Anyone who says it's nothing, that it's easy, is simplifying things.
Exile for me was hard. When I came here I spoke very little Spanish.
Like two words! I couldn't communicate, and people would talk to
me like I was a blooming idiot. Like, how did they know? The only
conversation they could have with me were simple things like - "Hello,
how are you?" There was no way I could express my personality
in Spanish, tell jokes, be specific, describe anything...It was
a hard adaptation process. But I went through it and in some ways
I guess I continue to go through it.
For me personally Cuba has been a healing place.
When I first got here I had no sense that I had to heal or anything.
When you're struggling for your life and you're in the midst of
things, you don't feel all the blows.
But after awhile I began to see that oppressed
people, just by being oppressed-suffer serious wounds. You might
go into a store, and somebody might follow you around the store,
and you would have a choice of how to react: you could confront
them and say "Why are you following me around the store?"
or you could say to yourself: "Well, I came here to buy some
socks, so let me just concentrate on buying the socks." But
you still feel the pain. The obvious racism before had affected
me, and in addition to that - prison, torture...my whole life had
created wounds, scars in me that in Cuba I was able to find a space
to begin to heal. To begin to think, "Yeah, this happened,
and I can look at it and see it for what it was but not be there,
not be destroyed by it, not be turned into something bitter and
evil by it. And not be like my enemies. Because I think that the
greatest betrayal that a revolutionary can participate in is to
become like the people you are struggling against. To become like
your persecutors, your oppressors. I think that is a betrayal and
I think that people who want to change this planet
have to seriously understand that as human beings we have to work
to be good. I'm saying that in many ways: good at what we do, better
people, better in the way we related to people, that we treat other
people. Better in our ability to outreach to people. Better in so
many ways. And the wounds that are inflicted on our families, on
ourselves, we have to heal. We have to work within our families,
within our communities, within our neighborhoods, to make them livable.
My experience in the United States was living in
a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated.
People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units.
They were afraid of interaction, of contact, they
were very lonely. People didn't build that sense of community that
I found is so rich here.
One of the things that I was able to take from
this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of
community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million
people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can't
find, you can't buy, you have to build. You have to build it within
yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbors,
about how you want to live on this planet.
Question: Some people have voiced
concern that the end of the blockade will bring many negative things
from the United States to Cuba. What do you think about the blockade
Assata: I think that it's all
positive. I think that any time anybody gets rid of oppression,
intervention, exploitation, cruelty-that's positive. I think that
the effects of lifting the blockade are all positive.
Now that's another question from the effects of
exposure to US consumerism, violence, militaristic culture, greed,
institutionalized sexual exploitation, Barby-doll vision of women-those
are different things. One thing is lifting the blockade; the other
is cultural imperialism, materialism, etc. Tourism, for example,
has affected Cuba, because tourists come and they bring racist,
sexist ideas. They bring a whole vision that there are rich people
all over the world and that's the way it should be-you know?
The only way to struggle against that is ideological
struggle in terms of values. And also improving the economy. People
here being able to say, "You have your vision of the world
but we have ours, and we are committed to ours." That's a struggle
of ideas, of values. And hopefully not only in Cuba, but all over
the world, people are saying that this kind of McDonald's, Barby-doll
culture that is being pushed by the United States and other big
powers is a very empty, sad, alienating kind of culture, and there
are much richer values on this earth.
Question: How did you get involved
in the struggle (become an activist)?
Assata: Well, basically, it was
hard not to. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the 60s-not to
idealize the 60s, but there was a lot of political activism going
on. I had dropped
out of school and was working at this terrible
9-to-5 drudge clerk-type job. I was miserable and not going anywhere.
So I decided to go to school. I was in school like two weeks or
something and my whole world changed! First of all I met all of
these wonderful people who were doing things and were active and
positive. Then I started to learn about myself. I grew up in the
United States totally ignorant of the history of African people
in the United States. Of the literature. I knew about the music
and parts of the culture, but in terms of the history of African
people I knew nothing. So all of a sudden I was exposed to these
people who were talking about Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, DuBois-so
many people-and it was like waking up from a semi-sleep. It was
like saying, "Oh, wow! We were there; we struggled, we resisted!"
For me as a Black person, it was like coming into touch with the
reality of my ancestors, my history.
I had grown up at a time when people were being
lynched, being attacked with water hoses. Becoming active and learning
a different way of viewing my life was a healthy reaction to what
I was seeing every day. I actually believed then and still believe
that activism is fun! I think that the movement has done more for
me as a human being than I will ever be able to do for the movement.
Because there's something nice about being able to go to sleep at
night saying "You know, tomorrow I'm gonna get up and I'm gonna
do this and I'm gonna do that...." I think that being an activist
on this planet is a privilege and a pleasure.
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