Feminists We Love: Assata Shakur (Love Note) – The Feminist Wire

Feminists We Love: Assata Shakur (Love Note)

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.”
—Assata Shakur

Shakur III

Over the past three and a half months, The Feminist Wire has been publishing “Feminists We Love” each week in order to acknowledge and honor the feminists and womanists whose works amplify myriad aspects of our mission.  This week, we honor Assata Olugbala Shakur. Assata, she who struggles. Olugbala, for the people. Shakur, the thankful one.

Recently, Assata Shakur (identified by her former name, Joanne Deborah Chesimard née Byron) became the first woman ever listed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list. The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”  In outrage, we wondered how such a brilliant and courageous freedom fighter could be defined in this way.  We wondered how Barack Obama, our first self-identified Black President, and Eric Holder, our first self-identified Black Attorney General, could define our sistermother in this way. We wondered how a government could apply a definition more appropriate for itself and its actions to a woman who was willing to relinquish her “freedom” so that we, her people, could be free from the terror we have endured in this nation for centuries.

At first, we wondered. Then, we realized that we actually do know the reasons why the FBI designated Assata Shakur “Most Wanted”. Seven years ago, Inderpal Grewal, Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University, stated, “I am interested in the kind of binary of terror-security, as a particular way of binary in which certain kinds of new politics are getting mobilised. And I am interested in the binary of terror and security precisely because what it does is governmentalise security in the interest of terror in new ways […] I am interested in the forms of surveillance and the subjects that are produced through the politics of security.”  Any force attempting to nourish and empower Black and Brown bodies in this country becomes a subject to be surveilled.  Subsequently, any attempt to nourish and empower Black and Brown bodies in this country is met with fervent resistance. This resistance is always already inextricably linked to racism and violence intended to mentally, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically cripple our efforts save our own lives.

Let us be reminded that Assata Shakur fed hungry Black and Brown children. Assata Shakur helped Black and Brown mothers overcome drug addiction. Assata Shakur taught Black and Brown communities how to love and protect themselves. Assata Shakur fought against the prison industrial complex that profits from enslaving Black and Brown bodies. Assata Shakur never let us forget that Black and Brown bodies were worthy of love, empathy, protection, and meticulous care. Assata Shakur was a teacher and healer. We know this because we have committed our lives to honoring her story, standing on her shoulders, and speaking truth to power.

Regarding these recent events, Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California—Santa Cruz, stated, “I can’t help but think that it’s designed to frighten people who are involved in struggles today.”  We wholeheartedly concur. But we will not be frightened. We will not be silenced. We will continue the struggle. We will recognize, without hesitation, that Assata Shakur is a feminist we love.  Typically, we interview the “Feminists We Love” in print or audiovisual form to give our readers the opportunity to know and love them as we do. However, since Assata Shakur is in political asylum in Cuba (as she has been since 1984), either approach would significantly jeopardize her safety and security. Instead, then, we are publishing this “Love Note” in hopes that she and her loved ones are able to read and find strength in it.


Shakur IDearest Assata Shakur,

In 1977, when you were convicted of first-degree murder related to the shootout that occurred on the New Jersey Turnpike, I was not yet a glimmer in my mother’s and father’s eyes.  By the time you found political asylum in Cuba, I was just 2 or 3 years old. It would be many more years before I even knew your name.

Shot. With your hands up. Unable to pull the trigger. Paralyzed.

As I began my intellectual development during college, I often found myself thinking of you.  I found myself thanking you for the texts on my desk and on my bed.  In my hands were Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambara, Charles Chestnut—myriad Black artists and activists speaking to me and so many others. I was grateful. Grateful that I could read and engage them in an academic space, all because of you and the others that stood with you.  Where would I, and others like me, be if you hadn’t forcefully resisted the status quo and demanded Black Studies during the lock down at the Borough of Manhattan Community College?

Shot. With your hands up. Unable to pull the trigger. Paralyzed.

Now, 10 years after I graduated college, I’m a professor.  Now, I teach those Black artists and activists, courageously and proudly.  You were willing to die so that I could be here.  You were willing to give up your freedom so that I could be here. I owe you my life and my love.  I try, each and every day, to honor your steadfast commitment to justice.  Where would I, and others like me, be if you hadn’t forcefully resisted the status quo and demanded more Black faculty during the lock down at the Borough of Manhattan Community College?

Shot. With your hands up. Unable to pull the trigger. Paralyzed.

As I read more and more about your life, it struck me that you divorced your husband left the Black Panther Party due, in part, to problematic gender roles. You once said, “A revolutionary woman can’t have no reactionary man.”  The moment I read that was the moment I fell in love—with you.  Now, I’m a proud Black Feminist.  A Black Feminist wife.  A Black Feminist mother. A Black Feminist student.  A Black Feminist teacher.

Shot. With your hands up. Unable to pull the trigger. Paralyzed.

Still, I had no idea what was in store for me as I continued studying you, your activism, and your words.  Everything I thought I knew or believed in became tragic to me.  I struggled with anger.  I struggled with hatred.  I struggled with peace and love.  I didn’t know if I had the courage or knowledge to seek freedom.  I felt as if I didn’t know anything at all.  There was no such thing as truth.  Nor was there justice.

Shot. With your hands up. Unable to pull the trigger. Paralyzed.

Shakur II

And still, there is no justice.  And because of that, I still struggle. With the approval of President Obama and Attorney General Holder, the FBI has named you one of their “Most Wanted Terrorists.” They are “offering a reward of up to $1 million for information directly leading to the apprehension of Joanne Chesimard.”  A Black woman still cannot define and name herself.  A Black woman can still be erased.  Disappeared. A Black woman can still be kidnapped and murdered as her government and country applaud. A Black woman can still die while only her closest loved ones shed a tear. A Black woman still has no story worth hearing, worth loving.  To them, you are still Joanne.  There is no justice.

Shot. With your hands up. Unable to pull the trigger. Paralyzed.

Because of you, I remind us all that while there is no justice, there is truth.  On the shoulders of Audre Lorde, I remind us all that our silence will not protect us. Until we each take our dying breath, we must remind the world that by virtue of your willingness to stand in truth and justice, you have been and continue to be a victim of terrorism. Your government has failed you. Your country has failed you.  Your President has failed you. But we will not fail you.

Here we stand.  Still black.  Still strong.

With love,

Heidi R. Lewis on behalf of The Feminist Wire