This is one in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.
Assata Shakur has now lived in Cuba for thirty-five years. She was a Civil Rights activist, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, and is today just 61 years old. State and Federal police departments harassed and assaulted her throughout her years of activism, convicted her of many crimes she did not commit, and victimized her and her community through the FBI’s Counter Insurgency Program (COINTELPRO) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Cuba granted her political asylum when she escaped from prison. In her autobiography, Assata, she relates the horrors of her time in the hospital and in prison before and during her trial for the 1972 New Jersey Turnpike Shootout. She tells this brutal story in sections, spliced with the chapters of her childhood in New York City, and her youthful years of gradual political and philosophical growth.
The publication of Assata in 1987 gave a powerful, personal voice to the violent and enraging racist reality confronted by black activists during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But the book speaks as much of a woman’s childhood memories and their importance, of her youthful decisions, judgments, and actions, and of her mind, always learning and expanding, even while fighting a world of aggressively closed and narrow mentalities. Assata was a formidable individual, yet she acted as a participant in a movement, rather than a leader. Two years ago, when I first read her work, it was her mention of and reflection on her smallest actions that changed my perspective. Her simplest stories fueled my love of the otherwise humbling, often fundamental, elements of my own social education and participation.
Assata was nearly eighteen when she became friends with a group of African students at Columbia. “One day,” she remembers, “Vietnam came up. It was around 1964 and the movement against the war had not yet blown up in full force. Someone asked me what I thought. I didn’t have the faintest idea. I said, ‘It’s all right, I guess.’” When she justified her stance by saying that, you know, the United States was fighting the war for democracy, against communism, “the brother asked [her] if [she] knew anything about the history of Vietnam,” and proceeded to explain about colonialization, exploitation, starvation, illiteracy, and the long fight waged in the North. “I sat there with my mouth hanging open.” Assata remembers. “He knew all this stuff and he wasn’t even studying history. I couldn’t believe that this African, who didn’t even live in the u.s. or in Asia, could know more than me who had friends and neighbors who were fighting over there.”
She began to read about the war, to educate herself, and found that the Africans had told her the truth. “I never thought I could be so easily tricked into being something I didn’t understand,” she writes. “It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.” Five years later, as a member of the BPP, Assata was assigned to the children’s breakfast program in Harlem, and woke up early in the morning to make the kids’ pancakes, eggs, and sandwiches. “Working on the breakfast program turned out to be an absolute delight,” she recalls. “The work was so fulfilling. From the first day I saw those kids, my heart went out to them. They were such bright, open little people, each with his or her own personality.”
Assata’s activism was one of important friendships, gradual education, intent observation, and seemingly intuitive self-reflection. She respected those whose work she truly admired, and voiced thoughtful disapproval of others’ work, even when she knew criticism was not welcome. She volunteered for the groups and organizations that she saw were doing good. She heartily accepted that opening her eyes would mean having to act. The day-to-day construction of her convictions reflects these simple, grounding principles.
Just as Assata built up her convictions, and did not let them make her self-righteous, so should we. By knowing that we do not learn in order to lead, but to open our eyes, and to act as a result. In the social movement towards environmental justice and food sovereignty, we who participate will need to embrace the power and fulfillment to be found in even the smallest forms of participation. The work of this movement will necessarily evolve as we become better informed of opportunities for change, but it will most likely continue to be the work that is least valued in our culture. We will continue to cultivate land, pick tomatoes, organize our communities, sort garbage, drive trucks, set up market tents, weigh vegetables, cook meals at soup kitchens, outdoor markets, senior centers, and at home. None of these constitute or lead to a highly paid or well-respected career. Nor do they give us a specifically strong voice in Washington. But they are each a way of participating in the movement, and each is as necessary as cooking breakfast was for black children in Harlem in the 1970s. Working towards the freedom of all people to understand, decide upon, and control what they will grow, cook, and consume, it is our (ever-growing) knowledge and our fulfillment that will be our strength.
Shakur, Assata. Assata: An Autobiography. (Lawrence Hill Books: Chicago, 1987).