Assata Shakur
Editing: Billy S., Roderic Day

Excerpts from An Autobiography (1987)

13 minutes | English | Black Liberation

I don’t remember the name of my other fifth grade teacher except that it was a mile long and began with a Z, but she was very nice and a very good teacher. She introduced us to art, literature, and philosophy. I remember studying the French Revolution in her class. She made names like Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, and Robespierre come alive. She talked about philosophers like Rousseau who influenced the thinking of the period and about how the French Revolution was influenced by the amerikan Revolution. She even showed us pictures of the art and architecture of the period. She was the first teacher (one of a very few) who taught subjects as if they related to each other.

Before i was in her class, i would never have imagined that history was connected to art, that philosophy was connected to science, and so on. The usual way that people are taught to think in amerika is that each subject is in a little compartment and has no relation to any other subject. For the most part, we receive fragments of unrelated knowledge, and our education follows no logical format or pattern. It is exactly this kind of education that produces people who don’t have the ability to think for themselves and who are easily manipulated. [1]

 — Ch. 2, p. 35. [web]

The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives.

 — Ch. 3, p. 50. [web]

The Upper West Side, as the neighborhood was called, was supposed to be a “liberal” stronghold. I have never really understood exactly what a “liberal” is, though, since i have heard “liberals” express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject. As far as i can tell, you have the extreme right, who are fascist, racist capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they’re coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere between those two points is the liberal. As far as i’m concerned, “liberal” is the most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private schools, and reap the benefits of their white skin privileges, then they are “liberals.” But when times get hard and money gets tight, they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges.

 — Ch. 8, p. 131. [web]

Evelyn was super-honest and she just could not tolerate my lying. [2] I would try to tell the truth and try to be honest, but sometimes, especially if i was in a tight situation, i would lie. I had been in the habit of lying and it was easy for me to fall back into the old pattern. But it was futile to lie to Evelyn because she was a lawyer and would cross-examine me until i would inevitably trip myself up. Little by little, i got out of the habit, but it was a long and constant battle between us.

 — Ch. 8, p. 135. [web]

Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.

 — Ch. 8, p. 139 [web]

We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is. […] 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.

 — Ch. 10, p. 152. [web]

[My friend from Kenya] was one of the few people i knew who was serious about almost everything he did in life and whose conversation was not just about his small world but about the whole world. One weekend we had arranged to hang out. I think we were supposed to go and hear somebody play at Count Basie’s club. My apartment looked like some kind of hurricane had hit it, and i was trying to ease out the door without letting him in. Somehow he managed to get a glimpse inside. “No, we aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “How can you live like this? If your house looks like this i can just imagine what your head looks like.”

I was embarrassed, but i had to admit he was right. I had everything thrown every which way, clothes flung all over the place. It was a wreck. He suggested that instead of going out he would help me clean up and get organized. “You’ll be all right if you just get yourself organized. You can do almost anything you want as long as you organize yourself to do it.” I decided he was right. It was time to get my life in some kind of order. It was time to take control.

 — Ch. 10, p. 158. [web]

I had begun to think of myself as a socialist, but i could not in any way see myself joining any of the socialist groups i came in contact with. I loved to listen to them, learn from them, and argue with them, but there was no way in the world i could see myself becoming a member. For one thing, i could not stand the condescending, paternalistic attitudes of some of the white people in those groups. Some of the older members thought that because they had been in the struggle for socialism for a long time, they knew all the answers to the problems of Black people and all the aspects of the Black Liberation struggle. […] Some of these groups would come up with abstract, intellectual theories, totally devoid of practical application, and swear they had the answers to the problems of the world. They attacked the Vietnamese for participating in the Paris peace talks, claiming that by negotiating the Viet Cong were selling out to the u.s. I think they got insulted when i asked them how a group of flabby white boys who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag had the nerve to think they could tell the Vietnamese people how to run their show.

 — Ch. 12, p. 191. [web]

Black self-determination is a basic right, and if we do not have the right to determine our destinies, then who does? I believe that to gain our liberation, we must come from the position of power and unity and that a Black revolutionary party, led by Black revolutionary leaders, is essential. I believe in uniting with white revolutionaries to fight against a common enemy, but i was convinced that it had to be on the basis of power and unity rather than from weakness and unity at any cost.

 — Ch. 12, p. 192. [web]

You can’t claim that you love people when you don’t respect them, and you can’t call for political unity unless you practice it in your relationships. And that doesn’t happen out of nowhere. That’s something that has got to be put into practice every day.

 — Ch. 15, p. 218. [web]

A lot of the sisters and brothers had joined because they were sick and tired of the oppression they had been suffering. Most of them had never been in the struggle before. Quite a few joined thinking the Party was going to issue them a gun and direct them to go out and shoot pigs. Most of these brothers and sisters had attended inferior schools which either taught them lies or nothing at all. Education of every kind was sorely needed. Without an adequate education program, many Panthers fell into a roboton bag. They repeated slogans and phrases without understanding their complete meaning, often resulting in dogmatic and shortsighted practices. For example, one day an African brother who was working with one of the African liberation movements came into the office and gave us a beautiful calendar put out by one of the African liberation groups. It was baaad. It had beautiful pictures of African freedom fighters and said something like “International support for African liberation.” The first thing i did was hang it up. When i came to the office the next day the calendar was gone. When i asked what had happened to it, they said, “The calendar said ‘international’ and we’re not internationalists, we’re intercommunalists.”

I am convinced that a systematic program for political education, ranging from the simplest to the highest level, is imperative for any successful organization or movement for Black liberation in this country.

 — Ch. 15, p. 221. [web]

Instead of criticizing what was happening, most of the Party members defended it. When i said that Huey needed speaking lessons they jumped down my throat. When Huey changed his title from defense minister to the ridiculous-sounding “Supreme Commander” and then to the even more ridiculous “Supreme Servant,” damn near nobody said a word. That was one of the big problems in the Party. [3] Criticism and self-criticism were not encouraged, and the little that was given often was not taken seriously. Constructive criticism and self-criticism are extremely important for any revolutionary organization. Without them, people tend to drown in their mistakes, not learn from them.

 — Ch. 15, p. 225. [web]

Just because you believe in self-defense doesn’t mean you let yourself be sucked into defending yourself on the enemy’s terms. One of the Party’s major weaknesses, i thought, was the failure to clearly differentiate between aboveground political struggle and underground, clandestine military struggle.

An aboveground political organization can’t wage guerrilla war anymore than an underground army can do aboveground political work. Although the two must work together, they must have completely separate structures, and any links between the two must remain secret. Educating the people about the necessity for self-defense and for armed struggle was one thing. But maintaining a policy of defending Party offices against insurmountable odds was another. Of course, if the police just came in and started shooting, defending yourself made sense. But the point is to try and prevent that from happening. [4]

 — Ch. 15, p. 227. [web]

One of the best things about struggling is the people you meet. Before i became involved, i never dreamed such beautiful people existed. Of course, there were some creeps, but i can say without the slightest hesitation that i have been blessed with meeting some of the kindest, most courageous, most principled, most informed and intelligent people on the face of the earth. I owe a great deal to those who have helped me, loved me, taught me, and pulled my coat when i was moving in the wrong direction. If there is such a thing as luck, i’ve had an abundance of it, and the ones who have brought it to me are my friends and comrades. My wild, bighearted friends, with their pretty ways and pretty thoughts, have given me more happiness that i will ever deserve. There was never a time, no matter what horrible thing i was undergoing, when i felt completely alone. Maybe it’s ironic, i don’t know, but the one thing i do know is that the Black liberation movement has done more for me than i will ever be able to do for it.

 — Ch. 15, p. 223. [web]

[1] For an elaboration of this point, see “‘Potato Sack’ History” (2022). [web] — A. M. 

[2] Evelyn was Assata’s aunt and lawyer, acting as her guardian in New York at the time. — R. D. 

[3] For a very complementary read, see Sundiata Acoli’s retrospective of the Black Panther Party, “A Brief History of the Black Panther Party and Its Place In the Black Liberation Movement” (2008). [web] 

[4] See also very similar considerations by Sundiata Acoli (previous footnote), Liu Shaoqi, [web] and Bhagat Singh. [web] — R. D.