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Assata: An Autobiography

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On May 2, 1973, Black Panther Assata Shakur (aka JoAnne Chesimard) lay in a hospital, close to death, handcuffed to her bed, while local, state, and federal police attempted to question her about the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that had claimed the life of a white state trooper. Long a target of J. Edgar Hoover's campaign to defame, infiltrate, and criminalize Black nationalist organizations and their leaders, Shakur was incarcerated for four years prior to her conviction on flimsy evidence in 1977 as an accomplice to murder.

This intensely personal and political autobiography belies the fearsome image of JoAnne Chesimard long projected by the media and the state. With wit and candor, Assata Shakur recounts the experiences that led her to a life of activism and portrays the strengths, weaknesses, and eventual demise of Black and White revolutionary groups at the hand of government officials. The result is a signal contribution to the literature about growing up Black in America that has already taken its place alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the works of Maya Angelou.

Two years after her conviction, Assata Shakur escaped from prison. She was given political asylum by Cuba, where she now resides.

ISBN-13: 9781556520747

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Publication Date: 11-01-1999

Pages: 320

Product Dimensions: 6.18(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.92(d)

Read an Excerpt


An Autobiography

By Assata Shakur

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 1988 Assata Shakur
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-681-8


There were lights and sirens. Zayd was dead. My mind knew that Zayd was dead. The air was like cold glass. Huge bubbles rose and burst. Each one felt like an explosion in my chest. My mouth tasted like blood and dirt. The car spun around me and then something like sleep overtook me. In the background i could hear what sounded like gunfire. But i was fading and dreaming.

Suddenly, the door flew open and i felt myself being dragged out onto the pavement. Pushed and punched, a foot upside my head, a kick in the stomach. Police were everywhere. One had a gun to my head.

"Which way did they go?" he was shouting. "Bitch, you'd better open your goddamn mouth or I'll blow your goddamn head off!"

I nodded my head across the highway. I was sure that nobody had gone that way. A few of the cops were off and running.

One pig said, "We oughta finish her off." But the others were all busy around the car, searching it. They were pulling and prodding.

"Ya find the gun?" they kept asking each other. Later, one of them asked another, "Should we put'er in the car?"

"Naw. Let'er lay in the gutter where she belongs. Just get'er out of the way."

I felt myself being dragged by the feet across the pavement. My chest was on fire. My blouse was purple with blood. I was convinced that my arm had been shot off and was hanging inside my shirt by a few strips of flesh. I could not feel it.

Finally the ambulance came and they moved me into it. Being moved was agony, but the blankets were worth it. I was so cold. The medics examined me. I tried to talk, but only bubbles came out. I was foaming at the mouth.

"Where's she hit?" they asked each other as if i wasn't there. They concluded their examination. I was relieved.

"Let's move it," one of them said.

"O.K., but wait a minute," said the driver and he got out. "Hit twice," i heard him say. "We gotta wait." The driver slammed the door.

He said something else but i didn't understand it. Time passed. I was floating off again. It felt so weird, like a dream, a nightmare. More time passed. It seemed like forever. I was in and out, in and out.

A rough voice asked, "Is she dead yet?" I floated off again. I heard another voice. "Is she dead yet?" I wondered how long the ambulance had been sitting there. The attendants looked nervous. The bubbles in my chest felt like they were growing bigger. When they burst, my whole chest shattered. I faded again and it was down South in the summertime. I thought about my grandmother. At last the ambulance was moving. "If i live," i remember thinking, "i'll only have one arm."

THE HOSPITAL is glaring white. Everybody i see is white. Everyone seems to be waiting. All at once they are in motion. Blood pressure, pulse, needles, etc. Two detectives come in. I know they're detectives because they look like detectives. One of them has a face like a bulldog, with jowls hanging down the sides. They supervise the nurse as she cuts off my clothes. After a while, one of them dabs my fingertips with what look like Q-tips. Later i find out that this is the neutron activation test to determine whether or not i have fired a weapon. Another one then tries to fingerprint me, but he has trouble because my hand is dead.

"Gimme the dead man's kit." He puts my fingers into spoonlooking things used to fingerprint dead people. They begin to ask me questions, but a bunch of doctors come in. One of them, who appears to be the head doctor, examines me. He pokes and prods, throwing me around like a rag doll. Then, like he is going to kill me, he jerks me around so that i'm on my stomach. The pain is like an electric shock. I moan.

"Don't cry now, girlie," he says. "Why'd you shoot the trooper? Why'd you shoot the trooper?"

I want to kick him in his face. I know he would kill me if he had the chance. I can see the scalpel slipping. One of the other doctors says something about calling the operating room. "Hell no!" is all i can think of. "Hell no!"

After a while, they all leave. Then a Black nurse comes into the room. I am glad as I could be to see her. She bends over me.

"What is your name?" she asks. "What is your name?"

I think about it and decide to say nothing. If i tell them my name they will know who i am and they will kill me for sure.

"What is your name?" she keeps asking, enunciating each syllable in the way that people talk to someone who has trouble hearing or understanding. "What is your name? What is your address? Where do you live?" Her voice is getting louder. "We need your signature, miss," she says, waving a piece of paper in front of me. "We need your permission for treatment, in case we have to operate." She repeats the same thing, over and over. "Who shall we contact in case of emergency?" (I think that's kind of funny.) "What is your name? Where do you live?" I close my eyes, wishing she would go away. She keeps right on talking.

I drift off, thinking about my arm. It is still there.

"Nerve damage. Paralyzed," i heard them say. It has never occurred to me. It isn't that bad, i remember thinking. I can live with that if i have to.

More voices, other voices, grating my ears and my consciousness.

"She can talk," one is saying. "The doctor says she can talk. Where were you going? What is your name? Where were you coming from? Who was in the car with you? How many of you were there? I know she can hear me."

I keep my eyes closed. One of them leans down real close to me. I feel his breath on my cheek. And smell it.

"I know you can hear me and I know you can talk, and if you don't hurry up and start talking, I'm gonna bash your face in for you."

My eyes fly open in spite of myself. Immediately they are all in my face, throwing question after question at me. I say nothing. After a while, i close my eyes again.

"Oh, she doesn't feel good," one of them says in a sweet, mocking voice. "Where does it hurt? Here? Here? HERE?"

With each here comes a crash. I look around wildly, but no one is there. More thumps and punches, but none of them hurts as bad as my chest is hurting. I try to scream but i know immediately that that's a mistake. My chest erupts and i think i am gonna die. They go on and on. Questions and bangs. I think they will never stop.

A woman's voice. "Telephone."

"Thank you," one of them says, giving me an ugly grin. They are gone.

Another pig comes in. A Black pig. In uniform. He comes closer and i see that he is not a cop but a hospital security guard. He stands not too far from where i am lying and i can see he is not at all hostile. His face breaks into a kind of reserved smile and, very discreetly, he clenches his fist and gives me the power sign. That man will never know how much better he made me feel at that moment.

The detectives come back with a nurse. They begin to move the stretcher. My mind races. Where are they taking me? The only place i can think of is the operating room. When we arrive at the X-ray room, i'm thankful. Because i have to move around, the X-rays are painful, but the technician is cool. X-rays are over and i am rolled down the hallway, determined to keep my eyes closed. All of a sudden, flashes of light. My eyes pop open. This time they are taking my picture.

The police photographer asks, "Don't you wanna give us a smile? Come on. Give us a smile."

I close my eyes again. We are moving. The stretcher stops. One of the pigs tells the nurse he has a headache. She volunteers to get him something.

The stretcher is moving again. Where the hell are they taking me? Again the light is changing and, although my eyes are closed, i can feel the difference. It feels like i'm in the dark. I can't take it any longer and i look. The room is dark, but there is some light. My eyes slowly adjust. There's something lying next to me. I can see an outline. Something in plastic. Something — my mind slowly realizes that it is a man in a plastic bag. And that the man is Zayd. My body stiffens. My mind spins.

One of the troopers says, "That's what's gonna happen to you before the night is over if you don't tell us what we want to know." I say nothing, but inside i'm raging. "Dogs! Swine! Filthy pigs! Dirty slimy scum! Bastards! Sons of bitches!" I rage on and on. "I wouldn't tell you the right time of day," i remember thinking. "I wouldn't tell you that shit stinks!"

The night crawls along. Nurses, doctors, and troopers. I am still scared, but i am just as angry and evil as i am scared. The detectives are in and out and, when nobody is there except them, they get in their digs and bangs. But after a while i don't think about them too much. I am thinking about living, about surviving, thinking about what is going to happen next. They are gonna do what they are gonna do and there isn't much i can do about it. I just have to be myself, stay as strong as i can, and do my best. That's all. There is nowhere to run and i am in no shape to try. I realize how isolated and vulnerable i am. What if i really do need an operation? I need help from the outside world. I have to try to get word out to someone. The Black nurse has been back and forth, asking me the same questions. Each time i have closed my eyes until she goes away. I decide to ask her to get in touch with my people the next time she comes by. Maybe she will be cool. She is my best shot; the guard is long gone.

I doze off for a little while. When i wake up, a nurse and a priest are standing over me. The priest is mumbling and seems to be rubbing something on my forehead. At first i don't understand what he is doing. Then it dawns on me. Last rites. Last rites are for the dying.

"Go away," i say out loud. I don't have the strength to say anything else. But i know i don't want anybody's last rites. I am not going to die, and even if i do die, i'm not going to die nobody's hypocrite.

The Black nurse comes back and starts her questions again. Before she can get started good, i beckon her to come closer. There is no one else around. I ask her to get in contact with my lawyer (who is also my aunt). I give her my name and ask her to make the call herself. She has a hard time understanding me and keeps asking me to repeat my name. I can barely talk, and each time she asks me to repeat myself, i feel like screaming. Then it occurs to me that Assata is foreign to her ears. She has probably never heard the name before. So i give her my slave name. Then i give her the number and she is off and running.

Two minutes later the detectives are on me like white on rice. They threaten and plead, reason and offer me the world. They hurl question after question at me, acting crazier than before. One plays the nice cop who is trying to save me from the bad cop, if only i will cooperate. I am tired and their act is even tireder. I can see exhaustion in their faces. The whole night is coming down on me. Their voices begin to sound far away. I can't take it anymore. They can go to hell. I am going to sleep. This time i am going out for real.

When i wake up the stretcher is moving. After a little while we arrive at the intensive care part of the hospital. The place is packed with nurses. I am elated. All i want to do is sleep. Soon i'm drifting off again.

I wake up and it's the next day. The doctors are making their rounds. One of them, an intern i think, is very kind to me. They examine me and spend the rest of the morning doing blood tests, X-rays, EKGs, etc., etc.

Soon i learn that they're going to move me again. I also find out that i'm in middlesex county hospital. I hear the nurses talking. They are glad i am being moved because the police are driving them crazy.

When they come to move me it looks like a police parade. The rooms i am moved to are called the Johnson Suite. I can't believe it. I have never imagined that hospitals have rooms like this. There is a sitting room, a huge hospital-equipped room (where i am kept), a den, a kitchen, a full bathroom and another little room whose purpose i will never learn. They transfer me to the bed and handcuff one of my legs to the side rail.

I keep looking around. It is elegant and clearly for rich people. I am probably the first Black person who has ever been in this room. And the only reason i am there is for security. They have sealed off the doors and no one can enter except through the sitting room next door where three state troopers are stationed. Two regulars and one sergeant.

The police radio in the room cackles all day long. "A carload of suspicious-looking coloreds in a white Ford coupe." "A suspicious-looking Negro walking near the hospital in a blue jacket and sneakers." No suspicious-looking white people are reported. From listening to the police talk next door, and to the radio, i learn that the hospital is saturated with state troopers. They seem to be under the impression that somebody is going to try and break me out. I feel better. The Demerol has me flying a little and makes it easier for me to lie in the contorted position i am forced into because of the cuff on my leg.

Later that afternoon, it begins again. Detectives and more detectives. Questions and more questions. This time the questions are different. Now they want to know about the Black Liberation Army: how big is it; what cities is it in; who is in it, etc., etc. But the main focus of their questions centers around "the guy that got away." I am delighted! I figure that Sundiata is somewhere safe by now, cooling out.

They are more careful where and how they hit me now. I guess they don't want to leave any marks. One sticks his fingers in my eyes. I don't know what he has on his fingertips, but whatever it is burns like hell. I think I am gonna be blind forever. He says he will keep doing it until i am completely blind. I close my eyes and hold them as tight as i can. He strikes me a few more times. Some of the stuff gets into my eyes anyway. Burning tears pour down my face and my whole head is throbbing. I think he is going to keep on, but he begins to curse me, calling me all kind of nigger bitches. Finally, he and the others leave.

On one of those first days, a white doctor comes to examine me. He acts very nice, sweet as pie. He examines me slowly, the whole time making friendly conversation. I wonder what kind of specialist he is since i haven't seen him before and i know he isn't one of the regulars. He says he knows how terrible i must feel and makes a big deal of protesting that i am chained to the bed. He keeps on talking and, after a while, pulls a chair close to the bed. Then he starts to ask friendly little questions. The conversation goes something like this:

"Those guys on the turnpike are rough. They'll give you a ticket for anything. I take the turnpike every day. You live in jersey? I live in Newark. You ever been there? You must really be lonely up here. I'll bet you really need someone to talk to. I went to medical school in New York. You're from there, aren't you?"

I get suspicious and say nothing to him. I tell him i want to go to sleep and he leaves. I never saw him again, but to this day i'm convinced he was some kind of police or FBI agent.

ON THE THIRD or fourth day, most of my troubles came to an end. Well, not really, but the punch, bang, poke, and prod part of my troubles ended. A nurse with a German accent came to my aid. She was one of the morning nurses, very professional and exacting, to the point that she could be a pain in the neck. But she was a lifesaver. It was she who had first protested the tightness of the handcuff on my leg. My leg had begun to swell and she had insisted they loosen it and that the cuff be covered with gauze. Of course, as soon as she was gone they tightened it again, but the gauze helped somewhat. I could tell by the little things she said and did that she knew what was going on. One morning she came in as usual and, after she had finished her normal routine, she reached behind the bed, pulled at something, and then handed me an electric call button on a cord.

"Anytime you need me or need anything from the nurses, just press this button," she said. "Don't be afraid to use it," she added, giving me a knowing look.

I could have kissed her. Later, when she returned to the room, after the troopers realized i had the call button, one came in behind her.

"Is there any way to disconnect that thing?" he asked. "She might hurt someone with it or hurt herself."

"No," she said, "there is no way to remove it. If you pull it out, it will just keep ringing in the nurses' station. She is having difficulty breathing and she needs it."

"Right on!" i thought. "Das ist richtig."


Excerpted from Assata by Assata Shakur. Copyright © 1988 Assata Shakur. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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