“To be able to go through life knowing that a man in the street ain’t gonna beat you up. Having a man watch my back if I needed that. And all my life I have had to be that man. Then what happens is I get in trouble for being that man. That’s the catch- 22” (Shakur, 37).
The Story of The True Black Woman Warrior: Afeni Shakur
An analytical deconstruction of the story of one of the most known, unknown survivors of the War for Black Liberation
“My addiction was not just to substances but also to the people I continued to keep in my life. I stayed right there with those people. I never moved on. All the time these men were being killed viciously, being arrested, disappearing, and I just stayed. I believed in my hearts that this was it. These people were my life. I didn’t know I had a choice to get out of it… I though the reason I was getting high was to quiet the vision of all the people dying and all that violence and trauma. So, I would say stuff like, ‘If you stood in my shoes for one second, your ass would be high too.’ And I believed it” (Shakur, 123).
“So there I was wrapped in my Africanness. For the first time, loving myself and loving now that there was something I could do with my life. There was now something I could do with all this aggression, and all this fear. Because up until this point, I wasn’t shit” (Shakur, 61).
Part I: Afeni the Person
My interest in reading a memoir by Afeni Shakur stemmed primarily from what I’d read about her from other people. All crediting her translucent faith, dignified self- respect and accountability, and undying loyalty, each personal account detailing who Afeni was as a person maintained that she was a very strong yet, loving and callous yet, genuine revolutionary Black woman.
Safiya Bukhari, the late– great influential street soldier in the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, illustrated her insightful respect, admiration, and appreciation for Afeni in her essay “This is Worth Fighting For” when she highlighted Afeni as a significant force in her revolutionary transformation by saying, “I owe my transformation from just another angry Black woman into a revolutionary to people like… Afeni Shakur (who was my Winnie Mandela)” (Bukhari, 88).
Narratives like this, embody the foundations of the overall impression I held of Afeni that inspired to find and learn her story. As result, the view I held of Afeni Shakur prior to reading this book was one of high honor, esteem, and respect, coming from descriptions of former and current Panthers that were blessed to work with her.
The first impactful description of an experience with Afeni that I read came from Assata in her self- titled memoir/ autobiography. Assata, a former Black Liberation soldier of many titles, currently living in exile in Cuba, recounts her blessed experience with Afeni’s affirmative, confident resilient attitude during her 1976 bank robbery trial that ended in acquittal. She asserts “I don’t think there was a single one of us, with the possible exception of Afeni Shakur, who really thought we were going to win.
Afeni, who was working as a legal assistant, kept telling me, ‘We’re going to win this one, Assata’” (Assata, 212). Having learned a lot about Assata, I couldn’t imagine a person that could be more positive in a time of chaos or tragedy than Assata. So to hear that Afeni demonstrated more sound positivity, faith and even perseverance than anyone else on the legal team, Assata included, formulated my profound interest in the woman named Afeni.
Though, Assata’s words piqued my interest, it was Safiya Bukhari, who wrote so deeply about Afeni solidifying my desire to know who she was. She highlights her positive, unbreakable spirit, that always prevailed in midst of any chaos, struggle, or trauma.
“The lesson I learned first from Afeni is that you can’t define yourself by the person with whom you’re in a relationship with. You have to define yourself by who you are and what you believe. You have to be a person in and of yourself… The second thing I learned from watching Afeni was that you have to have the inner strength to take responsibility for your actions” (Bukhari, 90-91).
Before opening a page of Afeni’s story, I knew that she was a woman of strength, resilience, and commitment, with unbreakable, impenetrable soul of steel and such an understanding characterized my perceptive reading of Afeni’s life and experience as written from her own mouth.
It is known to many people, by means of the mainstream media representation demonstrated, that Afeni was the mother of Tupac Shakur and that she was a former Black Panther turned crack addict that struggled to be a great mother but was successfully able to pass down her strength and power to her son. As Tupac stated in his tribute song to Afeni, titled ‘Dear Mama’, “And even as a crack fiend, mama, You always was a black queen, mama” (Tupac, ‘Dear Mama’). Nonetheless, the life and times of Afeni Shakur far outreach the comprehensive understanding most people hold of her experiences. Safiya says it best when she states, “At a time when I needed it most, Afeni Shakur exemplified the strength and dignity amid chaos that I needed to see.
Despite the setbacks, slip- backs, hard times and tragedies that Afeni has undergone and endured over the years, I still hold the image of this fierce, small, string, take-no- prisoners Black warrior woman before me” (Bukhari, 90-91). Afeni represents a conundrum of experiences, life lessons, hardships, and triumphs that copulate all parts of her existence into one tough, diverse, socially, politically, and economically, sophisticated Black woman.
The beginning of Afeni’s story, the moment when her life begins developing the fundamental experiences that will define much of her adulthood, occurs following the first time she physically witnessed her father raise his hand to hit her mother, in which her mother responded by throwing hot grease on him.
Afeni’s attributes the meaning of the courage and strength her mother displayed in that moment, in part to the presence of her and her sister at the time of the incidence.
The significance of this impactful experience in Afeni’s life lies greatly in the fact that shortly after this event, her family left her father, solidifying his absence and the infinite sadness, anger, and misguidance that arguably followed Afeni for much of her life.
Afeni’s life took another major dramatic turn when her mother moved her and her sister to the poor south Bronx neighborhood of New York City in 1958 when she was eleven years old. Moving up north changed Afeni’s entire perception and interaction with the world and the people in it, cultivating or reinforcing the jaded, hard core, and even violent side of Afeni’s personality.
Yet, one of the most defining turning points in Afeni’s life was when she first encountered the Black Panther Party. Embodying much of the so called quintessential African American experience in the late nineteen sixties, Afeni’s past and present entangled with her limited consciousness made it extremely difficult for her or most of the people around her to conceptualize the idea of the Black Panther Party, let alone it’s principles, potential, and success.
Thus, when the Panthers went to Harlem, and Bobby Seale recited the Ten Point Program to the people on the corner of 125th Street and 7th Avenue, he and the living existence of the Black Panther Party transformed and enlightened the enslaved mind states and misguided conceptualizations of life held by the oppressed but fervent and resilient Black masses.
Afeni describes the exhilarating feeling of being found and the recognition of her purpose and worth that overwhelmed her before, during and immediately following her induction into the Black Panther Party.
“It’s Saturday in Harlem and Bobby Seale’s in town. Anybody who’s anybody speaks on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street… He says the Panther Party is opening offices in New York, that they are coming and bringing change and order to our community, coming to heal the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow, coming to take arms against the aggression. They will not beat our ass anymore! Well, I have never heard nothing like that before” (Shakur, 60).
There is much to be said about the unparalleled impact and revolutionary conceptualization exemplified in the foundation of the Black Panther Party. For Afeni, and many others, the Party was the birth of them as a person, as a living being in tune with their purpose, worth and necessity in this often twisted, oppressive, ungodly existence called life.
For Afeni, it included the precipitated conscious building she engaged in before the Panthers, like her name change and her construction of her Black consciousness. She asserts, “So the Panther Party for me, at that time clarified my situation… They took my rage and channeled it against them [she points outside], instead of us [she holds her heart]. They educated my mind and gave me direction.
With that direction came hope, and I loved them for giving me that. Because I never had hope in my life. I never dreamed of a better place or hoped for a better world for my mama, and my sister, and me” (Shakur, 62). The Black Panther Party arguably instilled and/ or fortified much of the dutiful, community minded, ‘My Brother is My Keeper’ mentality that Afeni has held throughout her life. It implanted hope, compassion, and faith in her, equipping her to pass such invaluable qualities onto to other people she encountered.
Afeni’s other significant turning points in her life, as presented in her story, include her involvement with the Panther 21 trial, her pregnancy with Tupac during political imprisonment, her third pregnancy and subsequent, abortion and ensuing drug habit, her path to drug rehabilitation and redemption for her wrongdoings.
Her drug addiction, during her time as a Panther, such as her getting high before court during the Panther 21 trial, but particularly following the disintegration of the movement and final blow to her weakened and manipulated comrades reshaped her being. It begs the question does Afeni’s experience and inherent purpose in writing this book appear to vary from many of her former comrades because her experience as a political prisoner took place in the beginning of the last days of the Panthers?
Is her experience more reflective of the impact of the battle scars left in the aftermath of the lost war and less archetypal of the actual battles that ensued? In considering this question, it is not in effort to process Afeni’s experience through the tool of oppression Olympics, so to speak.
However, understanding Afeni’s story in relation to the stories of her former comrades exemplifies necessary methodology for deconstructing the catalysts, driving forces, and consequential aspects of government infiltration and the subsequent, lost war. Safiya describes the prominence of the struggle in the lives of those soldiers fighting for the freedom of their people when she says, “We believed that the struggle would end for us only with our death or the freedom of all oppressed people. With the destruction of the Black Panther Party while freedom was still not assured, we were left with no sense of direction or purpose- no one to tell us what to do next- and the knowledge that the job was not done” (Bukhari, 81).
Yet, Afeni’s own words more directly signify the essence of what the struggle, the war, the loss of hope and direction meant to survivors of the struggle for Black Liberation. “It was a great fight, Afeni, the war against oppression, the revolution, whatever you want to call it… It was a war that we lost, she [Afeni] says” (Guy and Shakur, 66). For many, the loss of the war, in a lot of ways, outweighed all that was accomplished during the war. Thus, much of what was left for many, like Afeni, was the memory of a war fought and more importantly perhaps, a war lost.
Afeni suffered many tragedies and traumas from her childhood into her adulthood. Yet, in light of the significance of the trauma caused by the lost war, in lieu of how it was lost, with responsibility being on both sides, it can be argued that one of the most transformative experience in her life was her fight for Black Liberation.
As such, it can also be argued that the intrinsic meaning of the Party and the war to Afeni and her life made her a victim of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by the aftermath of the war. Accountability is essential for Afeni, as well as the societal, economic, and political conditions that precipitated the circumstances of Afeni’s PTSD. Safiya Bukhari said it best when she wrote “…we too are veterans and suffer from post- traumatic stress disorder” (Bukhari, 86).
Part II: The Book vs. Afeni’s Story
The book is formatted in a conversational style, encompassing an “as told to…” format. Written in such a way to demonstrate the decade long correspondences between Afeni and Guy that helped produce this book, the writing style is demonstrative of an interview like setting, in which the plot is developed, analyzed and emotionalized all through the back drop of meetings between the two women. Jasmine Guy, the author and interviewer of Afeni’s story, presented Afeni’s story through her own lenses, though seemingly making great effort to portray the story Afeni wanted told. Nonetheless, Afeni’s story was inarguably written through Guy’s perspective vis a vis, Guy’s political, cultural, social, racial, socio- economic consciousness, or lack thereof.
Afeni’s story enlightened me in many ways, perhaps most significantly by bringing to light my prejudice of former soldiers in the War for Black Liberation as being cohesively committed to the rejection of the notion of documenting the personal. I honestly expected to read a memoir detailing the struggle of a political prisoner/ soldier in the war for Black Liberation first, and everything else, albeit mother, daughter, sister, cousin, friend, partner etc. after. This book exposed my biased, unfounded, ignorant assumption that all Black Liberators were dedicated to sacrificing the personal for the political. With this stereotype in mind, I correlated words from Safiya, for example, to be exemplary of all her former comrades. Safiya’s argument “that the struggle is more important than the individual” (Bukhari, 120) has been a common theme among former Black Panthers, citizens of the Republic of New Afrika, and soldiers in the Black Liberation Army, among others. Yet, with so many stories and experiences that have been recorded and translated, it is impossible to correlate any one theme to the definition, and therefore, validity of what qualifies as “The” story of the so called Black Power Movement.
Moreover, it is important to point out that when constructing my expectations of the book, I still believed that all stories from survivors of the war for Black Liberation exhibited the common goal to bring awareness of the struggle, and maybe, arouse readers to get involved and spread that knowledge. Simultaneously, I was knowledgeable of the more widely known tragedies Afeni suffered following her Panther days, and of the fact that she was released from prison and remained out of prison during and following the imprisonment, murdering, and exiling of many of her former comrades. I understood that Afeni has expectedly wore more hats, so to speak, than her comrades that were imprisoned for life long sentences and/ or murdered at young ages, because she lived in the world that was left after the war. She had been in the belly of another beast, a less popularly discussed correlation to the aftermath of the war, the drug epidemic. As such, I didn’t expect to read a book enveloped in the struggle or even the rebuilding in the aftermath of the struggle but I did, arguably naively, expect to read a book entrenched in the common goal of developing, fortifying and/ or reintroducing awareness of the struggle.
Afeni didn’t tell this story to present a political prisoner story or enlighten the masses about the struggle and the lost “War Before”. She wasn’t trying to enlighten anyone. “You got to argue about how to tell the story and what the theme is and if there are any white male protagonists in the story so they can call De Niro” (Shakur, 55). In many ways, going back to Safiya Bukhari’s description of Afeni, Afeni may be too unknowing of her impact on the masses and individuals alike. “Afeni never knew she was having this effect on me. I don’t even think she was attempting to affect the lives of the people as she did. She was just being Afeni. Maybe is she had realized it, it would have helped her (Bukhari 90- 91).Or Afeni is simply committed to overcoming her own Black and Blue tragedies. Essentially, her story was less about presenting a magnificent, half decent or even accidental illumination of core principles and ideologies central to unveiling the path to Black liberation, and was arguably so much more about making peace with her daemons and in many ways, whole heartedly confessing and inherently having readers bear witness to her confessions. As such, critically analyzing her story under an academic microscope, questioning the validity of its political legitimacy is futile at best, in such that Afeni’s purpose was to present a story that was personal and inherently, by way of her revolutionary roots, was also involuntarily, political.
It is also important to shed light on my distinct and initial disappointment when I found that this story was nothing as I expected. A major difference from other memoirs written by former or current political prisoners I’ve read, is that Shakur does not adhere whatsoever to the unwritten rule of the sacrifice and often times, intentionally clandestine, underemphasized personal story of the political prisoner in effort to convey the unwritten story of the “struggle”. Shakur’s intention in producing this memoir, albeit retrospectively asserted by Guy, appears in large part to be her somewhat subconscious desire to make due with her past transgressions against others and herself. As such, if questioning whether her story, as written by Guy, validates that of a political prisoner memoir, it is difficult to determine such. However, the more important thing to understand when considering the validity of Shakur’s story as a memoir, or a political prisoner story, is that it’s her story. Of course, one can engage in discourse, critique and analysis of her book, as it is arguably an important aspect of reading. However, if attempting to be a well- rounded, open minded critic, so to speak, there has to be ample consideration of what story the author is making effort to present and for what reasons.
There are more than a million ways to read a book. When considering all that goes into compiling a “memoir” and all that goes into classifying a book as a memoir, maintaining a critical yet, open minded analytical view of the book’s writing style, diction, syntax, and plot construction, some argue, ensures the individual ability to independently determine the validity of the book as a memoir. Having engaged in very in depth, transformative, impactful debates concerning what makes a memoir a memoir, reading “Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary” further expanded my understanding of what classifies a memoir as a memoir, or rather, further deteriorated my concept of the very validity of the existence of the so called “memoir”. After spending months debating who has the right to validate another person’s story as legitimate, honest, truthful, or impactful and worthwhile, I found the answer, or rather my answer, to the big question of the “memoir” through Afeni’s story. The answer lies in these words, “Besides, I’m not up to convincing a bunch of motherfuckers who don’t even know me that this story is valid, interesting- or any of that shit” (Shakur, 55). In her explanation of why her story could never be a movie, and is instead a story meant to be told in a book, Afeni says it all when she asserts that she isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. Though written from another’s point of view, Afeni’s power over her story and presence in each written word unintentionally and likely unexpectedly, provided sound reason that no one has a right to legitimize or invalidate another’s story. Moreover, her omnipresence throughout the book translated the soundest argument against the idea of even questioning the accuracy or legitimacy of the written word, subtly asserting the idea that people can only question the validity of one’s story if one lets them. There is no room, whatsoever, in any corner or page of the book, to question Afeni. Her story is her own and she makes that clear.
As such, “Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary” transformed my conceptualization of me in relation to other people’s writing, broadening my understanding of what goes in formulating one’s story that leads to one’s ability to quantify the qualitative aspects of their life, triumphs and tragedies alike, into a “good” enough format to be printed as a book. It is now clear that there is no question of the very existence of a memoir, validity of what characterizes it, or evidence for what legitimizes it. A story, particularly written as a personal account of one’s life or particular experiences, belongs only to that person whom tells it. All the debating, votes, and discussion in the world couldn’t realistically, in it of itself, invalidate a person’s account of oneself. Even if that story were a complete lie, relative to one’s definition of such a term, it would be that person’s lie. It’s their story to own, true or not, well intentioned or not and no one can change that.
Moreover, the political memoir, the prison memoir, the written story of the political prisoner, with varying reasons for their individual existence, often represents the words that were most suppressed, underwritten, misinformed, or unknown, and in essence stands on its own. The story written is not written for the one who will read it to look for facts, validation, or reinforcement. Keeping in mind one’s freedom and arguably, responsibility to question or analyze stories they read/ hear, in regards to the written stories of political prisoners, the subjects, inequities, and tragedies their story often possess are arguably always worth more analysis than the validity of their story itself.
It is important to emphasize that all understanding, knowledge, and conceptualization I held of Afeni came from other’s explanations of their experience with her and how she impacted them. Prior to reading interpretative accounts of Afeni, I had never been so impacted or captivated by a person I only knew through other people. Thus, my primary goal in reading this book was to discover Afeni’s story from her own first person account. Yet, after reading this book, I feel like I still haven’t fully heard Afeni’s complete description of her own story. I could only hope to one day find a book filled with only Afeni’s words and presence. I am dying to know her raw, unedited, uninterrupted story. Afeni truly embodies the strength, commitment, resilience, loyalty, and courage that so many stated she inhabited, fundamentally marking her essence as a “Black warrior woman”. A survivor of so many wars of oppression, perhaps no book or story will ever be able to compensate all of her struggle and survival in words.