A month when black history and activism take centre stage

Assata Shakur. (Supplied)

Assata Shakur. (Supplied)

Each year in February, the achievements and history of black Americans blaze across that country’s mainstream media. So naturally, as the order of information dissemination across the Atlantic goes, we too are privy to the numerous articles on literature and films that people are advised to get into over these 28 days (or 29, depending on the year) that make up Black History Month: Langston Hughes, Selma, James Baldwin, Spike Lee and so on.

Although stories that focus on African-American history – from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement and beyond – are intended to honour the legacy of black resistance to years of oppression, the yearly February event hasn’t always been received warmly.

Actor Morgan Freeman remarked acidly in 2005: “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”

Currently, the Black Future Month movement – initiated by a group of young Americans – interrogates the fate of African-Americans in their country and examines just how far they’ve come since the Jim Crow laws and uprisings in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s.

This month focusing on black history – or black future – comes after the recent deaths of several African-Americans at the hands of white police officials, and the subsequent international outrage. 

In protest against the killings of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones and others, hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter and #Icantbreathe have flooded Twitter time lines and appeared on cardboard placards during demonstrations. And a quote from a black revolutionary dating back more than 40 years has been used by activists to conclude statements and social media statuses: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win … We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

The former Black Liberation Army and Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur penned those words in 1973, and their fighting spirit still boosts those jaded and worn down by the unequal and unfair treatment of people of colour. The words were part of a letter titled To My People, written while she was detained at Middlesex County Jail in New Jersey.

They are quoted in her autobiography, Assata: The FBI’s Most Wanted Woman. The book, first published in 1987, was reissued in a co-publication by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa and Zed Books in the United States in July 2014, a month before the riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of Brown.

Its reappearance came just months before the US and Cuba restored diplomatic relations after 53 years. This resulted in many questioning Shakur’s safety on the island to which she fled in 1984 after escaping from a US prison in 1979. Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry’s head of North American affairs, told the media in December that Cuba had no intention of extraditing Shakur.

Racial profiling vs racism
In her autobiography, among many incidents, Shakur traces another shooting: the fateful night in 1973 when she and fellow Black Liberation Army members Zayd Malik Shakur and Sundiata Acoli were pulled over by police on the New Jersey turnpike for allegedly driving in a car with a faulty rear light. 

Assata Shakur maintains that, after they were stopped, Zayd Shakur was killed and Acoli tried to flee, and Shakur was allegedly fired at with her hands up. She and Acoli were arrested and accused of killing state trooper Werner Foerster. Shakur was also charged with grievously assaulting another trooper, James Harper.

Years later, with cases like those of Brown, Martin and Eric Garner shaking the world, the 1973 incident illustrates the continual accounts of racial profiling in the US – or rather as New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb writes: “There is no such thing as ‘racial profiling’ – there is simply racism.”

In an open letter written from Cuba in 2013 – the same year she was placed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list – Shakur recalled that the three were pulled over simply because of their skin colour. “Because we were black and riding in a car with Vermont licence plates, he [trooper Harper] claimed he became ‘suspicious’.”

‘Official’ police violence
Looking at Shakur’s life while discussing racial profiling and the deaths of Martin and Brown, political activist and philosopher Angela Davis wrote in the Guardian that “the countless numbers of black people killed by police or vigilantes during the Obama administration … ­represent an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extralegal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes”. Davis also contributed a foreword to Shakur’s autobiography.

Along with the numerous racial profiling incidents that she encountered while in the US, Assata fleshes out an existence fraught with racism. It ranges from her childhood in the American South, where her family was not allowed to go to the zoo because of racial segregation, to black-on-black racial encounters as a school pupil in Wilmington and later New York. Recalling her primary school years and the negativity associated with being black, Shakur writes: “‘Black’ made any insult worse … In fact, when I was growing up, being called ‘black’, period, was grounds for fighting.”

The making of a revolutionary
And for Shakur it was this self-hate, a result of social conditioning and white supremacy, and the inequality prevalent in the US that provided fertile ground for becoming a revolutionary.

“Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon,” she writes. “We are created by our conditions. Shaped by our oppression. We are being manufactured in droves in the ghetto streets … They are turning out thousands of us.” 

And that is exactly what the US produced: a self-proclaimed “black revolutionary” who writes about unlearning a distorted version of world politics and black history, changing her name from Joanne Chesimard and becoming involved in liberation movements.

The book intersperses incidents from Shakur’s youth with accounts of her drawn-out court cases and lengthy stays in prison. These sections at times could have used a tighter edit. Despite this, her autobiography is a seminal text for black Americans. One of the forewords, written by South African political analyst William Gumede, compares the black experience in the US and South Africa, referencing periods of colonialism, slavery and apartheid.

“Official racism may have been abolished in South Africa and in the United States and almost four decades may have passed since the heyday of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and anti-racism activists such as Assata Shakur in the Unites States, but the infamous legacy of racism persists,” Gumede writes.

As the celebrations of blackness during February push on, challenging white supremacy – as Shakur writes in Assata – they might aid the cause of challenging racial inequality and profiling. Or, as columnist Steven W Thrasher writes in the Guardian: “We don’t need another Black History Month. We need a Dismantling White Supremacy Month.”

stefanie jason

stefanie jason

Following studying towards her Film & Media degree at the University of Cape Town and North Carolina State University, Stefanie Jason began work as a copy editor and writer for various South African publications, including Bona, True Love and Sowetan, as well as the Mail & Guardian. For the M&G's arts & culture supplement Friday, she writes about art, music & lifestyle when she isn't relaxing, traveling or checking out Jo'burg's many art galleries. Read more from stefanie jason


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