U.S., keep your hands
Interview with Assata
Shakur, Part 1 Part
News Wire - Assata Shakur was a member of the Black Panther
Party and Black Liberation Army whose revolutionary activities led
to her breaking out of prison and being granted political asylum
in Cuba. To learn more about her, you can check out her autiobiography,
“Assata.” You can also check out “Inadmissible
Evidence,” the book by her aunt Evelyn Williams, who was her
attorney, and you can watch the film by Gloria Rolando called “Eyes
on the Rainbow,” which is a documentary about Assata talking
She is featured in Afrikan Anti Terrorism Month
because she is a warrior who stood up for Black people, and it almost
cost her life on more than one occasion. This revolutionary elder
has been shot, tortured, imprisoned and split up from her family
because of her political beliefs and affiliations and has been on
the run for more than 20 years where Amerikkka hasn’t been
able to touch her. This is the interview with a Sista-General who
smashed in a revolutionary manner when the going got tough. Check
her out …
Q: You came to Cuba how soon after
(escaping from prison)?
A: Five years later, in 1984.
Q: I know it’s probably
out of bounds, but where were you during the intervening years?
A: I was underground. But I don’t
talk about that period. To do so would put a lot of people who helped
me in jeopardy.
Q: Right, I hear you. You’ve
talked about adjusting to Cuba, but could you talk a bit about adjusting
A: Well, for me exile means separation
from people I love. I didn’t, and don’t, miss the U.S.,
per se. But black culture, black life in the U.S., that African
American flavor, I definitely miss. The language, the movements,
the style - I get nostalgic about that.
Adjusting to exile is coming to grips with the
fact that you may never go back to where you come from. The way
I dealt with that, psychologically, was thinking about slavery.
You know, a slave had to come to grips with the fact that “I
may never see Africa again.” Then a maroon, a runaway slave,
has to - even in the act of freedom - adjust to the fact that being
free or struggling for freedom means, “I’ll be separated
from people I love.”
So I drew on that and people like Harriet Tubman
and all those people who got away from slavery. Because, that’s
what prison looked like. It looked like slavery. It felt like slavery.
It was black people and people of color in chains. And the way I
got there was slavery. If you stand up and say, “I don’t
go for the status quo.” Then “we got something for you.
It’s a whip, a chain, a cell.”
Even in being free, it was like, “I am free,
but now what?” There was a lot to get used to. Living in a
society committed to social justice, a third world country with
a lot of problems. It took a while to understand all that Cubans
are up against and fully appreciate all they are trying to do.
Q: Did the African-ness of Cuba
help? Did that provide solace?
A: The first thing that was comforting
was the politics. It was such a relief. You know, in the States
you feel overwhelmed by the negative messages that you get and you
just feel weird, like you’re the only one seeing all this
pain and inequality. People are saying, “Forget about that.
Just try to get rich. Get your own. Buy. Spend. Consume.”
So living here was an affirmation of myself. It
was like, “Okay, there are lots of people who get outraged
at injustice.” The African culture I discovered later. At
first I was learning the politics, about socialism - what it feels
like to live in a country where everything is owned by the people,
where health care and medicine are free.
Then I started to learn about the Afro-Cuban religions
- the Santaria, Palo Monte, the Abakua. I wanted to understand the
ceremonies and the philosophy. I really came to grips with how much
we - Black people in the U.S. - were robbed of, whether it’s
the tambours, the drums or the dances.
Here, they still know rituals preserved from slavery
times. It was like finding another piece of myself. I had to find
an African name. I’m still looking for pieces of that Africa
I was torn from. I’ve found it here in all aspects of the
culture. There is a tendency to reduce the African-ness of Cuba
to the Santaria. But it’s in the literature, the language,
Q: When the USSR collapsed, did
you worry about a counter-revolution in Cuba and, by extension,
your own safety?
A: Of course. I would have to
have been nuts not to worry. People would come down here from the
States and say, “How long do you think the revolution has
- two months, three months? Do you think the revolution will survive?
You better get out of here.” It was rough.
Cubans were complaining every day, which is totally
sane. I mean, who wouldn’t? The food situation was really
bad, much worse than now - no transportation, eight-hour blackouts.
We would sit in the dark and wonder, “How much can people
take?” I’ve been to prison and lived in the States,
so I can take damn near anything.
I felt I could survive whatever - anything except
U.S. imperialism coming in and taking control. That’s the
one thing I couldn’t survive. Luckily, a lot of Cubans felt
the same way. It took a lot for people to pull through, waiting
hours for the bus before work. It wasn’t easy.
But this isn’t a superficial, imposed revolution.
This is one of those gut revolutions. One of those blood, sweat
and tears revolutions. This is one of those revolutions where people
are like, “We ain’t going back on the plantation, period.
We don’t care if you’re Uncle Sam, we don’t care
about your guided missiles, about your filthy, dirty CIA maneuvers.
We’re this island of 11 million people, and we’re gonna
live the way we want and if you don’t like it, go take a ride.”
And we could get stronger with the language. Of course, not everyone
feels like that, but enough do.
Q: What about race and racism
A: That’s a big question.
The revolution has only been around 30-something years. It would
be fantasy to believe that the Cubans could have completely gotten
rid of racism in that short a time. Socialism is not a magic wand:
wave it and everything changes.
Q: Can you be more specific about
the successes and failures along these lines?
A: I can’t think of any
area of the country that is segregated. Another example, the Third
Congress of the Cuban Communist Party was focused on making party
leadership reflect the actual number of people of color and women
in the country. Unfortunately, by the time the Fourth Congress rolled
around, the whole focus had to be on the survival of the revolution.
When the Soviet Union and the socialist camp collapsed,
Cuba lost something like 85 percent of its income. It’s a
process, but I honestly think that there’s room for a lot
of changes throughout the culture.
Some people still talk about “good hair”
and “bad hair.” Some people think light skin is good,
that if you marry a light person you’re advancing the race.
There are a lot of contradictions in people’s consciousness.
There still needs to be de-Eurocentrizing of the schools, though
Cuba is further along with that than most places in the world.
In fairness, I think that race relations in Cuba
are 20 times better than they are in the States and I believe the
revolution is committed to eliminating racism completely. I also
feel that the special period has changed conditions in Cuba. It’s
brought in lots of white tourists, many of whom are racists and
expect to be waited on subserviently.
Another thing is the joint venture corporations
which bring their racist ideas and racist corporate practices -
for example, not hiring enough blacks. All of that means the revolution
has to be more vigilant than ever in identifying and dealing with
Q: A charge one hears, even on
the left, is that institutional racism still exists in Cuba. Is
that true? Does one find racist patterns in allocation of housing,
work or the functions of criminal justice?
A: No. I don’t think institutional
racism, as such, exists in Cuba. But at the same time, people have
their personal prejudices. Obviously these people, with these personal
prejudices, must work somewhere and must have some influence on
the institutions they work in. But I think it’s superficial
to say racism is institutionalized in Cuba.
I believe that there needs to be a constant campaign
to educate people, sensitize people and analyze racism. The fight
against racism always has two levels: the level of politics and
policy, but also the level of individual consciousness. One of the
things that influences ideas about race in Cuba is that the revolution
happened in 1959, when the world had a very limited understanding
of what racism was.
During the 1960s, the world saw the black power
movement, which I, for one, very much benefited from. You know “black
is beautiful,” exploring African art, literature and culture.
That process didn’t really happen in Cuba.
Over the years, the revolution accomplished so
much that most people thought that meant the end of racism. For
example, I’d say that more than 90 percent of black people
with college degrees were able to do so because of the revolution.
They were in a different historical place. The emphasis, for very
good reasons, was on black-white unity and the survival of the revolution.
So it’s only now that people in the universities are looking
into the politics of identity.
Q: What do you think of the various
situations of your former comrades? For example, the recent releases
of Geronimo Pratt, Johnny Spain and Dhoruba Bin Wahad; the continued
work of Angela Davis and Bobby Seale; and, on a downside, the political
trajectory of Eldridge Cleaver and the death of Huey Newton?
A: There have been some victories.
And those victories have come about from a lot of hard work. But
it took a long time. It took Geronimo 27 years and Dhoruba 19 years
to prove that they were innocent and victimized by COINTELPRO. The
government has admitted that it operated COINTELPRO, but it hasn’t
admitted to victimizing anyone. How can that be?
I think that people in the States should be struggling
for the immediate freedom of Mumia Abu Jamal and amnesty for all
political prisoners. I think that the reason these tasks are largely
neglected reflects not only the weakness of the left, but its racism.
On the positive side, I think a lot of people are
growing and healing. Many of us are for the first time analyzing
the way we were wounded - not just as Africans, but as people in
the movement who were, and still are, subjected to terror and surveillance.
We’re finally able to come together and acknowledge that the
repression was real and say, “We need to heal.”
I have hope for a lot of those people who were
burnt out or addicted to drugs or alcohol, the casualties of our
struggle. Given all that we were and are up against, I think we
did pretty well.