[Editorís note: Final Call Staff Writer Nisa Islam Muhammad
traveled to Cuba with a group of 15 journalists under the guidance of
DeWayne Wickham and the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies. They
are documenting the African influence in the Americas. While there, she
was granted an exclusive interview with exiled former Black Panther
(FinalCall.com)óAssata Shakur is a Black American folk hero. She is
a freedom fighter that escaped the chains of oppression. She made it to
the other side. She is a sister that defied the definitions of expected
behavior by a Black woman.
Her life is the subject of books, movies and poetry. In her own
words, she speaks on Cuba and terrorism, differences between Blacks in
Cuba and the U.S., living in exile and her hopes for a new world:
"When I was in the Black Panther Party, they (United States) called
us terrorists. How dare they call us terrorists when we were being
terrorized? Terror was a constant part of my life. I was living under
apartheid in North Carolina. We lived under police terror.
"People have to see whatís really happening. Cuba has never attacked
anybody. Cuba has solidarity with other countries. They send teachers
and doctors to help the people of other countries. It believes in
"To see Cuba called a terrorist country is an insult to reality. If
people come to Cuba, theyíll see a reality unlike what theyíre told in
America. This country wants to help, not hurt. The U.S. government has
lied to its people. The U.S. government invents lies like Cuba is a
terrorist country to give a pretext to destroy it.
"Ronald Reagan convinced people that the little country Grenada was a
threat to the big United States, that allowed the U.S. to go into
"The people in the U.S. have to struggle against a system of
organized lies. When President Carter was here they said Cuba was
involved in biotechnology to create bioterrorism, but now they back
track and say it isnít so. They lied and they continue to lie about
"Look at the struggle with Elian (Gonzales). Look at the terrorism
committed by the Miami terrorists, the Miami Mafia. Those people (Cubans
who fled after the revolution) are ex-plantation owners, exploiters of
people. They want to make Cuba the same kind of place it was before but
thatís not going to happen."
Her name means "she who struggles," and that is the life sheís led.
From growing up in racist Wilmington, N.C., to her activism with the
Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army (BLA), Ms. Shakur has
"My life wasnít beautiful and creative before I became politically
active. My life was totally changed when I began to struggle."
But thatís what it means to be Black in the Americas, a life of
struggle. Blacks in Cuba and the United States share a history of
slavery yet their paths separate in how they view their lives. I asked
Sis. Assata what she saw as the differences between Blacks in Cuba and
the United States:
"Weíve (Blacks in America) forgotten where we came from. People in
Cuba have not lost their memory. They donít suffer from historical and
cultural amnesia. Cuba has less material wealth than America but are
able to do so much with so little because they know where they come
"This was a maroon country. The maroons escaped from slavery and
started their own community. Everyone needs to identify with their own
history. If they know their history, they can construct their future.
"The Cubans identify with those who fought against slavery. They
donít identify with the slave master. Those who made the revolution
wonít let the people forget what happened to them. The people here
seriously study history.
"We have to de-Eurocentrize the history we learn. We have to give the
real perspective of what happened. We have to create a world to know and
remember our own. I had no idea how ignorant I was until I came to Cuba.
I had no knowledge of authors, filmmakers and artists outside of
America. We believe weíre free but weíre not. Our world vision is
"We are oppressed people in the U.S. and donít even know it. We have
fewer opportunities to be doctors and lawyers as tuition increases. Our
problem is that we want to belong to a society that wants to oppress us.
We want to be the plantation owner. In Cuba, we want to change the
plantation to a collective farm."
The time is 1973 and an incident of what would now be called "racial
profiling" takes place on the New Jersey Turnpike. Ms. Shakur, actively
involved in the Black Liberation Army (BLA), is traveling with Malik
Zayad Shakur (no relation) and Sundiata Acoli. State troopers stop them,
reportedly because of a broken headlight.
A trooper also explains they were "suspicious" because they had
Vermont license plates. The three are made to exit the car with their
hands up. All of a sudden, shots were fired.
That much everybody seems to agree on. What happened next changed the
course of history for Assata Shakur. Shots were fired and when all was
said and done, state trooper Werner Foerster and Malik Shakur were
killed. Ms. Shakur and Mr. Acoli were charged with the death of state
The trial found them both guilty. The verdict was no surprise. But
many question the racial injustice by the all-White jury and admitted
perjury by the trialís star witness:
"I was shot with my arms in the air. My wounds could not have
happened unless my arms were in the air. The bullet went in under my arm
and traveled past my clavicle. It is medically impossible for that to
happen if my arms were down.
"I was sentenced to life plus 30 years by an all-White jury. What I
saw in prison was wall-to-wall Black flesh in chains. Women caged in
cells. But weíre the terrorists. It just doesnít make sense."
In a letter to Kofi Owusu dated August 24, 1973 from the Middlesex
County Jail in New Brunswick, N.J., she describes the life behind bars:
"i (sic) canít begin to imagine how many sisters have been locked in
this cell (the detention cell) and all the agony they felt and tears
they shed. This is the cell where they put the sisters who are having
hard times, kicking habits or who had been driven mad from too much
"Itís moods like this that make me aware of how glad i am to be a
revolutionary. i know who our enemy is, and i know that me and these
swine cannot live peacefully on the same planet. i am a part of a family
of field niggas and that is something very precious.
"So many of my sisters are so completely unaware of who the real
criminals and dogs are. They blame themselves for being hungry; they
hate themselves for surviving the best way they know how, to see so much
fear, doubt, hurt, and self hatred is the most painful part of being in
this concentration camp.
"Anyway, in spite of all, i feel a breeze behind my neck, turning to
a hurricane and when i take a deep breath I can smell freedom."
She spent six and a half years in prison, two of those in solitary
confinement. During that time she gave birth to her daughter Kakuya.
In 1979, she was liberated by comrades in a daring escape that
continues to infuriate the New Jersey State Troopers. There was a
nation-wide search for her. In 1984 she went to Cuba and was united with
"When I came to Cuba, I expected everyone to look like Fidel
(Castro). But you see everything and everyone is different. I saw Black,
White, Asians all living and working together. The Cuban women were so
elegantly dressed and groomed.
"People would just talk to me in the street. I would wonder why until
I realized that people are not afraid of each other. People in America
are afraid to walk the streets; itís not like that here.
"I realized that I had some healing to do. I didnít know the extent
of my wounds until I came to Cuba. I began to heal with my work, raising
my daughter and being a part of a culture that appreciates you.
"Living in Cuba means being appreciated by society, not depreciated
by society. No matter what we do in America, no matter what we earn,
weíre still not appreciated by American society."
Who are the people on the tiny island nation of Cuba only 90 miles
from Florida? Who are these people that dare to say "no" to America? Who
are these 11 million revolutionaries that resist in the face of the most
powerful country in the world:
"Cubans feel like they have power. No matter who they are. They see
themselves as part of a world. We just see ourselves as part of a íhood.
They identify with oppressed people all over the world.
"When the Angolans were fighting against South Africa, they asked
Cuba for help. Soldiers were sent. They went gladly.
"Cubans have a different perspective of outrage and justice. A White
Cuban soldier came back from fighting and expressed his disdain for the
Whites that were supporting apartheid.
"I just looked at him because in my mind he was White like they were
but thatís not how he saw himself. He couldnít understand how the South
Africans could support apartheid.
"Anytime you have a country that makes people feel indignant about
atrocities, wherever they are, that country has a special place in my
heart. Cuba is trying to end exploitation and atrocities."
For nearly 20 years, she has carved out a life for herself in Cuba.
She lives in exile and while many rejoice in her new life, America has
not forgotten her alleged crimes. In 1997, the New Jersey State Troopers
wrote to the Pope asking for the Pontiffís help in having her
Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd-Whitman issued a $100,000
enticement for anyone to assist in the return of Assata Shakur. Congress
issued H.R. 254 calling on Cuba to send her back, which was supported by
most Black congresspersons.
In the absence of normalized relations with Cuba, there is no binding
extradition treaty between Cuba and the United States.
What is it like to live in exile? What is it like to be away from
family and friends:
"Living in exile is hard. I miss my family and friends. I miss the
culture, the music, how people talk, and their creativity. I miss the
look of recognition Black women give each other, the understanding we
express without saying a word.
"I adjusted by learning to understand what was going on in the world.
The Cubans helped me to adjust. I learned joys in life by learning other
cultures. It was a privilege to come here to a rich culture.
"I had a big fear that the Cubans would hate me when I arrived. They
are very sophisticated. They were able to separate the people from
America, like me, from the government."
What message does she have for the youth of our people? What does she
want people to know about her life:
"I donít see myself as that different from sisters who struggle for
social justice. In the í60s it was easier to identify racism. There were
signs that told you where you belonged. We had to struggle to eliminate
apartheid in the South. Now we have to know the other forms that exist
"We had to learn that weíre beautiful. We had to relearn something
forcefully taken from us. We had to learn about Black power. People have
power if we unite. We learned the importance of coming together and
being active. That fueled me.
"We knew what a token was then. Today young people donít see
Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell as tokens. Thatís a problem.
"I realized that I was connected to Africa. I wasnít just a Colored
girl. I was part of a whole world that wanted a better life. Iím part of
a majority and not a minority. My life has been a life of growth. If
youíre not growing, youíre not going to understand real love. If youíre
not reaching out to help others then youíre shrinking. My life has been
active. Iím not a spectator.
"We canít afford to be spectators while our lives deteriorate. We
have to truly love our people and work to make that love stronger."
Ms. Shakur is finishing another book about her life in exile and her
experiences in Cuba.
Photo: Assata Shakur