Tuesday, June 03, 2014

"What do we want? That our children may dwell in peace."

[I read Assata Shakur's excellent autobiography, Assata, in the Spring of last year (2013). This post was begun soon thereafter, but I never got around to finishing it.]

Until very recently, I knew next to nothing about Assata Shakur. She was only brought to my attention when the FBI recently increased its bounty (from $1 million to $2 million) for her capture, and placed her on its "most wanted" list. This prompted lots of discussion online; among other things, in response to this move, an Assata Teach-In was organized (see also this one page comic, which summarizes things nicely, and this two-part - one, two - interview with her regarding her treatment upon her original capture, courtesy of the utterly essential Prison Culture blog—you should follow her on Twitter at @prisonculture for daily awesomeness). This was how I ended up reading her autobiography, Assata.   

The book begins with her account of the events leading to her arrest, and from there alternates between chapters about her childhood and youth, and chapters about her prison experience and legal defense. In that way it is structurally not unlike Angela Davis' own autobiography. There is indeed much that could be said about Assata, but I want to talk about one aspect in particular. 

This passage appears toward the end of the book:
My mother brings my daughter to see me at the clinton correctional facility for women in new jersey, where i had been sent from alderson. I am delirious. She looks so tall. I run up to kiss her. She barely responds. She is distant and stand-offish. Pangs of guilt and sorrow fill my chest. I can see that my child is suffering. It is stupid to ask what is wrong. She is four years old, and except for these pitiful little visits—although my mother has brought her to see me every week, wherever I am, with the exception of the time I was in alderson—she has never been with her mother. I can feel something welling up in my baby. I look at my mother, my face a question mark. My mother is suffering too. I try to play. I make my arms into an elephant's trunk stalking around the visiting room jungle. It does not work. My daughter refuses to play baby elephant, or tiger, or anything. She looks at me like i am the buffoon I must look like. I try the choo-choo train routine and la, la, la song, but she is not amused. I try talking to her, but she is puffed up and sullen.

I go over and try to hug her. In a hot second she is all over me. All i can feel are these little four-year-old fists banging away at me. Every bit of her force is in those punches, they really hurt. I let her hit me until she is tired. "It's all right, " i tell her. "Let it all out." She is standing in front of me, her face contorted with anger, looking spent. She backs away and leans against the wall. "It's okay," i tell her. "Mommy understands." "You're not my mother," she screams, the tears rolling down her face. "You're not my mother and I hate you." I feel like crying too. I know she is confused about who i am. She calls me Mommy Assata and she calls my mother Mommy.

I try to pick her up. She knocks my hand away. "You can get out of here, if you want to," she screams. "You just don't want to." "No, i can't," I say weakly. "Yes you can," she accuses. "You just don't want to."

I look helplessly at my mother. Her face is choked with pain. "Tell her to try to open the bars," she says in a whisper.

"I can't open the door," i tell my daughter. "I can't get through the bars. You try and open the bars."

My daughter goes over to the barred door that leads to the visiting room. She pulls and she pushes. She yanks and she hits and she kicks the bars until she falls on the floor, a heap of exhaustion. I go over and pick her up. I hold and rock and kiss her. There is a look of resignation on her face that i can't stand. We spend the rest of the visit talking and playing quietly on the floor. When the guard says the visit is over, i cling to her for dear life. She holds her head high, and her back straight as she walks out of the prison. She waves good-bye to me, her face clouded and worried, looking like a little adult. I go back to my cage and cry until i vomit. I decide that it is time to leave.
My reaction to this passage was visceral—anger, deep sadness, despair, all of it. And having written most of the above last year, I couldn't decide what to do with it. I didn't just want to post the excerpt by itself, but I wasn't - and am still not - prepared to write at length about my reaction and the kinds of connections the passage brings to mind.

But the anger... it should be simple, but the ongoing history of white supremacy in this country makes nothing simple. That Assata Shakur's daughter should ever have been separated from her mother, that she should have believed that her mother did not want to be out of prison: these are great crimes, inexcusable crimes, all too common crimes. There has been much talk in recent weeks of reparations for slavery. It's not clear to me how a debt like that could ever be repaid. How even individual crimes, like those against Assata Shakur and her daughter, could ever be adequately atoned for.

Unsure how else to proceed, allow me to close with a quotation from Shirley Graham Du Bois, which I came across in an essay about her, by Gerald Horne and Margaret Stevens, featured in the Want to Start a Revolution? collection:

"I am only one Negro mother who has seen the doors of a great hospital closed against her dying son. . . . What do we want? That our children may dwell in peace."

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