(The Root) — The FBI's recent addition to its Most Wanted Terrorists list has reopened long-dormant wounds from America's racial past. Assata Shakur's (formerly Joanne Chesimard) distinction of being the first woman on that list evokes the triumphant and tragic legacy of the black power movement.
It was during an era whose high point, between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, witnessed the exhilarating highs of Stokely Carmichael's defiant declaration of "black power" and the street-swaggering bravado of the leather-jacketed Black Panthers, as well as the low points of fratricidal violence among militants. That violence was aided and abetted by illegal surveillance of law-enforcement agencies, most notably the FBI's notorious Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO.
For almost 30 years, Shakur has resided in an undisclosed location in Cuba. She is recognized by its government as a revolutionary fugitive in exile, even as U.S. authorities have sought to extradite her as a cold-blooded cop killer. Shakur's life in Cuba has been marked by a tenuous duality: She is at once venerated by supporters — including the Cuban government, which contributes to her living expenses — and increasingly vilified by U.S. officials, who have placed a $2 million bounty on her head.
To understand Joanne Chesimard's evolution from a doe-eyed black teenager living in Queens, N.Y., to the black revolutionary named Assata Shakur, accused of murder, requires going back more than 45 years to an era of national civil unrest marked by anti-war protests, campus strikes and deteriorating relations between blacks and whites that had liberals and conservatives openly discussing the possibility of a race war. (Assata was part of the New York City Panthers, some of whom took the surname "Shakur." The group's members included Afeni Shakur, mother of rapper Tupac. Assata is also Tupac's stepaunt.)
By the time of Martin Luther King Jr.'s April 4, 1968, assassination, race relations in America had reached bottom, highlighted by waves of urban riots that militants characterized as "rebellions" and government bureaucrats called "civil disorders." The Black Panther Party emerged from the burning embers of urban unrest at the vanguard of a revolution that would, paradoxically, be fought with guns and butter. The organization patrolled the streets of Oakland, Calif., brandishing legal weapons, and simultaneously established free breakfast programs, health clinics and anti-poverty measures that made it perhaps the era's most pragmatic revolutionary group.
The Panthers wrestled with this dual identity, with advocates of armed revolution breaking off into the Black Liberation Army, an entity inspired by the early writings of Panther leaders Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver as well as successful guerrilla revolts in the developing world, most notably Cuba.
It's within this historical context that Chesimard became a black power activist, member of the underground BLA and convicted felon after being accused of killing a New Jersey state trooper after a traffic stop gone bad in 1973. Ironically, Newton, the Black Panthers' minister of defense, had been similarly accused of murdering a police officer six years earlier. The subsequent "Free Huey" movement galvanized the New Left radicals and black power activists, eventually leading to Newton's release in 1970.
Shakur's daring escape from jail in 1979 and the publication of her gripping autobiography, Assata, in 1987 turned her into an icon, elevating her to the status of revolutionary cult figures such as former Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal. Their supporters remain as convinced of their innocence as their detractors are of their guilt.
Over the past quarter century, Shakur has intermittently made headlines, with former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman vowing to pursue her case. Shakur has become a kind of totemic figure, with young aspiring revolutionaries seeking her out as a living repository of an era they find both inspiring and confounding.
Although the FBI has characterized Shakur as a domestic terrorist, it's important to note that BLA members defined themselves as revolutionaries in the mold of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and (in certain instances) George Washington and the soldiers in the American Revolution who engaged in asymmetrical warfare against a superior enemy.
However ill advised their vantage point, Shakur and hundreds of other "underground" soldiers of this era (including the Weather Underground, a violent offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society) viewed themselves as participants in a domestic war for liberation that was less about skin color and the fear of a race war and more about institutions (such as law enforcement and the federal government) that they found to be authoritarian, oppressive and therefore illegitimate.
Cuba, not surprisingly, plays a central role in this drama. Its improbably successful 1959 revolution became a North Star for civil rights radicals and black power militants who, both before and after the State Department's travel ban, visited the island and praised its government's seeming commitment to racial equality.
Fidel Castro responded in kind, providing safe harbor for black fugitives Robert F. Williams and Cleaver, vowing to protect Carmichael from the reprisals of the U.S. government and offering a haven for representatives of the black liberation struggle that seemingly had no expiration date.
That is, at least until now. The declining health of Castro and the advancing age of his brother Raúl have triggered rampant speculation that Cuba's socialist experiment is poised to conclude, or at least change dramatically. By announcing Shakur's new status, the U.S. government is perhaps throwing out a trial balloon to test the contemporary strength of past commitments. Fidel Castro's Cuba, on principle, would never give up Shakur to what it views to be an imperialist U.S. government with plans to imprison her. However, this is not Castro's Cuba. Indeed, the easing of travel restrictions is only one example of the ongoing thaw in Cuban-American relations.
Whether or not Shakur will be used as a sacrificial lamb to ensure further progress remains to be seen. For now her reappearance in national media headlines (including on the Internet, which did not exist during black power's heyday) reminds us of the ways in which our complicated racial past continues to inform our imagined postracial present.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton Fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. He can be reached online at penielejoseph.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.