The #ASSATA: Our International Woman

After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.”
― Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography

On March 8, 2015, we witnessed a convergence.

Over the last 48 hours, People of African Descent “blacked out” social media to promote positive images of blackness that counter stereotypes and celebrate our diversity. In the first 24 hours, the hashtags generated over 160k images and videos of unapologetic Black Selfies. When the organizers extended the celebration of blackness through Monday, the dots of the divine connected. We have honed in on a shared vision in this metaphysical celebration of melanin on the 107th celebration of International Women’s Day.

Clara Zetkin from Socialist Germany proposed an international day for women at the Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen circa 1911 and several nations signed on to support March 8th as the official campaign to end discrimination against women. They agreed their purpose would be to organize communities around women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, or run for office. Starting in 1918, the United Nations began working closely with women organizations to designate 1975 as the International Women’s Year.  The UN pressured governments and organizations around the world to advance women’s rights in every fiber of their social, economical, and political processes. As a result, in some parts of the world, Women’s Day is equivalent, in status, to Mother’s Day where men and children honor the ladies’ in their life.

Although societal attitudes shifted greatly by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the playing field for black women was not level. It was probably most apparent on March 8, 1908 when women factory workers marched on the streets of Manhattan without their black sisters. It was more likely that black women were not granted the privilege of working in the factories, but forced to work in the dirtiest and most unpleasant parts of the factory for significantly less pay than white women. It was not until white historian, Gerda Lerner wrote her 1972 book “Black Women in White History,” did black women realize how excluded they were from the conversations on women’s rights. The black woman and her enslavement, her rights, and her story were completely eliminated from the conversation. For black women, our history heavily relied on the “…interests, prejudices, and values of the collections, archivists, and historians of an earlier day.” (Lerner, 1972).

To make the conceptual more concrete, we consider the life of Our International Woman, Assata Shakur.

If you have the chance to read her autobiography, you will discover a strong and resilient black woman who joined the movement for the liberation of people of African descent. Growing up in Queens, New York she was no stranger to protest politics. She was arrested for the first time at 20 years old with 100 classmates after chaining themselves to a college building demanding black faculty and black studies curriculum. After graduating the City College of New York at 23, she joined the Black Panther Party. A true public intellect and black feminist, Assata rejected gender roles and male chauvinism. Her allegiances to organizations that fought for the independence and self-determination of “Afrikan people in the United States” guided her activism.

Nothing could prepare Assata, or her comrades Malik and Sundiata from the Black Liberation Army, for the fateful night of May 2, 1973. In her statement of facts, as presented by her attorney,

Assata testified that Harper stopped the car without any known reason, shot her with her arms raised at his demand, and then shot her in the back as she was turning to avoid his bullets. Almost mortally wounded, and semi-conscious, she climbed into the backseat of the Pontiac to avoid further bullets. Sundiata drove the car five miles down the road and parked it, where she remained until State Troopers dragged her onto the road.

In her autobiography, which you can read online here for free, she recounts this horrific experience of her drifting in and out of consciousness in the hostile care of New Jersey State troopers. Despite being dragged on the ground after being mortally wounded by gunshots or mentally tortured by “fascist pigs” while she lay in intensive care, Assata’s resilience, fight, and conviction prevailed. Between 1973 and 1977, she endured ten indictments resulting in seven criminal trials.

During Women’s History Month 1977, on March 25th, Assata Shakur was convicted as an accomplice to the murder of Trooper Foerster and her friend, Malik Shakur, attempted murder, and unlawful possession of weapons.

Simultaneously, in the International Women’s Movement, black women were taking ownership of their stories as historians. One year before Assata’s escape from Clinton Correctional Facility for Women, historians Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Pen published “Afro-American Woman Struggles & Images.” Their research revealed:

“Discrimination against Afro-American women reformers was the rule rather than the exception within the women’s rights movement from the 1830s to 1920…(similarly,) discrimination against black women in abolitionist societies organized by white women appears ironic when one considers that white women complained of discrimination by men.”

As we continue to celebrate “Making It Happen” in 2015, at this critical juncture in history we want to remind our sisters everywhere that in order for ALL Women To Matter, Black and Indigenous Women Must Matter to the International Women’s Movement. Assata, and our sisters who are political prisoners and refugees must matter, in PRINCIPLE, to the International Women’s Movement. In Assata’s Words:

I am a Black revolutionary woman, and because of this i have been charged with and accused of every alleged crime in which a woman was believed to have participated. The alleged crimes in which only men were supposedly involved, i have been accused of planning. They have plastered pictures alleged to be me in post offices, airports, hotels, police cars, subways, banks, television, and newspapers. They have offered … rewards for my capture and they have issued orders to shoot on sight and shoot to kill.” — Assata Shakur

On November 2, 1979, with the assistance of the Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur escaped. In 1984, she fled to Cuba where she received political asylum. She authored her autobiography in 1987 and “Still Black” in 1993. Her story has shifted the conversation and culture of Black Women in Resistance, often cited in critical race studies. She still remains on the first and only woman FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list with a bounty of $2m despite the Hands Off Assata campaigns popping up domestic and internationally.

In 2008, when President Obama took office he stood in solidarity with the United Nations to declare an End to Violence and Discrimination against Women and Girls. We must unite to take meaningful action to ensure long term impact includes women are respected in their pursuits for freedom at home and abroad. Let us all work as sisters and comrades to expand the protections of the Violence Against Women Act to include women’s rights to work, learn, and lead the war against oppression.

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