An Autobiography

By Assata Shakur

Foreword by Lennox S. Hinds

Lawrence Hill and Co., 274 pages, $18.95; paperback, $9.95

In the nearly two decades that African American activist Assata Shakur, formerly known as JoAnne Chesimard, has been sought by law enforcement authorities and prosecuted by the criminal justice system, she has attained near-mythical status in the eyes of the FBI, local police departments, members of the so-called Black Liberation Army and the radical left.

Between 1973 and 1977 Shakur was indicted 10 times and stood trial for two bank robberies, the kidnaping of a drug dealer, attempted murder of several police officers and the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She was defended by a virtual Who's Who of progressive attorneys, including Lennox Hinds, William Kunstler, Evelyn Williams, Bob Bloom, Flo Kennedy and Ray Brown. Her trials resulted in three acquittals, a hung jury and two dismissals. Her only conviction was in March 1977, for the May 1973 murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.

She eluded capture for several years before her arrest in 1973, issued well-publicized communique's to the masses from hiding and managed to get pregnant and give birth to a healthy daughter while incarcerated and on trial. In November 1979, Shakur escaped from the New Jersey Corrections Institute for Women, where she was serving life plus 33 years. In 1987 she surfaced in Cuba, which had granted her political asylum.

One suspects that Shakur penned "Assata: An Autobiography" as much to thumb her nose -- from the safe distance of Cuba -- at all those who have pursued her as to set the record straight. Whatever her motivations, "Assata" is an important book, one that provides a look at the making of a radical African American activist in the 1960s and '70s.

The book begins with Shakur's capture following the shoot-out on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973 that left Trooper Foerster dead. The book's chapters alternate between her growing up in North Carolina and New York and her incarceration and trials, and are sprinkled with poems written by Shakur.

Shakur's grandparents owned beachfront property in North Carolina and ran a small, successful restaurant. Segregation was then legal, but for Shakur's family, subservience was a crime. She recalls her grandmother's repeatedly telling her, "I want that head held up high, and i don't want you taking no mess from anybody, you understand?"

Shakur has a sharp sense of humor and "Assata" has its funny moments, though usually tinged with some political insight. She tells a particularly humorous story of whining so much about wanting to go to a segregated amusement park that her mother finally posed as a Spanish citizen -- and threatened a diplomatic scandal -- to gain admission for herself and her two daughters. "We laughed and talked about it for days," writes Shakur. "But it was a lesson i never forgot. Anybody, no matter who they were, could come right off the boat and get more rights and respect than amerikan-born Blacks."

When she returns to live with her mother and stepfather in Queens, Shakur's political education begins. She attends schools where black children are automatically put into "remedial" classes, watches television footage of mobs in Little Rock, Ark., as they attack children trying to attend school, and begins to confront assumptions of inferiority from her teachers, classmates and herself. At the same time, her mother and stepfather's marriage disintegrates. Soon afterward, Shakur runs away from home and begins to search for answers to her questions about the world in which she lives.

Shakur portrays herself as a woman inexorably drawn to radical political thought and activity by the American environment in which she grew up. She powerfully evokes the urban environment of the 1960s and early 1970s that influenced her adolescence and young womanhood -- Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, the Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College, where she attended classes.

The most powerful sections of "Assata" are those in which Shakur discusses her upbringing and political coming of age, before she changed her name, joined the Black Panther Party and, finally, went underground, emerging as the "Soul of the Black Liberation Army." The book draws a moving sketch of the making of an activist, but unfortunately, perhaps for legal reasons, "Assata" does little to clarify exactly what forms her activism took.

Shakur tends to deal coyly, if at all, with most aspects of her life as an activist. Likewise, she never gives us a hint of what transpired on the turnpike, except to tell us, after her conviction for murder, that the jury "Convicted a woman with her hands up!" Well, maybe so, but that's a far cry from establishing innocence.

In spite of these weaknesses, much of the book is compelling. Her portrait of growing up in the America of the 1950s, '60s and '70s rings true. While she fudges the specifics of her activism, the genesis of her commitment is clear. One comes away from "Assata" understanding the influences that brought her where she is, but not quite certain what she did along the way.

The reviewer is a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.