Afeni Shakur stares out from the cover of XXL magazine, her Afro closely cropped, her hand covering her unsmiling mouth, her eyes reflecting a bone-deep sorrow. She looks like a woman who has seen far too much pain, and that, as rap fans know, is exactly what she is.
Former Black Panther, former prisoner, former drug addict, Shakur saw her son, the legendary rapper and movie star Tupac Shakur, die of gunshot wounds in 1996. Now she discusses it all in a rare and revealing interview in this hip-hop magazine.
Her son's many fans will read the interview to learn more about Tupac. I read it to learn more about Afeni. I met her 33 years ago, when she was a defendant in a bomb conspiracy trial, and her quiet eloquence struck a blow for justice.
Born Alice Faye Williams in Lumberton, N.C., she moved to New York City and got caught up in the late-'60s whirlwind of dope and revolution. She lived with a drug dealer for a while, then joined the Black Panther Party. On April 2, 1969, she was arrested with 20 other Panthers for allegedly conspiring to kill police and bomb department stores, a railroad and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.
She spent a few months in jail before supporters raised enough money to bail her out. I met her at the office of the Panthers' attorneys, where I worked as an office boy. I was fresh out of high school. She wasn't much older, a tiny wisp of a woman in her early twenties, a high school dropout facing life in prison, who nonetheless demanded to act as her own attorney.
To make matters more complicated, she got pregnant while out on bail. Then -- after a couple of her fellow defendants skipped town -- her bail was revoked.
" . . . when I was five months pregnant, they put me back in jail," she says in the XXL interview. The jailhouse food wasn't fit for a pregnant woman, she says, and so "I went and I got a court order so I could have a boiled egg a day."
The trial dragged on for eight months. The prosecution's evidence consisted mainly of undercover cops who had infiltrated the Panthers and testified that they heard a lot of wild talk, much of it fueled by weed, about offing the pig and blowing things up.
Afeni cross-examined one of these detectives, Ralph White, and demolished his case. She asked him if he'd ever seen her carry a gun or kill anyone or bomb anything and he answered no, no, no. Then she asked if he'd seen her doing Panther organizing in a school and a hospital and on the streets and he answered, yes, yes, yes.
"In those 20 minutes," wrote legendary reporter Murray Kempton in "The Briar Patch," his 1973 book on the trial, "she had rescued herself and all the others."
"Do what you have to do," she told the jury in her soft but powerful summation. "All we ask of you is that you judge us fairly. Please judge us according to the way that you want to be judged."
They did, and it took only 20 minutes to reach their verdict: not guilty for all defendants on all counts.
"Where'd you find out how to talk like that, child?" a juror asked Afeni after the verdict, Kempton reported.
"Fear, Mr. Giles," she replied. "Plain fear."
A month later, on June 16, 1971, she gave birth to a boy she named Tupac Amaru Shakur.
She wasn't a very good mother, she admits in XXL. After working for a decade as a paralegal in the Bronx, she became a crack addict in the 1980s and raised Tupac and his younger sister while on welfare. Her addiction drove her as low as a human can go, she says, down to what she calls "the pit of the garbage can, underneath the corroded bottom of the garbage can, where only the maggots live."
Her son viewed her more sympathetically, and "Dear Mama," his tender, touching ode to her, contains what might be the best couplet in rap:
Even as a crack fiend, mama
You always was a black queen, mama
"By the grace of God," she says, she kicked the habit on May 12, 1991.
By then, Tupac was a gangsta rapper. Part poet and part thug, he sold millions of albums and starred in Hollywood movies, but his triumphs were marred by endless troubles -- six arrests, convictions for assault and sexual abuse, and an eight-month prison term. In 1994 he was shot five times but lived. In 1996 he was shot four times and died, although some fans believe the myth that he is still alive.
That belief bothers Afeni because, she says, "it's irrational." But she tells the story of a black college student who defended the myth, saying, "If they have Elvis, why can't we have Tupac?"
In this interview, Afeni repeatedly refers to her son in religious terms. "God saw favor in him and used his spirit in ways that were extraordinary," she says. "God elevated that young man -- who had been so vilified! . . . What God did is [He] came after and said, 'But in my sight, this is perfect.' "
I'm not sure I buy the idea that Tupac was "perfect" or a messenger of God. I suspect the Almighty prefers messengers who don't glorify the gangsta lifestyle that has killed thousands of young black people, including Tupac himself. But it's a mother's prerogative to brag about her child, especially a child as gifted and accomplished as Tupac.
After decades of poverty, Afeni, now 55, is rich, living on the royalties of her prolific son's artistic output. This fall she'll release "Tupac: Resurrection," a movie-house documentary and accompanying book. She has channeled some of her money into a foundation that funds a summer camp for the performing arts in Stone Mountain, Ga. -- a place that was, ironically, a former rallying spot for the Ku Klux Klan.
Afeni has come full circle now, living on a farm in her old North Carolina home town. And after all her many sorrows, it's nice to see her, in Jonathan Mannion's lovely photos, playing with her horse, smiling broadly and looking, as her son would put it, like a black queen.