“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Over spring break, the future, my future was bearing heavily down on me, and normally when I’m in such a predicament I find refuge in writing. Yet, it being spring break, I didn’t have anything to write about…except I did, I just didn’t know it yet. I went on an internet hunt to find my muse. I just didn’t know where to begin so I figured that there was no one better to get writing advice from than the masters. Reading through the list of 117 pieces of ‘timeless advice on writing’, I stumbled on the beauty above: a line that sums up how I go about my writing. Mostly I write for myself, but there’s always an exception to that rule. This post is one of those exceptions.
This post is unique in another way because it’s not being written immediately following reading the book. Despite the time that’s passed since I read it, Assata still has a firm hold on me and I believe it will continue to, maybe for the rest of my life. In my reading, I started out wary, questioning ‘how am I suppose to trust her account of what happened the night she was stopped by police in the turnpike?’ But as I continued reading, I realized why would she lie. There’s a part of me that still thinks parts of her story is fabricated, but that’s the same part of me that thinks injustice doesn’t exist. That’s the part of me that wanted to shut her eyes when we watched Hearts and Minds in class. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. I learned from Assata that only confrontation has that power.
When her story begins, Assata Shakur is twenty-six. She, like me, is a young woman living in America. All of her struggles I couldn’t relate to, but the struggles concerning womanhood felt familiar to me. I think it’s hard for all women to talk about what it means to grow into themselves, so anytime I read about a woman recalling her life–fiction or non-fiction–I’m normally passionate about it. While Shakur’s prose isn’t as flowery and bee-ridden as Their Eyes Were Watching God, the two strike a similar chord by chronicling what it feels like to be a woman. Assata recounts one story in particular–how when she ran away as a teenager, she worked at a bar and “was convinced [she] was in love” with the bass player–that I found particularly charming (112). She also recounts viscerally being sexually assaulted as a girl–one of the moments where she realized how cruel the world can be–concluding, “Everybody was always saying what a dog-eat-dog world it was. There were all kinds of people in the world and most of them seemed unhappy. Everybody seemed to be in their own bag and few seemed to care about anybody else. I had read this play by Sartre. The play ended with the conclusion that hell is other people, and, for awhile, I agreed.” (115). Shakur aptly puts into words the progression that everyone goes through when they begin to see that the world isn’t all candy canes and lollipops, but luckily for most people, it isn’t prompted by such a gruesome experience. It’s natural to feel repulsed by the world–I know I have, perhaps even after finishing her book–and that’s what she’s describing here.
Something that also captivated me about this book is when Assata talks about how books were integral to her education in becoming a revolutionary. Man, I love books, but a book that talks about books, that’s almost as good as it gets. She goes on a book-related tangent saying, “Those books were like food to me. Fiction and poetry were my favorites, although i liked history and psychology, too.” (135). Her quest for knowledge soon became insatiable, but it was only after someone made her “feel like a bona fide clown” that she realized the necessity of reading (151). She reflects on her ignorance, saying, “Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who the enemy is.” and that “when you don’t know what’s going on in the world you’re at a definite disadvantage” (152). The first author she dives into, to combat her lack-of-knowing, is James Baldwin and finds that “his fiction is more real that [her] reality” (155). Some of my favorite chapters in this book are when she talks about reading and learning. Her brief experience attending Manhattan Community College was interesting to read about. She talks about how the discussions she had with her peers were meaningful and how they prompt her to grow as an individual. She isn’t at some top university, but that doesn’t define how meaningful her experience there is. For me, this part is particularly reassuring as my future seems to be moving ever-closer to the present, that future being college.
In the beginning of the book–I have to be entirely honest–I found myself trying to make excuses for the white people treating Assata so terribly. I would think to myself, “They must’ve had some cause; they wouldn’t have treated her like that for no reason.” Thinking back now, I can’t believe how ignorant I was. Yes, People do terrible. Worse: they do terrible things consciously. I was horrified when Shakur discussed the prospect of an internal search, but even more horrified by the consequence refusing to do one, “they lock you in the hole and they don’t let you out until you consent” (83). But that isn’t even the half of it. After becoming pregnant, Assata is assigned a doctor that tells her “I can’t force you to do anything, but my advice is to have an abortion. It will be better for you and for everybody else.” (126). Woah, woah, woah. Excuse me. The fact that this male doctor thinks that he has any say in her choice to keep the baby is entirely laughable. The fact that she had to fight tooth and nail to get a doctor that would respect her is outrageous. This is a prime example dehumanization of the prison system; at the end of the day, in jail or out of jail, Assata is a woman, a person and she deserved a reliable doctor.
This book was incredibly eye-opening, yet, I don’t think it was the ideas that were new to me that were so captivating, but rather it was the ones that felt familiar kept me reading. Throughout Assata, Shakur does a wonderful job explicating her uncertainties growing up. She also documents her growth, showing when and why she changes her mind along her way. The future is daunting for everyone, but it reassuring to hear that even Assata struggled to find her place in the world. She sums this up in saying “The world for me then was a big question mark, and the biggest question of all was where i fit in.” (74). She essentially encapsulates all of human existence in this one line. Isn’t this the question that everyone is trying to answer: where do I fit? It seems to me that there is no definitive answer, but the question in itself is profound.
I could go on and on about all the different topics that Shakur touches on in the book, but I’ll end with this one: the school system in amerika. Before I start discussing her observations, I believe it relevant to talk about my own school experience. For me, school has always been an area that I have excelled in; I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve really struggled with school, which is why it was so intriguing to see the issue from a different perspective. Assata stands up for all the kids who struggle in school and deflects some of the blame to the system itself–where it belongs–saying “When i think of how racist, how Eurocentric our so-called education in amerika is, it staggers my mind. And when i think back to some of those students who were labeled “troublemakers…” i realize that many of them were unsung heroes” (136). I have to say, she’s spitting some truth there. Her thoughts on the education system deepened further when she became a student-teacher. She had a whole new definition of what worked in the classroom and what didn’t. She realized that it was tough; she “was studying as hard as the kids” (187). She was passionate about teaching, yet it left her “with little time for anything else” (188). While there may have been a time where I wanted to be a teacher, Assata is just one of myriad people who advise against it. Her conclusion on the system is this: “As long as we expect amerika’s schools to educate us, we will remain ignorant.” (181). This is a powerful statement. Sometimes we have to seek out information ourselves to find the whole truth. I know I’ve learned that.
Now after I’ve spent far-too-many words telling you my opinion of Assata, I feel it necessary to say that I don’t deserve one…which is why this book didn’t initially have a companion post until now. I have never had to endure even a tenth of a percent of the horror Assata endured in her life. I will never have to. I can’t say that what she feels is invalid because I don’t know what it feels like to grow up as a black woman in amerika. Therefore, my opinion on the story should be non-existent. Assata is a powerful read. I think that everyone should have to read it. It’s not a book I would’ve normally picked up and I’m pretty sure my parents thought I was going to turn into a revolutionary after I did. It is my belief that certain books find us for a reason. Assata taught me more than a few necessary lessons.
There’s one last piece of truth that I must close with (and if you made it though seventeen-hundred words you deserve it); despite what I have said in my introduction, there are very few pieces that I write entirely for myself. Writing these blog posts has brought me a lot of joy and has taught me that I should be proud and open about my passions. That being said, if nobody were to read them, the joy I feel in writing them would greatly diminish. Yet, to write is to be vulnerable and I’m not so great at that. I hide behind the “I write for me” spiel because it allows me to shield myself from criticism. But to hell with Vonnegut, I’m going to open the window and write for as many (or as few) people as I want.