Teaching Social Justice with the Corporeal Memoirs of Harriet Jacobs and Assata Shakur
Updated: Jan 3, 2019
“That poor, ignorant woman thought that America was governed by a Queen, to whom the President was subordinate. I wish the President was subordinate to Queen Justice.”
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself
“Women can never be free in a country that is not free.”
Assata Shakur, “Women in Prison: How It Is With Us”
To follow the arc of the narratives presented by Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography, is an exposure to the policing of the Black body, a legacy of United States slavery, and an understanding of current advocacy of groups like Black Lives Matter and The Movement for Black Lives. Through these stories, the struggle “for prisoners to inscribe themselves as fully human in the midst of a system designed to dehumanize them and render them anonymous and passive” historically palpable and sociopolitically salient (Smith and Watson 277). Yet readers can still choose to ignore the embodied history of these chronicles and render them within the fantastic even as both narratives “expose the contradictions of Democratic nations such as the United States” (Smith and Watson 134). When reading these texts, where the subject is captive, we are also held captive by the author(s) and drawn to consider the conditions they describe. Jacobs’ and Shakur’s narratives demand readers who are willing to consider lives outside of their own without doubling down on their own identity, in this case as corporeally free people. In other words: we need to imagine what it might be like to live in a body that is not our own. When examining a text without a focus on social conditions it can seem, as Susan Sontag explains: “images offering evidence that contradicts cherished pieties are invariably dismissed as having been staged for the camera”(11). Therefore, critical reading, of memoirs of the enslaved or incarcerated, requires the acknowledgement of people who do not have the sovereignty to create themselves, as American exceptionalist narratives suggest, but whose experiences within social programs related to race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, or national origin have led to their bodily confinement and precarity. By examining Jacobs and Shakur I will point out how identity formation relies heavily on embodiment of social roles: African American scholars have been poignantly exploring how different bodies navigate the intersections of social landscapes. Jacobs and Shakur, though writing and living in different centuries (Jacobs, 1860’s and Shakur, 1970’s), were working in the same tradition with the same political goals: freedom from systemic discrimination, captivity, and dehumanization, hoping readers would “find them” in their texts. Specifically, we can see Jacobs and Shakur as embodied heroes of social justice related to race, class, and ability, figures who readers can look to emulate or uplift. When people say “believe women,” these narratives of Jacobs and Shakur are the quintessence of this exhortation.
Jacobs’ narrative details her life as an enslaved African American woman before slavery was abolished in 1865. As she lays out specific details of what it is like to inhabit her body, she shows how identity is shaped by social factors, sometimes inescapable ones. Though her story takes us through her “escape” of slavery, the undeniable predisposition to disability from captivity (both mental and physical) are well documented. Even if the ideological purpose of the story was to persuade white people to give up slavery, her text also gives an understanding of the identity formation people disabled by systematic dehumanization. She invites readers to sit with her experience to understand not just her life but what it is like to live as a dissident in the U.S. Her narrative connects with the arc of civil rights social movements (and the events which catalyzed them, i.e. chattel slavery) spanning well over two centuries. Jacobs’ narrative also corresponds to social movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp among many others, but the theorizing of the body under capitalist patriarchy is commonly overlooked by scholars interested in these fields in favor of white authors.
Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, life writing scholars, note “defenders of slavery” were quick to try to debunk Jacobs’ novel as it, presumably, didn’t sit right with their support of the system of human ownership (35). Some critics did such a good job at rendering the narrative incredible that it was out of circulation for a while and seen as “a fraud and a fiction”(Smith and Watson 35). However, “more than a century later, scholar Fagan Yellin documented its historical veracity, which helped move Incidents from the status of a forgotten fiction to much-taught slave narrative”(Smith and Watson 36). There is clearly a way for people who seek to feel better about their culpability in marginalizing groups of people can seek to erase lives and the accounts of them to continue feeling better about their subject position--they do this through an erasure of credibility.
Shakur’s narrative grants us entry into her life as she is being arrested for affiliation with the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Movement in 1973 when she is alleged to have shot a police officer. We also see Shakur’s life, first through the American South, then when she moves to the New York/New Jersey area hoping for a respite from racist Southerners, but instead she finds mostly the same attitudes of racism but more activism surrounding the issues she cares about. Shakur also shows us what prison life was like and takes us all the way up until she is reunited with her family in Cuba after her 1979 escape into a dangerous exile. The backlash of the Civil Rights Movement was COINTELPRO, a government surveillance and repression of African American activists and their organizations, and Shakur found herself a political prisoner to deter these organizations from further action. As she reminds us:
Under the COINTELPRO program, many political activists were harassed, imprisoned, murdered or otherwise neutralized. As a result of being targeted by COINTELPRO, I, like many other young people, was faced with the threat of prison, underground, exile or death. The FBI, with the help of local police agencies, systematically fed false accusations and fake news articles to the press accusing me and other activists of crimes we did not commit. Although in my case the charges were eventually dropped or I was eventually acquitted, the national and local police agencies created a situation where, based on their false accusations against me, any police officer could shoot me on sight. It was not until the Freedom of Information Act was passed in the mid-'70s that we began to see the scope of the United States government's persecution of political activists. (Goodman and Gonzalez)
Of course, also connecting the two narratives is the maternal peril both women go through. Shakur learns she is pregnant in prison and must fight with officials to receive ethical treatment of her pregnancy (Shakur 121-129). Unethical treatment is justified by the charges lobbied against her, mainly as a response to her position as a member of Black Liberation causes, and were later “variously dismissed, acquitted, or ruled mistrial.” Jacobs’s writings on motherhood detail the entitlement to enslaved women’s bodies as children took on the “condition” of their mothers and would therefore be future slaves. In “Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Stephanie Li explains,“Furthermore, because procreation by bondwomen can be regarded as both a means of perpetuating slavery and an act of love and self-sacrifice, the sexuality of enslaved women and their relationship to their offspring must be understood as a complex negotiation involving individual agency, resistance, and power”(14). This is yet another tie between Jacobs and Shakur, making the legacy of African American bodies that of necropolitical domination. In her 1978 essay published by The Black Scholar, Shakur’s poetic opening lines are stinging:
We sit in the bull pen. We are all black. All restless. And we are all freezing. When we ask, the matron tells us that the heating system cannot be adjusted.
A continuation of Foucault’s idea of “governing without governing”(biopolitics), J.A. Mbembe explores the nuances of this idea (particularly attending to race since this is widely overlooked by Foucault) by taking it to its extreme end: biopolitical power ultimately disables those considered undesirable to hegemony by killing them, not just confining them. As Jacobs and Shakur share many near death experiences, Mbembe’s work explains how necropolitical power is the assumed right to kill based on these hegemonic parameters and how survival is an exception (16-17). To understand the current movements to assist the most oppressed, readers must understand how hegemonic views disable people, and one of the best ways to do this is by reading many stories with characters who face these issues.
Early on in her narrative, Jacobs astutely addresses the issue of remaining “good” during the dehumanization of herself. She reflects on her childhood realization, “But we, who were slave-children, without father or mother, could not expect to be happy. We must be good; perhaps that would bring us contentment”(Jacobs 17). Her brother is not convinced and continues acting how he feels, as he wish he were dead (“I wish I had died when poor father died”)(Jacobs 17). As she and her brother William are continually whipped and told things like they are nothing but slaves “whose will must and should surrender,”we can see how these untenable conditions could lead to direct action. In “Playing Dead: Harriet Jacobs’ Survival Strategy in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” Georgia Kreiger underscores the “relatively little critical attention” to “its author’s pervasively morbid tone, which is due in part to her persistent focus on death” and “whether or not death is preferable to a life without liberty”(607). Regarding the imprisonment of slavery, Jacobs, as she decides to enter into a sexual relationship with another white man to protect her from rape, writes:
I had rather toil on the plantation from dawn till dark; I had rather live and die in jail, then drag on, from day to day, through such a living death. I was determined that the master, whom I so hated and loathed, who had blighted the prospects of my youth, and made my life a desert, should not, after my long struggle with him, succeed at last in trampling his victim under his feet. I would do any thing, every thing, for the sake of defeating him. What could I do? I thought and thought, till I became desperate, and made a plunge into the abyss. (53)
Shakur ruminates in the 1970’s about the long legacy of racial injustice which plunges her into her own precarity here. She puts the onus back on the social systems which produced her rage significantly changing the narratives surrounding her life:
They call us murderers, but we did not murder over two hundred fifty unarmed Black men, women, and children or wound thousands of others in the riots they provoked during the Sixties. The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives….They call us murderers, but we did not murder and wound over thirty unarmed Black students at Jackson State — or Southern State either… They say we steal. But it was not we who stole millions of Black people from the continent of Africa…They call us bandits, yet every time most Black people pick up our paychecks we are being robbed. Every time we walk into a store in our neighborhood we are being held up. (50-51)
Both women discuss overcoming what is given to them, neither seems to revel in the violence of the answers they come up with to resist, but they make decisions which are ultimately better than literal death though not by much.
Judith Butler, wondering more abstractly, discusses how we create lives that matter in our minds to juxtapose them with those which do not matter. In later chapters she also joins conversation with Sontag (who I have cited for this project as well) to understand how we view others in pain and how our identities can be formed by knowing we will not experience the same pain and expecting others to feel it instead. In a chapter entitled “Survivability, Vulnerability, Affect” from her text Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Butler constructs a schema for our understanding of the body in texts:
The body breathes, breathes itself into words, and finds some provisional survival there….In torture, the body's vulnerability to subjection is exploited; the fact of interdependency is abused. The body that exists in its exposure and proximity to others, to external force, to all that might subjugate and subdue it, is vulnerable to injury; injury is the exploitation of that vulnerability. But this does not mean that vulnerability can be reduced to injurability...the body is also what lives on, breathes, tries to carve its breath into stone; its breathing is precarious-it can be stopped by the force of another's torture. But if this precarious status can become the condition of suffering, it also serves the condition of responsiveness, of a formulation of affect, understood as a radical act of interpretation in the face of unwilled subjugation….This reveals two separate truths about the body: as bodies, we are exposed to others, and while this may be the condition of our desire, it also raises the possibility of subjugation and cruelty. This follows from the fact that bodies are bound up with others through material needs, through touch, through language, through a set of relations without which we cannot survive. To have one's survival bound up in such a way is a constant risk of sociality-its promise and its threat. (Butler 61)
Butler suggests recognition of precarity, or the conditions which both Jacobs and Shakur were faced with in their lives/stories, a condition that along with direct threat of policing made barely sustainable. This becomes important to explain in a classroom where students often ask what justifies violence in a protest and what social conditions could lead to people feeling unsupported and even policed. In other words, “Precarity is an emerging abandonment that pushes us away from a livable life”(Shaw and Byler).
Regarding pedagogical practices of teaching memoirs encouraging political action, in “Revolutionary Relatability: Assata: An Autobiography as a Site of Radical Teaching and Learning,” Joseph G. Ramsey details his experience with teaching Shakur’s text, “Assata is on some level a strikingly didactic, and ‘in your face’ work – as the opening epigraph to this essay suggests – engaging very abstract ideas as well as more immediate and ‘concrete’ situations, even directly exhorting the reader at various points”(119). Regarding the students’ reception of the text it was largely positive:
For starters, students were just blown away by the history here –that there had ever been such a (bold, revolutionary, popular) organization as the BPP [Black Panther Party] in the US, that “violent” participants in that movement could be as eloquent and reflective as Shakur, that the US government had rained down such vicious repression on them, right here “at home.” Being confronted with such a spectacular, shared, historical blind-spot helped students begin a sustained discussion of the political and social role that official schooling and dominant history has played in US society, and in their own lives, a topic that Shakur herself directly engages through her narrative. Generally students were struck by how Assata (and the BPP as depicted in the text) wasn’t advocating violence or “hate” against white people, as they had been taught to expect, but rather targeted their antagonism much more narrowly – and politically – against the structures and agents of oppression and exploitation. One white working-class student from South Boston expressed pleasure and surprise that he could identify with much of the struggle that Assata relates, as well as with her broader criticism of US social institutions, history, and ideology. (Ramsey 120)
Ramsey emphasizes the rhetorical power of memoir as “drawing readers into a serious and sympathetic consideration of radical and revolutionary ideas that they might not otherwise have taken to heart”(120). The concept of the self is not based on a disembodied consciousness but instead the self is all about the specific body we inhabit in this lifetime. We can still view autobiographical authors as “real” even if they are merely mouthpieces for social positions and even if their situations or bodies change over time. The self is political and this makes autobiographical writing political as well.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag theorizes the history of the response to the pain of others. Witnessing pain becomes a crucial part of aesthetic sense because it is meant to alert us to deeper meaning, yet it does not always succeed in doing so. She says it takes “peculiar circumstances for war to become genuinely unpopular” and often the aesthetic object because it will have its “own career,” which necessarily means it depends on how the viewer receives the image based on their own motivations and interests (Sontag 32). Sontag continues, “Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering...embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited”(90).
The most pressing reason for reading Jacobs and Shakur is the issue of racial justice. The Movement for Black Lives (a branch of the Black Lives Matter movement) defines their “Demands” for racial justice in the United States which include: “an to the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of our people,” “reparations for past and continuing harms….from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance,” “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people….divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations,” “economic justice for all and a reconstruction of the economy to ensure Black communities have collective ownership, not merely access,” “a world where those most impacted in our communities control the laws, institutions, and policies that are meant to serve us,” “a remaking of the current U.S. political system in order to create a real democracy where Black people and all marginalized people can effectively exercise full political power” (“Platform”). Reading the well-articulated and meticulously compiled formulations for racial justice on the organization’s website, someone can certainly get a sense of what needs to be done in order to have a truly egalitarian society (I have only broadly listed the demands in this short project to illustrate my point). Yet the stories of others and how they lived through the events which created the need for these types of “Demands” can be damning for those who cannot fathom why a group of people who share a similar identity would all feel this sense of kinship and longing for a social shift. The Movement for Black Lives is working in the same tradition as Jacobs and Shakur and it is because of their bravery and vulnerability the newest generation of activists can protest with such formulaic detail and precision. Shakur detailed not only her early role in the movement but discussed her observation of the up and coming groups and their organizational methods, which, when you read, forms a thread directly to the present moment:
It was clear that the Black Liberation Army was not a centralized, organized group with a common leadership and chain of command. Instead there were various organizations and collectives working out of different cities, and in some of the larger cities there were often several groups working independently of each other. Many members of the various groups had been forced into hiding as a result of the extreme police repression that took place during the late sixties and early seventies. (241)
What Shakur is describing is strikingly similar to the online organizing we see today on digital platforms like Twitter where organizers can remain relatively anonymous and still learn what is going on nationally with hashtags, meetups, and up to the minute news events.
The most crucial element of the movement is stories because when we read stories of people we can often manage to situate ourselves in their place, time, body, if only for a moment. While Jacobs and Shakur’s works are long form, we now also have access to stories in real time that are as gritty and political as both these authors. However, teaching Jacobs and Shakur may prove the difference for some students when it comes to being able to sit with stories of people who are unlike them in the online world long enough to be a part of lasting change. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu argues our tastes are connected to our social class. With the availability of accounts of police violence and systemic issues, Bourdieu argues that without a personal connection to the situations described, people are reticent to see these stories as valid or connected to their own lives. This idea becomes important to understand why, with so many ways to document social problems, even with bodies involved, people rely on their own identity to decide how to react. However, a life writing narrative, in Jacobs’ case verified by two “respectable” citizens in the epilogue, and in Shakur’s case verified by her folklore in the activist and criminal justice community along with mainstream media, we are privy to a series of relevant details which, though they hold the bias of the writer, may change minds and hearts through empathy. Stephen Dillon describes the clairsentience of Shakur’s narrative in regards to U.S. mass incarceration in way that connects her to the current discourse on social justice and to Jacobs:
For Shakur, the regulations of a burgeoning neoliberal-carceral state possessed life in ways that rendered the free world an extension of the prison. An assemblage of race, gender, capital, policing, and penal technologies produced a symbiosis between the de-industrialized landscape of the late-twentieth-century urban United States and the gendered racisms of an emerging prison-industrial complex. Diffuse structural networks of racism and sexism mimicked the steel bars of a cage. This is the complicity between freedom and captivity, the entanglements between the living and the living dead, and the hemorrhaging of a buried past into the imagined progress of the present. For Shakur, prison looked like and felt like nineteenth-century chattel slavery… (113)
Though addressing mass incarceration as it stood almost a decade ago, in The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander provides the necessary information to create a thread between Jacobs and Shakur and place their bodily experiences in history. Alexander helps me situate Jacobs and Shakur’s willingness to tell their stories as strategic and political, defining their stories as activist work, not merely for aesthetic pleasure, and stirring up affective resistances to social changes. Alexander traces the history of incarcerated people as historically disenfranchised people who not only have to contend with othered bodies but whose bodies are policed and confined for profit. Like Alexander, Loic Wacquant situates imprisonment in a history outside of the narrative of “crime and punishment,” but as a pipeline to police othered bodies. He writes, “Soon the black ghetto, converted into an instrument of naked exclusion by the concurrent retrenchment of wage labour and social protection, and further destabilized by the increasing penetration of the penal arm of the state, became bound to the jail and prison system by a triple relationship of functional equivalency, structural homology and cultural syncretism, such that they now constitute a single carceral continuum which entraps a redundant population of younger black men (and increasingly women) who circulate in closed circuit between its two poles in a self-perpetuating cycle of social and legal marginality with devastating personal and social consequences” (Wacquant). Though written more abstractly than Alexander, Wacquant’s work makes a suitable pairing for educators who try to explain how people up against structures tied to history and tradition come to understand themselves and are waiting for others to understand them. Right as she opens her book Alexander shows less abstractly what happens in society by weaving pragmatic explanation of the impact of structural racism by focusing on the ancestry and present life of one inmate, Jarvious Cotton:
Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole…. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. (Alexander 1-2)
Even still, all this information can wash over people’s head or they can fail to see how this works in practice, especially since Alexander’s vignettes of particular inmates are so short (most of them a paragraph or two throughout the book). Even something like a “case study” may not elucidate the whole person who is captive, as we see with television shows like Hard Time and Lock Up, in fact these depictions can be decidedly exploitative. Shakur and Jacobs can show a trajectory of particular bodies and lives through history through their sustained narratives.
Teaching of Jacobs and Shakur, perhaps in tandem, is a history lesson in the years of absent time. Jacobs, who wrote just prior to the abolition of slavery was writing over a hundred years before Shakur who wrote and lived her text during the 1950’s-1970’s civil rights era. Her struggle with COINTELPRO was directly after the civil rights movement (1954-1968), and we can see the trenchant modes of policing that spanned all the way from chattel slavery to Shakur’s time to present day with the Black Lives Matter movement. On teaching “after Ferguson” (to put recent activism at the fore of the conversation), Sarah Jane Cervenak explores her pedagogical, one which encourages students to simply “feel the weight” of Jacobs’ text, which can potentially engage something more outside of the classroom:
So while the classroom moves within a teleological logic and bursts out of that telos to name, discuss, criticize, teach about, learn about, and undermine the institutional moorings of racial and sexual violence, it could do some other kind of nonteleological work. That is, it can also make room for sitting with silence, the refused-to-be-explained features of black, trans, and poor grief. The sedimented pains of getting to, sitting within, and leaving class. A time when dreams of social justice amble by plain old exhaustion, the weightedness and seeming weakness of the explanatory roaming along with passions and philosophies of the new--unspoken and otherwise. (Cervenak 225)
Cervenak advocates for the same type of reading I do: one which helps us imagine differences, makes us aware of the absolute danger of bodies on the line and how they must feel. More importantly, how they must feel even in the present moment with no resolution.
Amy Post, “a member of the Society of Friends in the State of New York, well known and highly respected by friends of the poor and the oppressed,” author of one of the epilogues in Incidents which sought to vouch for the the validity and trustworthiness of Jacobs’ narrative writes, “Her story, as written by herself, cannot fail to interest the reader. It is a sad illustration of the condition of this country, which boasts of its civilization, while it sanctions laws and customs which make the experiences of the present more strange than any fictions of the past”(185). Finding out how Jacobs, not just the character of Linda Brent, really did spend 7 years in a family attic and was almost rendered unable to walk, her constant fear for her children, calculated personal relationships and avoidance of rape (by Dr. Flint) should make students consider how living in a different body could impact the ways they are able to move in the world. Both Shakur and Jacobs dealt with particular prisons, though Shakur’s would be instantly thought of as a state sanction, Jacobs’ exile was as well.
Shakur highlights the historical thread connecting her present life with her ancestors, and for the purposes of this project: Harriet Jacobs. As her narrative comes to an end and her mother, aunt, and daughter (who she gave birth to while incarcerated) get off a plane to meet her in Havana, Cuba, Shakur says:
How much had we all gone through. Our flight had started on a slave ship years before we were born. Venceremos, my favorite word in Spanish, crossed my mind….There was no doubt about it, our people would one day be free. The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world. (274)
The resolve of Jacobs and Shakur to get us reading their stories is part of the activist frameworks operating today. With every generation, as we become accomplices to their struggle, we can create a future they wanted and paid for with their bodies.
So much of the memoirs of Shakur and Jacobs are the narratives of evasion, fugitivity, and survival. There is rarely any stopping and when there is it’s due to captivity. A constant running and being under suspicion leaves little time to enjoy the things that are supposed to make us human: eating, resting, time with family and friends. This is what also makes black scholars of the slave diaspora such experts on neoliberalism, a frequently used current term which describes a world where people are only valued for how much they labor. In this sense, freedom for Jacobs and Shakur is a fraught concept; in both eras they are seen as not doing as they are supposed to, under ownership of someone other than themselves. Smith and Watson note about narrating the body: “The body, in its senses and materiality, has long been a central site for remembering the past and envisioning a future. Writers positioned at the margins of discourse at various historical moments--women, slaves and colonized subjects, the dislocated and disabled--have narrated bodily experiences as a way to intervene in social arrangements while seeking to ameliorate their conditions”(141). Certainly the memoirs by Shakur and Jacobs narrate for this reason.
In Mechthild Nagal’s work exploring Angela Davis and Assata Shakur “as Women Outlaws,” she points out the historical piece Jacobs and Shakur speak to and the thread that binds them when she writes:
The U.S. Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which putatively abolished slavery, describes prisoners as legal slaves. Therefore, they do not enjoy freedom of speech or freedom to assemble peacefully within a total institution. However, the US government denies confining people for political convictions and that all so called political prisoners are duly convicted of a (terrorist) crime. Yet, the US government’s claim is hardly credible…. In addition, the state routinely disappears prisoners who are not a security threat into supermax prisons, which contribute to (mental) health abuse and premature death…. Much mainstream reporting or prison literature ignores the gendered nature of prisons (and ignores writings by revolutionary prison intellectuals altogether). (45)
This is not to say all prisoners are radical intellectuals, but in the case of Jacobs and Shakur (and many others) when reading their stories and considering the nature of their confinement their lives were politically dissident in that they resisted the violence of the state. In Jacobs’ case it was state violence of legal chattel slavery to private owners, and in Shakur’s case it was legal slavery via the carceral state. As Shakur writes, “I was transferred on April 8, 1978 to the maximum security prison for women in Alderson, West Virginia, the federal facility designed to hold ‘the most dangerous women in the country.’ I had been convicted of no federal crime, but under the interstate compact agreement any prisoner can be shipped, like cargo, to any jail in U.S. territory, including the Virgin Islands, miles away from family, friends, and lawyers”(253). Here we have access to this real life event which is also a representation of criminalizing blackness and the handling of bodies as if they were property.
Shakur’s literariness makes her memoir unique from many others; she uses poetry in many of her chapters, a disarming medium which also encourages sitting with the reading, absorbing. When Shakur narrates her grandmother, she works in an afrofuturist tradition and bends the memoir genre by narrating the past, present, and speculative dreams of the future and transformation of society with the technologies of love and imagination:
My grandmother came all the way from North Carolina. She came to tell me about her dream. My grandmother had been dreaming all of her life, and the dreams have come true My grandmother dreams of people passing and babies being born and people being free, but it is never specific. Redbirds sitting on fences, rainbows at sunset, conversations with people long gone. My grandmother’s dreams have always come when they were needed and have always meant what we needed them to mean. She dreamed my mother would be a schoolteacher, my aunt would do to law school, and, during the hard times, she dreamed that good times were coming. She told us what we needed to be and made us believe it like nobody else could have. She did her part. The rest was up to us. We had to make it real. Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them. (Shakur 260)
Here she is discussing theory and praxis, metaphysics, and ancestral legacy. This is another way Shakur’s work is not only a vehicle to discuss social problems but to frame social changes in ways connecting them to other artists discussing bodies and blackness specifically. The responsibility of teachers sharing works like Jacobs’ and Shakur’s is to frame them in ways that show how society can shift for the liberation of all bodies. Jacobs reflects on her grandmother towards the end of her narrative in a way that ties her to the idea of black futures or afrofuturism:
I remembered how my good old grandmother had laid up her earrings to purchase me in later years, and how often her plans had been frustrated. How that faithful, loving old heart would leap for joy, if she could look on my and my children now that we were free! My relatives had been foiled in all their efforts, but God had raised me up a friend among strangers, who had bestowed on me the precious, long-desired boon. (183)
As Smith and Watson illustrate, “In autobiographical acts, narrators become readers of their experiential histories, bringing discursive schema that are culturally available to them to bear on what has happened….[they] offer fascinating glimpses into life narrators’ successive interpretations or revisions of the past,” and in the case of Shakur and Jacobs, they show how the past has a bearing on the future, even as they consider the dreams of ancestors (Smith and Watson 32-33). Smith and Watson mention, “Because issues of authority can be crucial to autobiographical acts, life writers have much at stake in gaining the reader’s belief in the experiences they narrate and thus having the ‘truth’ of the narrative validated”(34).
Educators who concern themselves with social justice (which should be all educators) should be sure narratives like Jacobs’ and Shakur’s are taught with care: a glimpse through the political history and theory of these narratives can create an atmosphere where, as marginalized groups often hope, people are believed. In the #MeToo movement, a popular trope is “believe women!” Yet it is hard to fathom the legacy of not believing African American women when they have shown such mounting evidence of erasure and precarity. Jacobs and Shakur consistently invite us to imagine what it is like to be in their bodies, and educators should accept that invitation, particularly in the field of the humanities but also beyond.
Love is contraband in Hell,
cause love is an acid
that eats away bars.
But you, me, and tomorrow
hold hands and make vows
that struggle will multiply.
The hacksaw has two blades.
The shotgun has two barrels.
We are pregnant with freedom.
We are a conspiracy. (Shakur 130)
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
The New Press, 2010.
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Byler, Darren and Jennifer Shaw. “Precarity.” Cultural Anthropology. https://culanth.org/curated_collections/21-precarity
Cervenak, Sarah Jane. “On Not Teaching about Violence: Being in the Classroom After
Ferguson.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 41, No. 1 March 2015.
Goodman, Amy and Juan Gonzalez. “Assata Shakur in Her Own Words: Rare
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Mauve Perle Tahat is a writer and PhD candidate living in Northern Appalachia. She has taught in colleges and community centers for the past 8 years. Her PhD is on carceral logics in the U.S. and the waiting body. Puppets and phenomenology are her other reading interests and she also founded 3 literary journals since 2014. In high school her AIM username was xheythatsmycatx.