Published in America by Strategic Media Books Inc on the 15th February 2017.
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How I got this book:
Received a review copy via iRead Book Tours
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My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In May 1973, Assata Olugbala Shakur was involved in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in which she was accused of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and assaulting Trooper James Harper. This resulted in her indictment of first-degree murder of Foerster and seven other felonies related to the shootout. A member of the Black Panther Party, she became a prime target of the Federal Bureau of Investigations Counterintelligence Program. When she joined the Black Liberation Army and went into hiding, between 1973 and 1977, she was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted List for three bank robberies, the kidnapping and murder of two drug dealers, and the attempted murder of two New Jersey police officers.
In March 1977 Assata Shakur was convicted of murdering state trooper Werner Forrester and was imprisoned. Two years later she broke out of the maximum-security wing of Clinton Correctional Facility in New Jersey, pistol in hand, as she and three cohorts sped out of the prison grounds. In 1984 she was granted political asylum in Cuba where she has lived ever since. On May 2, 2013, the FBI added her to the Most Wanted Terrorist List, the first woman to be listed. Assata Shakur: A 20th Century Escaped Slave is the story of Assata Shakur, before she became a fugitive and since.
I hadn't heard of Assata Shakur or the organisation with which she was associated, the Black Liberation Army, in America prior to reading Barbara Casey's book so was very interested to learn more about this period in the country's history. The title, A 20th Century Escaped Slave, is taken from Shakur's own description of herself and concisely sums up widespread Black experience in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as, sadly, continuing into the present day. Casey has obviously spent considerable time researching this biography and utilises a wide range of sources including court reports, excerpts from news sources and quotes from the writings of Shakur herself. The book is written more in a style of journalistic reporting so I did often feel one step removed from our subject. I read a lots of facts and legal arguments about what she did and what happened to her as a result so we get her public persona, but I didn't gain a real sense of Shakur as a woman.
Casey explores Shakur's times and legacy as well as her immediate life. The America in which she lived prior to her Cuban exile was undoubtedly a viciously biased nation and I was shocked at her cruel treatment in prison. Whether terrorist or freedom fighter, murderer or innocent bystander - and Casey never decisively comes down in favour of one side or the other which is unusual for a biographer - months and years of solitary confinement is undoubtedly inhumane and ultimately this systematic authoritarian abuse helped to cement Shakur's position as a folk hero rather than disgracing her as, presumably, was the plan. While our present-day widespread whipped-up hysteria and paranoia concerning terrorism is, I believe, far more extreme than in the recent past when terrorist acts on American (and British) soil were actually far more frequent, Assata Shakur: A 20th Century Escaped Slave is a timely reminder of why and how politically excluded peoples can feel forced to act and react. It is easy to fling accusations and dismiss swathes of humanity as 'terrorists', but such a simplistic approach can only serve to stoke future resentments and create more 'Assata Shakurs'.
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