A recent addition to my personal list of Books That Should Be Included in the High School Curriculum is Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur. Being amazed at having never heard of this book or the woman who wrote it until a few weeks ago I feasted on it and nearly finished it in one sitting on a train ride from Jasper to Vancouver (hence the blog title…very punny indeed).
Assata Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army in the 60s and 70s.
In addition to exposing the disgusting history of the American government and FBI’s attempts to defame and criminalize Black nationalists and civil rights activists – the memoir proved to be immensely readable and engaging. What was most fascinating to me, however, were the parallels that could be indentified between her experiences in the civil rights movement and being a racialized woman in North America a few decades ago with observations about being a woman and a feminist in North America right now. What follows is a somewhat disorderly free flow of her quotes and my reactions that I thought might be worth sharing.
“We had been completely brainwashed and we didn’t even know it. We accepted white value systems and white standards of beauty and, at times, we accepted the white man’s view of ourselves…From when I was a tot, I can remember Black people saying “niggas ain’t shit” and “You know how lazy niggas are”
I think about the way women talk about other women today. I feel like it’s gotten worse in my short life time. I wrote a blog on how I see this manifesting in women’s comedy. It’s the idea of ‘calling out’ “whores” and “sluts.” Melissa McEwan talks a bit about this pressure in her amazing article Misogyny Up Close and Personal. She identifies the societal push for her to confirm that, “I am an ally against certain kinds of women. Surely, we’re all in agreement that Britney Spears is a dirty slut who deserves nothing but a steady stream of misogynist vitriol whenever her name is mentioned, right? Always the subtle pressure to abandon my principles to trash this woman or that woman, as if I’ll never twig to the reality that there’s always a justification for unleashing the misogyny, for hating a woman in ways reserved only for women.”
I think one of the grimmest examples of the oppressed oppressing the oppressed is the discrimination that went on in nazi concentration camps among the prisoners themselves as outlined by Primo Levi in his memoir Survival in Auschwitz. It’s the most destructive result of living in an unequal and exploitative society; all of us internalize prejudice and discrimination.
Though I still like to quote Madeleine Albright on this topic, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help women.”
“The usual way the people are taught to think in amerika is that each subject is in a little compartment and has no relation to any other subject. For the most part, we receive fragments of unrelated knowledge, and our education follows no logical format or pattern. It is exactly this kind of education that produces people who don’t have the ability to think for themselves and who are easily manipulated.”
Assata Shakur is a strong advocate for all-inclusive and empowering education for Black youth. I think this quote was particularly acute in its description of the problems with North America’s public education system. What specifically comes to mind for me is the garbage dump that is sex ed. My main concern is a lack of comprehensive history, context and language surrounding the issue of consent. We will never defeat the rape culture if we can’t even teach youth what consent actually means and looks like. There was recently a blinding spotlight put on this dangerous misinformation when Naomi Woolf, much celebrated feminist, argued with Jaclyn Friedman on Democracy Now that a woman couldn’t possibly have been raped if she consented to sexual relations earlier in the night. If Naomi Woolf doesn’t even have the big picture around consent and rape in our society than I fear the reality of what youth believe these days. Thankfully people like Jaclyn Friedman are working hard to correct this with education such as her book Yes Means Yes.
“That was one of the big problems in the [Black Panther] Party. Criticism and self-criticism were not encouraged, and the little that was given often wasn’t taken seriously. Constructive criticism and self-criticism are extremely important for any revolutionary organization. Without them, people tend to drown in their mistakes, not learn from them.”
This may be obvious. I do also think that the feminist movement is really good at relentlessly analyzing its internal oppressions. But, we’ve become so quick to shoot down criticism if it affects something we’ve come to believe as personally empowering. Meghan has already written about this a few times on the blog. And you know it’s widespread once The Onion satirizes the issue.
“Everyday out in the street now, I remind myself that Black people in amerika are oppressed. It’s necessary that I do that. People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.”
To go off on a tangent this is why science fiction and dystopian books can be so damn accurate in highlighting this specific aspect of oppression. If you’ll remember a bit of the plot of Brave New World: children are created and raised in ‘hatcheries’ and ‘conditioning centres’ where they are they divided into five castes designed to fulfill predetermined positions within the social and economic system of the World State. Fetuses chosen to become members of the lower castes receive chemical interference to cause arrested development in intelligence or physical growth. So they are deliberately limited in their cognitive and physical abilities, as well as the scope of their ambitions and the complexity of their desires, thus rendering them easier to control. (thanks Wikipedia for summary). I flagged this passage from the book when I read it years ago which sums it up well:
“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.”
A newer book that looks at this compulsory conditioning to accept one’s “inescapable social destiny” is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I don’t want to put any spoilers in though because it’s less well known than Brave New World and it’s a worthy read.
I have no specific or cohesive conclusion for this mish-mash of ideas, except to re-emphasise just how important reading and sharing stories really is. Most of us are fed a constant diet of cultural and social stereotypes and as Chimamanda Adichie says in her enlightening talk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The Anti-Racism Resource Centre in Peterborough, Ontario defines anti-racism as: an active and consistent process of change to eliminate individual, institutional and systemic racism as well as the oppression and injustice racism causes.
Maybe some of this process of change can start with the building of collective knowledge through story telling and sharing. So, don’t bug me when I’m reading on the train.
Follow Ellie Gordon-Moershel: @EllieGordonMoe
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