As with a few of many of my childhood heroes, I never met Tupac Shakur.
I never shook his hand. I never had any discussions with him face-to-face, or over the phone. His impact on my life is for the most part through his music and his life’s story. It is quite possible that if we met in person, we might have not liked one another. However, we didn’t, and so…that is not something up for discussion. This being a post to commemorate him, I don’t want to blend too much of myself into it. I’ll discuss the exact nature of his influence through other means. Disclaimer over…
“Afeni Shakur(know to millions of youth as the mother of the late rapper Tupac Shakur) was appointed to a position of responsibility in the Harlem branch that she felt she was ill-chosen for. She felt she was neither ‘brilliant’ nor had the ‘leadership ability’ to function properly as section leader. It is an interesting psychological insight that people seldom perceive themselves as others do, but unless Shakur is projecting a false sense of self-effacement, it reflects a startling imbalance between what she and others perceived in her. Several committed Party members who worked alongside her were struck by her utter brilliance and here radiant sense of self as she went about her daily duties. Safiya A. Bukhari, who held various post in the Party and later commanded units of the Black Liberation Army(BLA), met and interacted with a broad range of Panthers, from all across the country, some famous and others not as well-known. While she found them all to be impressive individuals, she was deeply struck by Afeni Shakur. She would later write of her ‘exposure to an elfin, dark skinned woman with a very short afro’ :
Afeni Sharkur walked tall and proud among these people. She emitted an inner strength and assuredness that made me say to myself, This is a Black woman worthy of respect.
Other than my grandmother on [my] mother’s side, to that point I had not met a woman that I could look up to….At that time when I needed it most Afeni Shakur exemplified the strength and dignity amid chaos that I needed to see.
Afeni, taught by teachers and others in the white power structure that she was not worthy of much, probably saw herself as they did. But to those around her, another Afeni was visible. Indeed, Bukhari notes that ‘Afeni never knew she was having this effect on me.’ Yet this writer can safely state that Bukhari was far from alone in her response.
Other Party members saw something in Afeni that she may not have seen in herself. She was promoted from the ranks despite her objections when two leading Panthers were busted on old bench warrants that predated their BPP membership. Afeni would later recount,’…and every time I’d tell them that I shouldn’t be in any position like that, they would just look at me and tell me there’s nobody else to do it. That’s how they justified it.’ Jamal Joseph, who at sixteen was among the youngest members of the New York Panthers, would later list three women as some of his ‘most important teachers and best friends’ and as people who taught him to oppose male chauvinism and value the wisdom of women: Assata Shakur, Janet Cyril(one of the founders of the Brooklyn branch), and Afeni Shakur.
How did Afeni Shakur, as an angry, alienated, desperately poor girl from North Carolina, living in the cold, hellish Big Apple, get interested in the BPP? She heard someone she described as a ‘cute little nigger’, who later turned out to be Bobby Seale, giving a roaring street corner soapbox speech at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue about something called the Black Panthers. She was so moved that she searched out the address of the Harlem branch office, attended a Political Education class, and promptly joined. The way this young woman was treated was an important factor in why she joined:
When I first met Sekou [Odinga] and Lumamba [Shakur] it was the first time in my life that I ever met men who didn’t abuse women. As simple as that. It had nothing to do with anything about political movements. It was just that never in my life had I met men who didn’t abuse women, and who loved women because they were women and because they were people….
Afeni would later be numbered among the famous Panther 21, leading Party members who were targeted by the State for removal, incarceration, and attempted neutralization via government frame-up. The Panther 21 were indicted on April 2, 1969, on a plethora of weapons, attempted bombing, conspiracy, and related charges…
…Tupac Shakur. The son of Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther and a veteran of the Panther 21, Tupac was named for an Amerindian warrior who fought against the Spanish colonizers of Peru, Tupac Amaru.
A son of a Panther, he was born to let millions know of the unfairness and indignity of the life of his people, and he did so, with great talent and boundless passion.
Before his birth, his pregnant mother was ensconced in the city jail called the Tombs. As she awaited a trail that could send her to prison for decades, she composed a gentle, and heartfelt letter to her family. I do not know if Tupac ever got around to reading it. But a teenaged Panther in New York on loan from Philadelphia read it, and it made his heart weep with its beauty, its love, and its profound courage. Afeni Shakur wrote:
A Letter to Jamala, Lil Afeni, Sekwiya, and the unborn baby(babies) within my womb.
First let me tell you that this book [a collective autobiography of the Panther 21] was not my idea at all(as a matter of fact I was hardly cooperative). But I suppose one day you’re going to wonder about all this mess that’s been going on now and I just had to make sure you understood a few things.
I’ve learned a lot in two years about being a woman and it’s for this reason that I want to talk to you. Joan [Bird – another Panther 21 captive] and I, and all the brothers in jail, are caught up in this funny situation where everyone seems to be attacking everyone else and we’re sort of in the middle looking dumb. I’ve seen a lot of people I knew and loved die in the past year or so and it’s really been a struggle to remain unbitter.
February 8th when Joan and I came back to jail I was full of distrust, disappointment and disillusionment. But now the edges are rounded off a bit and I think I can understand why some things happened. I don’t like most of it, but I do understand. I’ve discovered what I should have known a long time ago — that change has to begin within ourselves — whether there is a revolution today or tomorrow — we still must face the problem of purging ourselves of the larceny that we have all inherited. I hope we do not pass it on to you because you are our only hope.
You must weigh our actions and decide for yourselves what was good and what was bad. It is obvious that somewhere we failed but I know it will not–it cannot end here. There is too much evilness left. I cannot get rid of my dream of peace and harmony. It is for that dream that most of us have fought — some bravely, some as cowards, some as heroes, and some as plain old crooks. Forgive us our mistakes because mostly they were mistakes which were made out of blind ignorance(sometimes arrogance). Judge us with empathy for we were (are) idealists and sometimes we’re young and foolish.
I do not regret any of it–for it taught me to be something that some people will never learn– for the first time in my life I feel like a woman–beaten, battered and scarred maybe, but isn’t that what wisdom is truly made of. Help me to continue to learn–only this time with a bit more grace for I am a poor example for anyone to follow because I have deviated from the revolutionary principles which I know to be correct. I wish you love.
Afeni Shakur(Mar. 20. 1971)
There are, indeed many legacies of the Black Panther Party. Perhaps the best of them are expressed in Afeni’s letter to her unborn child: hope, empathy, knowledge of our imperfections, knowledge of our shortcomings, the continued will to resist–and love.”
– Mumia Abu-Jamal, “We Want Freedom”