One of my favorite parts of teaching Peace Studies is the opportunity to read and discuss Assata, the autobiography of Assata Shakur. The book raises critical questions about race and racism, prisons, violence, social change, and resiliency and hope in the midst of tremendous injustice—themes that unfortunately are all too relevant today. Here, students Imani Sherley and Sophie Tuchel share some of their first impressions:
“It was amazing the number of people who said they were too Black already” (Assata, 25).
This part of the book and this quote in particular resonated with me in a myriad of ways. Even today, years after this book was written, there is still a huge divide within the black community along color lines. People still value European features over our own, and they especially value light skin over dark. I know for a fact that I have received better treatment from people in my life because of my lighter skin. Darkness then and now is seen as a burden, and both white and black people treat it as such. The lighter you are, the more others will associate you with something other than black, which unfortunately can give you privileges over other black people. Skin whitening is still a huge industry, and even Dove sells skin bleaching products in Asia and Africa. The crazy thing about this quote from Assata though isn’t the cultural ideal she is introducing, it’s the fact that these people are on the beach! That is how deep this runs.
“I was supposed to be a child version of a goodwill ambassador, out to prove that Black people were not stupid or dirty or smelly or uncultured” (Assata, 37).
Code Switching! Respectability politics! This quote has it all. Assata is referencing something so real here I couldn’t help but start snapping when I read it. The way that she describes her middle school experience and the attitudes of her teachers and the black community was some of the best writing thus far in the book. In this chapter she basically tells her story in a way that defines some key concepts in black survival. The need and expectation of talking, walking, and looking like white people is a form of code switching, or learning how to function in one part of society while still maintaining your authentic identity elsewhere. Use your slang on the porch, but cross your t’s and dot your i’s in the classroom. This way of thinking which her grandparents presented her with is also known as respectability politics. It is the expectation that those black people who are often in white owned spaces ought to act a certain way in order to preserve the respectability of the race a whole. Assata was definitely not down with that plan. This is because respectability politics take away the individual’s right to self-authenticity for the sake of being “acceptable” and uniform. Nevertheless, respectability politics are still a huge part of black survival today, just like code switching. I code switch. Other black kids at my school constantly either rebel against or expect others to perpetuate respectability politics. I didn’t realize how much I had in common with Assata, or how much has not changed within the black community and the American School System.
- Imani Sherley
It is so crazy to me that so many people grew up thinking that white, straight-haired, and thin-lipped was the most beautiful way to be. Sure, most children, teens, and even adults have insecurities and long for different features; that’s not at all uncommon. But to grow up thinking that the color of your skin is less beautiful than another race’s? Or putting a clothespin on your nose to make it thinner? I think it was that part that made me realize how privileged I have been in my growing up. Like I mentioned earlier, most kids have insecurities; I wished that I was taller, blonder, and better at sports, amongst other things. The differences between my insecurities and Assata’s are that mine were more or less something that I could make happen. I was going to grow, I could always dye my hair, and if I really wanted to get better at sports I could have practiced my butt off. But you can’t change the color of your skin or the texture of your hair (very easily). That, my friend, is called privilege.
I could relate to a surprisingly large number of Assata’s experiences as a child, such as teachers who gave homework as punishment, and watching T.V. shows depicting what families are ‘supposed’ to be like. I think that is why I loved this book so much; everyone has a little piece of Assata inside of them, and reading some parts of this story felt like reading an entry in a diary from my younger self.
This book is so emotional, and it just makes me feel so many overwhelming emotions all at the same time. I felt joy and love for Assata when she was happy or even being stubborn, and I loved anyone who helped her succeed. I felt an extreme amount of sympathy for Assata, and I was amazed at how resilient she was throughout all of the challenges she faced. I felt as though she was a good friend of mine, and I wanted her to win every battle and just be happy and carefree. I am, and always will be rooting for her.