“Rave On” is the Page Turner series that asks feminist writers, artists, musicians, activists, leaders, and scholars to talk about a book that completely rocked their world. Today we feature illustrator and writer Cristy C. Road on Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur.
I’m originally from Miami, where I felt frigidly alienated for a billion reasons, many of which were ignited by the republican Cuban-American community, which seems to run the social consciousness of every Cuban community there—despite class, neighborhood, etc. I left when I turned 18 and hung out around northern Florida in the punk rock community, and I felt very alive, but sincerely in denial about a lot of the new prejudices I was seeing in this new territory.
When I was about 20, I began feeling completely isolated from the punk rock community as well. I used a lot of denial-based tactics to feel “sane” back then, because I was so romantic about this community since it had salvaged me from preteen turmoil. As I grew older, it was becoming clearer that there was still sexism and racism clouding the positive effects of punk rock.
After two abusive relationships and several accounts of drama where internalized racism was discounted, I realized that my community wasn’t in tune to my experience. I needed to find support for the fractions of my identity that still alienated me—ethnicity, sexuality, gender. I cut myself off a little. A friend of mine lent me her copy of Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur. She said it would change my life. It did—I had never read anything so real and boundless. It was the first book I read in under five days in a LONG time (my attention span is not too keen).
Assata is the story of activist Assata Shakur and includes narratives of her childhood in Wilmington, North Carolina; internal sexisms in the Black Panther party, which she was a member of; and the injustice, persecution, and racism projected by COINTELPRO, the police, United States prisons, and the U.S. at large against her and her community.
Shakur’s writing is honest and vulnerable, and she tells her story in a language I identify with. The book helped me realize why the struggle to own our ethnic identity is WORTH every bit of heartache. It also completely shifted my vision of Cuba to a more objective and appreciative lens, instead of jumping back and forth between the side of my brain that criticizes and demonizes Fidel Castro’s rendition of Socialism, and the side that romanticizes it and disdains conservative Cuban-American ilk and capitalism. Now, I place myself in a more understanding middle ground.
I realized that, as adults, we have to embrace what embraces us, whether or not we make compromises with any government. So, I value and appreciate the sanctuary Shakur found in Cuba while I also criticize Castro’s tactics surrounding AIDS, homosexuality, and varying freedoms.
Eventually, I found myself in a pool of other young, queer anarchists who were also disillusioned by punk. My community shifted; race was discussed and acknowledged, and we taught one another to own who we are. I needed that, but would have never sought it without developing that desire to fight for my identity.
Shakur’s story pushed me to believe in myself and to understand the true martyrs who are helping shape a new consciousness in how people see race and gender. She wrote: “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.”
If younger feminists were to read just one book, it should be this one. Shakur helped me blur the lines that I had invented by dividing “race” and “feminism.” Growing up Latina, “feminism” always seemed like a white woman’s struggle, while women of color seemed to have an additional struggle. This is what I thought as a young girl from watching my family (I was raised by three women) and the media. (Remember that show Maude? That is totally what I mean.) Assata really showed me that there is an inescapable bind between feminism and owning your culture. Dividing race and gender is counterproductive.
Cristy C. Road is a Cuban-American illustrator and writer. She is the author of Bad Habits: A Love Story, Indestructible, and Distance Makes the Heart Grow Sick: A Book of Postcards. To learn more about her, check out her website.