Assata taught me I’m an asshole. That’s right. A complete tool.
I didn’t know who Assata Shakur was before September 2014 because I’m white. I bet if you are white and reading this, you aren’t sure who Assata Shakur is either. It’s okay. Admitting you’re an asshole is the first step. Hanging out in front of the Ferguson Police Department as much as I have for the last nine months, I’ve seen many protesters wearing Assata Taught Me shirts, so naturally I was curious.
African American political activisT
Assata was a leading member of the Harlem branch of the Black Panthers in the late 1960’s. Later, a member of the Black Liberation Army. In 1973, law enforcement convicted Assata of murdering a New Jersey state trooper. She escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba in 1984, where she still lives in exile. To some, she is known as a cop-killing terrorist. For example, in fearful white, #AllLivesMatter communities. In other circles, she is described as a freedom fighter and a political activist. Those who support black liberation say the white power structures wrongfully framed her for murder. Firstly, though, if you ascribe to the Assata as activist sect, you have to believe America’s justice system is corrupt. In other words, you have to believe in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
None of the seven different primary schools I attended growing up taught students about revolutionaries. I mean, other than the white, male, wig-wearing type. They certainly didn’t teach me about female revolutionaries. I do recall standing on a stage in a blue shower cap I’d fitted with lace around the edges to look like Betsy Ross once. At the risk of offending ninja seamstresses everywhere, sewing a flag? Not that revolutionary. And yet we all know Betsy Ross’ name. I suspect we know it because a mildly self-aware white man in the past decided that some (white) women (in their traditional roles) should be represented in American history books. Gee, thanks.
Assata taught me, and she keeps on teaching
I thought, like many liberal white people, that because I’m compassionate and well-intentioned, I must be a “good white ally” to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It turns out that what I feel, what is in my heart, doesn’t mean anything. To even entertain the thought that I want to be perceived as what I truly am, compassionate, proves I come from a place of white privilege. I live in a country, a world, that tells me I’m good enough and worthy enough that my feelings matter.
I didn’t understand, and I still struggle to know, that non-white people are not considered more valuable than CVS toiletry items (like in Baltimore) by the majority of United States citizens. It’s easy enough to decry the Aryan Brotherhood when they are in town. Demonizing evil isn’t very controversial. What is not easy is to see the world through a lens that isn’t the one I was born with or grew up seeing the world through. It takes constant strain, and I admit it’s exhausting much of the time. I understand why white people don’t want to do it, but I encourage them to try. Once you start noticing the whiteness of our society, you can’t not see it.
I have a collection of barbie doll heads on sticks in the pencil cup next to my computer. Why I collect barbie doll heads is a story for another day. Every one of those bitches is white, and over half of them are blonde. When I looked for black barbie dolls on the web, I didn’t find very many, and when I did, the overwhelming majority of them were taupe, not black. Almost all had white people hairstyles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real black woman with any of those Toddlers & Tiara’s hairdos. In a world where there are hundreds of flavors for every conceivable thing, Mattel can’t manage to make black barbie dolls with hair an actual black woman might conceivably wear? Why is that so hard?
A black barbie doll in the image of Assata Shakur is long overdue.