In Afeni’s Shadow: the Impact of Trauma on a Revolutionary Life
Tupac Shakur wrote “Dear Mama” to celebrate his mother’s strength and plea for her love. The song is an unfiltered glimpse into a mother-son relationship strained by drug addiction, as well as the name of a 5-part mini-series on FX highlighting the unique relationship that Tupac Shakur shared with his mother, Afeni Shakur. Given the renewed public interest, it is well overdue for Afeni Shakur to emerge from the shadow of her son and take her place as one of the mothers of the Black Power Movement. As a Black Panther, she ran the breakfast program, organized health clinics, and saw to the day-to-day administration of the Harlem Branch of the Black Panther Party, all while acting as her own defense in the trial of the Panther 21. Yet despite these monumental achievements, little has been written about Afeni Shakur beyond a co-authored memoir with Jasmine Guy, Evolution of a Revolutionary. Why has this crucially important woman been thus far marginalized in narratives of the Black Panther Party? What do these silences around her life tell us about our collective discomfort surrounding narratives of gender and generational trauma that intertwine the Black Freedom Struggle?
Personal trauma was the major force that shaped Afeni Shakur’s life, which exacerbated experiences like the expulsion of the Panther 21 from the Black Panther Party. Shakur’s trauma revealed the gendered costs that came with radical Black Power activism. Shakur cannot be understood without a careful and nuanced reading of trauma and its effects on her public and personal life. I bring up the problem of trauma not because I want to pathologize the pain of Black women or to engage in a pornography of suffering. Instead, I want to pay careful attention to the ways that the body “keeps the score” of emotional trauma that can be deeply rooted in race and gender inequalities. Those traumas can be exacerbated by the invisible and unequal demands made by radical organizations on women activists.
Throughout the Panther 21 trial, the Black Panther Party made disproportionate demands of Afeni Shakur’s political, mental, and emotional labor, all while failing to support her adequately.
Although now celebrated for her decision to defend herself in the trial, her codefendants initially condemned Shakur’s decision to act as her own counsel. Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird were the first defendants in the case to be released on bail. Soon after, the Panthers managed to free Cetawayo (Michael Tabor Jr.), Dhoruba Bin Wahad (Richard Dharuba Moore), and Jamal Joseph from prison. The freed leaders should have functioned together as a cohesive cell of defendants to organize for the bail of the other 21 and to keep the daily functions of the Harlem Branch on track after the disruption of the arrest and high-profile trial. However, Cetawayo and Dhoruba contributed little to the effort, allowing much of the burden to fall directly on Afeni Shakur’s shoulders. Afeni Shakur’s experience is indicative of the tenuous position that Black Panther women held in the organization, especially when they took leadership roles. The male defendants relegated much of the labor and responsibility for the Black Panther Party onto the women. While some of these actions may not reflect personal misogyny, the sum of the Party’s structural and leadership policies meant that women like Afeni Shakur were disproportionately exposed to hardship in the public limelight.
Disagreements born in Party politics became hopelessly intertwined in Afeni Shakur’s personal life. Prior to joining the Black Panther Party, Afeni Shakur married Lumumba Shakur, the Harlem section leader, in a polygamous relationship. Thirty years later, Afeni Shakur was frank about the damage her relationship with Lumumba caused his first wife, Sayeeda, taking personal blame for the pain she caused. She reflected, “Arrogance. It was arrogance that gave me the right to waltz into Sayeeda’s house with her man on my arm and say, ‘I’m the second wife. Move over,’ How dare I? What the fuck was all right about that? And I looked down on her because she was raising her kids and I was out on the streets being a ‘soldier.’”1
Afeni Shakur acknowledged and took personal responsibility for the relationship with Sayeeda. In contrast, Lumumba Shakur presented polygamy and sexual openness as hallmarks of revolutionary identity. However, he expected to take full advantage of that arrangement for himself while expecting monogamy from his wives. When Afeni Shakur became pregnant during the trial with another man, the pregnancy tore apart her marriage. Panther women have spoken frankly about the pressure from men to have children for the Revolution. These pressures constrained Shakur’s relationship choices and diminished her agency in a life already marked by personal tragedy.
Shakur not only had to contend with the internal gender politics of the Black Panther Party but the full power of a racist and sexist state that viewed Black women through a fundamentally criminalized lens. The criminal justice system imprisoned Afeni Shakur at the Women’s House of Detention from April 2, 1969, to January 30, 1970, and again from February 3, 1971, until May 13, 1971. Shakur spoke publicly about the struggles of poor women in prison in the newspaper as well as in her memoirs. Beginning shortly after her imprisonment in April of 1969, Shakur routinely published letters in the Black Panther newspaper. National leadership recognized her writing and speaking ability and hoped to make Afeni and Lumumba Shakur a power couple in the model of Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. Her letters and reports from prison made demands for reform, including supporting vocational training programs. Another report detailed how Shakur and Bird only received four squares of toilet paper a day, pointing to the bodily humiliation that women faced.
Although her published letters reveal some hardships of prison, Afeni Shakur kept many details of her experience private for personal and political reasons. In her memoir, Shakur related an episode when Bird had been beaten by prison guards, hung out of the window by her ankles, and then refused medical care. In addition, Hugh Ryan documented Shakur’s support for LGBTQ+ causes during her trial as aligning with the Black Panther Party’s public support for Lesbian and Gay rights. However, Shakur was careful to hide her own queer identity and romantic relationship with prison activist Carol Crooks. The silences in her life created by the disconnect between public image and private reality added another layer to her trauma.
Afeni Shakur publicly projected an image of strength, pride, and calm during her trial. In key moments, she eviscerated the prosecution’s witnesses. In her cross-examination of the informant Ralph White (Yedwah), Afeni produced the following exchange:
Afeni Shakur: Did you ever see me at Lincoln Hospital working?
Detective White: Yes, I have.
Afeni Shakur: Did you ever see me at the schools working?
Detective White: Yes, I have?
Afeni Shakur: Ever see me in the street working?
Detective White: Yes, I have.
Afeni Shakur: Are these some of the things that led you to think I was military-minded?
Detective White: No, it was not.
Afeni Shakur: You don’t remember the other things.
Detective White: At the time I remember them then. I remember—you reminded me of the good things you were doing. If you reminded me of some of the things you said, I could answer that.2
What is remarkable about Afeni Shakur’s calm demeanor was the behind-the-scenes struggles that she faced. While she was out on bail, not only did she perform end-of-life care for her abusive father, Walter Williams Jr., but she contended with her mother’s failing health. In one cruel trick, police called Shakur away from a court date, telling her that her mother was dying in the hospital. When Shakur finally arrived at court late, Judge Murtagh revoked her bail. On appeal, Murtaugh reinstated her bail, but warned her to behave “like a lady.” These struggles seeped into her personal life in the form of persistent feelings of worthlessness that led to drug use. In reflecting on her behavior during the trial, Afeni Shakur contradicted claims that she was courageous or confident. Instead, she characterized her behavior in court as arrogant, pointing to her drug use during the trial as an example of personal bravado and naivety.3
Perhaps because Afeni Shakur seemed to be so strong, brilliant, and capable, Party leaders and her codefendants did not realize the extent to which she labored to maintain her façade. Her codefendants in the Panther 21 reflected on her life as one of three parts: her self-assuredness during the trial, her personal fight with drug addiction, and her perseverance after her son’s death. It would be wrong to view these parts of her life as separate from each other. Instead, historians need to carefully consider how the entwined forces of racism and gender shaped the life of Afeni Shakur and other radical Black women. If we take mental health and trauma seriously as byproducts of a life lived in the Black Freedom Movement, what lessons of support can we glean, and how much richer will our histories be?