Assata Shakur and the black girl experience

Protester wearing an Assata Taught Me hoodie


I’m currently writing a book (word to the wise: do not write a book) and doing so has given me occasion to revisit Assata Shakur’s autobiography. I’ve never forgotten how powerful and transformative a book it is, but picking it up in these movement times has been newly enlightening.

There’s one piece in particular I’d like to talk about. Writing about her early teenage years, Assata says:

Back then, when i was growing up, boys gang-banging or gang-raping a girl was a pretty common thing. They called it pulling a train. It didn’t happen to any particular kind of girl. It happened to girls who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. The boys talked about it like it was a joke or a game, like they were “only” out to have some “fun.” If a girl was caught on the wrong side of a park or in the wrong territory or on the wrong street, she was a target. It was a common thing back then for boys to downgrade girls and cuss at them in the street. It was common for them to go to bed with girls and talk about them like dogs the next day. It was common for boys to deny they were the fathers of their babies. And it was common for boys to beat girls up and knock them around.

It’s sad that one only need replace “back then” with “nowadays” and Assata could be describing life in 2015, not the 1960s of her youth. For the purposes of the book I’m writing, this passage stuck out for its analysis of the interactions between black men/boys and black women/girls. Assata is heralded as a hero for black liberation movements, having been embraced for her radicalism and being a political prisoner, but rarely discussed (particularly among the black men who list her among their heroes) is her articulation of the black woman/girl experience in America. This passage in particular, something that’s been at the forefront of black feminist thought for the past forty years or so at least, seems to have escaped the narrative of Assata’s life, and I have a theory as to why. It’s not just because some have ignored it because it doesn’t suit their agenda, but because of Assata’s own explanation: “Black men internalized the white man’s opinion of Black women.”

She traced the problem right back to white supremacy. From her understanding, it is not black men’s misogyny that is the culprit, but only the internalizing of white supremacist notions of black women. It’s only because white men have viewed black women as property that black men do so. It’s only because white men have treated black women as sexual objects that black men do so. It’s only because white men have degraded and discarded and marginalized black women that black men do so.

When I first read Assata’s autobiography at age eighteen, I would have been inclined to agree. But experience has taught me differently.

Because this view would seem to suggest that the only impediment to ending the patriarchy/misogyny/sexism among black people is the elimination of racism. It’s a seductive thought. But interlocking oppressions do not fall because you remove one piece.

To an extent, I think it’s true that black men have internalized white supremacist ideas of black women. I don’t, however, think this should absolve black men of their complicity in sexist oppression. And to believe that the undoing of racism is the key to all of our liberation has been a way to deflect away from conversations centering black women’s specific experiences.

Today (May 21) is National Day of Action for Black Women and Girls, as called by BYP100/Ferguson Action/#BlackLivesMatter. And though this is slightly different from what Assata was talking about in the above quote, in that this campaign focuses on black women killed by the state, there are important parallels. These organizations have been compelled to call for a day of action specifically aimed at uplifting the names of black women because we have only focused on black men who have suffered violence at the hands of police. Black men move to the center of the debate, as if the only issue is the racist oppression black men experience.

We can’t afford to think that black men are the only ones to be affected by racism, nor can we continue under the impression that dismantling racism will end the oppression of black women. Interlocking does not mean one and the same. It means multiple systems are operating at once and in concert with one another. The fight for justice must address them all.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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