The making of black female revolutionaries - growing consciousness and change of identity in the autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown

Bachelor Thesis, 2006

41 Pages, Grade: 1,15


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Autobiography: General aspects of the genre
2.1. The Tradition of African-American Autobiography
2.2. Autobiographies by African-American Women: Exceptional Conditions and a Tradition of Their Own
2.3. Along the Line but Different: The Autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown

3. The Making of Revolutionaries: Black Female Identity from Childhood to Maturity in the Autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown
3.1. Formative Experiences Creating Identity: Childhood and Adolescence in Assata and A Taste of Power
3.1.1. Family Background and Mother-Daughter Relationship
3.1.2. Living a Double Existence: School Education and Ghetto Life
3.1.3. Girls and Boys
3.2. Awakening: Becoming Literate, Becoming Black
3.3. Being Black, Female and Revolutionaries: Creating Identity within Gender and Power Dynamics in Political Struggle
3.3.1. Gender Roles
3.3.2. Intimate Relationships
3.3.3. Motherhood
3.3.4. Power and Identity
3.4. Afterlife

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In 1973 former publicity director of the New York City Police Department, Robert Daley, identifies Assata Shakur as the “soul” and “mother hen who kept [the Black Liberation Army] together, kept them moving, kept them shooting” (qtd. in Hinds XIV). Besides, the media depicted her as “black and wild” (Shakur 87). Although not as harshly, Elaine Brown also saw her image distorted by the press (Cf. Brown 363). From reading their autobiographies, however, it remains incomprehensible how they could have actually deserved that image. Comparing the two autobiographies, one clearly realizes that it is only Brown, who could be described as the ‘mother hen’, whereas Shakur rather seems like an (extraordinary) foot soldier and in no way deserves being constructed to be the enemy of the state by the government and the media, not only in the seventies but even up to the nineties (Cf. Davis: Foreword IX). By writing their autobiographies Brown and Shakur take advantage of the opportunity to tell their version of the story. How the two women create their identity and depict themselves retrospectively as being quite different from their public image will be the central focus of this paper.

It is this fascinating element of the autobiographical genre that provides the reader with intimate insights into an exceptional person’s life, which made me become generally interested in autobiography. I came to pay special attention to the works of Shakur and Brown, first, because they represent all incredibly strong and brave women, who were active in the Black Power Movement, but are two of the very few to actually publish their autobiographies. Second, because their careers in the movement proceed quite differently despite a number of striking similarities regarding family background and personalities. How they retrospectively trace back their growing consciousness and change of identity and how they recreate themselves as young, female and black activists in political struggle therefore is an interesting aspect in the vast field of American autobiography that I would like to explore in this thesis.

In this thesis I will first briefly outline general aspects of the autobiographical genre, with emphasis on the tradition of life narratives written by African Americans. As this thesis focuses on two autobiographies written by women, I will also go into major characteristic aspects that distinguish their personal accounts from men’s before introducing the autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown within the larger context. Chapter three will be dedicated to a closer look on their works. I will focus on Shakur’s and Brown’s representations of themselves as black women and their becoming revolutionaries within the dynamics of gender and power. I will illustrate important aspects of their identity formation during childhood and adolescence, e.g. family backgrounds, school education, ghetto life and their relationship to male age mates, as well as their slow process of identity change due to growing critical awareness and introduction to the Black Power Movement. I will also focus on whether and if yes, how, their current identity is again challenged within the Black Power Movement and especially within and outside of the Black Panther Party. Lastly I will shortly concentrate on the autobiographies’ respective closures and how the two women see themselves, directly after leaving organized struggle behind (Brown) or from exile several years later (Shakur).

2. Autobiography: General aspects of the genre

Being one of the oldest literary genres, autobiography already contains most of its basic characteristic elements in its name deriving from Old Greek: It is the writing of a narrative (graphē) of the life story (bios) by oneself (autos) (Cf. Olney 6). Originally autobiographies were written when the autobiographers were already quite old, the authors looking back on their life: beginning with birth and their coming of age, up to maturity and finally coming to account with their life. A central question is always that of identity. Self-representation through description of personal achievements is also an important aspect. As Butterfield points out, the “Western ‘self,’ the concept of identity that dominates most well-known white personal narratives since the Renaissance, is the individual forging career, a reputation, a business, or a family out of the raw material of his neighbors” (2). Often, this self is also a rebel alienated from society, therefore contrasting the African-American autobiographer, who usually feels strongly connected to the community (Cf. Butterfield 2p). Sayre identifies four different directions regarding the American autobiography, which in his opinion differs from other autobiographical writings in being very much connected to national ideas (Cf. Sayre 149): the classic story of success within the dimensions of tradition and opportunity (represented by Benjamin Franklin), that of Frederick Douglass as being between oppression and freedom, the mystic story of Whitman and that of escape and new opportunity instead of wealth and a secure family background in Adams’ narrative (Cf. Sayre 167p). According to Smith, narrators in autobiography “engage their lived experience through personal storytelling. Located in specific times and places, they are at the same time in dialogue with the personal processes and archives of memory” (Smith: Reading Autobiography, 14).

However, a dispute among literary scholars about the genre’s definition and characteristic features make it clear how difficult it is to determine its limits, as there exist so many literary forms that contain similar elements, e.g. the journal, memoirs, etc. (Cf. Olney 17p). Therefore it is important to keep in mind that autobiography now exists in many varieties, respecting gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation etc., as several theorists point out.[1] They also maintain, however, that not all of these varieties or subgenres have so far merited equal attention. Autobiographies by women, for example, and especially by African-American women have been very much neglected until recently.

Comparing the long tradition of autobiographical writing with its reception in academic circles reveals an interesting fact. The genre of autobiography is especially important for the literary history of America as adventurers, early settlers and immigrants to the New World told about their experiences long before poetry and prose were written. Although they are one of the oldest literary genres, their origins dating back to ancient Greek philosophers like Plato for example and even further (Cf. Olney 6), their importance regarding the “making of America” (Sayre 146) and their popularity among the readership, autobiographies for a long time were considered somehow ‘unworthy’ of critical attention and only from the 1960s on, they would arouse the gradually increasing interest in academic circles. This development, especially within the United States, is due to the reprints of slave narratives around that time and the attribution of most scholarship to that special type of autobiography, which served as a kind of impetus for the study of autobiography in general. Among the most important forefathers to be mentioned are Weintraub and the French critic Gusdorf. Their works inspired the second generation critics, among them Olney and Eakin, who dealt with the American autobiography in general as well as Andrews and Butterfield, who laid the foundation for the criticism of the tradition of African-American autobiography. Jelinek and Smith dedicated their studies to that of women’s life narratives, whereas Braxton and McKay were among the first to focus on the accounts of African-American women. Although, of course, there are many more authorities regarding the autobiographical subject to be mentioned, I have limited myself to naming only a few representatives, as they seem to me to be the most relevant for this work.

2.1. The Tradition of African-American Autobiography

The genre of autobiography is especially important for the history of black literature as the first works written by African-Americans were actually autobiographies. Butterfield identifies three different time periods regarding this kind of literary expression: First the slave period, which is followed by the era of DuBois and Wright between 1900 and 1961, in which autobiographies are “more literary and introspective, the styles are sharply individualized and the identity more alienated” (7). Later, autobiographies again are more political.

As this thesis deals with the autobiographies of two black women in the United States, I will outline in this chapter the history and major works of African-American autobiography. The life stories to be mentioned by no means represent the complete canon, rather the titles I include are supposed to illustrate state and change of the tradition of African-American autobiographical writing. Besides that, I will restrict this survey to the works that seem in my opinion to be the most relevant examples for illustrating the long development of autobiographical writing out of which Shakur’s Assata and Brown’s A Taste of Power originated. As their personal stories are simultaneously mainly stories of the sociocultural condition of the sixties and seventies in the United States, I will end this outline with important works belonging to the same context and with similar backgrounds. This, of course, does not mean that the corpus of African-American autobiography, written by men and women, can actually be limited to those works I will mention nor that their historical development has come to a standstill after the exciting years of the Black Power Movement.

The African-American autobiography is one of the most prominent subgenres of the American tradition of autobiography, its origin reaching back until the 18th century. This was when former slaves began to tell their stories of personal experiences in the institution of slavery, their escape from bondage and their new life as free people. Therefore the classic term ‘slave narrative’ is nowadays often replaced by ‘freedom narrative’ (Cf. King 5) or ‘emancipation narrative’[2]. These slave narratives contained traditional African oral and written elements and were often combined with other genres like the captivity narrative, or spiritual autobiography.

Although Britton Hammon’s A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man (1760) is considered the first African-American autobiography, the most famous and influential is the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, written in 1789. Describing the narrator’s capture in Africa, his life as a slave and also his development of abilities like reading and writing as well as description on a spiritual level and of the eventual achievement of freedom, this work is the classic example of slave narrative, followed by numerous others, for example the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845).

The first African-American autobiography written by a woman is that of Belinda, or the Cruelty of Men Whose Faces were Like the Moon (1787) (Cf. Braxton 2), followed by the History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831). But the African-American woman autobiography to merit broad attention is Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). For a long time the memoirs of Linda Brent, as the narrator pseudonymously is called, were suspected to be actually a fictional story written by the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. Now belonging to the canon of the classic antebellum slave narratives, this work is usually mentioned along the line as well as contrasted regarding gender aspects with that of Frederick Douglass.

Often abolitionists in the northern states supported the publication of slave narratives. As King (8-10) points out, important aspects of the slave narrative include the initial , almost innocent representation of the narrator, beginning with the facts about his birth, whereas the date often remains unclear; then his experience of certain events that have a traumatising impact as well as the description of the inhuman institution of slavery as such. Furthermore the significance of literacy as a key to agency, the longing for freedom and finally the flight to and arrival in the North, play an important role in the antebellum slave narrative. In many cases the autobiographical account is accompanied by authenticating documents as a proof of genuineness and authorship and to disassociate itself from fictional narratives written by abolitionists.

After the Civil War, African-American autobiographies do not treat the period served in slavery so much, but instead focus on how this experience made the ex-slave determined to pursue his or her own American Dream and lead a successful life in freedom and independence as illustrated in Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901). An example of the autobiography written by a woman during the Reconstruction era is Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes (1868) about a former slave who became the independent seamstress of Washington D.C.’s white female elite, including First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. It mirrors Booker T. Washington’s autobiography as it is a story of success very much like his.

Actually the post-war narratives resemble more the ‘stories of success’ written by white men at that time and have an emphasis on their individual accomplishments rather than serving the purpose of representing and speaking for the masses of otherwise unheard slaves. Besides the issue of voice, other important themes of the slave narrative are the question of identity, freedom in a literal and figurative sense, criticism of religious hypocrisy, the question of manhood, sexual exploitation, the disruption of the black family life and the issue of morality brought into question (Cf. King 21-25).

During the modernist era, optimism gave way to scepticism as many blacks realized in their autobiographies that racial prejudice and discrimination were still very common, reinforced among other things by Reconstruction, i.e. the establishment of segregation in the south, the so-called Jim Crow laws and later the Great Depression of the thirties. One of the most important representatives of that time is W.E.B. DuBois with The Autobiography of W. E. Burghardt DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1968). Many years passed until again a black woman published a life story that is now considered the “centerpiece of an African-American female tradition” and “progenitor of the New Afro-American female self” (Fox-Genovese 176): Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography (1942).

After World War II, Anne Moody wrote her autobiography, titled Coming of Age in Mississippi (1865), which represents critical awareness and activism during the civil rights movement. Ending her narrative quite disillusioned about the movement’s achievements, she represents the immediate precursor which gives way to more radicalized, actually political autobiographies, like that of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, or Assata Shakur. African Americans writing their life stories in the late sixties, seventies or even later (as in the case of Shakur and Brown), contrast with prominent figures of the civil rights movement, e.g. Martin Luther King, by turning down the aim of peaceful, non-violent integration. Instead of what they considered cultural assimilation, leaders of the more radical Black Power Movement in the sixties and seventies demanded revolution as the only way to create their own nation, where African-American culture would at last be the norm and not merely an oppressed or at best tolerated minority culture. Autobiographical works deriving from this kind of spirit are not only personal but also highly political and very pedagogical. Probably the most important work of that era and in that particular context is the Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), who was the charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam. Other important narratives belonging to this subgenre of political autobiography were written by several members of the Black Panther Party, e.g. by its founder Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (1973), Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968), and Bobby Seale’s A Lonely Rage. The Autobiography of Bobby Seale (1978).

Of course, women, too, kept on publishing their autobiographies. Probably one of the most successful and best-known works is Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which is treated within literary discourse as the representative of modern black women’s autobiographical accounts. Illustrating “how the archetypical patterns and narrative concerns established in early autobiographies renew themselves in contemporary works” (Braxton 13), Angelou’s life story is one of the few works of African-American female autobiographers that has merited extensive critical attention in academic circles.

The last work I would like to mention within the realm of African-American women autobiography is Angela Davis’ An Autobiography (1974) as it can actually be seen as a direct precursor of Shakur’s Assata. Davis became internationally known when she was dismissed from her job at the University of California in Berkeley because she defended her communist conviction in public. Later she was arrested under a phoney charge of murder and spent 20 months in jail before she was finally acquitted of all charges. Many of her experiences parallel incidents in Assata and in 1992 she provided Shakur’s autobiography with a sympathizing foreword.

After giving a brief outline of the common tradition of African-American autobiographies written by men and women, I will now illustrate how the works of women actually differ due to their position in society and respective condition and experiences. Last I will place the narratives by Shakur and Brown within the context of African-American women autobiography.

2.2. Autobiographies by African-American Women: Exceptional Conditions and a Tradition of Their Own

Although the vast majority of African-American autobiographies published so far were written by men, there are, of course, also numerous accounts written by women. As this thesis focuses especially on the impact of gender as part of the dynamics by which identity is created in the autobiographies of two women, I will now shortly outline some specific characteristics of African-American women autobiographies that distinguish them from other (white) female or black (male) life stories.

Although African-American women, too, suffered from similar experiences as black men under the institution of slavery and after, their situation again is different due to their female sex in a patriarchal society: “The study of black American women’s participation in the literary genre of autobiography reveals much about the ways in which experience of racial and sexual difference influences the development of identity and the selection of language within a given narrative” (Braxton 9). All female autobiographers, without exception, do not only tell a story of class oppression and racial discrimination like black men, but on the other hand also one of sexual abuse. Black women therefore actually experience a form of triple oppression that puts them in the precarious situation of being unable to ally themselves with other (white) women nor with other suppressed, lower class (white) men nor with racially discriminated (black) men, which becomes mainly evident in autobiographies written in the 19th century, because then the social conventions were especially rigid. According to McKay, the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs illustrates very well the difference of a woman’s story from that of a man’s, as for instance that of Frederick Douglass. Whereas to Linda Brent agency means remaining within a very confined, domestic surrounding and confronting her tyrant Mr Flint in private, Douglass actually possessed over much more real agency in his being able to move relatively freely and actually fight his oppressor in public (Cf. McKay 98).

Most life stories by women have the depiction of male oppression in one way or the other in common. But black women face even greater problems to fulfil the ideal of true womanhood to which they aspire and which white women seem to embody with such naturalness. Under the system of slavery black women were at the mercy of their white owners’ will and their chastity was constantly at stake (Cf. Fox Genovese 189). Among other aspects, this collective experience of triple oppression in America is the common denominator within the tradition of black female autobiography from the 18th century to the present, thus constituting a coherent and distinct autobiographical discourse (Cf. Fox Genovese 178p). Braxton emphasizes some more features of black female autobiographies. Sharing a “mystic sisterhood, and […] magic circle, a realm of shared language, reference, and allusion within the veil of our blackness and our femaleness” (1), African-American women continue in their life stories the originally oral tradition of female education, genealogy and motherhood.

Another ongoing tradition is identified by McKay as writing about “issues of individual and collective survival in a world that still denigrates blackness and privileges maleness over femaleness” (100). No matter how black women construct themselves through autobiography, “active resistance to oppression of all kinds“ (Braxton 105) is the central element of the African-American woman autobiography, thus not only being part of but actually extending the general tradition of writing about black survival as initiated by their ancestors.

2.3. Along the Line but Different: The Autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown

When reading the auobiographies of Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown it struck me in how many ways they resemble each other. Both are young, intelligent black women, struggling to establish their own identities and looking for something to give their life meaning, which turns out to be the Black Panther Party. Both voice their emotions through poetry and song-writing. And in the end, Assata and Elaine will turn their backs on the Party. Despite these obvious similarities, there are also differences in their individual lives concerning identity formation as well as motives, experiences and roles in the Party. After becoming members of the Black Panther Party and embracing its progressive and promising ideology, the women start working in the rank and file, selling newspapers and helping with the free breakfast program for children. Besides that, Assata is assigned to the medical cadre, whereas Elaine enrolls in the high potential program at the University of California, together with several other Party members, to get students organized. But otherwise their careers within the Black Panther Party proceed quite differently. Whereas Assata becomes very frustrated with the Party’s organization and politics and leaves the group after a relatively short time to continue with activism in the Black Liberation Army, Elaine moves up the hierarchal ladder. Soon aquainted with the Party’s leaders from Oakland and an intimate friend of its founder Huey Newton, she becomes editor of the Panther newspaper, minister of information, chairman and eventually Supreme Comander during Newton’s exile in Cuba, thus taking the most powerful position in the organization. Assata, on the contrary, is arrested by the police in 1973 and is kept in jail having to endure the procedure of about seven trials that are based on false evidence until her escape to Cuba in 1979.


[1] Among these are: Eakin (3), Olney (13), Starobinki (73), Stone (111), Sayre (162).

[2] I quote this term from Perkins (p.22), who herself names the critic Eleanor Traylor as the original source. Traylor claims that her term more precisely describes the nature of the kind of genre discussed at this point.

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The making of black female revolutionaries - growing consciousness and change of identity in the autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown
University of Bayreuth
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Assata, Shakur, Elaine, Brown, Literature, Autobiography, Black Panther Party, American, Identity, Black, Gender, Power
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Jessica Menz (Author), 2006, The making of black female revolutionaries - growing consciousness and change of identity in the autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Elaine Brown, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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