For the Shakurs, Black Liberation Became the Family BusinessHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, popular culture, Black Panther Party, Tupac Shakur, hip hop
Michael P. Jeffries is the dean of academic affairs and a professor of American studies at Wellesley College. His most recent book is Black and Queer on Campus.
AN AMERIKAN FAMILY: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created, by Santi Elijah Holley
In 1994, Tupac Shakur gave a stirring interview to MTV about his career and penchant for controversy. Shakur grew up poor and embedded in a Black revolutionary family. He was not always angry, but he insisted Black rage was logical: America exploited and persecuted Black people, extracting talented survivors like him from the ghetto, and condemning those left behind to violence and early death.
Tupac was desperate for a transformation, but without a plan to achieve it. “I’m not saying I’m going to rule the world, or I’m going to change the world,” he said. “But I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world. And that’s our job, to spark somebody else watching us.”
Santi Elijah Holley’s “An Amerikan Family” is subtitled “The Shakurs and the Nation They Created.” In the introduction, Holley implies that the nation he refers to is America, a country resigned to suffering and shame until racism is eradicated. But the Shakurs, of course, did not create America. Reading the book, one searches for some other emergent nation, one imagined by generations of Black revolutionaries, solid in its constitution and aims: safety, dignity and self-determination for Black people.
By Holley’s account, the Shakurs, for all their charisma and commitment, did not create that nation either. Tupac’s talent and tragedy defined a generation of hip-hop and spawned countless imitators whose versions of thug life will never be as potent. Assata Shakur, convicted of killing a police officer, has become an almost mythical figure in exile, and several other Shakurs shared her resilience and dedication. But the family suffered immense losses, and the victories they achieved seem slightly disconnected and faded. The Shakurs remain inspirational sparks, but the promise of change is unfulfilled.
The starting point of the Shakurs’ struggle is New York City in the 1960s. That is where Sekou Odinga and Lumumba Shakur, two friends in their early 20s, pledged to each other that they would dedicate their lives to Black liberation. Sekou and Lumumba were educated and guided by Saladheen Shakur, Lumumba’s father and a former associate of Malcolm X.
When Malcolm was assassinated in February 1965, he left a void in the leadership of the more defiant factions of the Black liberation struggle. The Black Panther Party stepped into that void when it was founded in 1966. It took a couple of years for the Panthers to spread their message from California across the country, but when it took hold in New York, Sekou and Lumumba co-founded the Harlem Chapter of the Panthers.
“Under Lumumba’s leadership,” Holley writes, “the Harlem Panthers were distinguished for their militancy.” In 1969, 21 members of the party, including Lumumba and his wife, Afeni, were apprehended and indicted under accusations of planning to bomb department stores, railroads and police stations.
The People of the State of New York v. Lumumba Abdul Shakur et al. was the most expensive trial in the history of the state, and it was a failure. The “Panther 21” were acquitted on all counts in 1971, thanks in no small part to 23-year-old Afeni Shakur, who broke from the group and acted as her own defense in court. A month after the trial ended, she gave birth to Tupac, whom she had conceived with another Panther, Billy Garland, while out on bail.