Common and Michelle Obama's Bad Rap about Assata Shakur: The Hero Wore a Black Hat

She was stunningly beautiful. I still remember the sheen of her black hair, her creamy complexion. She was at the San Francisco Book Festival, hawking a book of photographs. She seemed to be twenty-five, although I learned later that her skin held fast to her secret. Her name was Fredrika, widow of Dr. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party: the greatest -- perhaps only -- American heroes of the last third of the twentieth century.

I was too shy to speak with her, then, but in time I had affairs with almost all the women leaders of the Black Panther Party. Save one. We shall come to her by and by.

Instead I spoke to Fredrika's colleague, David Hilliard, a compact, gruff old man with a raspy voice, at one time fourth-in-command of "the greatest threat to the internal security" of the United States, according to America's top law enforcement agent, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The following winter, I was in Hilliard's house, and in our two-hour conversation, I told him that there should be a Black Panther Party tour in Berkeley and Oakland. A few months later, Hilliard started one, garnering coverage on CNN; celebrities like California governor Jerry Brown went on it. I called up Fredrika Newton to ask her why they didn't want me involved, and she told me she'd had the idea 8 years before. Apparently she just hadn't gotten around to doing it. That was the end of that affair. (I never said these were love affairs.) But there were others.

On the hallowed ground of the University of California at Berkeley, I organized a thirtieth-anniversary commemoration of the event that made the Black Panthers world-famous -- the March on Sacramento ("Arrest them all. On anything.") -- with guest speaker Tarika Lewis, the first woman to join the Party. Ericka Huggins, who had faced execution when police framed her in New Haven, Connecticut, declined to come; more precisely, when I invited her, she hung up on me after demanding to know how I had gotten her phone number. (A one-minute affair.) But later I brought Elaine Brown, the first woman to lead the Party, to speak to a standing-room-only audience at my conservative, Confederate university; and I had dinner for two with Kathleen Cleaver, the regal former Communications Secretary for the Party.

Perhaps because of its essential female element, the essence of the Black Panther Party lay not in confrontations with the police -- as thrilling as stories of Huey Newton facing down ten cops are -- but in serving the people. The Party gave away free groceries and shoes, ran free health clinics and schools, and assisted the elderly. The Black Panthers were lovers of humanity who sought to realize the Social Gospel: to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, comfort the broken-hearted and set the prisoners free.

Oh, the enemies of civilization will trot out the same blood libel, stories of irrational violence, drugs, and misogyny. Terrorists, they'll cry, murderers, racists, reverse Ku Kluxers, thugs, thieves, addicts. And most Americans, black and white, will believe the lies.

It's true, some Panthers had criminal pasts: Huey Newton was once a burglar, Cleaver's husband was a rapist, and, worst of all, Party co-founder Bobby Seale was a comedian. But if we can forgive American president Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, torturer, and rapist, we can forgive the Panthers. At that moment in American history, the heroes wore the black hats.

Cue conservative outrage over Michelle Obama's inviting rapper Common to a White House poetry reading, because Common wrote one adulatory song about Black Panther Assata Shakur. The New Jersey state police protested.

Is it possible that the vile New Jersey police and their right-wing puppet masters do not know about COINTELPRO? That when Soviet tanks crushed Prague's spring, in America, police assassins, provocateurs, and slanderers felled our saints as they slept? That the U.S. government admits it had a program to "neutralize" the Black Panther leadership? That J. Edgar Hoover confessed that this was not because the Panthers were committing any crimes, but because they were feeding children? That medical experts testified that Assata Shakur could not have shot the New Jersey policeman for whose death she went to jail?

Like Geronimo Pratt -- whose murder conviction the courts overturned after 27 years, when evidence emerged that the government had framed Pratt to remove him from the Panthers' leadership -- the U.S. government wanted Assata Shakur because she dared to say that she has the right to defend her kin against killers, such as the white policeman who shot a black 16-year-old in the back in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Conviction or no, the honor of our African Eowyn is pristine. Decades of racist propaganda cannot alter the fact that there is no greater homage than to say, "Assata Shakur, Black Panther."

Today, admittedly, when America's president is black, Assata's rhetoric seems foreign, anachronistic. Today, I, like most African-Americans, would not stand with Assata Shakur.


In her presence, we should all kneel.

A version of this essay appeared in The Guardian newspaper in Great Britain on May 14, 2011.