“And even as a crack fiend..mama; you always was a Black Queen…mama.”
–Tupac’s Dear Mama
“A coward dies a thousand deaths. A soldier dies, but once.” These were the words that came to mind upon hearing of the death of Afeni Shakur. While the masses knew her as “Pac’s Mom”, the muse for his timeless classic Dear Mama, I contend that she was so much more than that. While her son undoubtedly made an impression on the world that any mother would be proud of, I think Tupac would thank me if he could for reminding us that it is he who was the fruit. It was she, his mother, who was the tree.
Afeni was born in North Carolina and moved to New York City as a child. She was gifted in the arts and attended the same Performance Arts High School that her son later attended. At the age of 19, she reportedly met Malcolm X through Lumumba Shakur who was a member of Malcolm’s OAAU organization. Following Malcolm’s assassination, there was the emergence of the West Coast based Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Once the party was established out West, they were looking for leadership on the East Coast. They reached out to “The Shakurs” and the Black Power movement was born in New York City. The history of the Black Panther Party has, since, been written firmly in the history of this nation. Even Beyoncé gave a tribute to the women of the party during her controversial halftime performance. Afeni Shakur is a queen on the chess board of that history. This was long before Tupac ever spit a rap bar.
Afeni became a key figure in the Black Power movement on the East Coast. She became the leader of the Panther chapter in Harlem. She also became the subject of FBI surveillance, investigation and harassment. During this period the COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) was in full swing in its efforts to destabilize Black organizations fearing the rise of a Black leader who could unite the masses. Afeni was articulate, charismatic, highly intelligent and, from all accounts, absolutely fearless. This was long before Tupac ever spit a rap bar.
On April 2, 1969 twenty-one Panthers were arrested on charges ranging from conspiracy to bomb New York police stations, planned long-range rifle attacks, conspiracy to kill police officers among other charges. The Panthers could only afford to post bail for one of its members. Of the 21 they chose Afeni Shakur, because she would be the spokesperson for the movement. It was during this period that she became pregnant with Tupac. Her bond was revoked and she had to return to New York City jail while pregnant. She was a pregnant political prisoner facing decades in prison. This was long before Tupac ever spit a rap bar.
Afeni was a brilliant legal researcher and paralegal. With no formal legal training she represented herself in court instead of putting her fate in the hands of an attorney. Any defendant who decides to be their own attorney under circumstances as serious as those would be considered insane. In what was branded the longest criminal trial in New York history, Afeni Shakur mounted a defense that acquitted her of 156 counts that could have landed her in prison for the rest of her life. Her acquittal ultimately meant the acquittal of the rest of the panthers who were charged alongside her. It was a victory for the Black power movement that read like a best-selling novel. Afeni Shakur was a main character.
If you remember nothing else about the criminal justice system, know that it does not forgive. Mind you, these same New York courts are the same courts that would twenty years later send her son to a maximum security prison for touching a female on her buttocks without permission. The Shakurs were hated by law enforcement from the East Coast to the West Coast of America. After her legal victory, several books were written about the case of the Panther 21. Afeni became a star on the speakers’ circuit. But the United States’ intelligence community was not finished with the Panther Party; nor was it finished with her. FBI informants infiltrated the organization and made mischief among its leadership fomenting division and dissension within its ranks. The government does not deny this.
According to FBI files, the original “East Coast vs West Coast” beef was between the Black Panther leadership in the seventies. Many members were set up and murdered. As the movement began to disintegrate, Afeni tried to find work to feed her children. However, every time she found employment it would be short-lived. Historians say that the FBI would visit any employer who hired her and force them to terminate her. Unable to feed her children she began moving from pillar to post with friends and comrades trying to find a stable life. She ended up in Baltimore, where Tupac went to performance arts school, and later moved to the Bay area. She, like so many struggling mothers in that era, became addicted to crack cocaine, a drug that a Nixon Administration aide recently admitted was used a weapon to target the Black community and its liberation movement. She later overcame that addiction. Afeni Shakur sacrificed a lot. Hers is a liberation legacy. She was so much more than Tupac’s mom.
Many thought it was far-fetched to think Tupac was targeted by the government his entire career. It had less to do with his lyrics and more to do with his family, The Shakurs. His Aunt, Assata Shakur, is still in exile in Cuba after escaping from prison following a conviction for allegedly murdering a cop. His godfather was Geronimo Pratt. His step father was political prisoner Mutulu Shakur. Afeni was the glue that brought all of these parts together. She later dedicated her life to being the protector of her son’s estate and intellectual property. Afeni Shakur was a revolutionary who fought like hell for the freedom of oppressed people. She was a warrior who challenged the system of white supremacy and rabid racism. She was a soldier who did her work well. And though the brightness of her only son’s star will always be the major credit to her legacy, let us not forget her contribution to the struggle for justice…long before Tupac ever spit a rap bar. May Allah be pleased with Afeni. She was more than Tupac’s mom..