Assata Shakur & Nehanda Abiodun: Forgotten Black Women in Exile

Looking back on the whole situation, one thing is resolute in my mind.  Nehanda wants to come home.  There are some important factors to consider when setting up this scene.  One, we are all in the dining room at the Hotel Victoria in Havana.  Two, there are 21 middle to upper middle class women of all shapes, sizes and colors in the room, most of which were professors, lawyers and women’s rights workers. Three, we are talking to Nehanda Abiodun, an American exile living in Cuba. The United States government has linked Abiodun to Assata Shakur’s escape from prison, and she is also wanted for a string of robberies including the infamous Brinks Truck robbery of 1983 with Mutulu Shakur. Although she is often associated with Assata Shakur she is not as well known in US mainstream.  Nehanda was active in the New African independence struggle in the U.S. and considered herself a citizen of the Republic of New Afrika.  And although she has lived in Cuba for close to three decades, she recognizes that she is a foreigner in a foreign land.

It was about 8pm that evening and Nehanda had just finished partying with her friend.  A white Cuban man named Mike who could have easily been misconstrued as her boy toy.  Nehanda takes a seat two seats down from me at a table of women.  It is time for the presentation that many of us had been anticipating all day.  The setting was informal and Nehanda did not come with a prepared speech. She mentioned that she didn’t realize that she would be expected to make one.  As she begins to tell what she identifies as the highlights of her life, I find myself immediately engulfed in her presence.  Her eyes are big brown and beautiful, even if they are pain stricken. Her mannerisms and phrase turning reminds me of my father as does her penchant for rum and shit talking. Her face makes me wonder if this is how my grandmother looked when she was younger? She is so familiar to me but at this point, I don’t know why.

Nehanda is tall. Much taller than I would have anticipated. She has long dookie braids and flawless caramel brown skin. I was fascinated by how “normal” she looked.  I have always wanted my sisters and brothers in the movement to look like Black Super Heroes, like The Brown Hornet or Shaft. But she didn’t. She looked broken… Not in a way that would make one seem weak.  It was the look of a woman who has seen too much and been disappointed by too many. It was the look of a woman who was just tired and that look I could understand.

While listening to her story, I feel like I’m hovering over my physical self in a room of self-professed feminist fully engaged in a drunken tirade by a 60+ year old women who is knocking back cheap Cuban Rum and chain smoking. I am looking at these women who are in tears and knowing that there is something to cry about here, but it is not the tale of a failed revolutionary.

All of these things infused with a sense of entitlement and naivete of feminist intellectuals made for a pretty interesting evening. I wondered how appropriate it would be, to this particular group of women, for a woman to tell her story in an obvious alcohol induced rant had she not claimed to be a part of “the movement”.  This notion of a feminist revolutionary made it all too okay. It was an obvious contradiction that made me feel like I was in Bizarro World.

Assata Shakur & Nehanda Abiodun

As I listened to her stories about her days as a revolutionary beginning at the age of 10, I remember not being moved.  When she talked about her relationship with Assata I was not impressed. When she cried, I did not.  (Side note: I cry about everything). I unwittingly focused on the number of drinks that she had consumed within a relatively short amount of time. I concentrated on the one man in the room that came with her; a man that made me think gigolo only Nehanda says that she is a lesbian. She says he is her best friend even though I would guess that he was easily in his late twenties to early thirties and knew virtually nothing about the black liberation movement in the U.S. I didn’t know Nehanda, but I did know that this man would be her undoing. He was all too willing to address her every self-destructive need in the name of “friendship”. But he really acted as her entourage, a veritable hanger-on of the celebrated Black revolutionary and “God Mother of Cuban Hip Hop”.

But I needed to focus. I wanted to be as into the whole thing as everyone else. She told the story of her flight to Cuba and this is the point that struck me. Not that it was different from any other fight or flight scenario. It was what she left behind that struck me.  She left her children, her family, her life and now Nehanda wants to come home.  At this point, I was present. I wanted to hear how a decision like this is made. I tried to listen without judgment–I struggled. I immediately realized how I knew this woman. She was me in another time and space. When faced with a similar decision, who I would be if I had chosen differently. Then I cried.

After the barrage of stupid ass questions from on-lookers and flip answers from an obviously annoyed freedom fighter the discussion was over. I wanted to say something to her… No, I needed to talk to her.  I hadn’t said a word in the hour plus discussion but if I didn’t now, I would explode. I didn’t introduce myself I just started talking. The tears and snot consumed me. I told her that I understood and she cried. There was only the two of us at that point although no one had left the room. She held my hands and leaned in close. She confessed something to me in what I believe to be an alcohol haze that I will never repeat. It was at that point that I knew her. My heart broke for her and I wanted her to be better. Not a better woman but just better than she was right then.

When I went back to my room I had to debrief my experience with Dr. T, a revolutionary in her own right.  I began my own tirade. The contradictions in what I was thinking and feeling and hearing was all too much to bear. How could she run? How could she leave her children? How could she disappoint so many people? How could I not understand?  Dr. T listened and reminded me not to judge this woman’s struggle, because I’m sure her blues ain’t like mine. To imagine a self-imposed prison sentence. To have to choose between a Cuban heaven in the form of freedom – even though you would have to give up everything you know or a US hell of prison or execution or even assassination. Its a non-choice. Both the notion of heaven and hell in this context equals isolation and/or death.  And to try to understand it without having been faced with it is, at best, an exercise in futility.  There was so much that I wanted from this experience for myself, but today, more than anything, I want Nehanda to be able to come home.

I saw her for the last time the night before we were to leave Cuba. She was obviously sober and as beautiful I had remembered. I debated as to whether I should approach her, after all, we would never share a moment as we had before, again. It was too intense and too much had been said. I wasn’t sure if her disclosure had resonated as much with her as it did with me. I approached her anyway and she smiled and said the sweetest hello… She didn’t remember who I was.