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Assata: An Autobiography

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The life story of African American revolutionary Assata Shakur.
Lawrence Hill & Co.
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I believe in liv ing.
I believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs.
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
I believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
I believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.
I believe in life .
And i have seen the death parade
march through the torso of the earth,
sculpting mud bodies in its path.
I have seen the destruction of the daylight,
and seen bloodthirsty maggots
prayed to and saluted.
I have seen the kind become the blind
and the blind become the bind
in one easy lesson.
I have walked on cut glass.
I have eaten crow and blunder bread
and breathed the stench of indi fference.
I have been locked by the lawless;
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if i know any thing at all,
it's that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.
I beli�e in liv ing.
I believe in birth.
I believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.
And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home
to port.


Chapter 1

here were lights and sirens. Zayd was dead.
My mind knew that Zayd was dead. The air was like
cold glass. Huge bubbles rose and burst. Each one felt
like an explosion in my chest. My mouth tasted like
blood and dirt. The car spun around me and then
something like sleep overtook me. In the background i
could hear what sounded like gunfire. But i was fading
and dreaming.
Suddenly, the door flew open and i felt mysel f
being dragged out onto the pavement. Pushed and
punched, a foot upside my head, a kick in the stom­
ach. Police were everywhere. One had a gun to my
"Which way did they go?" he was shouting.
"Bitch, you'd better open your goddamn mouth or I'll
blow your goddamn head off!"
I nodded my head across the highway. I was sure
that nobody had gone that way. A few of the cops were
off and running.
One;  pig said, "We oughta finish her off." But the
others were all busy around the car, searching it. They
were pulling and prodding.
"Ya find the gun?" they kept asking each other.
Later, one of them asked another, "Should we put'er in
the car?"
"Naw. Let'er lay in the gutter where she belongs.
Just get'er out of the way."
I felt mysel f being dragged by the feet across the
pavement. My chest was on fire. My blouse was purple
with blood. I was convinced that my arm had been
shot off and was hanging inside my shirt by a few
strips of flesh. I could not feel it.
Finally the ambulance came and they moved me
into it. Being moved was agony, but the blankets were



worth it. I was so cold. The medics examined me. I tried to talk,
but only bubbles came out. I was foaming at the mouth.
"Where's she hit?" they asked each other as if i wasn't there.
They concluded their examination. I was relieved.
"Let's move it," one of them said.
"O.K., but wait a minute," said the driver and he got out. "Hit
twice," i heard him say. "We gotta wait." The driver slammed the
He said something else but i didn't understand it. Time
passed. I was floating off again. It felt so weird, like a dream, a
nightmare. More time passed. It seemed like forever. I was in and
out, in and out.
A rough voice asked, "Is she dead yet?" I floated off again. I
heard another voice. "Is she dead yet ?" I wondered how long the
ambulance had been sitting there. The attendants looked nervous.
The bubbles in my chest felt like they were growing bigger. When
they burst, my whole chest shattered. I faded again and it was down
South in the summertime. I thought about my grandmother. At last
the ambulance was moving. "If i live," i remember thinking, "i'll
only have one arm."
The hospital is glaring white. Everybody i see is white. Everyone
seems to be waiting. All at once they are in motion. Blood pressure,
pulse, needles, etc. Two detectives come in. I know they're detec­
tives because they look like detectives. One of them has a face like a
bulldog, with jowls hanging down the sides. They supervise the
nurse as she cuts off my clothes. After a while, one of them dabs my
fingertips with what look like Q-tips. Later i find out that this is the

neutron activation test to determine whether or not i have fired a
weapon. Another one then tries to fingerprint me, but he has
trouble because my hand is dead.
"Gimme the dead man's kit." He puts my fingers into spoon­
looking things used to fingerprint dead people. They begin to ask
me questions, but a bunch of doctors come in. One of them, who
appears to be the head doctor, examines me. He pokes and prods,
throwing me around like a rag doll. then, like he is going to kill me,
he jerks me around so that i'm on my stomach. The pain is like an
electric shock. I moan.
"Don't cry now, girlie," he says. "Why'd you shoot the
trooper? Why'd you shoot the trooper ?"
I want to kick him in his face. I know he would kill me if he
had the chance. I can see the scalpel slipping. One of the other
doctors says something about calling the operating room. "Hell
no!" is all i can think of. "Hell no !"

After a while, they all leave. Then a Black nurse comes into the
I am glad as I could be to see her. She bends over me.
"What is your name?" she asks. "What is your name?"
I think about it and decide to say nothing. If i tell them my
name they will know who i am and they will kill me for sure.
"What is your name?" she keeps asking, enunciating each
syllable in the way that people talk to someone who has trouble
hearing or understanding. "What is your name? What is your
address ? Where do you live?" Her voice is getting louder. "We need
JOur signature, miss," she says, waving a piece of paper in front of
me. "We need your permission for treatment, in case we have to
operate." She repeats the same thing, over and over. "Who shall we
contact in case of emergency?" (I think that's kind of funny.) "What
is your name? Where do you live?" I close my eyes, wishing she
would go away. She keeps right on talking.
I drift off, thinking about my arm. It is still there.
"Nerve damage. Paralyzed," i heard them say. It has never
occurred to me. It isn't that bad, i remember thinking. I can live
with that if i have to.
More voices, other voices, grating my ears and my con­
"She can talk," one is saying. "The doctor says she can talk.
Where were you going? What is your name? Where were you
coming from? Who was in the car with you ? How many of you were
there? I know she can hear me."
I keep my eyes closed. One of them leans down real close to
me. I feel his breath on my cheek. And smell it.
"I kno� you can hear me and I know you can talk, and if you
don't hurry up and start talking, I'm gonna bash your face in for
My eyes fly open in spite of myself. Immediately they are all in
my face, throwing question after question at me. I say nothing.
After a while, i close my eyes again.
"Oh, she doesn't feel good," one of them says in a sweet,
mocking voice. "Where does it hurt? Here? Here ? HERE?"
With each here comes a crash. I look around wildly, but no
one is there. More thumps and punches, but none of them hurts as
bad as my chest is hurting. I try to scream but i know immediately
that that's a mistake. My chest erupts and i think i am gonna die.
They go on and on. Questions and bangs. I think they will never
A woman's voice. "Telephone."
"Thank you," one of them says, giving me an ugly grin. They
are gone.




Another pig comes in. A Black pig. In uniform. He comes
closer and i see that he is not a cop but a hospital security guard.
He stands not too far from where i am lying and i can see he is not
at all hostile. His face breaks into a kind of reserved smile and, very
discreetly, he clenches his fist and gives me the power sign. That
man will never know how much better he made me feel at that
The detectives come back with a nurse. They begin to move the
stretcher. My mind races. Where are they taking me ? The only
place i can think of is the operating room. When we arrive at the x­
ray room, i'm thankful. Because i have to move around, the X-rays
are painful, but the technician is cool. X-rays are over and i am
rolled down the hallway, determined to keep my eyes closed. All of
a sudden, flashes of light. My eyes pop open. This time they are
taking my picture.
The police photographer asks, "Don't you wanna give us a
smile? Come on. Give us a smile."
I close my eyes again. We are moving. The stretcher stops. One
of the pigs tells the nurse he has a headache. She volunteers to get
him something.
The stretcher is moving again. Where the hell are they taking
me? Again the light is changing and, although my eyes are closed, i
can feel the difference. It feels like i'm in the dark. I can't take it
any longer and i look. The room is dark, but there is some light.
My eyes slowly adjust. There's something lying next to me. I can
see an outline. Something in plastic. Something-my mind slowly
realizes that it is a man in a plastic bag. And that the man is Zayd.
My body stiffens. My mind spins.
One of the troopers says, "That's what's gonna happen to you
before the night is over if you don't tell us what we want to know."
I say nothing, but inside i'm raging. "Dogs ! Swine! Filthy pigs !
Dirty slimy scum ! Bastards ! Sons of bitches !" I rage on and on. "I
wouldn't tell you the right time of day," i remember thinking. "I
wouldn't tell you that shit stinks !"
The night crawls along. Nurses, doctors, and troopers. I am
still scared, but i am just as angry and evil as i am scared. The
detectives are in and out and, when nobody is there except them,
they get in their digs and bangs. But after a while i don't think
about them too much. I am thinking about living, about surviving,
thinking about what is going to happen next. They are gonna do
what they are gonna do and there isn't much i can do about it. I
just have to be myself, stay as strong as i can, and do my best. That's
all. There is nowhere to run and i am in no shape to try. I realize

how isolated and vulnerable i am. What if i really do need an
operation ? I need help from the outside world. I have to try to get
word out to someone. The Black nurse has been back and forth,
asking me the same questions. Each time i have closed my eyes until
she goes away. I decide to ask her to get in touch with my people
the next time she comes by. Maybe she will be cool. She is my best
shot; the guard is long gone.
I doze off for a little while. When i wake up, a nurse and a
priest are standing over me. The priest is mumbling and seems to
be rubbing something on my forehead. At first i don't understand
what he is doing. Then it dawns on me. Last rites. Last rites are for
the dying.
"Go away," i say out loud. I don't have the strength to say
anything else. But i know i don't want anybody's last rites. I am not
going to die, and even if i do die, i'm not going to die nobody's
The Black nurse comes back and starts her questions again.
Before she can get started good, i beckon her to come closer. There
is no one else around. I ask her to get in contact with my lawyer
(who is also my aunt). I give her my name and ask her to make the
call herself. She has a hard time understanding me and keeps
asking me to repeat my name. I can barely talk, and each time she
asks me to repeat myself, i feel like screaming. Then it occurs to me
that Assata is foreign to her ears. She has probably never heard the
name before. So i give her my slave name. Then i give her the
number and she is off and running.
Two minutes later the detectives are on me like white on rice.
They threaten and plead, reason and offer me the world. They hurl
question after question at me, acting crazier than before. One plays
the nice cop who is trying to save me from the bad cop, if only i will
cooperate. I am tired and their act is even tireder. I can see exhaus­
tion in their faces. The whole night is coming down on me. Their
voices begin to sound far away. I can't take it anymore. They can go
to hell. I am going to sleep. This time i am going out for real.
When i wake up the stretcher is moving. After a little while we
arrive at the intensive care part of the hospital. The place is packed
with nurses. I am elated. All i want to do is sleep. Soon i'm drifting
off again.
I wake up and it's the next day. The doctors are making their
rounds. One of them, an intern i think, is very kind to me. They
examine me and spend the rest of the morning doing blood tests,
X-rays, EKGs, etc., etc.
Soon i learn that they're going to move me again. I also find




out that i'm in middlesex county hospital. I hear the nurses talking.
They are glad i am being moved because the police are driving them
When they come to move me it looks like a police parade. The
rooms i am moved to are called the Johnson Suite. I can't believe it.
I have never imagined that hospitals have rooms like this. There is a
sitting room, a huge hospital-equipped room (where i am kept), a
den, a kitchen, a full bathroom and another little room whose
purpose i will never learn. They transfer me to the bed and hand­
cuff one of my legs to the side rail.
I keep looking around. It is elegant and clearly for rich people.
I am probably the first Black person who has ever been in this
room. And the only reason i am there is for security. They have
sealed off the doors and no one can enter except through the sitting
room next door where three state troopers are stationed. Two
regulars and one sergeant.
The police radio in the room cackles all day long. "A carload
of suspicious-looking coloreds in a white Ford coupe." "A sus­
picious-looking Negro walking near the hospital in a blue jacket
and sneakers." No suspicious-looking white people are reported.
From listening to the police talk next door, and to the radio, i learn
that the hospital is saturated with state troopers. They seem to be
under the impression that somebody is going to try and break me
out. I feel better. The Demerol has me flying a little and makes it
easier for me to lie in the contorted position i am forced into
because of the cuff on my leg.
Later that afternoon, it begins again. Detectives and more
detectives. Questions and more questions. This time the questions
are different. Now they want to know about the Black Liberation
Army: how big is it; what cities is it in; who is in it, etc., etc. But
the main focus of their questions centers around "the guy that got
away." I am delighted ! I figure that Sundiata is somewhere safe by
now, cooling out.
They are more careful where and how they hit me now. I guess
they don't want to leave any marks. One sticks his fingers in my
eyes. I don't know what he has on his fingertips, but whatever it is
burns like hell. I think I am gonna be blind forever. He says he will
keep doing it until i am completely blind. I close my eyes and hold
them as tight as i can. He strikes me a few more times. Some of the
stuff gets into my eyes anyway. Burning tears pour down my face
and my whole head is throbbing. I think he is going to keep on, but
he begins to curse me, calling me all kind of nigger bitches. Finally,
he and the others leave.

On one of those first days, a white doctor comes to examine
me. He acts very nice, sweet as pie. He examines me slowly, the
whole time making friendly conversation. I wonder what kind of
specialist he is since i haven't seen him before and i know he isn't
one of the regulars. He says he knows how terrible i must feel and
makes a big deal of protesting that i am chained to the bed. He
keeps on talking and, after a while, pulls a chair close to the bed.
Then he starts to ask friendly little questions. The conversation
goes something like this:
"Those guys on the turnpike are rough. They'll give you a
ticket for anything. I take the turnpike every day. You live in jersey?
I live in Newark. You ever been there? You must really be lonely up
here. I'll bet you really need someone to talk to. I went to medical
school in New York. You're from there, aren't you ?"
I get suspicious and say nothing to him. I tell him i want to go
to sleep and he leaves. I never saw him again, but to this day i'm
convinced he was some kind of police or FBI agent.
On the third or fourth day, most of my troubles came to an end.
Well, not really, but the punch, bang, poke, and prod part of my
troubles ended. A nurse with a German accent came to my aid. She
was one of the morning nurses, very professional and exacting, to
the point that she could be a pain in the neck. But she was a
lifesaver. It was she who had first protested the tightness of the
handcuff on my leg. My leg had begun to swell and she had
insisted they loosen it and that the cuff be covered with gauze. Of
course, as soon as she was gone they tightened it again, but the
gauze helped somewhat. I could tell by the little things she said and
did that she knew what was going on. One morning she came in as
usual and, after she had finished her normal routine, she reached
behind the bed, pulled at something, and then handed me an
electric call button on a cord.
"Anytime you need me or need anything from the nurses, just
press this button," she said. "Don't be afraid to use it," she added,
giving me a knowing look.
I could have kissed her. Later, when she returned to the room,
after the troopers realized i had the call button, one came in behind
"Is there any way to disconnect that thing?" he asked. "She
might hurt someone with it or hurt herself."
"No," she said, "there is no way to remove it. If you pull it out,
it will just keep ringing in the nurses' station. She is having diffi­
culty breathing and she needs it."



"Right on !" i thought. "Das ist richtig."
After that, whenever the police came within two feet of my
bed, i would push the button. Finally, they gave up the idea of
beating on me and contented themselves with threats and other
kinds of harassment. A favorite was to stand in the door and point
their guns at me. Each day was my last day on earth. Each night was
my last night. After a while, i became accustomed. Immune. Some­
times they would cock a gun i didn't know was empty, give a long,
impassioned speech, and then pull the trigger. Other times i was
invited to a game of Russian roulette. they all expressed a bitter
hatred for me. They were state troopers and i was accused of killing
one of them.
Every day there were three shifts of police. When they changed
shifts, the two troopers would salute the sergeant. Some saluted an
army salute, but others saluted like the nazis did in Germany. They
held their hands in front of them and clicked their heels. I couldn't
believe it. One day one of them came in and gave me a speech about
how he fought in World War II on the wrong side. He went on and
on and there was no question that he believed everything he said.
He talked about how messed up the world is. How decent people
couldn't walk the streets. He said that if Hitler had won, the world
wouldn't be in the mess it is in today, that niggers like me, no-good
niggers, wouldn't be going around shooting new jersey state troopers.
He went on to say that the white race had invented everything
because they were smart and worked hard, that other races wanted
to riot and use terrorism to take everything the white race had
worked so hard to get. I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut.
He talked about empires, the Roman, the Greek, the Spanish, the
British. He told me white people created empires because they were
more civilized than the rest of the world. White people created
ballet and opera and symphonies. "Did you ever hear of a nigger
writing a symphony?" he asked. Every day he gave me a speech
about nazism. Sometimes other nazis would join in. I asked him if
there were a lot of nazis in the state troopers, but he just laughed
and kept on talking.
When i was in the Black Panther Party, we used to call the
police "fascist pigs," but i had called them fascists not because i
believed they were nazis but because of the way they acted in our
communities. As many times as i had referred to police as fascists,
these shocked me by the truth of my own rhetoric. I later learned
that the state troopers in new jersey was started by a German, that
their uniforms were patterned after some type of German uniform

(very similar to the uniforms South African police wear), that they
are notorious for stopping Black, Hispanic, and long-haired people
on the turnpike and beating, harassing, and arresting them.
The nazis headed the harassment campaign against me. They
spit in my food and turned down the thermostat in the room until
it was freezing. For a while their campaign centered on keeping me
from sleeping. They stamped their feet on the floor, sang songs all
night, played with their guns, shouted, etc. I told the nurses about
it, but it was no use.
I could deal with whatever they were putting out, but how long
would this go on? I had heard nothing from the outside world, and
i didn't even know if anybody knew where i was or whether i was
dead or alive. My chest was feeling better, but i still could hardly
breathe: I thought i was past the point of needing an operation, but
i wasn't sure if it was because of the painkillers they had given me or
because i was really getting better.
Every day i asked them to contact my lawyer, and every day
they said they had tried but there was no answer. I knew that was a
lie because Evelyn had an answering service. Every day i asked them
to contact my family. The response to this was usually obscene.
"Oh, you got a family, do you ? Is your mother a nigger whore
like you ? We don't allow no pickaninnies at this hospital."
They went on and on about my family until they found some­
thing else to go on and on about. Whoever said that no news is
good news had to be out of his mind.
Well, there was news, but it wasn't good news. They told me
they had arrested Sundiata. At first i didn't believe them, but they
were too glib and arrogant. I knew something had happened.
"We got your friend," they said, "and he's singing like a bird.
Yeah, he's singing like a bird, and he's giving you all the weight. It's
a good thing for you he didn't know what color undies you had on
or he would have told us that. We know where you were coming
from. We know where you were going. We know that you stopped
at a Howard Johnson. He even told us what you ordered and that
you just love potato chips."
"What?" i thought. "How did they know that?" Then i re­
membered that we had bought potato chips at a Howard Johnson
on the turnpike. Maybe someone had seen me and remembered.
"Yes, Clark Squire tells us that you took the trooper's gun and
shot him in the head. Now, you wouldn't do a thing like that,
would you ? Well, JoAnne, you're in a hell of a fix. If I were you, I
wouldn't let him get away with it. It's a low-down thing to do,
giving all the weight to a woman. I'll make a deal with you. You tell



us everything that happened and I promise we'll go light on you. I
just don't like to see you get a bad break, that's all. You know,
you're facing a lot of time in prison, the way things stand, if he
testifies against you. You could get life in prison or even the chair,
but all you have to do is tell us what happened and we'll see to it
that you do just a couple of years and go home. You're young. You
don't want to rot away your whole life in prison, do you ? Maybe
you think you owe something to the cause. You think he's thinking
about the cause now ? No, he's singing his head off, trying to give
you all the weight. They're all the same. They talk all this shit about
Black people, equal rights, civil rights, but when it comes down to
the wire, all they care about is their hide. He's thinking about his
hide and you better think about yours. You think the cause gives a
damn about you? Your own people don't give a damn about you.
To them you're just a common criminal. Now I'm giving you this
one chance to save yourself and come clean. If you don't take it,
you're a fool."
They really did think Black people were stupid. Their line had
to be the oldest in the book. He was sitting there like he just knew
his corny little speech had done the trick. I said nothing. If you
don't say anything to them, they have nothing to turn around and
use against you. "Divide and conquer" has always been their
When they realized i wasn't going to talk, they began to leave.
Then one came back. "Oh," he said, "I almost forgot to read you
your rights." He pulled out this little card and read from it. " 'You
have the right to remain silent. . . . You have the right to . . . etc. ' I
wouldn't want you to say that we didn't read you your rights."
Thursday afternoon. They're letting me make a phone call. I don't
believe it. I call my aunt. She's not in. The answering service
answers. I don't know who else to call. The only lawyers whose
names i know worked on the Panther 21 trial. I call them at
random. No one is in, but secretaries promise to give them mes­
sages. I'm disappointed but i feel a lot better. Things are looking
It is Friday. From the activity in the room next door, i can tell
something is up. Voices and whispers. They are back and forth, in
and out, arranging this, moving that. The police radio is jumping.
What is happening? Whatever it is, it can't be too bad, i think. They
are leaving me alone. In a little while a policewoman comes in. She
is in a brown uniform and her insignia says "Sheriff's Depanment."

She's Black or Hispanic. I can't tell exactly, except that she isn't
white. Then some more police come in, dressed in uniforms similar
to hers. Then more police. They are state troopers. One of them
moves to the door and stands at attention. Then some men in suits
come in. Then a man comes in with a stenographic machine.
"The Honorable Joseph F. Bradshaw, State of New Jersey,
County of Middlesex. All rise."
Then this judge walks in with a black robe on. One of the men
in a suit reads the charges against me:
We are here today to serve complaints upon you for the matters
arising out of the shooting of May 2 of 1973. I will read you the
complaints, leave copies with you of the charges that will be pending
against you. The Judge will then advise you on the arraignment of
such rights you may have . . . .
. . . you are charged under Complaint Number 119977, by
Detective Taranto, New Jersey State Police, who says on the 2nd of
May, 1973, within the confines of the Township of East Brunswick,
County of Middlesex, that you unlawfully and illegally resisted a
lawful arrest being made by New Jersey State Trooper James Harper
by discharging a dangerous pistol and wounding the said James
Harper and fleeing the scene of the incident, all in violation of N.J.S.
2A:85-1. . . .
You are also charged, . . . under complaint Number S 119979,
by Detective Sergeant Taranto of the New Jersey State Police, who
says that on the 2nd of May, 1973, within the Township of East
Brunswick, County of Middlesex, that you did commit an Atrocious
Assault and Battery upon New Jersey State Trooper James Harper by
shooting, wounding and maiming the said James Harper with a
hand gun then and there discharged by the defendant, all in viola­
tion of N.J.S. 2A:90-1.
In the Second Count you are charged by the said officer who
says that defendant Joanne Deborah Chesimard did on the afore­
mentioned date and place unlawfully and illegally assault the said
James Harper with intent to kill, murder and slay him by use of a
hand gun then and there held by the defendant, all in violation of
N.J.S. 2A:9 0- 2.
It further charges in the Third Count that the aforementioned
defendant did at the above mentioned time and place commit an
unlawful and illegal assault and battery on a law enforcement officer,
to wit, one James Harper, a duly sworn Trooper of the New Jersey
State Police, by discharging a firearm and wounding the said James
Harper, all in violation of N.J.S. 2A:90-4 . . . .
In S 119980 you are charged with illegally and unlawfully
committing the crime of murder by willfully and with malice




aforethought shooting, killing and slaying New Jersey State Trooper
Werner Foerster, all in violation of N.J.S. 2A:11 3-1 and N.J.S.
You are further being charged under S 119981 with one count,
wherein Detective Sergeant Taranto charges you on the 2nd day of
May, 197 3, within the Township of East Brunswick, County of
Middlesex, that you did unlawfully, illegally and with malice
aforethought cause or affect the murder of James Coston a/kla Zayd
Shakur, while resisting or avoiding a lawful arrest then and there
being affected by New Jersey State Trooper James Harper, all in
violation of N.J.S. 2A:11 3- 2....
You are charged with S 119982 by State Police Sergeant Louis
Taranto, that on the 2nd day of May, 197 3, in the Township of East
Brunswick, County of Middlesex, you unlawfully and illegally pos­
sessed on your person, under your custody and control, an illegal
weapon, to wit, one Browning 9 milimeter automatic pistol, one
Browning automatic .380 caliber, one .38 caliber Llama automatic
pistol, serial number 248 31, all without having obtained any neces­
sary permit for the carrying of same, in violation of N.J.S.
2A:151-41 (a)....
You are further charged in Complaint S 119983, wherein De­
tective Sergeant Taranto says on the 2nd day of May, 197 3, in the
Township of East Brunswick, County of Middlesex, that you did
unlawfully and illegally and forcibly take from the person of New
Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster a .38 caliber revolver by vio­
lence,to wit, by shooting, slaying and killing the same Werner
Foerster, all in violation of N.J.S. 2A:141-1.
The Second Count of that Complaint charges you with com­
mitting that act while being armed, in violation of N.J.S.
2A:151-5.. .. are being charged by State Trooper Detective Sergeant
Taranto, Complaint S 119984, who says on the 2nd day of May,
197 3, in the Township of East Brunswick, County of Middlesex,
that you did illegally, unlawfully conspire with James Coston, a/k/a
Zayd Shakur and one John Doe to commit the crime of murder of
the said Trooper Werner Foerster, and in the affectuation of said
conspiracy did execute the following overt acts:
1.That the said defendant Joanne Deborah Chesimard did have
in her possession a pistol with which to affectuate the ends of the
conspiracy on the above-mentioned time and ... at the above­
mentioned place.
2. The above named defendant Joanne Deborah Chesimard in
concert with and by common scheme and plan did assault Trooper
James Harper and otherwise distharge her weapon at the said
Trooper James Harper with the intent to affect the ends of the

conspiracy by otherwise wounding, maiming or killing him, all in
violation of N.J.S. 2A:98-1 and N.J.S. 2A:113-1.
1 think he will never stop. Half of the charges i don't even
understand. 1 interrupt the proceedings. "I don't have a lawyer
here," i protest. "I would like to have a lawyer present." They ignore
me and keep on reading.
"How do you plead?" they ask me.
"I would like to have a lawyer present. Don't i have a right to a
"That will not be necessary," the judge says coldly. "Enter a
plea of not guilty for the defendant."
And just as quickly as they entered, the procession departs.
Later the same policewoman comes back. She stands rigidly
against the wall. Her face is a mask. "Oh, no !" i think. "Court
again ? What are they gonna do, railroad me here and now?" 1
imagine myself being tried right there in the bed with no lawyer.
The door opens. It is Evelyn-my lawyer and aunt. She is the
most beautiful sight in the world. She embraces me and sits down
next to me. As usual, she is business first.
"I only have five minutes," she tells me. "They told me that 1
couldn't see you. 1 had to go to court and get a court order to see
you. The judge would give us only five minutes apiece. Your mother
and sister are outside. So talk fast."
We look up. The police are practically standing in our mouths.
"I would like to talk with my client in private," Evelyn says.
"Would you please move back. This is an outrage. This is an
attorney-client visit and we have a constitutional right to privacy."
The police move back one inch. 1 tell Evelyn about the kan­
garoo court in the morning. My mouth moves so fast it's like one of
those old-style movies, but a talkie. 1 can see from the expression
on her face that i must look horrible.
"How are they treating you?" she asks.
1 don't have time to tell her the whole story, but i have to let
her know what is going on. 1 don't know what they will do next. 1
have to try to get someone to put pressure on them to stop. 1 tell her
some of it, but i just can't tell her the worst things. Her face looks
so pitiful and every time i tell her something else, her hands shake.
"Try to do what you can," i say.
"Time's up. Time's up, miss !"
Evelyn makes her futile protests. "I need to talk with my
client. This is just not enough time."



"Sorry, miss. Time's up !" They move toward her like they
going to beat her up.
Then she is gone. 1 brace myself for my mother and my sister.
It has been such a long time since i have seen them. 1 don't know
what to expect.
My mother comes in. She looks worried but strong. She kisses
"I'm proud of you," she says.
The words spin around me, weaving a warm blanket of love. 1
am so happy. 1 can hardly contain myself. My mother is proud of
me. She loves me and she is proud of me.
Too soon the time with my mother is up. My sister comes in.
She has her hair wrapped in a turban and she looks so pale. As
soon as she sees me, she breaks out crying. Tears stream down her
already puffy face. 1 can tell she has been crying a lot.
"I love you," she says simply.
We don't do a lot of talking, but i feel so very close to her
during those few minutes.
"Time's up." Again. And then she is gone.
1 lie there full of emotion. All of this is so hard on my family.
They look vulnerable and shaken. This is maybe harder on them
than it is on me. 1 wish there was something i can do to make them
Two Black nurses were very kind to me. When they were on duty,
they would go out of their way to make sure i was all right. They
made frequent trips to my room, for which i was especially grateful
during those first days.
"If you need anything, just ring," they said knowingly.
One night one of the nurses came in and gave me three books.
I hadn't even thought about reading. The books were a godsend.
They had been carefully selected. One was a book of Black poetry,
one was a book called Black Women in White Amerika, and the
third was a novel, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. Whenever i tired
of the verbal abuse of my captors, i would drown them out by
reading the poetry out loud. "Invictus" and "If We Must Die" were
the poems i usually read. 1 read them over and over, until i was sure
the guards had heard every word. The poems were my message to
When i read the book about Black women, i felt the spirits of
those sisters feeding me, making me stronger. Black women have
been struggling and helping each other to survive the blows of life
since the beginning of time. And when i read Siddhartha, a peace

came over me. I felt a unity with all things living. The world, in
spite of oppression, is a beautiful place. I would say "Om" softly to
myself, letting my lips vibrate. I felt the birds, the sun, and the trees.
I was in communion with all the forces on the earth that truly love
people, in communion with all the revolutionary forces on the
I was definitely getting better. They were even unchaining me
so that i could hobble to the bathroom every now and then, with
the help of the nurse. I was still weak and, when i returned from the
bathroom, i would flop on the bed as if i had just accomplished a
great physical feat. But at least now i knew what was wrong with
me. During those first days i could barely ask, and when i did, they
acted as if my condition were some top secret information i was not
privy to. I had three bullet holes. There was a bullet in my chest (it's
still there); an injured lung with fluid in it, a broken clavicle, and a
paralyzed arm with undetermined damage to the nerves. I kept
asking if i would be able to use my hand again. One or two doctors
said, flatly, no. The others said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."
Anyway, i was gonna live.

You died.
I cried.
And kept on getting up.
A little slower.
And a lot more deadly.


Chapter 2


he FBI cannot find any evidence that i was
born. On my FBI Wanted poster, they list my birth
date as July 1 6, 1 947, and, in parentheses, "not sub­
stantiated by birth records."
Anyway, i was born. I am the older of two chil­
dren. My sister, Beverly, was born five years later. The
name my momma gave me was JoAnne Deborah By­
ron. I am told that i was a fat, happy baby and that i
was talking in complete sentences when i was about
nine months old. They say that i was lazy, though, that
i talked way before i learned to walk. Everybody says
that i had my days mixed up with my nights and kept
everybody up all night. (I'm still pretty much a night
owl.) The only other tale i remember hearing about
my babyhood was that i would scream at the top of
my lungs whenever anybody wearing furs or feathers
came near me. (I'm still not too fond of furs and
My mother and father were divorced shortly after
i was born. I lived with my mother, my aunt (now
Evelyn Williams), my grandmother (Lulu Hill), and
my grandfather (Frank Hill) in a house in the Brick­
town section of Jamaica, New York. The only thing i
remember about that house is the backyard, which i
loved, and the huge dog next door. I remember the
dog well because he terrified me. To my young eyes he
looked like a giant, a canine version of King Kong or
Mighty Joe Young. (I'm still not too wild about dogs.)
When i was three years old, my grandparents sold the
house and moved down South. I moved with them.
We moved into a big wooden house on Seventh
Street in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was the
house my grandfather had grown up in. It had a
wraparound porch with a big green swing and, of

course, rosebushes in the front yard and a pecan tree in the back.
My grandfather originally thought that the house had belonged to
my great-grandfather, Pappa Linc (short for Lincoln), but they
found out he had only been given the use of the house for his
lifetime. Pappa Linc had worked as a chauffeur for one of the most
prominent white families in Wilmington and, the story goes, had
been a prominent member of the Black community. He and my
great-grandmother, Momma Jessie, had worked hard all their lives,
had raised eleven children in that house, and had died under the
impression that the house was theirs. Fine print and white lawyers
have a way of robbing Black people of what is theirs. My grand­
parents were forced to buy the house again.
"Who's better than you?"
"Nobody. "
"Get that head up."
"Yes, who?"
"Yes, Grandmommy."
"I want that head held up high, and i don't want you taking
no mess from anybody, you understand?"
"Yes, Grandmommy."
"Don't you let me hear about anybody walking over my
grandbaby. "
"No, Grandmommy."
"I don't want nobody taking advantage of you, you hear
"Yes, i hear you."
"Yes, who?"
"Yes, Grandmommy."

All of my family tried to instill in me a sense of personal dignity, but
my grandmother and my grandfather were really fanatic about it.
Over and over they would tell me, "You're as good as anyone else.
Don't let anybody tell you that they're better than you." My
grandparents strictly forbade me to say "yes ma'am" and "yes sir"
or to look down at my shoes or to make subservient gestures when
talking to white people. "You look them in the eye when you talk
to them," i was told. "And speak up like you've got some sense." I
was told to speak in a loud, clear voice and to hold my head up
high, or risk having my grandparents knock it off my shoulders.




My grandparents were big on respect. I was to be polite and
respectful to adults, to say "good morning" or "good evening" as i
passed the neighbors' houses. Any kind of back talk or sass was
simply out of the question. My grandparents didn't even permit me
to answer questions with a simple "yes" or "no." Instead I had to
say "yes, Grandmother" or "no, Grandfather." But when it came to
dealing with white people in the segregated South, my grand­
mother would tell me, menacingly, "Don't you respect nobody that
don't respect you, you hear me?" "Yes, Grandmother," i would
answer, my voice almost a whisper. "Speak up !" she would tell me
repeatedly, something she seemed hell-bent on making me do. She
would send me to the store with clear instructions on what to bring
back. I was, under no circumstances, to come home with inferior
goods, something which happened all too often to Black people in
the South. " You tell them that you don't want any garbage, and
you'd better not come back with any," she would warn me. If the
store owner sold me something that my grandmother didn't like, i
would have to return to the store and get the thing changed or get
my money back. "You speak up loud and clear. Don't let me have
to go down to that store." Scared to death of the fuss my grand­
mother would make if she had to go to the store herself, i would
hurry back to the store, prepared to raise almighty hell.
Whenever my grandmother heard about somebody being mis­
treated, especially if it was a man mistreating a woman, she would
glare at me and say, "Don't you let anybody mistreat you, you hear?
We're not raising you up to be mistreated, you hear? I don't want
you taking no mess off of nobody, you understand ?" "Yes, Grand­
mother," i would answer, for what seemed like the millionth time,
wondering why my grandmother liked to repeat herself so often.
The tactics that my grandparents used were crude, and i hated it
when they would repeat everything so often. But the lessons that
they taught me, more than anything else i learned in life, helped me
to deal with the things i would face growing up in amerika.
But a lot of times, for my grandparents, pride and dignity were
hooked up to things like position and money. For them, being "just
as good" as white people meant having what white people had.
They would tell me to go to school and study so that i could have a
nice house and nice clothes and a nice car. "White people don't
want to see us with nothing," they would tell me. "That's why
you've got to get your education so that you can be somebody and
have something in life." Becoming "somebody" in life just didn't
mean too much to me. I wanted to feel happy, to feel good. My
awareness of class differences in the Black community came at an

early age. Although my grandmother taught me more about being ASSATA
proud and strong than anyone i know, she had a lot of Booker T.
Washington, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, "talented tenth"
ideas. She had worked hard and had made a decent living as a
pieceworker in a factory, but she had other ideas for me. She was
determined that i would become part of Wilmington's talented
tenth-the privileged class-part of the so-called Black bour­
One of her first steps was to sternly forbid me to play with
"alley rats." It was impossible for me to obey her orders since i had
absolutely no idea what an alley rat was. I often became the
unwitting object of my grandmother's fury, charged with the crime
of alley rat playing. My grandmother, writhing with annoyance,
would threaten me with untold punishments if i continued my evil
ways. I received strict orders to abandon my penchant for alley rats
and play with "decent children." But we could never agree on who
"decent children" were. Decent children, to my grandmother, were
a whole 'nother story.
"Decent children" came from "decent families". How did you
know what a decent family was ? A decent family lived in a decent
house. How did you know what a decent house was? A decent
house was fixed up nice and had a sidewalk in front of it. Decent
families didn't let their kids play in the street with no shoes on and
didn't let their kids say "ain't." Little did my grandmother know
that ain't was my favorite word once i got two feet out of her
hearing range. My grandmother had a little alley rat right under
her roof and she didn't even know it. Alley rats supposedly lived in
alleys, in run-down shacks, but my grandmother would often call
one of my friends an alley rat even if the kid didn't live in an alley.
Dutifully, to put some sense in my head, she would take me to
visit "decent children." These decent little souls were invariably the
offspring of Wilmington's Black doctors, lawyers, preachers, and
undertakers. Schoolteachers, barbershop owners, and the editor of
the "colored" newspaper were also decent. In most of these "de­
cent" little play sessions, the other kids and I would stand around
looking at each other awkwardly. Sometimes we would get it on
and have some fun. But more often than not, it would be glare-at­
each-other time or show-and-tell time (the kids showing me their
toys and such while the grownups oohed and aahed). The worst
times were eating at the preacher'S house, where they would take an
hour saying grace, or playing ball with the undertaker's daughter.
She always wanted to play ball and i was scared to death that the
ball was going to roll into the part where they kept the dead people

ASSATA and end up in the mouth of some corpse. My grandmother would
have caught a shitfit if she had known that one of her favorite little
decent kids' favorite game was playing show and tell with his ding­
a-ling and threatening to pee on everybody.
After these visits, my grandmother would chirp for a week
about how nice my little decent friends were and about how nicely
we had played together, while i would groan silently and keep the
expression on my face one shade away from insolence. My grand­
mother and i waged a standoff battle damn near until i was grown.
It wasn't that i wanted to defy her, it was that i just liked who i
liked. I didn't care what kind of house my friends had or whether
or not they lived in alleys. All that mattered was whether i liked
them. I was convinced then, and i'm still convinced, that in some
things kids have a lot more sense than adults.
But, to my young mind, life in Wilmington was exciting. There
were always new places to go and new cousins, aunts, and uncles to
meet. One of my favorite relatives was Aunt Lou. She was Momma
Jessie's sister and she lived across town. She was my grandfather's
only remaining relative in Wilmington, the rest having moved up
North or out West. Aunt Lou had a magic house, full of all kinds of
flavors, textures, smells, and things. There were whole worlds in her
house to explore. She would always feed me something good to eat
and then let me run wild.
I didn't know until i was grown that Aunt Lou had a son. His
name was Uncle Willie and he died before i was born. Uncle Willie
was something of a legend around Wilmington during the twenties,
thirties, and forties. Whenever he came to town, they say, Aunt Lou
would plead and moan and worry until he was in safer territory up
North. They say that he would tear down the "colored" and "white
only" signs and break the Jim Crow laws at whim. He would go
around demanding his rights and denouncing the oppression of
Black people, and it is logical that no one who loved him felt the
least bit comfortable until he was long gone. They called him "Wild
Willie" or "that crazy Indian" (he was supposedly Black and Cher­
okee), but people called him that because of his nature. They say he
had a lot of friends and that he died of natural causes.
The rest of the relatives i met came from my grandmother'S
side. My grandmother'S family lived in Seabreeze, outside of
Wilmington, close to Carolina Beach. Their last name was Free­
man, and they were famous for being high-strung, quick-tempered,
and emotional. They seldom worked for anybody, choosing instead
to live on the land their father had left them. They worked as
farmers and fishermen, and they owned small stores. I have also

heard that they were in the bootleg business. My grandmother's
father was a Cherokee Indian. He died when my grandmother was
very young. Nobody knows too much about him, except that,
somehow, he acquired a great deal of land and left it to his children.
The land was very valuable because much of it bordered either on
the river or on the ocean. Everybody had a different theory about
what my great-grandfather had done to acquire it. But it was
because of this land that my grandparents had moved down South.
In 1 950, the year we moved to Wilmington, the South was
completely segregated. Black people were forbidden to go many
places, and that included the beach. Sometimes they would travel
all the way to South Carolina just to see the ocean. My grand­
parents decided to open a business on their land. It consisted of a
restaurant, lockers where people could change their clothes, and an
area for dancing and hanging out.
The popular name for the beach was Bop City, although my
grandparents insisted on calling it Freeman's Beach. Throughout
my childhood, the name Freeman had no particular significance. It
was a name just like any other name. It wasn't until i was grown
and began to read Black history that i discovered the significance of
the name. After slavery, many Black people refused to use the last
names of their masters. They called themselves "Freeman" instead.
The name was also used by Africans who were freed before slavery
was "officially" abolished, but it was mainly after the abolition of
chattel slavery that many Black people changed their names to
Freeman. After learning this, i saw my ancestors in a new light.
For me, the beach was a wonderful place, and to this day there
is no place on this earth that i love more. I have never seen a beach
more beautiful than it was then, before they decided to build a
canal right through the property of my grandparents. It is now just
a pale shadow of what it used to be, most of it destroyed by erosion.
But back then there were majestic sand dunes covered with tall sea
grass where my cousins and i would build forts, houses, and,
sometimes, cities. When time permitted, we spent hours hiding and
making sneak attacks on one another. The sand was fine and clean
and, in the beginning of summer, we could find j ust about every
imaginable kind of sea shell. When the sun got too hot, we would
sit in the old blue jeep my grandfather drove and play with frilly
things like paper dolls and teacups. After i learned to read, i would
sit in the sun, under the huge hats my grandmother always made
me wear, and read one book after another.
Every other week my grandfather went to the "colored" library
on Red Cross Street and the librarian would send ten or so books




for me to read. As soon as i finished reading them, my grandfather
would go and get another batch. My imagination was vivid. With
fragments of pirates and the Bobbsey Twins floating around, i
would sit looking out at the ocean and think about everything. I
imagined all the places i had read about on the other side of the
ocean and wondered if i would ever see them. And, of course, i
daydreamed about all kinds of stuff, most of it silly.
But my days were not spent simply daydreaming. My grand­
parents were firm believers in work. They had worked all of their
lives and there was no way they were gonna tolerate any "lazy­
good-for-nothin's" around them. Every day there were chores to do
and there was no playing until they were completed. I did things
like putting the potato chips on the racks, putting sodas in the
cooler, wiping the tables clean, etc. When customers were there, i
would sell small stuff like potato chips, Nabs, pickles, and pickled
pigs' feet. I would also set the tables and bring customers things
they needed. But my main job was collecting fifty cents for parking.
Because there was no road to our beach (the paved road ended with
the white section), my grandparents had to pay for a dirt road and
parking lot to be laid over the sand. Truckloads of dirt were
brought and a steamroller mashed it down so that it was hard
enough to drive on. This was an expensive process, so my grand­
parents decided to charge fifty cents for parking. I could count and
make change at a very early age, so it was my job to collect the fifty
cents. During the week it wasn't too time-consuming, but on the
weekends, if the weather was nice, it was an all-day job.
Cars and buses of people came from all over North Carolina,
South Carolina, and Virginia. There were church groups, school
groups, social clubs, women's clubs, boy scouts, and girl scouts. All
kinds of people would come to the beach, some with a little money
and some that you could tell were real poor. In all the years i spent
on that beach, only one or two people hassled me. Most of them
treated me very kindly, just like i was their kid.
The people who came to the beach fascinated me. I loved to see
them come and go. After a while, i would recognize the regulars
and it didn't take me too long to learn their names. Some of them
gave me tips, which i usually spent on the picolo (jukebox). There
were lots of lovers and i spent some of my time spying on them in
the parking lot, but they weren't too interesting. All they did was
squirm a lot. Checking license plates (i could recognize almost all
of the states' license plates on sight) and collecting bugs (i had a
huge collection) were much more interesting. But watching families
was better, on their picnics with their fried chicken, potato salads,

and watermelons. Some of them looked so happy you could tell
they didn't get a chance to go to many picnics. And i was always on
the watch for kids to play with when 1 wasn't busy.
Then there were the goodtimers. Their cars smelled like whis­
key. They would dance a lot, eat a lot, spend a lot on the picolo, and
many times i would wonder if they had made it home all right.
A lot of poor people came to the beach. Sometimes the floors
of their raggedy old cars or trucks were half rotted out. Usually a
lot of little children were with them and they wouldn't have bathing
suits. They went swimming in whatever clothes they had worn to
the beach, and half the time the little kids wore nothing. Then there
were those who came to put on airs, usually in the evening, all
dressed up, to eat dinner.
Many would say, "I can't stand the sun," "I'm too Black
already, 1 ain't goin' out in no sun." It was amazing the number of
people who said they were too Black already. We looked at them
like they were crazy because we loved the sun. But the umbrellas for
rent went like hotcakes. Some people draped clothes and blankets
around the umbrellas so that no light penetrated whatsoever. One
lady always put a paper bag on her head and poked holes in it for
her eyes. Some of the women refused to go near the water because
they were afraid their hair would "go bad."
One of the moving things for me was when someone saw the
ocean for the first time. It was amazing to watch. They would stand
there, in awe, overpowered and overwhelmed, as if they had come
face to face with God or with the vastness of the universe. 1
remember one time a preacher brought an old lady to the beach.
She was the oldest-looking person i had ever seen. She said that she
just wanted to see the ocean before she died. She stood there in one
spot for so long she looked like she was in a trance. Then, with the
help of the preacher, she hobbled around, picked up the mundane
shells, and put them into her handkerchief as if they were the most
precious things in the world.
1 loved to eat (still do) and the beach was right up my alley.
Right now, when i think of the fried chicken and fish dinners, my
mouth starts to water. But what really sends me off is remembering
those seafood platters with fish, shrimps, oysters, deviled crab,
clam fritters, and french fries with lettuce and tomatoes on the side.
If my memory is any good, i think they sold for $ 1 .50.
Next to food, music was my love. Fats Domino, Nat King
Cole, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Platters, Brook Benton,
Bobby "Blue" Bland, James Brown, Dinah Washington, Maxine
Brown, Big Maybelle were some of the people 1 listened to during





those beach years. I loved to dance. They would play that music and
i would dance my natural heart out. That was another way i
collected tips. People would egg me on, "Go on, gal, go. Boy, looket
that little girl dance." But i loved to see people dance, too. Many a
time my grandmother or grandfather had to call me out of the
trance i was in watching somebody dance instead of doing my
At night, my cousins, who sometimes came over to work on
the beach, told ghost stories. They loved to tell them to me because
i would get scared out of my wits. They would tell me about people
who came back from the dead, about snakes that could crawl a
hundred miles an hour and beat you to death with their tails, and
about red phantoms and haints and all kinds of other horrible
things. My imagination was vivid, and before the night was over the
sea grass turned to monsters and the wind made ghost howls.
Sometimes even my grandmother and grandfather would get
into the ghost story sessions. My grandfather's favorite one goes
like this: He was driving home in a terrible storm one night. It was
lightning and thundering like crazy. He saw lightning hit a tree
ahead of him and saw the tree fall across the road. He tried to stop,
but it was too late. He braced himself to hit the tree, but nothing
happened. The car went smoothly through it as if it weren't there.
He turned around and, sure enough, the tree was still lying across
the road. He swears that the story is true and i'm convinced that he
thoroughly believes it is.
We were, however, visited by real, live ghosts. They were the
phantoms of the parking lot. It seems that the white citizens of
Wilmington and Carolina Beach were not at all happy that my
grandparents had dared to build on the land and to start a "col­
ored" business. We were too close for their comfort. So they would
visit us from time to time to express their disapproval. I don't know
for a fact that they were card-carrying members of the Klan, but,
judging from their behavior, i think they were. But then, of course,
they weren't wearing their sheets. They could've just been red­
blooded amerikan boys out for some good clean fun. The parking
lot was made of dirt, and cars spinning around on it at breakneck
speed would ruin it in no time. Two or three of them would ride
around the parking lot, spinning and skidding, while they shouted
curses and racist insults. One time they fired guns in the air. I
remember seeing them and hearing them out there and wondering
what they were gonna do next. More than once i saw my grand­
father go to where he kept his gun and carry it quietly to where he

had been sitting. Somehow this made me more afraid, because i
knew that he, too, thought they were scary.
Finally my grandfather put a big fat chain, almost as big as the
kind used to anchor ships, across the road at the entrance to the
parking lot. This soon eliminated our nightly visitors.
One night, as my grandmother and i were fastening the chain
in place and locking it, a white man drove up to the lot and, in an
arrogant tone of voice, ordered my grandmother to open the gate so
that he could turn his car around. My grandmother, looking very
dignified, said, "No, I can't let you do that." Then, in a nicer voice,
he asked my grandmother again to open the gate. "No," she said
again. "Come on now, auntie, I got a mammy in my house. Now
open the gate and lemme turn around." "Wha'd you say?" asked
my grandmother. "I said I got a mammy in my house, now come
on, open up. " My grandmother leaned over in the man's face.
"I don't care how many mammies you got in your house. I
don't care if you've got a hundred mammies in your house, you're
gonna back out of here tonight. And I want you off of my property
now! Right now!"
That man turned as red as a redneck can turn and started to
back his car up. The road was very narrow, barely wide enough for
one car, and there was no way he could turn around without
getting stuck in the sand. He backed up for more than a quarter of
a mile. As we looked at him backing up, my grandmother and i
laughed so hard the tears fell from our eyes.
Every day when we drove from the house on Seventh Street to
the beach, we passed a beautiful park with a zoo. And every day i
would beg, plead, whine, and nag my grandmother to take me to
the zoo. It was almost an obsession. She would always say that
"one day" she would take me, but "one day" never came. I would
sit in the car pouting, thinking how mean she was. I thought that
she had to be the meanest woman on the face of the earth. Finally,
with the strangest look on her face, she told me that we were not
allowed in the zoo. Because we were Black.
When we were on the beach we shopped at Carolina Beach. It
had an amusement park, but of course Black people were not
permitted to go in. Every time we passed it i looked at the merry-go­
round and the Ferris wheel and the little cars and airplanes and my
heart would just long to ride them. But my favorite forbidden ride
had little boats in a pool of water, and every time i passed them i felt
frustrated and deprived. Of course, peristent creature that i am, i
always asked to be taken on the rides, knowing full well what the





answer would be. One summer my mother and sister and i were
walking down the boardwalk. My mother was spending part of her
summer helping my grandparents in the business. As soon as we
neared the rides, i went into my usual act. I continued, ad nauseam,
until my mother, grinning, said. "All right now, I'm gonna try to get
us in. "When we get over there, I don't want to hear one word out of
either of you. Just let me do the talking. And if they ask you
anything, don't answer. Okay? Okay!"
My mother went over to the ticket booth and began talking. I
didn't understand a word she was saying. The lady at the ticket
window kept telling my mother that she couldn't sell her any
tickets. My mother kept talking, very fast, and waving her hands.
The manager came over and told my mother she couldn't buy any
tickets and that we couldn't go into the park. My mother kept
talking and waving her hands and soon she was screaming this
foreign language. I didn't know if she was speaking a play language
or a real one. Several other men came over. They talked to my
mother. She continued. After the men went to one side and had a
conference, they returned and told the ticket seller to give my
mother the tickets.
I couldn't believe it. All at once we were laughing and giggling
and riding the rides. All the white people were staring at us, but we
didn't care. We were busy having a ball. "When i got into one of
those little boats, my mother practically had to drag me out. I was
in my glory. When we finished the rides we went to the Dairy
Queen for ice cream. We sang and laughed all the way home.
When we got home my mother explained that she had been
speaking Spanish and had told the managers that she was from a
Spanish country and that if he didn't let us in she would call the
embassy and the United Nations and i don't know who all else. We
laughed and talked about it for days. But it was a lesson i never
forgot. Anybody, no matter who they were, could come right off the
boat and get more rights and respect than amerikan-born Blacks.
My first school experience was Mrs. Perkins's school in
Wilmington. It was a little two-room school on Red Cross Street
where i learned the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arith­
metic. I was four years old. Mrs. Perkins's school was the closest
thing to nursery school that Black people in Wilmington had, but
she didn't play that baby play stuff. We were there to learn. I was
prone to colds, however, and i guess the potbellied stove in the
school didn't give off enough heat. I was out sick more than i was in

school. But i learned enough so that when i went to first grade,
aoerything was easy. I could already read.
I spent most of first grade in New York with my mother, the
rest of the first and all of the second down South with my grand­
parents. I went to Gregory Elementary School in Wilmington. My
reachers knew my grandparents well and gave them daily reports of
my progress. The teachers were strict and believed solemnJy in the
paddle, but we learned.
Of course, our school was segregated, but the teachers took
more of an interest in our lives because they lived in our world, in
the same neighborhoods. They knew what we were up against and
what we would be facing as adults, and they tried to protect us as
much as they could. More than once we were punished because
some children had made fun of a student who was poor and badly
dressed. I'm not saying that segregation was a good system. Our
schools were inferior. The books were used and torn, handed down
from white schools. We received only a fraction of the state money
allotted to white schools, and the conditions under which many
Black children received an education can only be described as
horrible. But Black children encountered suppport and understand­
ing and encouragement instead of the hostile indifference they often
met in the "integrated" schools.
There was a big dirt yard next to the school where we would
play and fight. We grew up fighting; it was really hard to get
through school without a few fights, just to survive. But i always
wondered what made people fight. Especially after we learned
about wars. I used to look out on the remains of the sunken ship
that tilted up in front of our beach and wonder how people had
died in it. It was covered with green moss and i imagined skeletons
floating around inside. The ship had been sunk during the Civil
War and i always wondered if it carried Northerners or South­
erners. Back in those days i used to think the Northerners were the
good guys.
But I never could make much sense out of war. I remember
being taught that World War I was the war to end all wars. Well, we
know that was a lie because there was World War II. I remember a
teacher telling us that World War I was started because Prince
Ferdinand, somewhere in Austria, got killed. (When we learned
history, we were never taught the real reasons for things. We were
just taught useless trivia, simplistic facts, key phrases, and mis­
cellaneous, meaningless dates.) I couldn't understand it. What were
people all the way in amerika doing in a war because some prince





got killed in Austria ? I could just imagine going home and telling
my grandmother that i got in a fight because some dude in Europe
got killed.
They made war sound so glorious in school, so heroic. But the
wars we had on the way home from school and in the playground
were anything but glorious. Besides the cuts and scratches we
received on our battleground, we were likely to get spanked for
fighting or for getting our clothes dirty. I was pretty lucky in that
respect. When my grandmother would discover that i was all in one
piece she wouldn't make too much of a fuss. I guess i looked pretty
much the same after a fight as i did any other day when i came
home from school. I was a natural tomboy and a natural slob. My
blouse was always hanging out of my skin, one of my socks always
fell down in my shoe, and my hair always flew wild around my
head. I always managed to get something torn and dirty and,
because i was awkward and clumsy, i always looked like a victim of
about fifty wars.
Most of our fights started over petty disputes like stepped-on
shoes, flying spitballs, and the contested ownership of pens and
pencils. But behind our fights, self-hatred was clearly visible.
"Nappy head, nappy head, I catch your ass, you goin' be
dead. "
"You think you Black and ugly now; I'm gonna beat you till
you purple."
"You just another nigga to me. Ima show you what I do with
niggas like you."
"You better shut your big blubber lips."
We would call each other "jungle bunnies" and "bush
boogies." We would talk about each other's ugly, big lips and flat
noses. We would call each other pickaninnies and nappy-haired so­
"Act your age, not your color," we would tell each other.
"You gon thank me when I'm through with you, Ima beat you
so bad, I'm gon beat the black offa you."
Black made any insult worse. When you called somebody a
"bastard," that was bad. But when you called somebody a "Black
bastard," now that was terrible. In fact, when i was growing up,
being called "Black," period, was grounds for fighting.
"Who you callin' Black ?" we would say. We had never heard
the words "Black is beautiful" and the idea had never occurred to
most of us.
I hated for my grandmother to comb my hair. And she hated
to comb it. My hair has always been thick and long and nappy and

it would give my grandmother hell. She has straight hair, so she was
impatient with mine. When she combed my hair she always remem­
bered something i had done wrong the day before or earlier that
day and popped me in the head with the comb. She would always
tell me during these sessions, "Now, when you grow up, I want you
to marry some man with 'good hair' so your children will have
good hair. You hear me ?" "Yes, Grandmother." I used to wonder
why she hadn't followed her own advice since my grandfather's
hair is far from straight, but i never dared ask. My grandmother
just said what everybody knew was a common fact: good hair was
better than bad hair, meaning that straight hair was better than
nappy hair.
When my sister Beverly was little, i remember teasing her
about her lips. She has big, beautiful lips, but back then we looked
at them as something of a liability. I never thought of them as
ugly-my sister has always seemed very pretty to me-but her lips
were something good to tease her about. I once told her, "With
those big lips, the only thing you've got going for you is your long
hair; you better never cut it off." I will never know how much
damage all my "teasing" did to my sister. But i was only saying
what everybody knew: little, thin lips were better than big, thick
lips. Everybody knew that.
There was one girl in our school whose mother made her wear
a clothespin on her nose to make it thin. There were quite a few
girls who tried to bleach their skin white with bleaching cream and
who got pimples instead. And, of course, we went to the beauty
parlor and got our hair straightened. I couldn't wait to go to the
beauty parlor and get my hair all fried up. I wanted Shirley Temple
curls just like Shirley Temple. I hated the smell of fried hair and
having my ears burned, but we were taught that women had to
make great sacrifices to be beautiful. And everybody knew you had
to be crazy to walk the streets with nappy hair sticking out. And of
course long hair was better than short hair. We all knew that.
We had been completely brainwashed and we didn't even
know it. We accepted white value systems and white standards of
beauty and, at times, we accepted the white man's view of ourselves.
We had never been exposed to any other point of view or any other
standard of beauty. From when i was a tot, i can remember Black
people saying, "Niggas ain't shit." "You know how lazy niggas
are." "Give a nigga an inch and he'll take a mile." Everybody knew
what "niggas" like to do after they eat: sleep. Everybody knew that
"niggas" couldn't be on time; that's why there was c.p.t. (colored
people's time). "Niggas don't take care of nothin'." "Niggas don't





stick together." The list could go on and on. To varying degrees we
accepted these statements as true. And, to varying degrees, we each
made them true within ourselves because we believed them.
I entered third grade in P.S. 154 in Queens. The school was almost
all white, and i was the only Black kid in my class. Everybody in my
family was glad i was going to school in New York. "The schools
are better," they said. "You'll get a better education up North than
in that segregated school down South."
School up North was much different for me than school down
South. For one thing, the teachers (they were all white-i don't
remember having any Black teachers until i was in high school)
were always grinning at me. And the older i got, the less i liked
those grins. I didn't have a name for them then, but now i call them
the "little nigga grins."
My third grade teacher was young, blond, very prissy, and
middle class. Whenever i came into the room she would show me
all thirty-two of her teeth, but there was nothing sincere about her
smile. It never made me feel good. There was always something
unnatural and exaggerated about her behavior with me. On my
first or second day in class she was teaching us penmanship. "Does
anyone know how to make a capital L in script?" she asked.
Nobody raised a hand. Timidly, i did. "You know how to do it?"
she asked incredulously. "Yes," i told her, "we had that last year
down South." "Well, come and write it on the blackboard, then,"
she told me. I wrote my pitiful little second grade L on the black­
board. After looking at me and nodding, she made a big, fancy L
next to mine.
"Is this what you're trying to make, JoAnne ?" Her expression
was smug. The whole class broke out laughing. I wanted to go
somewhere and hide. After that, it seemed that every time i men­
tioned something i learned down South she got mad. She never saw
my raised hand. When she couldn't ignore it, like when no one else
raised theirs, she would say something like "Oh, do you know the
answer, JoAnne ?"
Every holiday a class was assigned to put on a play. There were
plays for Columbus Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas.
Our class had George Washington's birthday, and our play was
about his cutting down this cherry tree when he was a little boy. I
was selected to be in the play. I was tickled pink and so proud. I was
cast as one of the cherry trees. The teacher put some green crepe
paper over my head and told me to stand at the back of the stage
where i was to stay until the end of the play. Then the cherry trees
were supposed to sway from side to side and sing: "George Wash-

ington never told a lie, never told a lie, he never told a lie. George
Washington never told a lie, and the truth goes marching on."
I didn't know what a fool they had made out of me until i grew
up and started to read real history. Not only was George Wash­
ington probably a big liar, but he had once sold a slave for a keg of
rum. Here they had this old craka slavemaster, who didn't give a
damn about Black people, and they had me, an unwitting little
Black child, doing a play in his honor. When George Washington
was fighting for freedom in the Revolutionary War, he was fighting
for the freedom of "whites only." Rich whites, at that. After the so­
called Revolution, you couldn't vote unless you were a white man
and you owned a plot of land. The Revolutionary War was led by
some rich white boys who got tired of paying heavy taxes to the
king. It didn't have anything at all to do with freedom, justice, and
equality for all.
Again, in the fourth grade, i was the only Black kid in my
class. My teacher, Mr. Trobawitz, was cool, though, and a very
good teacher. He had modern ideas about teaching, and instead of
making us read those old boring readers, he had us read real books
and write reports about them. His class was always interesting. He
told us all kinds of jokes and stories and he seemed to be sincerely
concerned about us. That year we were learning about the Civil
War and about Lincoln's freeing the slaves. Like all the other
teachers, Mr. Trobawitz taught us "fairy-tale history," but at least
he made it interesting. That year i was crazy about Lincoln. I
memorized the entire "0 Captain ! My Captain!" by Walt Whit­
man and recited it to the class.
Little did i know that Lincoln was an archracist who had
openly expressed his disdain for Black people. He was of the
opinion that Black people should be forcibly deported to Africa or
anywhere else. We had been taught that the Civil War was fought to
free the slaves, and it was not until i was in college that i learned
that the Civil War was fought for economic reasons. The fact that
"official" slavery was abolished was only incidental. Northern in­
dustrialists were fighting to control the economy. Before the Civil
War, the northern industrial economy was largely dependent on
southern cotton. The slave economy of the South was a threat to
northern capitalism. What if the slaveholders of the South decided
to set up factories and process the cotton themselves? Northern
capitalists could not possibly compete with slave labor, and their
capitalist economy would be destroyed. To ensure that this didn't
happen, the North went to war.
When i was still in the fourth grade, i fell off a swing and broke
my leg. Mr. Trobawitz came to my house and gave me lessons and





assignments. When i returned to school, Mr. Trobawitz had left to
teach in college. Everybody in the class was sad. A bird-beaked,
stick-to-the-book, teach-by-rote teacher replaced him. She made us
go back to reading in the readers and changed the desks around so
that once again we were sitting in rows. I didn't like her and she
bored me to death.
One time our class had a dance. It was a big event for me since
i loved to dance. The white kids couldn't dance for nothing. They
looked like a bunch of drunken kangaroos, hopping all over the
place, out of time with the music. I sat there with my hand over my
mouth trying to suppress my laughter. I ached to get out there and
show them how to do it. But nobody asked me to dance. I don't
think it ever occurred to them, and, if it did, they knew better.
Dancing with a "nigger" was surely good for a week or so of
teasing. But these whites were not at all out in the open with their
racism. It was undercover, like their parents' racism. Anyhow, i just
sat there, looking at them flop around until this one kid (i'll never
forget his name: Richard Kennedy; he was a poor Irish kid with red
hair) came over to where i was sitting and said, "If you give me a
dime, i'll dance with you." The sad part of the story is that i almost
gave him the dime.
In the fifth grade, i was put into the class of the school's most
notorious battle-ax, Mrs. Hoffler. I knew from the first day it was
going to be a long, hot year. The only good thing was that there was
anoth er Black kid in the class. The teacher put us in the back, next
to each other. His name was David' something, but i called him
David Peacan. The teacher was one of those military types and her
classes resembled boot camp. We were told where to sit, how to sit,
and what kind of notebooks, pens, pencils, etc., to use. She permit­
ted no talking and gave tons of homework. Her punishment for
everything was extra homework. Whenever somebody got caught
talking or doing anything she disapproved of, she gave extra home­
work. When you didn't have your homework, she gave extra home­
work. And every time she gave you extra homework she wrote your
name on the blackboard and refused to remove it until you had
turned in the "punishment." By the time i left her class my name
covered practically the entire blackboard.
David and i were her favorite targets. The whole class would be
in an uproar, but we were the only ones she saw with our mouths
open. The more she rode our backs, the more rebellious i became. I
would sit in the back of the class and make jokes about her.
One day when we were talking and giggling, she came up and
pulled David out of his seat by the ear, twisting it until the whole

side of his face was red and contorted with pain. I made up my
mind right then and there that she wasn't going to do it to me. A
few days later, she came after me. When she put her hands on me, i
kicked her or hit her. I don't remember which. Anyway, the next
thing i knew i was in the principal's office being sent home with a
note. I was scared to death my mother would find out, so i signed
the note myself and brought it to school the next day. My signature
didn't fool anybody. To make a long story short, when my mother
found out i confessed everything and i told her about Mrs. Hoffler.
I think she had some idea about what was going on because she
had seen a change in me. I had always been very quiet and obedient
in school. My mother went to the school, talked to the teacher and
the principal, and demanded i be moved to another class. It's a
good thing she wasn't one of those parents who believe the teacher
is always right because i don't know what would have happened. I
guess the fact that she's a teacher and is acutely aware of the racism
and hostility that Black children are exposed to from the time they
enter school had something to do with it.
I don't remember the name of my other fifth grade teacher
except that it was a mile long and began with a Z, but she was very
nice and a very good teacher. She introduced us to art, literature,
and philosophy. I remember studying the French Revolution in her
class. She made names like Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday,
and Robespierre come alive. She talked about philosophers like
Rousseau who influenced the thinking of the period and about how
the French Revolution was influenced by the amerikan Revolution.
She even showed us pictures of the art and architecture of the
period. She was the first teacher (one of a very few) who taught
subjects as if they related to each other.
Before i was in her class, i would never have imagined that
history was connected to art, that philosophy was connected to
science, and so on. The usual way that people are taught to think in
amerika is that each subject is in a little compartment and has no
relation to any other subject. For the most part, we receive frag­
ments of unrelated knowledge, and our education follows no log­
ical format or pattern. It is exactly this kind of education that
produces people who don't have the ability to think for themselves
and who are easily manipulated.
As we grew older, the differences between the Black and white,
the poor and rich students grew bigger and bigger. Once a new
teacher told us to make mobiles as homework. Most of us brought
in cardboard, wood, or paper mobiles. One kid brought in a
mobile made out of metals-not just one kind of metal, but metals




of different colors. I was in awe of this kid who had the resources to
cut all those different, perfectly formed geometric shapes. Calder
would have taken notice.
The school was in a largely Jewish, middle-class neigh­
borhood. There was a little island of Black people in the middle,
and that was where i lived. It was almost completely segregated
from the white section. The school was right in the middle. In most
of the Black families the mother and father both worked, and many
worked two or three jobs and weren't able to spend a lot of time in
the school. But some of the white parents were there for every little
thing from trips to cookie selling. And talk about pushy parents !
To this day, i believe that some of them did most of their kids'
homework. Black kids wrote a composition or a book report on
plain lined paper and handed it in. Some of the white kids pre­
sented their reports bound in expensive binders, some were typed,
and each page was covered with plastic. I could just imagine asking
my mother to type my homework for me or to give me money to
buy binders and plastic sheets. She would surely have thought i had
gone crazy. The white kids came to school with all kinds of junk:
expensive pen and pencil sets, compasses, and one kid even had a
slide rule, which i doubt he had the faintest idea how to use.
The older they grew, the more snobbish the white kids became.
They were always talking about what they had and what their
parents had bought them. One girl, Marsha, horribly ugly to me,
was always dressed like some kid in the movies or on TV. She was
one of the super-snobs in the class. One day she came to school
with weird-looking mittens on. She said they were made of
chinchilla and that it was the most expensive fur in the world. I
raced home to ask my mother. I just knew she had to be lying
because i had never even heard of chinchilla and everybody i knew
thought that mink was the most expensive fur on the market. I was
really shocked when my mother told me she was telling the truth.
Every year when we came back to school, we would inevitably
be told to write a composition entitled "My Summer Vacation."
Usually we stood in front of the room and read our compositions
aloud. I was always fascinated by some of the places these kids had
been to during the summer: places like Spain, England, Brazil, and
Bermuda. Some of them even brought slides and movies of their
trips. After they finished talking, i wouldn't even want to read my
compositon about being down South with my grandparents.
One of the things that had been drilled into my head since
birth was that we were just as good as white people. "You show
those white people that you are just as good as they are," i was told.

This meant that i was to get good marks in school, that i was to
always be neat and clean when i went to school, that i was to speak
as "properly" as they did, and that i would show them whenever i
could that Black people (we called ourselves Negroes then) could
do whatever white people could do and that we could appreciate
what white people appreciated.
I was supposed to be a child version of a goodwill ambassador,
out to prove that Black people were not stupid or dirty or smelly or
uncultured. I carried out this mission as best i could to show that i
was as good as they were. I never questioned the things they
thought were good. White people said classical music was the
highest form of music; white people said that ballet was the highest
form of dance; and i accepted those things as true. After all, wasn't i
as cultured as they were ? And everything that they wanted, i wanted.
If they wanted poodle jackets, i wanted a poodle jacket. If they
wanted a Star of David necklace, i wanted a Star of David necklace.
If they wanted a Revlon doll, i wanted a Revlon doll. If they could
act snobby, then i could act snobby. I saved my culture, my music,
my dancing, the richness of Black speech for the times when i was
with my own people. I remember how those kids would talk about
gefilte fish and matzos. It would never have occurred to me to talk
about black-eyed peas and rice or collard greens and ham hocks. I
would never have given them an opportunity to ridicule me. Any­
way, half the white people thought that all we ate was grits and
watermelon. In many ways i was living a double existence.
I became interested in television in the fifth or sixth grade. Or,
rather, i should say that that was about the time television started to
corrode my brain. You name any stupid show that existed back in
those days and it was probably one of my favorites. "Ozzie and
Harriet," "Leave It to Beaver," "Donna Reed," "Father Knows
Best," "Bachelor Father," "Lassie," etc. After a while i wanted to be
just like those people on television. After all, they were what
families were supposed to be like.
Why didn't my mother have freshly baked cookies ready when
i came home from school? Why didn't we live in a house with a
backyard and a front yard instead of an ole apartment? I remember
looking at my mother as she cleaned the house in her old raggedy
housecoat with her hair in curlers. "How disgusting," i would
think. Why didn't she clean the house in high heels and shirtwaist
dresses like they did on television? I began to resent my chores. The
kids on television never had any work to do. All they did was their
homework and then they went out to play. They never went to the
laundromat or did the shopping. They never had to do the dishes or




scrub the floor or empty the garbage. They didn't even have to
make their own beds. And the kids on television got everything they
wanted. Their parents never said, "I don't have the money, I can't
afford it." I had very little sympathy for my mother. It never
occurred to me that she worked all day, went to school at night,
cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed, raised two children, and, in
her "spare" time, graded tests and papers and wrote her thesis. I
was furious with her because she wasn't like Donna Reed.
And, of course, the commericals took another toll. I wanted
everything i saw. My mother always bought Brand X. I would be so
exasperated when we went shopping. I wanted her to buy Hostess
Twinkies and Silvercup white bread. Instead, she bought whole
wheat bread and apples. She would never get good cereals like
Sugar Crunchies and Coco Puffs. She always bought some stuff
that was supposed to be good for us. I thought she was crazy. If
Hostess Twinkies were good enough for the kids on TV, then why
weren't they good enough for me ? But my mother remained un­
moved. And i remained disgusted. I was a puppet and i didn't even
know who was pulling the strings.
One year everybody was wearing buttons on their coats. Some
had writing on them and others had pictures of movie stars. I went
somewhere with my mother and my aunt, and they asked me if i
wanted a button. I picked out one with Elvis Presley on it. All the
kids at school thought Elvis Presley was cool. I wore that button
religiously, all winter, and that summer, when i went down South, i
went to see one of Elvis Presley's movies.
In Wilmington, at that time, there was only one movie theater
where Black people were allowed to go. It was called the Bailey
Theater. Once you bought your ticket, you went up a long staircase
on the side of the theater to the second balcony, the "colored"
section. Shame on you if you were nearsighted. The movie was like
all the rest of Elvis's movies-fQrgettable ! When it was over, i went
downstairs. All the white kids were leaving with pictures of Elvis
Presley that they had bought. I started to walk to my grandparents'
restaurant on Red Cross Street, but then i turned around and
walked back. If the white kids could have a picture of Elvis, then so
could i. At least i was gonna try. I knew it would be absolutely no
use to go to the ticket booth and ask the woman anything. She
would most assuredly say no. So i walked right on past her, straight
into the white section of the theater. What a surprise it was ! It was
j ust like the movies in New York. They had soda machines, a butter
popcorn machine, and all kinds of candy and potato chips and
things. Upstairs in the "colored" section, they had some old, stale
plain popcorn and a few candy bars and that was it.

The moment i walked in, all the action stopped. Everybody's
eyes were on me. 1 walked over to the counter where they were
selling the pictures. Before i could open my mouth, the salesgirl
told me, "You're in the wrong section; just go outside and go up
the stairs on the side."
"I want to buy a picture of Elvis Presley," i said.
"What'd you say, again ?" she drawled.
"I want to buy a picture of Elvis Presley," i repeated. "They
don't have any upstairs."
"Well, 1 don't know," she said. "I'll have to get the manager."
She said something to the other woman behind the counter and
then left. By this time a crowd had gathered around me.
"What's she doing in here?" they kept asking each other.
"Now, she knows better," somebody was saying. "Look, Ma, a
colored girl." "Ya get lost, honey?" "What's she want?" "Don't
they have no pictures in the colored section ? " "What's she need
with a picture anyway?"
The crowd was all around me, gawking. It seemed like the
manager would never come.
"Can't she read ? Don't she know that we don't allow no
colored in here?" "I don't know what it's about. Something about a
picture." "Came walking right in here bold as day."
Finally the salesgirl came back. A man was with her. All eyes
were fixed on the manager. He took one look at me and another at
the crowd forming around me.
"Give her the picture and get'er out of here," he told the
salesgirl. Hurriedly, she sold me the picture.
"All right, folks, it's all over now. Go on about your business."
1 took my picture and went prancing out into the daylight. 1
was feeling good. It seemed funny when i thought about it. The
looks on those crakas' faces, all puffed up like balloons. 1 had a
good time, laughing all the way to my grandparents' restaurant.
And of course the minute i got there, i told everybody what hap­
pened. 1 was just so proud. 1 took my picture and put it on the back
counter right next to the funeral parlor calendar. The picture
stayed there a few days until Johnnie from the cab stand across the
street came and told me that Elvis had said the only thing a Black
person could do for him was to buy his records and shine his shoes.
Quietly, i slid the picture into obscurity, then oblivion. (Later i read
that Elvis had given Spiro Agnew a gold-plated .357 Magnum and
had volunteered to work for the FBI.)
Evelyn, my aunt, was the heroine of my childhood. She was
always taking me places and "exposing me to things," as she called
it. She took me to museums-i think we visited just about every




museum in the city of New York. She turned me into a real art
lover. Before i was ten, i could recognize a Van Gogh on sight, and i
knew what cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism were.
Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Modigliani were my favorite
artists. I didn't know the name of one Black artist in those days.
Very few, if any, museums exhibited the work of Black artists, so i
just assumed that Black people weren't too good at painting. But i
learned about African art from my mother. From the time i can
remember, my mother always had African sculpture in the house. It
was the only kind she had. I always loved those pieces and it really
annoyed me when i took art history in school and the teacher
referred to African art as primitive. In fact, if the art was by anyone
else but a white person, it was called primitive art.
In addition to museums, Evelyn would take me to see plays
and movies, and we would experiment with all kinds of restaurants.
We would go to parks, go bicycle riding, and it was Evelyn who
gave me my first rowboat lesson. She was very sophisticated and
knew all kinds of things. She was right up my alley because i was
forever asking all kinds of questions. I wanted to know everything.
She would give me a book and say, "Read this," and i would eat up
that book like it was ice cream.
It was Evelyn who took me to see my first show at the Apollo.
We saw Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. I was walking on
clouds. After that, as soon as i learned to ride the subway by myself,
i went to the daytime shows. If my mother and my aunt had
known, they would have had a fit. I guess people wondered what
this little girl was doing in the Apollo all by herself, but nobody
ever bothered me. I was always pretty lucky that way.
Barbara was a little girl who lived next door to us in Queens.
She was my main friend and foe for quite a while. One day i saw her
leaving her house wearing a white dress and a little white veil like a
bride wears. Everything she had on was white, all the way down to
her shoes. She even had a little white Bible in her hands. I thought
she was gonna be in a Tom Thumb wedding like they have down
South. So i went up to her and asked her who she was marrying.
She said she was making her first communion, that she was Catho­
Well, i became an instant convert. I wanted to wear a white
dress and dress up like a bride, too. And Catholics even got out
early from school on Wednesdays. I raced home to tell my mother.
My mother was very permissive where religion was concerned. She
gave us carte blanche to be Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, or
whatever. So i started going to mass and to catechism classes on

The Catholic Church was like no other church i had ever been
to. Down South i always went to church. But those services were
rich with music and emotion. I would sit caught up in the music
and watch those people who had "got happy" or "got the spirit"
jumping around all over the place. I was never holy-holy, but i had
liked going to church. In the Black churches that i had been in, the
air was charged. The music rocked and the preacher preached and
sang at the same time. People felt free to do what they needed to do.
H they felt like dancing, they danced; if they felt like praying, they
prayed; if they felt like screaming, they screamed; and if they felt
like crying, they cried. The church was there to give them strength
and to get them through the long week ahead of them. Where we
lived in Queens, there was no Black church.
The Catholic Church was different. It was silent and cold. The
music was terrible and you couldn't understand nine-tenths of the
service. But what fascinated me was the spookiness of it. They had
so much weird stuff attached to their religion. When you walked in
the door, you had to cross yourself with holy water; then, before
you could sit down, you had to genuflect. And throughout the
mass, you were forever up and down, sitting, standing, and kneel­
ing. And there was so much stuff to learn. The stations of the cross,
rosary beads, lighting candles, going to confession. It was all so
spooky i just knew that this had to be the real god. The nuns really
tripped me out. They walked around with rings on their fingers
saying they were married to God. That was really weird. And they
could never have children or "do it," and people said they had bald
heads under their habits. I was simply overwhelmed.
The catechism class was nothing like Sunday school. They
never told good stories about Jesus and we never sang "Yes, Jesus
Loves Me. " In catechism class, we learned all about the saints-it
seemed like they had a million of them. And then there was the
Virgin Mary. They made a big deal out of her. They even had us
praying to her. I would do it, but that story was always kind of hard
for me to swallow. Nothing about the Catholics was simple; they
even had different kinds of hell. They had a special one for babies
and then they had one in between and then they had the sho nuff,
sho nuff hell.
They even had two kinds of sin. I can still hear that nun, as if it
were yesterday. Now, a venial sin is a sin that's not so bad; it's a
white sin. But a mortal sin is terrible; it is a black sin.
The night before i was to make my first communion, i had to
run to the church with my baptismal certificate. They needed it to
prove i had been baptized. My mother had had a hell of a time
finding it. I was tickled to be going because they told me to bring it



to the convent where the nuns lived. 1 had been dying to see what it
looked like inside. It was just as cold and lifeless as the church.
When i gave the nun my baptismal certificate, she looked at it and
almost jumped out of her chair. "Oh, no, this won't do," she said.
"This is not a Catholic baptismal certificate. You weren't really
"What?" i said. "I was too baptized. "
"No, you weren't," she said. "It's not a Catholic baptism, s o it
doesn't count. You'll have to be baptized tonight or you can't make
your first communion tomorrow."
1 was not ready for that one. 1 caught an instant attitude. She
was talking about my godparents like they were dirt under her feet.
They called my mother and told her she had to come to the church.
Then they got these total strangers from somewhere and told me
they were supposed to be my godparents and they baptized me. 1
never saw those people again, and if you ask me their names i
couldn't tell you. 1 had had a godmother all my life and here they
were telling me she wasn't my godmother because she wasn't
Catholic. They really made me mad that day, but i didn't say too
much about it. 1 really wanted to make my first communion. 1 did
and, later, my confirmation, but i never looked at them the same.
The sixth grade passed along rather uneventfully. There was
another Black in my class, Gail. We became friendly, but my
relationships with the white kids deteriorated even more. They
made it pretty evident that they didn't care too much for me, and i
made it clear right back that i didn't care for them. The thing i
disliked most about them was their assumptions about me. For one
thing, they automatically assumed that i was stupid, and they
would really act surprised when i showed i had some brains. One of
the biggest fights i had was when this kid in my class couldn't find
some pen that his father had given him and accused me of stealing
it. 1 waited for him outside the classroom and as soon as he came
out the door, i jumped on him like a crazy person. Some teachers
broke us up. "I'm surprised at you," they kept saying. "I never
thought you'd act that way." I was usually very quiet and well
behaved. They acted like i had jumped on that boy for nothing, and
they couldn't understand why i was so angry. As a matter of fact,
even i didn't understand. Then.
Outside of school was a whole 'nother matter. When i wasn't
doing homework or chores, i would go "exploring." My bicycle
was one of the great loves of my life. I would jump on it and ride all
over Queens. Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays i would ride all
day long, leaving early in the morning and returning as late as i was

allowed to. And if i wasn't on my bicycle, i was somewhere playing
with my friends. We played everything from house to handball. I
played with the boys more than with the girls because the boys had
better games. I loved punch ball and handball, anything that in­
volved running. The playground was right across the street from my
house and i took full advantage of everything that was there. I
played hopscotch, marbles, and cowboys and Indians. I always
wanted to be an