Just minutes after waking up in my Compton bedroom yesterday, I knew that it was not a good day. The morning was not tainted by the sound of gunshots or sirens or helicopters hovering over my block. No. Instead, the day was silenced by something that was much more painful and far more unexpected: news that Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac, was dead at the age of 69. I hadn’t even recovered from losing Prince. And now we lose this queen?? My mind stopped. My soul shook. My heart broke.
I learned a lot about Afeni Shakur from Tupac, but her incredible life was not completely captured by her son’s lyrics. Born Alice Williams, she did not come out of the womb as a revolutionary but rather as the product of an abusive relationship. To escape the abuse, Afeni’s mother became a single parent and moved her children to New York, where Afeni attended the Bronx High School of Science. She began cocaine use at the age of fifteen. Of course, as we all now know, Afeni’s activism would ultimately define her more than her addiction. She became a part of the Black Panther Party, which is when she began to claim the name Afeni Shakur as her own. In 1969, she and twenty other Black Panthers were arrested on the basis of allegedly conspiring to bomb multiple public spaces. During what would later be referred to as the Panther 21 trial, Afeni acted as her own criminal defense attorney. Her legal savvy resulted in her being acquitted just one month before giving birth to Tupac.
Can we stop for a moment to appreciate just how naturally badass this woman was? Before any of the world knew her as Pac’s mama, this young Black woman – with no law degree – decided that no one could defend her better than herself. And she was right. And when I learned this about Afeni Shakur, I realized that no one is more invested in the well-being of the Black woman than the Black woman herself.
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But sadly, Afeni’s well-being was something she would struggle with for years. Her addiction to crack cocaine prevented her from having steady employment and ultimately caused her to rely on welfare. Yet Afeni never stopped trying to be the best mother she could be at the time. She relocated her family to Maryland in 1984 and sent Tupac to the Baltimore School for Performing Arts. Afeni’s addiction did cause Tupac to separate himself from her for a couple of years, but it was during this time that he released 2Pacalypse Now and his rap legacy began. Afeni went back to New York in 1991 and attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings that helped her get clean.
I learned a lot about being a Black woman from Afeni Shakur. A Black woman can become a drug addict. A Black woman can be on welfare. A Black woman can fight for civil rights. A Black woman can face criminal charges, defend her own damn self in court, and win. A Black woman can be a single parent. A Black woman can lose her son before he sees the age of 30. A Black woman can launch a clothing line and an arts program.
The timing of her death is saddening, as her abrupt passing on Monday night happened just hours after news that Tupac’s upcoming biopic, All Eyez on Me, was nearing completion. Afeni was an executive producer on the project. With Mother’s Day right around the corner, I imagined how awful the timing must be for her daughter Sekyiwa. The Black queen – as Afeni’s son so fittingly described her – did so much more than birth a rap legend. She created her own legacy as a Black Panther, philanthropist, and badass businesswoman. Tupac unknowingly shared his mother with me and so many other Black women. Afeni was far from flawless, and this is what made her such a perfect embodiment of the complexity of Black womanhood. She was an activist and she was an addict. She was a strong mother and a single mother. She had been homeless and she made others feel at home.
Growing up in Compton as a huge fan of Tupac, and as a Black woman, I rejoiced in the lyrics of “Dear Mama” and recited them feeling like I had the musical talent of Aretha Franklin and the poetic essence of Maya Angelou. When Tupac wrote “Dear Mama,” he wrote a raw, real, heartfelt thank you letter to Afeni that acknowledged her weaknesses and admired her strengths. But the song quickly became an ode to single Black mothers everywhere, from Compton to Inglewood to Ladera Heights, as it gently asked them “don’t cha know we love ya, sweet lady?”
Black mothers struggle. And they triumph. And they fall. And they rise. Black mothers scream. And they cry. And they hurt. And they heal. Black mothers are Black women. They are beautifully bruised and curiously complex.
To identify as a Black woman is to identify, as Malcolm X once said, as the most disrespected person in America. As I started to stand more and more firmly in my identity as a Black woman, it became increasingly clear that this was indeed true. But it also became increasingly clear that much of this disrespect stemmed from fear of not being able to control the Black woman. When I went to college, I realized how disrespect was (ineffectively) hurled at myself and other Black women to silence our voices and invalidate our experiences. I realized that nothing was more threatening to my classmates – or to society – than a Black woman who claimed both her Blackness and her womanhood in the midst of oppressive structures that constantly told her she must choose one or the other. And I realized that in this radical act of claiming our own identity, Black women could be some of the most powerful activists in the fight against social injustices.
A Black woman can be handed lemons and make lemonade. And that lemonade can be as sweet as Afeni Shakur herself. I can never thank her in a way as special as Tupac did, but I will always love the black queen.
Afeni, you are appreciated.
LaLa is a proud Black womxn hailing from Compton, CA. She is in love with writing, ice cream, tacos, and fighting against injustice. She will soon be teaching special education in the Bay Area.
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