When JoAnne Deborah Byron was born in Jamaica, Queens, in 1947, the world around her was strictly divided along racial and gender lines, with segregation written into the law and woven into the culture as far north as New York.
These realities would largely shape the life of the woman who came to be known as Assata Shakur, as the racial and sexual inequalities of her youth eventually became the excuse for every crime she committed and eventually landed her on the FBI’s Most Wanted list as a domestic terrorist.
To this day, the woman who came to embody the intersectional liberation politics of the late Civil Rights era enjoys a sizable base of support in the United States, despite – or perhaps because of – her conviction for murdering a police officer and her dramatic escape from the country years later.
From JoAnne Byron to Assata Shakur
The New York of Assata Shakur’s childhood was a harsh place for black girls. Race riots and white flight killed the economic and social boom that Harlem had enjoyed before World War II had ended, and an economic depression had settled over the black communities in every borough of the city.
Shakur’s parents divorced when she was young, and she spent the majority of her early life in her grandmother’s home in North Carolina, before another upheaval took her back to Queens as a teenager. There, with chaos in her home and endless friction at her predominantly white school, she became a discipline problem and frequently ran away from home, sometimes living with strangers.
Eventually, Shakur’s Aunt Evelyn took her in. This relationship seems to have been the turning point in the girl’s life. According to her own later account, Evelyn embodied everything Shakur wanted to be: smart, educated, traveled, sophisticated, and brave.
Evelyn couldn’t really control Shakur’s temper or her independent streak – she dropped out of high school during her time with her aunt – but she could capture the girl’s attention with trips to the theater and other elements of culture, as well as with books from her enormous library and the hours-long conversations that went with them.
With her Aunt Evelyn’s help, Assata Shakur studied for and got her GED, before setting off for the Borough of Manhattan Community College, followed by the more prestigious City College of New York.