Afeni Shakur is ready to fight.
She’s already spent eleven months in the Women’s House of Detention and, although she’s out on bail, she is not free. It’s September 8, 1970, and she’s waiting inside the New York County Criminal Court in Manhattan. Seventeen months ago, she was indicted on charges including attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and conspiracy to bomb buildings. A conviction threatens to send her behind bars for the remainder of her life.
And, to add to her troubles, she is pregnant with her first child — a boy.
To the jury who will decide her fate, Afeni looks like any other young member of the Black Panther Party — an average-size, dark-skinned, short-haired, twenty-three-year-old black woman. A group about whom the media had spent years conjuring up scare stories at this point.
Soon, she will stand before a white judge and face an all-white prosecution as the government of the country she lives in actively works to eradicate the organization she’s a part of, as they have effectively done with most of those they’ve deemed a credible threat.
However, Afeni can’t afford for her mind to be frazzled by her circumstances. She’s about to defend herself in the trial without the aid of a lawyer — a decision widely viewed as suicidal.
Afeni is not alone. In The People of the State of New York v. Lumumba Shakur et al., there are twelve other defendants, all part of the “Panther 21,” who on April 2, 1969, were arrested and indicted on charges of attempted murder, arson, and bombing.
But proving Afeni’s innocence and earning her freedom is now her responsibility alone. If she’s found guilty, the penalty is a 350-year sentence. She has no experience in court, no legal background whatsoever.
“We didn’t know what we were dealing with,” Shakur said, looking back. “We were in over our heads.” And if she fails, her life — and her unborn child’s — is effectively over.
Both violently and nonviolently, in her time as a Panther and afterward, as an activist, Afeni Shakur sought to tear down the system of oppression that she had been born into. But ultimately, she believed that the Black Panther Party, and she herself, failed.
“Instead, we turned against God, and how you gonna win like that? You have to have a moral imperative to win,” Afeni said. “We didn’t understand that. We drew violence to ourselves. We drew bitterness to ourselves.”
But in this early life-and-death fight, Afeni unquestionably won. She would be jailed again, make bail again, and thrive as her own de facto lawyer, playing a key role in the acquittal of the Panther 21 on all charges in May 1971. A month later, she gave birth to her son.
She would watch him grow into a man who brought her values to a global audience, becoming one of the most famous and beloved black men in the world — only to see him die of gunshot wounds at the age of twenty-five, the same violence she saw break the Panthers taking the life of her firstborn child.
Afeni, who passed away in 2016, had a life filled with troubles. She became addicted to drugs shortly after winning her freedom, and it forever strained her relationship with her son, who became distant as his music career took off, as well as with her daughter, Sekyiwa. She was impulsive and selfish at times. She could be stubborn, and she had a temper.
At no point, though, did she forget her people and her fight. Like many black women born in the South decades before Jim Crow’s defeat, she was born into struggle and violence. The world, it seems, wanted to break her into a million pieces.
But again and again, up until her death at the age of sixty-nine, Afeni triumphed over them all.
Afeni was born Alice Faye Williams in Lumberton, North Carolina, in 1947. Her mother, Rosa Belle, took care of the household while her father, Walter Williams Jr, worked as a truck driver. Shakur described her father as a “street nigga” who beat her mother frequently.
“Here I was … this bright little girl who wanted so much for her father to find her special and wonderful, and he never did,” Afeni said. “I needed a father who was there. I needed a father who was not a threat to my mom.”
Rosa, who was from Lumberton but had moved to Norfolk for her family, managed to put up with Williams’s domestic abuse for years. Eventually, though, she broke down and called her brother to come and help her and her two daughters move first back to Lumberton in 1958 and then to the Bronx.
In New York, Afeni was free from her father, but she was still haunted by the memories of his abuse. “For most of my life I have been angry. I thought my mama was weak and my daddy was a dog,” she said. “That anger fed me for many years.” In the Bronx, she got into fights with boys and girls alike at school and in her neighborhood. “Everything around me seemed hurtful,” Afeni said. “We had no protection. I never felt safe.”
Despite her festering rage, Afeni performed well in school. Her test scores got her into the Bronx High School of Science, but she became more interested in the streets and joined the Disciple Debs, a women’s gang in Harlem. “All I wanted was protection,” Afeni said. “That’s all every woman wants. To feel secure.”
She finally found that protection in 1968. While walking down 125th Street that year, she noticed a man standing on a corner and speaking in front of a crowd. It was Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale. The crowd drew her attention, but what made her stop was Seale’s words.
“He was just saying that we could all do something about the police who were in our community,” Afeni said in a 1972 interview. “I just joined [that August] totally freaked out that some young people would have the heart to go to a state legislature with guns and just stand there and say, ‘Get your hands off my gun!’ It was probably the glamour and romanticism that brought me into the party.”
Through the Panthers, she soon met and fell in love with Lumumba Shakur, the leader of the Harlem chapter. With the charismatic and intelligent Lumumba, Afeni seemingly found the security she’d been looking for all those years. “When I met Lumumba’s family, my entire view of men and family was shaken up,” she said. “The Shakur family was not only strong, but they were independent thinkers.”
It was a whirlwind romance, and the two were married shortly after, with Afeni even converting to Islam. She was assigned the orisha Oya, who is the Yoruba deity of weather, death, and rebirth, and given the name Afeni, which means “dear one” and “lover of the people,” in 1968.
But when it came to the logistics of Afeni’s relationship with Lumumba, the circumstances were awkward, to say the least. He already had a wife, and the trio lived together for a period while Lumumba bounced back and forth romantically between the two women.
Meanwhile, Afeni threw herself into work with the Panthers. It was the antidote to the violence and hardships of her youth and the beginning of a healing process, not only for her but for an entire generation of black men and women who suddenly, in young adulthood, found themselves taking on institutional racism.
She wrote their newsletter, became a section leader of the Harlem chapter, and did extensive volunteer work at places such as Lincoln Hospital, all while making ends meet as a schoolteacher. Through the party, she was able to not only take her pent-up rage from earlier in life and channel it outward toward her oppressors but also improve as an individual — a story common for many members, who found in the Panthers a kind of spiritual rebirth.
“They educated my mind and gave me direction,” Afeni said. “With that direction came hope, and I loved them for giving me that. Because I never had hope in my life. I never dreamed of a better place or hoped for a better world for my mama, and my sister, and me.”
But in the Panthers, the police and FBI saw something else altogether: a mortal threat taking shape in America’s own cities. And one with willingness to use, if necessary, violent means to achieve revolutionary ends.
Between 1967 and early 1969, the party was involved in several altercations with police, including arguments, protests, shootings, bombings, and raids that led to damages, injuries, and deaths. Their socialist ideology and advocacy of armed self-defense was deemed to be an existential threat. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is said to have declared that “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”
Those words weren’t idle. California governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, repealing an earlier law that allowed citizens to carry loaded firearms, as an explicit measure to crack down on the Panthers. But it was just the beginning. By the late 1960s, the Panthers were a prime target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, designed to infiltrate and discredit the Panthers and other radical left groups. On December 4, 1969, the deputy chairman of the Panthers, Fred Hampton, was murdered by Chicago police along with Mark Clark in a predawn raid, having been drugged earlier by an FBI informant to ensure he wouldn’t escape.
The US state was now gunning for the Black Panthers, ready to unleash whatever violence was necessary to stop them. What had given Afeni hope and drawn her into their world would soon fill her with a greater sense of fear than she had ever known.
Early on, Afeni knew something was deeply wrong.
It was Yedwa Sudan, a fellow member of the Harlem chapter. Something about him was just off, and she could feel it. He was aggressive and short-tempered. He eagerly and carelessly talked about committing acts of violence directed toward police in a more brazen manner than even the aggressively militant Panthers were accustomed to.
Afeni told Lumumba about her suspicions that Yedwa was not who he said he was — perhaps he was even an undercover cop.
“Man, he couldn’t be a cop,” Lumumba later told one of the attorneys. “You should have seen the shit he did.”
To Afeni, it was another example of something that had long bothered her about the Black Panther Party — the sexism, so common in America at the time, that was pervasive even in an organization like theirs. Men in the party tended to refuse women positions of authority and shrug off their opinions as trivial.
But Afeni was right — “Yedwa Sudan” was really NYPD officer Ralph White.
“I was pushing and pushing for women to have more rights in the party,” Afeni said. “And we fought about [Yedwa] because I knew he was a fucking cop from the very beginning and Lumumba wouldn’t listen.” And yet the very overtures toward street violence and hyperaggression that roused Afeni’s suspicions only proved, to some Panther cadre, Yedwa’s authenticity.
White, posing as Yedwa Sudan, had been sent not only to infiltrate the Panthers but to destroy it by leading it down a path of violence, where the brutal arm of the American state could both more easily discredit the organization and smash it by force, an arena where the cops would always have the upper hand.
If Lumumba had listened to Afeni, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so caught off guard at 5 a.m. on April 2, 1969, when detective Francis Dalton and four other New York Police Department officers arrived unannounced at their home at 112 West 117th Street. Dalton lit a rag, and the officers collectively shouted “Fire!” to lure Lumumba and Afeni from their apartment before arresting the couple.
Along with eight other Black Panthers, Afeni and Lumumba were arrested and indicted on 156 charges stemming from attacks on four police stations between 1968 and 1969, and their alleged planning to bomb a commuter railroad, the New York Botanical Garden, and shopping crowds in five department stores in New York.
In total, twenty-one members of the party, who became known as the Panther 21, were named in the indictment. Bail was set at $100,000 for the thirteen who were apprehended and went on to appear in court.
It turns out it wasn’t just White — NYPD officers Eugene Roberts and Carlos Ashwood had also successfully infiltrated their chapter, providing crucial testimony that helped secure the indictments.
Afeni vehemently denied the accusations. White, as Yedwa, hadn’t merely spied on them, he’d led them into a trap — one only Afeni saw coming.
“I knew my militant agenda would one day end here in the hall of justice,” Afeni said, “but there was no justice in how it was going down. We were spied on, infiltrated, set up, and psychologically manipulated. I saw people I thought I knew change before my very eyes.”
The prosecution was led by Joseph A. Phillips, a skilled lawyer from the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Luckily, the Panthers were able to raise money for a defense by attorneys including William Crain, Gerald Lefcourt, Carol Lefcourt, Robert Bloom, Sanford Katz, and Charles McKinney.
Lumumba handpicked Carol Lefcourt to serve as the primary defense for Afeni. But Afeni immediately took issue with the choice.
“Carol Lefcourt had a tiny, squeaky voice,” Afeni said. “And I thought hell no, she can’t represent me! Not sounding like that. The judge wouldn’t be able to hear her objection, not with that voice. There was no meat to her voice, no resonance, no assurance . . . Hey, I’m facing the same three hundred and fifty years everyone else is facing, and I am not going out like that.”
So, with her life on the line, Afeni took a risk and made a decision that struck many as crazy — she decided to represent herself in court.
Lumumba tried to persuade her to backtrack on the plan, but Afeni held firm when the pretrial hearing began in February 1970. The defense team was understandably apprehensive, but the way Afeni handled herself in court would shock them all — not least of which Afeni herself. “I just thought I was writing my own obituary.”
But Afeni wasn’t entirely on her own. The Panthers had inspired remnants of an older left who, even after the disastrous McCarthy years, were there to lend a hand when it mattered most. While incarcerated in the Women’s House of Detention, Afeni developed a relationship with a group of supportive women on the outside who had participated in the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s. Although they were older and many of them were white, they were hardened radicals who knew what it meant to go up against the state — especially as a woman.
They’d write her, visit her, and ask how they could help. She asked them to create a bail fund for other incarcerated women who needed less than $500 for their bail. They did so, but they also created a bail fund for Afeni. And on March 1970, following eleven months in prison, Afeni made bail.
While she wasn’t yet free, she was no longer incarcerated. And though she and others believed her life was essentially over at this point, she was preparing to fight with everything she had.
During her time in prison, Afeni and Lumumba had grown distant. The prosecution was able to successfully limit the amount of time the defendants could spend together outside of court. And in the few times they were able to meet, Lumumba repeatedly asked Afeni to have sex — even with the other defendants and lawyers present. She refused. This, along with their recurring disagreements throughout the trial, led to the further deterioration of their relationship.
While she was out on bail, Afeni became pregnant with fellow Black Panther Billy Garland’s child. Once Lumumba found out, he disowned her as his wife — the “open” status of their relationship apparently only applying to him. With Lumumba turning his back on her, Afeni was even more alone.
Incredibly, when the trial began in September 1970, that didn’t dissuade her from her decision to act as her own lawyer. Now on her own, she leapt into the role with gusto.
“I was young,” Afeni said. “I was arrogant. And I was brilliant in court. I wouldn’t have been able to be brilliant if I thought I was going to get out of jail. It was because I thought this was the last time I could speak. The last time before they locked me up forever.”
She wasn’t afraid to challenge the judge, to get into back-and-forth banter with him when displeased and raise objections toward the prosecution. She tactfully interviewed witnesses and led cross-examinations as though she were a seasoned attorney.
From the outside, there was nothing to signal that Afeni was outside her comfort zone. Five months into her pregnancy, however, her mental and physical well-being would begin to collapse. After two defendants jumped bail, Afeni had her bail revoked on February 3, 1971. Shortly after, Huey P. Newton dismissed all the defendants besides Afeni and Joan Bird from the Black Panther Party. Since Afeni and Bird were the only two women on trial and, unlike the men, made no attempt to flee while on bail, they were spared.
With bail revoked, Afeni was once again behind bars in the decrepit New York Women’s House of Detention — she went without hot water, ate slop for food, was subject to regular body cavity searches, and was given only a couple sheets of toilet paper per day. Afeni was later bailed out a second time by the same group of women who put up money the first time around, but any period of time in those conditions put not only her health at risk but her unborn child’s as well.
“The conditions are not just abominable, as they were before; they are inhuman,” Afeni said to Justice John Murtagh. “The facilities are not bad anymore; they are ridiculous. Women should not be put in there.”
As for the Panthers, Afeni was quickly growing disenchanted with the organization. It didn’t sit right with her that most of the other defendants had been kicked out because a few had jumped bail. Even worse, on April 17, 1971, a man named Sam Napier, the circulation manager of the Black Panther newspaper, who was a close friend of hers but an enemy of the Harlem chapter, had been tied to a chair and shot to death in a Panthers office in Corona, Queens. The violence Afeni had spent a lifetime trying to escape was now taking over the party she had once seen as her salvation. And she was caught in the middle of it all.
For months, Afeni wanted nothing more than to confront Officer Ralph White in the courtroom.
The first of the three undercover officers to take the stand, though, was Eugene Roberts. He was considered the prosecution’s star witness, but his reports of what he observed the Panther 21 doing were too vague to fit the charges. On further questioning, Roberts revealed that the group hadn’t done planning of any kind for a supposed bombing campaign. His insistence that the charges were true, and that the bombings were imminent, was hardly believable.
“I personally believed something was going to be done,” Roberts said, “but I didn’t know when.”
Roberts’s uninspiring testimony had already dealt the prosecution a serious blow. It was now up to White. For the state to win, he would have to make the case that the defendants, including Afeni, were not just members of a radical political party — perhaps even extremists — but violent terrorists who, before they were arrested, were on the cusp of unleashing a wave of murder and mayhem on the citizens of New York.
This also meant that Afeni would finally get to face White — one-on-one. It was obviously personal for her. White was, after all, one of the primary reasons she was forced to survive in such terrible conditions in a poorly maintained jail for months during her pregnancy.
Rather than lose her cool, however, Afeni lured him into a trap — and it was that trap that, once sprung, became the pivotal moment in the trial.
“Why, Yedwa, have you done this to us?”
It was the first thing she had said to White since her arrest, and her first question to him on the stand. She stood before him now in the courtroom wearing a smock that tightly hugged her pregnant belly, all her anger and her sense of betrayal contained in eight words.
White and the state wanted to make the case that the Panthers truly embodied the violence and militancy of their rhetoric. That all the talk of getting “the pigs” was backed up by a very real thirst for violence in the streets — one that Afeni and the other defendants were actively headed toward.
So Afeni asked him how he would characterize, in his words, not the rhetoric but the day-to-day work the Black Panthers were doing — and, more important, how he would characterize her own work.
White: As far as your involvement, I thought you were more military than political.
Shakur: What involvement?
White: I can’t remember everything you said or everything you had done or even all your actions; but . . . I was only basing my own opinion on what I saw about you or about anyone else.
Shakur: I understand that. But you said there were things you saw me doing, I just want to hear one thing.
White: I remember a meeting at the Panther office, you were real charged up about — you went into a thing about icing the pigs, along with that military thing, and very emotional. I remember that, plus other things I can’t remember offhand. I am only saying what I based my opinions on, what . . . had seen and heard and I had forgotten most of them.
Shakur: Did you ever see me at Lincoln Hospital working?
White: Yes, I have.
Shakur: Did you ever see me at the schools working?
White: Yes, I have.
Shakur: Ever see me in the street working?
White: Yes, I have.
Shakur: Are these some of the things that led you to think I was military minded?
White: No, it was not.
Shakur: You don’t remember the other things.
White: At the time I remembered them then. I remember — you reminded me of the good things you were doing. If you reminded me of some of the things you said, I could answer that.
Shakur: Yes, I guess so.
The state’s case rested almost entirely on the testimony of undercover agents — and that testimony relied almost entirely on militant rhetoric. Fighting words, and little more.
And in one cross-examination, Afeni had dealt a major blow to it.
The writing was on the wall by April 2, 1971, two years after the members of the Panther 21 were arrested. Officer Carlos Ashwood, who was prosecutor Joseph Phillips’s final major witness, had taken the stand starting in late March, and he didn’t prove any more useful to the prosecution than the previous two officers had. Afeni made him come off as childish.
Shakur: Did you ever see me kill anyone?
Ashwood: I never saw you kill anyone.
Shakur: Did you ever see me blow up anything?
Ashwood: I never saw you blow up anything.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Phillips resorted to outbursts of emotion to fight for his unraveling case. All that was left was for the defense counsel, prosecutor, and judge to speak directly to the jury.
Afeni was selected to speak second to last among the defense counsel. Despite her successful cross-examinations, no one was certain of the outcome. Ironically, it was only now that she felt like she had a fighting chance that she softened. She was no longer the brazen young woman who decided she would go down swinging. The anger that had been with her as a girl in an abusive home and later, when she found purpose in the Black Panthers, had fled her.
Standing before the jury in her White smock, she was something else altogether for the first time in her life: vulnerable. Her life — and the life of her unborn son — hung in the balance of a dozen strangers’ decision. She dropped the righteous and romantic rhetoric that had first attracted her to the Panthers as a young woman and instead stared ahead at the jury of twelve, speaking from the heart.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. I don’t know how I’m supposed to justify the charges that Mr. Phillips has brought before the court against me. But I do know that none of these charges has been proven and I’m not talking about proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I’m saying that none of the charges have been proven, period. That nothing has been proven in this courtroom, that I or any of the defendants did any of these things that Mr. Phillips insists we did do. So, why are we here? Why are any of us here? I don’t know.
But I would appreciate it if you end this nightmare, because I’m tired of it and I can’t justify it in my mind. There’s no logical reason for us to have gone through the last two years as we have, to be threatened with imprisonment because somebody somewhere is watching and waiting to justify being a spy. So do what you have to do. But please don’t forget what you saw and heard in this courtroom . . . Let history record you as a jury that would not kneel to the outrageous bidding of the state. Show us that we were not wrong in assuming that you would judge us fairly. And remember that that’s all we’re asking of you.
Phillips was next. But where Afeni had been sincere and vulnerable, he was arrogant, even insulting — attempting to harden the jury’s hearts against the pregnant woman who’d just spoken to them to save her life. Picking up on a growing sympathy among the jury for Afeni, he accused them of forgetting the key facts of the case. Despite how poorly it was going, Justice Murtagh spoke as if Phillips had the advantage when the defense motioned to object during his soliloquy.
“Apparently he is doing too well for you,” Murtagh said. “Be seated.”
Around 4 p.m. on May 12, 1971, Murtagh was informed that the jury had rendered a verdict — it had only taken them about twenty minutes. Assuming the verdict would be guilty, he spent thirty-five minutes taking security measures.
When the jurors arrived at 4:35 p.m., they delivered their unanimous verdict: 156 utterances of “not guilty.”
After juror James Ingram Fox said “not guilty” for the final time, Afeni burst into tears, Lumumba shouted, and each of the defendants came together to cry, yell, and celebrate with one another. More than twenty-five months after their arrest, they were all free.
Afterward, the defendants and jurors met at the law offices of Crain and Lefcourt to celebrate. One juror, impressed by how Afeni had defended herself in the courtroom, asked her what her secret was.
“Fear,” Afeni answered. “Plain fear.”
A little over a month later, Afeni gave birth on June 16, 1971. She named her son Lesane Parish Crooks. A few days later, she changed his name to Tupac Amaru Shakur, after the great Incan leader. “I wanted him to know he was part of a world culture and not just from a neighborhood,” she said. “I wanted him to have the name of revolutionary, indigenous people in the world.”
She didn’t return to the Black Panther Party and instead married Mutulu Shakur, who was a member of the Black Liberation Army, in 1975, the same year their daughter, Sekyiwa Shakur, was born.
But in 1981, Mutulu, five other members of the BLA, and four ex-members of the Weather Underground robbed an armored car in Nanuet, New York, stealing $1.6 million in cash and leaving one security guard dead and another seriously wounded. Two police officers were killed in their escape. Mutulu then went on the run, with the couple divorcing soon after. Finally, after losing her job in legal services in 1984, Afeni moved with her two children from New York to Baltimore, Maryland, to make a clean break and start a new chapter in her life.
But instead, her life began to spiral out of control. Afeni had used cocaine and LSD during her stressful days in court and continued her drug use after the trial. She got clean during the first two years that she was in Baltimore but soon relapsed. As her addiction intensified, she sent her children to live with a friend in Marin City, California. She explained:
My addiction was not just to substances but also to the people I continued to keep in my life. I stayed right there with those people. I never moved on. All the time these men were being killed viciously, being arrested, disappearing, and I just stayed. I believed in my heart that this was it. These people were my life. I didn’t know that I had a choice to get out of it … Even when I was smoking crack at my worst, I would say, “God, how am I gonna get out of this?” And He would say, “Well, for you there is no way out. Where would you go?”
I thought the reason I was getting high was to quiet the vision of all the people dying and all that violence and trauma. So, I would say stuff like, “If you stood in my shoes for one second, your ass would be high too.” And I believed it.
Afeni wasn’t the only former Panther to struggle in those years. Cofounder Huey Newton was murdered in 1989 by a drug dealer and member of the Black Guerrilla Family, a nominally Marxist-Leninist prison gang. Many others had either been killed or incarcerated by then.
Afeni eventually moved to Marin City to join her children, but she got sidetracked again when she started a relationship with an imprisoned man. She became pregnant and, after initially being denied an abortion, began heavily smoking crack in an attempt to end the baby’s life. By the time she actually received an abortion, she was a crack addict.
From there, Tupac branched out on his own while Sekyiwa was left to fend for herself. Separated from her children and strung out on drugs, Afeni hit a low.
“I was dying, and I knew that I was dying because my spirit was not there at all,” Afeni said. “I would go to bed at night and really not care whether or not I woke up.”
It wasn’t until she moved back to New York in 1990 that Afeni shook her drug addiction through Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Tupac, who was quickly growing into a rap star, was still apprehensive about reconnecting. That hurt Afeni, but she understood it.
“As a girl, I just hurt,” Afeni said. “My mama was weak and sweet. My dad mean and arrogant. We were Black and poor in a place where that meant you weren’t shit and I wasn’t goin’ down like that. So, I understand Tupac. He looked for the reasons in me just like I looked for the answers in my parents. When Tupac came at me with a bunch of motherfuckin’ whys, I knew I had it coming.”
But Afeni’s influence on Tupac grew even in her absence. As a teenager, he joined the Young Communist League USA. Later, as his fame grew, he used it to speak out against the system of American justice that his mother had first challenged decades earlier, even as the culture, in its “end of history” moment, had moved far away from radical politics of any kind.
“There’s too much money here,” Tupac said in a 1992 interview with MTV News. “There’s no way that these people should own planes and there are people who don’t have houses, apartments, shacks, drawers, pants.”
Afeni was patient, giving her son the space he needed as his music began to touch first thousands then millions of lives. Eventually, they grew closer than ever before. Tupac even wrote about their renewed relationship in his 1995 track “Dear Mama.”
“And even as a crack fiend, Mama, you always was a black queen, Mama,” Tupac rapped. “I finally understand. For a woman it ain’t easy tryin’ to raise a man. You always was committed. A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how you did it. There’s no way I can pay you back, but the plan is to show you that I understand — you are appreciated.”
In 1996, less than two years after “Dear Mama,” Tupac was shot and killed in Las Vegas. That could’ve sent Afeni down a dark path once again. Instead, she took charge of her son’s estate, starting a company in his honor called Amaru Entertainment. Losing her son reinvigorated her determination to continue her positive trajectory in his honor.
“When I lost my son, I had to remember I had a daughter and I had grandchildren and I have a responsibility to my son to stay clean and live up to my duties,” Afeni said. “And my duties did not end when Tupac died.”
Afeni went on to continue her work as an activist and traveled frequently to make guest appearances and lectures. Through sharing her experiences, she found peace. In her later years, Afeni lived in a house in Stone Mountain, Georgia, purchased for her by her son before he died. She believed it was the first time someone from her family had owned land since her great-grandmother Millie Ann, who lost it after she put it up to bail out her sons from jail.
When Afeni passed away on May 2, 2016, she was most widely known not for her fight in the Panther 21, not for standing up to an American state at war with her and winning, but for being the mother of a charismatic superstar who died before his time — the baby she was striving to protect nearly half a century earlier.
But those of her generation who had been born into violence, into a struggle already centuries old, who fought their way out, who lost and then found themselves all over again, knew she was much more than that.
An anger made Afeni Shakur. But it did not break her.