Living History

In An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created, Santi Elijah Holley settles the score.

an amerikan family, the shakurs and the nation they created, santi elijah holley
vikesh kapoor

An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs and the Nation They Created is a multigenerational family biography written by Santi Elijah Holley. His portrait was created during the time that George Floyd was murdered and the country was once again asking the questions it has been asking for decades: Why does this keep happening? Have we not learned anything?

It’s enough to make a reader want to question whether the Shakurs did create a nation.

You can look at Holley’s book as a story of a family, a bloc on the block, as it ages and new generations emerge. The name is never rubbed out. Admirers pick it up and join the effort. As one friend says, “it was a collective. It was a community. It was a family. The Shakurs were like this incredible clan. They were a New Afrikan tribe.”

The family saga starts offhandedly, with James Coston Sr., a former boxer and navy man who sold African-styled clothing and was an acolyte of Malcolm X. He changed his name to Salahdeen Shakur in expression of his Muslim faith—Shakur, says Holley, is a transliteration of an Arabic word for “thankful”—and he raised two sons, Lumumba and Zayd.

As a teenager, Alice Faye Williams was a brawling leader of the Disciple Debs street gang. But after hearing Bobby Seale speak about the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program in Harlem in early 1968, she joined the nationalist cause, changing her name to Afeni Shakur.

The New York branch of the Panthers operated in contrast to its West Coast counterpart, rejecting the black leather and berets for dashikis and Pan-African leaders. Party chief of staff David Hilliard reported back to Oakland that by 1968 the New York enclave had been “taken over by some veteran movement people and a family named Shakur. With their confusing African names and peculiar New York manner, I can hardly keep track of them.” Tensions between East and West would only grow.

By 1970, a former City College of New York student named JoAnne Chesimard had joined the New York Panthers, becoming Assata Shakur. Today, she remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, long after a state trooper pulled her and two others over on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. The government said Shakur killed the trooper. She was convicted of assault and murder in 1977.

In the time around the turnpike shooting, Shakur also faced charges of kidnapping and bank robbery but was not convicted. She had already built a legendary reputation; having survived being shot in the stomach during a 1971 hotel robbery, she said she was glad it had happened because she’d never fear being shot again.

Her reputation only grew after she escaped prison with the help of Mutulu Shakur, whom Salahdeen had raised as his son. She fled to Cuba, where she continues to live.

All of this could have been framed as the story of a mythological family turned into national symbols. But Holley has so much ground to cover and so many plates to juggle that he mostly focuses on how the family survived gunshots, unjust trials, and COINTELPRO spying and conspiracy.

An Amerikan Family is living history, and conducting more interviews with living sources would have made it a richer book. But as it is, Holley presents a teeming narrative. Details may astonish readers, but the plot feels right at home in the season of Black Lives Matter and the reemergence of white nationalism.

Holley tracks the downfall: “Authorities had effectively neutralized the final active leader of the Black liberation movement,” he writes, “and delivered a decisive blow to the troublesome Shakur family. Zayd was dead, Lumumba was dead, Assata was in exile, Afeni was struggling with drug addiction and PTSD, and Mutulu was now behind bars.”

An Amerikan Family is being published in the era of Afropessimism, an analytic structure for thinking about racism and society’s dependency on anti-Black violence. UC Irvine professor Frank B. Wilderson III has been called “the titular Godfather of Afropessimism”; his 2020 book, Afropessimism, is dedicated in part to Assata Shakur.

With its illustration of crushing state power, An Amerikan Family seems an evidentiary brief for Afropessimists. But then along comes a youth in the last quarter of the book. Groomed by his mother, Tupac Shakur is possessed of a great charisma and yearning.

His skills as a rapper brought many of the lessons on which he had been raised to a wide new audience. Tupac also drew attention from the Panther old guard—and wariness from the hip-hop community. There were new rules of behavior and huge temptations and challenges. He praised his mother in “Dear Mama” but also bowed to rap’s macho ethos.

And in the end, he was brought down by bullets too. Though Holley treads too lightly on how Tupac met his fate, his book gets across a vital uncertainty. What lives on when such a figure is murdered, and what is quelled? Here the answers seem provisional, left hanging. Either Holley doesn’t have them, or he leaves it for us to decide for ourselves.•



Mariner Books

RJ Smith is the author of Chuck Berry: An American Life.
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