Birthday Hymn for AFENI

words by: Jamal Joseph

Afeni Shakur was the baddest Black Woman to walk the planet! With all due respect and love for Harriett Tubman, Queen Nzinga, Rosa Parks, Madam C.J. Walker, Angela Davis, Beyonce, Michelle Obama, Kathleen Cleaver and numerous others in the pantheon of Sister Soul greatness—Afeni’s beauty, brilliance, swag and thunder made her life journey the essence of truth to power.

In 1970, Afeni and I were in the basement of a Harlem Church serving pancakes and eggs to children who had come for a hot meal from the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast program. I was 16. Afeni was 22. We had been arrested and spent a year in prison as members of the Panther 21 conspiracy case. We had been released on bail raised by Panthers and the community, but were facing a long trial and 360 years in prison.

April 4, 1970—New York—Afeni Shakur and Jamal Joseph at a rally in support of the Panther 21
April 4, 1970—New York—Afeni Shakur and Jamal Joseph at a rally in support of the Panther 21

The last child had left for school and I was mopping the floor when 20 Cops swarmed in with guns drawn. A White Police Lieutenant in a trench coat strolled up to me and demanded to know what I was doing. My heart pounded as I tried to be cool in explaining that this was a community breakfast program. I was certain I was going to be shot and killed. Afeni appeared from the kitchen area and faced me with her back to the Cops and their guns. “Jamal, don’t say another word to them.” I was instantly filled with strength and Panther attitude. Afeni and I resumed our chores like the Cops and the Lieutenant were not even there. Baffled by his loss of control, the Lieutenant asked Afeni if there was a problem. Afeni stared him down and said “the problem is that I have nothing to say or do with Police.” He stepped back, signaled his men and the Cops withdrew. Forget Jedi mind trick and the force—this was the Panther, Ancestor, righteous revolutionary power streaming from a beautiful 5 foot 6 Black Queen right before my eyes. When she was in prison and 8 months pregnant—she demanded of the courts and won the right to have a single egg and glass of milk each day so her unborn son, Tupac, could get nourishment.

Pregnant and surrounded by court guards, she defended herself in the Panther 21 trial and won justice for herself and her fellow Panthers. The same power beat back the untold weight of grief to make sure Tupac’s legacy was preserved for the world through music, film, theater, university courses, museum exhibits, books and youth programs. Yes, there was posttraumatic stress years where Afeni self medicated—but don’t get it twisted—Afeni was never a zombie laid out on a dirty mattress in a drug den. And she was better on her worst days than most people are on their best days. What she understood and taught all of us who were blessed by her presence is that it’s not about “them”—the government, the president, the military, the corporations, the industry, the gangstas, the intimidators—it’s about us and how we stand in our power, truth and humanity. That’s what made her truly the baddest—the way she passed her power and spirit on with love—to Pac, Sekyiwa, young Jamal and everyone in the range of her incredible spirit and being.

And because of that, she will always be…

Jamal Joseph was the youngest member of the N.Y. Panther 21 and spent 9 and half years in prison. He is Columbia University Film Professor, co-founder of Impact Repertory Youth Theater, and director and co-writer of the feature film Chapter & Verse.