Remembering Safiya Bukhari—an interview with Laura Whitehorn
Former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn has edited the new book, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, & Fighting for Those Left Behind (The Feminist Press, 2010). The War Before features the writings of the late Safiya Bukhari, who was born in
A preface by Wonda Jones (Bukhari’s daughter), a foreword by Angela Y. Davis, an afterword by Mumia Abu-Jamal, and an introduction by Whitehorn are also featured alongside Bukhari’s writings. Just released this month, The War Before has been reviewed by Lenore J. Daniels, Dan Berger, and Ron Jacobs. The website www.safiyabukhari.com states: “The War Before traces Bukhari’s lifelong commitment as an advocate for the rights of the oppressed. Following her journey from middle-class student to Black Panther to political prisoner, these writings provide an intimate view of a woman wrestling with the issues of her time—the troubled legacy of the Panthers, misogyny in the movement, her decision to convert to Islam, the incarceration of out spoken radicals, and the families left behind. Her account unfolds with immediacy and passion, showing how the struggles of social justice movements have paved the way for the progress of today.”
(photo: Safiya Bukhari)
Laura Whitehorn: I met Safiya in the visiting room of the Federal Correctional Institution (for women) in
A3N: What can you tell our readers about who Safiya was as a person?
LW: Safiya lived her politics, exuded solidarity from every pore and in every fiber of her being. She acted on her beliefs—and she was constantly questioning, refining and developing those beliefs. When you read her book, you will see that fighting for justice was a necessity to her. Resolving the inequitable, brutal situation of Black people and other oppressed groups was her bone-deep desire. She spent every ounce of her being trying to figure out how to proceed, evaluating past actions, pushing others to revitalize dormant work and struggles. And she loved her comrades behind bars in the most revolutionary way—by refusing to let them be forgotten.
She took all political exhortations very personally, trying to apply them in practice, and trying to submit them to scrutiny and honesty, to bring them from the realm of the bullhorn to the arena of what you do when you get up every day. Safiya was not just a revolutionary during the revolutionary times of the 60s and 70s. She struggled to live as a revolutionary woman during the non-revolutionary times that followed and persist.
A3N: Can you please tell us more about the role Safiya played in the movement supporting political prisoners? What role have women in general played in this movement?
LW: Some of the answer to this question is contained in the previous answer – she worked hard, and gave leadership through her work. But more than that, Safiya applied a ruthless honesty to her own practice. She did not merely educate people about what COINTELPRO was; she spent much attention (and anguish) examining how she and others of us in the movements of the 60s and 70s had, through our own weaknesses, enabled COINTELPRO to destroy our work. She didn’t only talk about the devastation prison causes for the families of political prisoners; she felt it in her heart and expressed it by being always available to the prisoners and their families.
Safiya, along with women like Yuri Kochiyama, set the standard very high for what it means to refuse to abandon our imprisoned comrades. She led with creativity and commitment. In her writings you see the depth of what it meant for her to be a woman who led in creating support for political prisoners. She grappled constantly with how to do that, and some of the answers she found will surprise many of us who try to continue her work.
In The War Before, you will read of her attempts, over the years, to build a viable support and advocacy system for the prisoners. Safiya led (as many women do in this work—and everyone comments on how many of the people involved in supporting political prisoners are women) because she not only did the work, she also figured out what political principles underlie that work. I guess what I am trying to say is that it has often been assumed that men provided the ideological and strategic thinking, and that women lead by doing the work. But Safiya’s book shows that women did the ideological and strategic thinking as well as the work—and that, by providing a unique, flowing-both-ways combination of theory and practice, women have contributed to a more vital political framework for this and other radical work for social justice.
A3N: When did you first begin working on this book?
LW: I began working on the book four or five years ago, when Wonda Jones, Safiya’s daughter, made a very important decision: In our grief at Safiya’s way-too-early death, we should not allow her work to be lost. It was a big project, as it turned out, because Safiya didn’t spend much time (none, in fact) planning for a book—she was too busy organizing. In my introduction to The War Before I describe the process of creating the book.
A3N: How has it been received so far?
LW: So far the reception has been warm and enthusiastic, but it is a bit early to tell how far this will go. Wonda and I did the book largely in order to get Safiya’s work and thinking, and the question of political prisoners, to people who have yet to learn of the wonderful men and women from our movements who remain behind bars.
A3N: What do you think are the central messages of the book?
LW: I think there are several, and different readers may draw different ones. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who wrote the afterword, says that by reading Safiya’s words we get an infusion of strength and spirit, enabling each of us to fight more creatively for justice. Angela Davis, in her foreword, says she hopes the book will encourage readers to join the fight for freedom of political prisoners, and to fight for prison justice. I think both of those are central messages of Safiya’s writings; I think another is that the quest for justice is worth working on with all one’s might—and with honesty, lucidity and clarity, so that we can create social justice among ourselves, renewing our own humanity as individuals and as a group while we fight against the system that promotes instead capitalist, inhumane values.
A3N: What else can activists today learn from Safiya's life?
LW: We need to understand, embrace, and feel in our core beings the values we fight for—and to apply those in practice. Safiya lived as she spoke: If you say you want justice, then you can do something to achieve it. She also shows why and how the battle to win release for political prisoners is completely fundamental to achieving justice as a whole.
Safiya’s collected writings also help us to understand that the revolutionary movements of the mid-20th century do not belong in a box marked “history.” The tenets that underscored that era continue, in different forms, today. What made the period revolutionary was not just the levels of struggle in which we engaged, but the understanding we had that a fundamental change of the system of imperialism was necessary. I hope that recognizing the holistic view of political history Safiya depicts will help us agitate among Left groups throughout the