A Pillar Of Strength: Afeni Shakur Raised A King And Preserved His Throne

A thank-you note, on Mother's Day.

The miracles of black motherhood are not ones that I am directly familiar with; I was not raised by my mother, and I am not a mother myself. But it is not lost on me that black motherhood is a beautiful challenge taken on by warriors. Warriors who, often robbed of necessary mental, physical and emotional resources, remain on the battleground’s frontlines, turning water into wine with every surviving woman and man.  And you, Afeni Shakur, wielded your blades of love and understanding to gift the world with Tupac Amaru Shakur. So on Mother’s Day, we thank you, just as your son did on wax in 1995.

“A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how you did it...”

You did it with certitude. In 1994, scholar Dorothy E. Roberts wrote: “Maternalist rhetoric has no appeal in the case of Black welfare mothers because society sees no value in supporting their domestic service.” A picture of both struggle and strength, you laid the foundation for your “domestic service” to your son with an ideal that was “revolutionary” to the masses, but very simple at its core: equality. Your work with the Black Panther Party drew activists into the fight against racism and poverty in communities across New York City. Though poor in earthly possessions, you nearly welcomed Tupac into this world from a jail cell because you were wealthy in conviction. Society may not have seen the value, but that fight – though you later denounced its extreme nature in 2011 – was an early signifier of the very blackness that would inform his journey and message.

“And even as a crack fiend, mama/ You always was a black queen, mama.”

My mother, and many mothers like mine, also wore the ugly mask of addiction. Seven years after your son’s death, when you were finally able to lay his ashes to rest, you recalled the “somewheres” you came from. “Some of them were the pit of the garbage can, underneath the corroded bottom of the garbage can, where only the maggots live. It was there that I resided until, by the grace of God, I was plucked up with a pair of tweezers.” If God was the hand that held those tweezers, Tupac helped to squeeze the metal together and extract your majesty from the rubble, through tough love and nine-page letters. Some of us never get to see the queendom in our broken mothers, but he did. You gave him a drug-free mother on May 12th 1991, and he introduced hip-hop to his kingship that very same year.

“I wish I could take the pain away/ If you can make it through the night there's a brighter day/ Everything will be alright if you hold on. It's a struggle every day, gotta roll on…”

And roll on you did, even as one of your most precious gifts was taken away. Faced with the difficult decision to cease doctors’ efforts to save his life, you still managed to exhibit your enduring strength. Just months after his death in February 1997, you described your relinquishing of his physical form: “I really felt it was important for Tupac – who fought so hard to have a free spirit – I felt it was important for his spirit to be allowed to be free. And so I rejoiced with him, and with the release of his spirit. I rejoice then and I rejoice now, when I’m not crying.” Though devoid of of his body, Afeni, you ensured that the world was not without his beautiful mind. You started an entire company to release more of his music. You upheld his principles with brick and mortar in Georgia  by building a center for the arts. You championed a non-profit organization in his name. You sat at the helm of films commemorating him. You protected him – from the narratives that could have been pieced together with his jail time, controversial statements, and “thug life” mantra – long after he was able to protect himself. A mother-warrior indeed.  

“You are appreciated.”

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