Douglas Martin always stayed real.
Most parents agree on one thing. There are two parts to life: Their life before parenthood and their life during parenthood. Motherhood is especially profound for the obvious reason of the nine months we all spend growing in the womb. We literally share a body with our mothers. Tony Soprano famously said mothers are like buses. They are the vessel that gets us to life, they drop us off and go on their way, and we spend our lives trying to get back on.
In African-American culture, the mother is the center of our families. There is a strength—an authority—black mothers command, especially if they’re your mother. If they’re tired of your bullshit, they’re gonna let you know in no uncertain terms. But there’s still that sense of compassion and bonding; they’re the first person you call when your significant other breaks up with you and you’re in your feelings; they answer our distressed phone calls regardless of the time of night.
Afeni Shakur Davis was most famously known as the mother of Tupac Shakur, one of the most transcendent, complex, and celebrated artists of our lifetime. But she lived a life worthy of widespread celebration, living that first stage of a mother’s life in an extraordinary way almost right up to the minute Tupac was born.
She joined the Black Panther Party in 1968, and a year later, as part of ongoing surveillance by COINTELPRO, was arrested as part of the Panther 21, nearly two-dozen BPP members accused of plotting to bomb a selection of police stations. This was the latest in a string of attempts by the United States Government to dismantle the Panther leadership, that had grown exhausted by the centuries-old oppression faced by black people.
How Afeni responded to her arrest is the stuff of legend: She was five months pregnant with Tupac when her bail was revoked. In her 2003 interview with XXL, she recounted her conditions: “When my bail was revoked, I was not allowed to have my own food. So I went and got a court order for a boiled egg […] and a glass of milk a day.” In addition to being pregnant under the most arduous conditions, she had no defense attorney and represented herself in court. She faced 156 charges, over 340 years worth of projected sentencing, and beat them all herself. Barely a month after, she gave birth to her first son. Never deny the resilience of the human spirit.
“Dear Mama” is, of course, the song everybody will point to when assessing Afeni and her legacy. It’s more than just a love letter to the matriarchs of African-American families, particularly single black mothers, who have to take on the dual role of mother and father, of nurturer and provider, of comforter and disciplinarian., It’s more than a specific recounting of Tupac’s relationship with his mother, it’s a prime example of the emotional complexity of ‘Pac’s lyrics.
Hearing the song on the radio as a kid, there was the “crack fiend/black queen” dichotomy and the aforementioned struggle of a woman having to raise two kids, one of them being a young man, on her own. Revealing itself to me as I was starting to figure out the crux of what makes art work, there was also Tupac and his sister often using their mother as a scapegoat for their own struggles and him getting kicked out at seventeen. Though his mother strived to make his kids a hot plate after a long day at work, he still searched for a father figure. But in the end, his mother was all he needed, and he did everything he could to offer his gratitude for how she raised him.
But Afeni’s influence extended far beyond this singular tribute.
Tupac’s lyrics—and moreover, interviews about his music—were written with blood from the heart of a revolutionary, someone who wanted to uplift a generation of children, black children, who grew up in poor black communities, many with single black mothers scraping by on welfare. He projected the visceral anger of a man who has seen his people downtrodden in several different ways; sometimes through scathing disses and death threats (the immortal “Hit ‘Em Up”), other times as an avatar for so many young men born in low-income communities, fed up with being faceless avatars for a society who has failed them (“I Don’t Give a Fuck”).
This is clearly the influence of being raised by a revolutionary woman, one well-aware of the systems set in place to destroy black communities. Tupac was a man who routinely spoke up against the injustices served to young black people every day, who through a variety of mediums other than music helped bring up those people and make them see the durability, the importance in themselves. Tupac was a firsthand witness to how the Black Panther Party was systematically taken out by the government, to how his communities were ravaged by local police. And whether he was taught to stand up for himself and his people or if it was already in him, you can draw that activist spirit in a clear line between him and the woman who raised him.
I called my grandmother on Sunday afternoon, it was her 75th birthday. We were always close, but there was a bond that strengthened between us when my father was murdered almost exactly a year ago. My father had a military funeral. My grandmother sat front-and-center since the American flag for my dad’s service was going to be presented to her, and I sat right beside her. I held her hand and felt it tremble like a glass on the edge of a table during an earthquake.
On Sunday, just as every week or two we talk on the phone since he was shot—over a petty argument with someone he didn’t know, mind you—our complicated feelings surrounding this whole ordeal and my father’s life in general are discussed and felt. The distress in her voice has slowly graduated to somber acceptance, and I always think about what it’s like for her, as a woman whose firstborn child was taken away from her so violently. I don’t think she ever expected to outlive him. I don’t think any mother expects to outlive her son.
When Afeni passed away, I thought about how many years she had to exist on this mortal plane after her son was taken off of it with a hail of gunfire. I thought about how young he was. My dad was 53 when he was murdered; Tupac wasn’t even half that age. How does a mother of any son, let alone a son taken from her that young, not succumb to the grief? My grandmother told me she realized she couldn’t stay in a state of constant mourning and unrest for the rest of her life. It never gets better—I can attest to that, having lost both my parents in concurrent years—but you manage to get through life anyway.
Afeni went about her life a different way. Tupac’s death gave her a sense of purpose.
She became the executor of her son’s estate, eventually managed to control a decent portion of his unreleased music, and helped start Amaru Entertainment shortly after his death and produced the documentary, Tupac: Resurrection, released in 2002. In addition to making sure Tupac was represented well in death musically, she founded the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation (which included the Center for the Arts, also in Tupac’s name) in 1997 and ran it until 2014, facilitating the artistic curiosity of many young people who wouldn’t have had monetary access to an arts program.
Afeni has mentioned in more than one interview that the arts saved her son’s life while she was struggling with drugs. She extended her life to philanthropy and activism until her final days. Tupac’s legacy was many things, but probably most importantly, a continuation of Afeni’s. He saw profound influence in the life and political ideals of his mother, and his music articulated his inspiration, which was protected and given new life through the stories of kids who grew up with similar upbringings. All in all, things came full circle.
Afeni Shakur Davis survived the surveillance and oppression of the United States Government, the dangerous grip of drug addiction, the psychic pain of losing her first-born son (one widely celebrated for values she instilled in him, as well as a singular artistic brilliance) to violence, only to help people throughout the course of her life, whether it’s through her own ideas or the ideas inspired by a man who she was responsible for bringing into the world. And now, after such what seems like three or four lifetimes packed into 69 years, she gets to be reunited with her son in the afterlife after being apart for almost two decades.
Sometimes, real life writes a more fitting happy ending than any of our imaginations can muster.