In 1971, two years before I was born, the police department of Jackson, MS conspired with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to raid a settlement legally occupied by the Republic of New Africa (RNA). In the ensuing gun battle, a police officer was killed, a federal agent was wounded, and eleven RNA members were arrested and detained. My stepfather, Dr. Imari Obadele, among seven to be convicted, served four years in the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, GA before being exonerated.
About 25 years after the U.S. government released Brother Imari, both he and I found it ironic when I was matched to the United States Penitentiary for a yearlong predoctoral prison psychology internship. On the brink of indefinitely extending the mortal paths of my two fathers, I was less than a year away from receiving the same degree as my biological father (a Ph.D. in counseling psychology), from my stepfather’s alma mater (Temple University), while conducting my dissertation research at a penal repository for my fathers’ less fortunate comrades of the 1970s and their bastard sons who became casualties of the “War on Drugs.”
The year was 2000. I was one of three psychology interns for the 2000-2001 class; the other two were white females. Of a psychology staff of 9, only two of us were black, and I was the only black male. During our training, which we shared with all new correctional personnel, the assistant warden demanded, “Never forget, you are a correctional officer first…” He explained the inherent dangers of working with “crooks,” regardless of the nature of our position. My office was on the second floor of Cellblock D, next to an elder inmate minister who occupied a private cell. I was the only intern on a cellblock without a supervising psychologist, so the staff and inmates treated me as if I was already a psychologist.
At 27-years-old, the large number of young black males who were incarcerated troubled me, particularly the ones who had children. One day, I visited an inmate in the special housing unit at the request of one of my internship classmates, who suspected he requested counseling because he was attracted to her. When I appeared, he smirked and conceded to his shenanigans, but proceeded to talk about his 9 children. He was less than 30-years-old.
Days later, I met another inmate who was genuinely interested in self-reflection. He was also less than 30-years-old, and had 11 children. He told me he was concerned that his children were so close in age and proximity, and knew so little about him, that he feared one of his sons and daughters could become unwittingly intimate, unaware that they were siblings. Interestingly, at the time he was writing a novel that dramatized the potential accidental incest. Within 9 years of his 25-year sentence he hand-wrote 10 books that were popular among other inmates.
A star basketball player in high school, I later learned that, as a teenager, he had a friendly competition with a good friend of mine who received a Ph.D. in psychology two years before me. My friend remembered him well, recollecting that they were on similar paths growing up in a very poor neighborhood with single mothers. They were both being recruited to colleges, while flirting with the new opportunities to sell drugs, which had become ubiquitous in their community. How one became a successful psychologist, and the other an inmate with a quarter century sentence, was merely happenstance.
As prison personnel, I was keenly aware of several high profile inmates. One, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, was particularly intriguing for several reasons. First, he was the stepfather of Tupac Shakur. Second, after reading his presentencing investigative report (public record), I learned that he had a story that was strikingly similar to my stepfather’s. He adopted the last name “Shakur” from an elder in Philadelphia, PA and married Afeni Shakur when Tupac was very young. Dr. Shakur was a member of the RNA in the 1970s, obtained a doctorate in acupuncture therapy and operated the first black acupuncture clinic in New York. In 1986, he was arrested for planning the Brinks armored truck bank robbery in New York and assisting in the escape of Assata Shakur, who is currently in exile in Cuba under political asylum. Dr. Shakur maintains his innocence, and insists that he and Assata were targets of COINTELPRO because of their political beliefs.
I first met Dr. Shakur when he entered my office on his own reconnaissance. Although I fully expected our paths to cross, I was unsure of what he knew of me, or my family. When he entered my office, he formally introduced himself and maintained a scrutinizing posture. After about 5 minutes of awkward small talk I asked, “Do you know Imari Obadele?”
In a tone that was somewhat smug and haughty, he replied, “Yes, that’s my president.”
I immediately acknowledged, “That’s my stepfather.”
He then uttered words in another language before saying, “This is the best thing that’s happened to me since I’ve been incarcerated.”
Admittedly, after Dr. Shakur expressed his glee, my heart started to accelerate. Although pleased that the tension was lifted, I did not fully grasp what he believed to be the circumstance or potential of me being there. I had undergone a rigorous background investigation to acquire the position, which entailed agents visiting old teachers and other acquaintances to determine my propensity for deviance or subversive activity. On the application, I explicitly remember responding “no” to the question, “Has any of your family members been incarcerated in the federal prison system?” At the time, I conveniently rationalized that my stepfather was not technically related to me. But sitting face to face with his former comrade, made the question seem far less trivial.
Fortunately, over the year I spent at the prison, it became clear that Dr. Shakur’s initial response to my disclosure was not connected to any base desire to exploit the relationship for his personal benefit. Throughout the year, Dr. Shakur endeared himself to me, sharing his political perspectives, as well as his challenges remaining connected to his family and community while being incarcerated.
Inherently, I was an important legacy to Dr. Shakur’s political past, regardless of the extent to which I ascribed to his beliefs. I was only two years younger than Tupac, the son he lost four years earlier. My stepfather recalled bouncing Tupac on his knee more than a decade before he knew I existed. Also the godson of Geronimo Pratt, Tupac was surrounded by staples of the Black power movement throughout his childhood. A deeper examination of Tupac’s music reveals the strong connection he had to the Black power movement in general, and Dr. Shakur specifically. Dr. Shakur once recorded a cameo for one of Tupac’s songs from the prison phone. Much of Tupac’s earlier recordings were laced with esoteric allusions to the Black power movement, which I greatly appreciated as a teen. However, west coast style “gangsta rap” and “thug life” became the public face of Tupac’s music in the year preceding his death.
Most hip hop enthusiasts appreciated the Shakespearian conflict of Tupac’s lyrics, as he vacillated between “conscious” and “gangsta” rap. Also present in the subtext of Tupac’s music, was an unhinged resentment toward his father. A phrase from Tupac’s hit single, “Dear Mama,” seemed to resonate with a generation of young Black males who felt estranged from their fathers:
Now ain’t nobody tell us it was fair
No love from my daddy cause the coward wasn’t there
He passed away and I didn’t cry, cause my anger
wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger
They say I’m wrong and I’m heartless, but all along
I was lookin’ for a father he was gone
I hung around with the thugs, and
even though they sold drugs
They showed a young brother love.
As a teen, Tupac’s venom toward his father quietly stoked my own smoldering dissatisfaction with my father. Unfortunately, the phrase also explained, and rationalized, the role that drug dealers played as surrogate fathers for a generation of fatherless Black males. Through my interactions with Dr. Shakur, I wondered why the father, who Tupac never really knew, appeared more prominently in his music than the stepfather who he interacted with throughout his life. He seemed to love his stepfather with a whisper, and hate his biological father with a bullhorn.
Dr. Shakur once revealed that the conversations he had with me brought him a level of solace that compared to a period in which he and Tupac spoke almost daily. He shared the same experience with The New Yorker reporter Connie Bruck, who detailed it in the article, “The Takedown of Tupac (Bruck, 1997).” Dr. Shakur revealed that he and Tupac had nearly daily telephone conversations at a time in which Tupac was trying to craft his public identity. At the time, Dr. Shakur believed that Tupac had the potential to regenerate the Hip Hop generation into a force that harnessed the principles of Black liberation, to confront modern issues in the Black community.
In the midst of what Dr. Shakur believed to be a breakthrough in his quest to help Tupac rebrand his image and solidify his role to Black youth, he was transferred to a super-max penitentiary, where he was locked in a cell for 23 hours a day. Connie Bruck reported that in a memorandum written in February 1994, “the warden of Lewisburg argued that Mutulu needed ‘the controls of Marion,’ in part because of his ‘outside contacts and influence over the younger black element (Bruck, 1997).’” Dr. Shakur maintains that by the time he was released to the general population of the penitentiary, Tupac was firmly in the clutches of the criminal justice system, and ultimately under the control of Death Row Records; at the time, the nation’s most notorious “gangsta” rap label.
At the time of Tupac’s death in 1996, I had become disenchanted with his image, but nonetheless a fan of his music. I remember trying to quell the venom of my younger cousin, Kendall, who vehemently blamed Biggie Smalls and Bad Boy Records for Tupac’s death. I found it unfortunate that Tupac’s music could inspire Black-on-Black resentment among teens, however my discussions with Dr. Shakur help me to see the situation through a different lens.
In many ways, Tupac was a mortal enemy of the state. He was a living vestige of a movement that the FBI spent millions to suppress in the 1960s and 1970s, and his persona was infectious. Bearing the surname of a Black American clan, which includes active political prisoners and an exile in a country with an embargo, and the given name of a Peruvian communist guerilla group, Tupac was born to breed consternation to agents of the status quo. Like the generation that preceded him, Tupac probably became a target when he became a symbol of armed civil resistance among disenfranchised Black Americans. Many of his contemporaries believed that he became a government mark when he was acquitted of shooting two off duty police officers in self-defense. Whatever the forces, corporate, government, street, or a combination of the three, Tupac quickly entered a world in which his vices and fears were relentlessly being used to manipulate his behavior—an overwhelming burden for someone in his early 20s.
After examining details and nuances, the east coast versus west coast feud, featuring Tupac and Biggie Smalls, seemed to have the trappings of the feud between Black Panthers from New York and California. By the time COINTELPRO-BPP officially dissolved in 1971, an estimated 7,500 Black Panther members were government informants. In 1969, the FBI paid out an estimated $7.4 million to Black Panther informants (Churchill & Vander, 2002). By 1970, the wave of informants within the Black Panthers ultimately led to a culture of paranoia within the organization, culminating with a public feud between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, and genuine animosity and violence between east and west coast Panthers.
As the FBI’s two primary targets, both Newton and Cleaver showed emotional scars from years of harassment, intimidation, and psychological trickery. By 1971, the once flourishing Black Panthers was reduced to a small, predominately female led, group of Newton loyalists in California (Theohris, 2004). The FBI’s annihilation of the Panthers affected the poor Black community in many ways. The FBI’s reliance upon social degenerates within the Black community to infiltrate the Panthers, in effect, marginalized the leadership of principled Black men and increased the capacity of criminals and drug dealers in the Black community.
The explosion of Black men in the criminal justice system, the rise of crack and subsequent War on Drugs, and the marginalized presence of Black male leadership in the poor Black community are the natural degenerative effects of the federal government’s overthrow of Black liberation movements. In many ways, the War on Drugs was the governments’ efforts to clean up the ashes from the Black Power movement. The aggressive tactics used to catch drug dealers had striking similarities to COINTELPRO, especially the use of informants. The instigation of government informants and other infiltration activities often exacerbated violence and instilled a manic paranoia of “snitchers” in the Black community. The most violent and sinister members of the Black community were able to slither through the system, while exploiting the community’s disillusionment, as petty dealers peddling crack from the corner, were given 15 years to life.
By the time I became a prison psychology intern, the nonviolent drug offender population had eclipsed all of the violent offenders in the federal prison system, in number and length of sentence. The inmates, with whom I worked, some former college students, entrepreneurial geniuses, artists, and a host of other talents, were keenly aware of the system they served. Many could trace their demise to state sponsored efforts to build the capacity of the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua through crack revenue from poor Black communities. After the dust settled from the Iran-Contra scandal, the War on Drugs continued to function as the middle passage between poor Black neighborhoods and prison industries that thrived on cheap prison labor. Inmates with better health and lower security risk typically worked for a prison industry called UNICOR for about 23 cents per hour. From this, one can surmise that a system that gives longer prison sentences to less violent offenders can generate a healthy profit. In 2008, UNICOR reported $854.3 million in sales, nearly twice their earnings of 1996.
As COINTELPRO and the nomenclature of the War on Drugs fades into infamy, I reflect on something an inmate told me. As if he rehearsed his lines for days and had been building up the nerve to express his point, without reserving anything, he marched into my office, sat on the seat before me and said:
I see you walking in here every day, wearing a suit with your briefcase, looking like you’ve done something with yourself. When I was growing up, I never saw anyone look like you in my neighborhood – a young Black man with a profession. When I was growing up, all I saw was hustlers and dealers and drug fiends. Maybe if I saw you back then, I wouldn’t be here today. So, what I really came here to tell you is: Talk to the kids!
Enamored with the line, “Talk to the kids,” I repeat it often in public speeches. However, I am not naive to the fact that the Black community needs much more. As an optimist, I believe many problems will be corrected through the universal potential of Black empowerment and the undaunted spirit of a community responding to oppression. Inexorably, every day I wonder how this will actually look.
This essay was adapted from Toldson, Ivory A. (2011). Birthright: Anecdotes of Fatherhood, Race and Redemption. In: M. Connor & J. White (Eds.), Black Fathers: An Invisible Presence in America, Second Edition. New Jersey: Routledge Academic.
Bruck, C. (1997). The Takedown of Tupac. The New Yorker, 46.
Churchill, W., & Vander, J. (2002). The Cointelpro Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States. Boston: South End Press.
Theohris, A. G. (2004). The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
 COINTELPRO is an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program; a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initiated program designed to investigate, disrupt, and neutralize domestic organizations deemed to be dissenting to the United States.
 “COINTELPRO- BPP began in 1967. According to FBI files, the purpose was, to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black Nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.