‘Black Against Empire’ Assumes a Central and Critical Spot Within the Black Panther Canon

“…It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion; it is humbling because such encounters with the younger generation demonstrate the fragility and mutability of historical images, particularly those associated with African American history.”

For the past 40 years, Angela Davis has been a professor, author and activist, weighing in on everything from the prison-industrial complex to female blues singers of the ’20s. Yet, as she observed in a 1994 essay (“Afro Images: Politics, Fashion and Nostalgia”, in the journal Critical Inquiry), that isn’t what many people think of when they hear her name. Nor is it even the event that brought her international notoriety, her 1970 arrest (after going underground to avoid and contest it) and 1972 trial on conspiracy charges in the murder of a California judge.

It’s how she wore her hair.

Angela Davis

Angela Davis’ hair is, indeed, iconic: that large, perfectly round and proud Afro, the focal point of every photograph of her back in the day. Many blacks wore Afros then, but by dint of her status as a political activist, prisoner and rallying point (and, there’s no denying, its awesome regality), hers went global.

However, as she explores in that essay, there’s a danger if that’s all we remember about her, that incident, and those times in general. The late ’60s and early ’70s were explosive times in America, politically and culturally, especially in the ‘hood. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement earlier in the decade did not address the ongoing poverty, racism and oppression in urban ghettos, and the movement’s tactic of nonviolence no longer held sway over angry, restless youths.

The new politics, summed up in the proclamation “Black Power”, was manifested in the fashion, music and literature of the day. Those powerful images and statements have lived on ever since in everything from blaxploitation movies to the DNA of numerous hip-hop standards to coffee-table books. But the political ideas themselves? Not so much.

Nowhere is that more evident than in any popular consideration of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. For a few brief years, the Panthers were the most galvanizing force not only within black America, but also the progressive left. They emboldened young black men and women, energized white activists, and enraged the government. What started as two community college students taking action against local police injustices became a national movement.

The Black Panthers’ boldness and rhetoric quickly earned them retribution, both overt and covert, from police and politicians. Yet they held strong, and gained respect from even those who didn’t share their politics. Eventually the Party unraveled, done in by forces both external and internal. The revolution its ten-point plan advocated never came to pass.

Bu that doesn’t mean the Panthers had little impact. They both shaped and were shaped by the prevailing political and cultural zeitgeists, and etched themselves firmly into our cultural memory and imagination. How deeply? So much so that, 40-plus years after the fact, they still retain the power to rejuvenate our cultural curiosity. I wrote about the plethora of Panther memoirs and retrospectives here in 2007, in Negritude 2.0, “Re-Seizing the Time”; the Panther canon has only continued to grow since then.

But what the canon lacked – amazingly! — was a basic who-what-when explanation of the Black Panther Party itself. The major signposts of the Panthers’ history have been established for years: Huey Newton and Bobby Seale’s early protests against hyper-aggressive policing of the black community in Oakland, California; the daring, firearms-bearing protest at the California statehouse in 1967; the rapid growth of the Party across the country; the ascension of Newton, Seale and Eldridge Cleaver into political and literary celebrity; the vicious crackdowns against the Panthers by local police and the federal government, notoriously exemplified by the 1969 murder of Chicago Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark; the seemingly nonstop arrests and trials of Panther leaders; the relentless government intervention and attempts at disruption from within through paid informants, forever enshrined as COINTELPRO; the free breakfast and education programs which won over hearts and minds; the support they attracted from white leftists, some liberals, and progressives around the world; and how the years of fighting and in-fighting finally took their toll, with the Party being not much more than a shell of itself a scant decade after it was formed. But more-or-less knowing those facts isn’t the same as having them spelled out with detail and context.

That is the yeoman work done by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. in Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, which immediately assumes a central and critical spot within the Panther canon. More than a decade in the making, this is no romantic valentine to a bygone day, no attempt to keep that strain of hope alive with slogans like “the struggle continues.” This meticulous work of research and analysis attempts something beyond the scope of power-to-the-people flashbacks of Afros, dashikis and raised fists: it takes the Black Panther Party seriously as a political entity taking dead aim on American laws and values.

Bloom and Martin availed themselves of the existing Panther literature, and talked with various former Panthers and others at length. But their digging didn’t stop there. This was a very deep dive, into academic papers and collections, government documents, news reports of the time, and Panther memorabilia, including almost every issue of the Panthers’ newspaper Black Panther. As a result, Black against Empire carries the air and heft of major scholarship, following the action as it volleys across country from California to Connecticut, and outward all the way to China and even Scandinavia.

The book’s title references Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (1997), Penny M. Von Eschen’s study of black American intellectuals and activists in the ‘40s and ‘50s making critical connections between American racial and foreign policy and the emerging African diaspora. There is, in fact, a telling parallel between the two epochs. The Panthers, like those earlier activists, did not see their cause as strictly a national one. They understood and articulated the global ramifications of American racism at home, and took steps to bring their homegrown activism to the international playing field.

The Panthers were equally unabashed about speaking that truth not only to power, but also to their followers through various educational programs. While the players discussed in Race against Empire never took up rifles and shotguns, it can be argued that the Panthers owe some of their intellectual development to their example, even as they acted in the wake of the closer-to-home battles of the Civil Rights Movement (which generally eschewed drawing such broader connections, and was immediately focused on homegrown injustice).

Yet Black against Empire isn’t as much concerned with placing the Panthers within a continuum of black activism, as with exploring the effects of the Panthers’ work in its time. In that respect, the exhaustive research illuminates what the Panthers did, what they had to overcome in order to do it, and how their rapid growth affected both the tenor of activism in general and the Party itself.

As Bloom and Martin chronicle the Party’s ascent, they note several times a curious dynamic: the more the state pushed back against the Panthers, through arrests, subversion and outright murder, the more supporters the Panthers attracted. This was due not to any legislative victories they ever won or lasting societal change they ever forged, but because they and they alone represented an organized, political avenue for the simmering rage in young, urban America.

The resulting exponential growth brought both new blood and new challenges. By 1969, Party chapters were sprouting up everywhere, but the central infrastructure strained to keep up. Newton and Seale were entangled in criminal trials, and Cleaver had fled to Cuba and eventually Algeria to escape prosecution himself. The expense of court battles for Panthers across the country was a major focus of fundraising, which all but surely drained resources from long-term institution building.

Bloom and Martin assert further that the Party’s momentum was stifled by incremental changes within society. The end of the military draft eroded much of the energy towards fighting against the Vietnam war (the book details how the Panthers became pivotal to the late-sixties’ American left, mostly around antiwar and college campus protests, and vice versa). Affirmative action and economic development programs damped down outrage within some parts of the black middle class, segments of which had love for the Panthers even if they weren’t about to start quoting the Party line verbatim. Those shifts, coupled with the Panthers being bogged down with internecine battles as well as those against the government, contributed to a dampening of intensity surrounding the Party’s overall mission.

By the mid-’70s, the Black Panther Party was nothing like it had been at its peak. For one, it was narrowly focused – back to its roots in Oakland, the other chapters either shut down or otherwise out of the picture. Second, instead of confronting the government, the Party tried to join it. Capitalizing on its base of hometown support, the Party, now led by Elaine Brown (Bloom and Martin take special effort to note the key roles women played throughout Party history, and put the long-held notions of Panther misogyny in a fuller context), functioned more like a social service advocacy group, focusing on educational programs and making political alliances, than a group banging at the barricades of power.

Brown lost a race for city council, but remained a player in electoral politics, campaigning for Jerry Brown’s presidential run in 1976 and helping elect Oakland’s first black mayor in 1977. But even those breakthroughs were not enough to maintain the Panthers’ viability, especially given the increasingly erratic behaviour of Newton and the fringe players who insisted on trying to take down the government by force (a tactic the Panthers never advocated, even at the height of their bravado). Bloom and Martin devote few words to the Party’s denouement, leaving that tale to the various biographies and memoirs.

Black against Empire argues that the once the appetite for open insurgency had waned by the early ‘70s, so too did the Panthers’ external support. It goes on to argue that without such appetite, no revolutionary movement can be sustained. Indeed, even as the issue that gave birth to the Panthers nearly 50 years ago – police domination of black communities – is still alive and well, a confluence of events and constituencies similar to that which fueled the Panthers’ exponential growth is nowhere in sight today.

Even as they seemingly leave no stone unturned in presenting a compelling historical narrative of the Black Panther Party, Bloom and Martin don’t completely account for how the place the Panthers came to occupy in our culture became so deeply entrenched. That task, like the post-Black Panther Party tales of the major (and minor) players, is left to others. To that extent, this isn’t a complete history of the Panthers. Their existence as media villains and darlings is part and parcel to their impact; Jane Rhodes’ Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon (2007) is one good starting point for such exploration. The authors draw heavily from Panther memoirs, especially Brown’s (A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, 1992) and David Hilliard’s (This Side of Glory: the Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Black Panther Party with Lewis Cole, 1993); such writings go into deeper detail about the Party’s final days. (One book the authors imply might be better off avoided is Hugh Pearson’s The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America, built mainly around conservative provocateur David Horowitz’s assertions that the Panthers were never much more than common hooligans.)

But what Bloom and Martin have given us is as authoritative, respectful and complete a record of the Black Panther Party’s workings as we are likely to get. It is not without a point of view, especially as the authors venture into political theory in assessing the Party’s ultimate impact, but it stays relatively neutral from all the revisionist histories and still-being-ground axes. It documents the Party’s rise and fall for the ages, and that is no insignificant goal or minor accomplishment.

Even at that, this work is far from the last word on Panther history, or the Black Power era in general. Also out recently is From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago (University of North Carolina Press), Jakobi Williams’ study of one of the few Panther chapters whose impact outlived its heyday (and the murder of Hampton, its influential leader). The interracial connections the Chicago Panthers made with white and Latino activists became known as the “rainbow coalition,” years before the term gained national prominence through Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. And the head of Chicago’s Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chapter, Bobby Rush, left that organization to start the Chicago Panthers chapter with Hampton; Rush has gone on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1993.

Meanwhile, former Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) firebrand Floyd McKissick became possessed with the notion of economic independence, not just the political kind, for black people. In 1969 he announced plans to create an all-black town, Soul City, in rural North Carolina. The jobs, people and development he hoped the effort would attract never happened, but vestiges remain. Amanda Shapiro tours them in “Welcome to Soul City”, in the spring issue of Oxford American magazine (print only).

And then there’s Angela Davis, then and now a Panther supporter (her relationship with incarcerated Panther George Jackson, author of the letters-from-prison collection Soledad Brother, became central to her conspiracy case; she contributed a glowing jacket blurb to Black against Empire). Premiering this month is Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, a documentary by Shola Lynch retelling the story of Davis’ transformation and evolution from outspoken professor to worldwide hero.

Lynch, who also directed Chisholm ‘72 (2004) about Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for the White House, frames Davis and her other interviewees with style and poise, a jarring contrast to the maelstrom captured in the file footage. Even audiences who know how the story ends (spoiler alert: Davis was found not guilty on all charges) will be caught up in the narrative momentum Lynch creates.

Although Davis no longer sports an Afro, the Free Angela movie poster does. The reality, like it or not, is that the image of Davis’ Afro is so spectacular, and became so saturated back then, that there’s no other visual shorthand that can get 2013 audiences to see a movie about a notorious string of events from a tumultuous, long-ago time.

With Davis, the Panthers, and everyone else from that era, we still remember how they looked better than what they did. Black against Empire is a most powerful corrective, a triumph of facts over nostalgia, but apparently, the struggle to present and understand those days in their fullest and most instructive context continues, too.