Black Power Afterlives provides a range of views on the Black Panther Party, some of which hint at what a revival of the radical core of the Party could mean, argues Yonas Makoni
The Black Panther Party (BPP) is arguably one of the most revolutionary political organisations in the USA’s history. The early 1970s, however, marked the beginning of its demise. Relentless police and FBI persecution had led to the death or imprisonment of large sections of the Party leadership. Tensions within the Party, exacerbated by the FBI’s COINTELPRO programme, had hit new heights, as the leftist-guerrilla orientated faction of Eldridge Cleaver violently broke with leader Huey Newton’s more moderate orientation.
While Cleaver went underground with the Black Liberation Army (BLA), Newton moved in the opposite direction, focusing on expanding the Panthers’ community survival programmes and bringing the Party into electoral politics. In 1972, Newton shut down an array of Party branches around the country in an effort to concentrate resources for electoral campaigns in Oakland, California. When Newton later went into exile in Cuba, Chairwoman Elaine Brown continued to orientate the party further towards electoral politics. This was to prove unsuccessful, however, and the party failed to make any major electoral gains before its dissolution in 1982. Neither had it shed its reputation in wider American society as a haven for violent thugs, murderers and drug dealers, which used its political rhetoric only as a post-hoc justification.
It is ironic then, that in the latter half of the 2010s the mainstream would rediscover the Black Panthers, falling in love with the figure of the black militant that had struck fear in the heart of every suburban American only a generation earlier. The likes of Disney’s 2018 film Black Panther or pop-titan Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl performance saw overt flirtation with BPP aesthetics. Of course, the political context should not be forgotten: the Black Lives Matter movement, the most significant movement against racist oppression since the 60s, has finally allowed the repressed history of black resistance to gain some of the recognition it deserves. However, there is also an argument that these pop-cultural artefacts blunt the radical edge of the real Panthers, reducing them to a set of feel-good symbols, bribing black people with a taste of cultural recognition in a last-ditch attempt to keep them from asking the real questions about structural oppression and injustice.
From symbols to the movements
It is in this climate that Haymarket’s new volume Black Power Afterlives: The Enduring Significance of the Black Panther Party, edited by Diane C. Fujino and Matef Harmachis, intervenes. Against the superficial reduction of the BPP to the image of leather jackets, black berets and big afros, this collection of essays wants to ‘re-narrate the significance of the BPP beyond its iconic image and symbolic meanings to reveal how the Party … continues to impact and inspire social justice and racial liberation movements to the present’1. The book’s six sections range in topic from spirituality as a support for activism, to the influence of the BPP on the prison abolition movement; to the intersection of activism and revolutionary art. According to its editors ‘Black Power Afterlives … intervenes in the study of Black Power by showing complex dimensions - meditation and nurturance, connections with Mother Earth, art and music, self-defence, queer feminism, prison abolition, and community building - that shape new thinking about the legacy of the BPP.’2
Most of the chapters deal with individuals or organisations, detailing how their lives and politics were shaped by Black Panther theory and practice. As stated in its introduction, the book endeavours to draw attention to the endurance of Black Power activism after its initial zenith in the mid 60s to mid 70s. It does this well, presenting detailed and inspiring accounts of the life and work of various revolutionaries. Some names, such as Assata Shakur and Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael), will already be familiar to many readers, while others (Hank Jones, Akinsanya Kambon) are relatively unknown. In any case, the book makes clear that the Panthers were not driven primarily by the gravitas of a handful of famous leaders, but by the unceasing work of thousands of dedicated activists.
While the book’s editors are keen to preserve the radical heritage of the Black Panthers, they do not champion a consistent line or orientation. Rather, many of the contradictions that split the BPP apart are reproduced in the book, indicating that many of the problems faced by the original Black Power movement are far from being resolved today. Although there is nothing wrong with showing all sides of the debate, the book sometimes muddies the waters by failing to draw clear demarcations between the conflicting viewpoints. This can lead to the false idea that internal disagreements within the Party were unimportant.
Contradictions of Black Power
The essays, for example, tend to oscillate between a class-struggle paradigm, which sees the fight against racism as one aspect of a broader struggle, and a separatist paradigm, which fights racism in order to promote the interests of black people as a nation or ethnic community. While the former might promote national self-determination strategies as a means to advance the class struggle, the latter is more likely to promote separatism as an end in itself. Unfortunately, the differences between these two ways of thinking are rarely acknowledged. Huey Newton, on the other hand, astutely attacked the second paradigm and its promoters (including some in his own party) and labelled it reactionary or ‘pork chop’ nationalism. Newton had a clear understanding of the thin line separating reactionary from revolutionary nationalism and the ambiguity that allows one to turn seamlessly into the other. This led him eventually to reject nationalism altogether in favour of the concept of ‘revolutionary inter-communalism’. Nationalism, according to Newton, always carries the danger of merely being a programme for the substitution of one ruling class for another.
Section Three (‘Sankofa: Pan-African Internationalism’) illustrates this ambiguity, implicitly bringing the political Pan-Africanism of David Brothers and Dedon Kamathi3 into conflict with the cultural nationalism of former BPP artist Akinsanya Kambon.4 These two essays discuss their subjects’ evolution from Black Panthers to Pan-Africanism. While the former essay makes an interesting case for Pan-African internationalism as a ‘means rather than an end’, the latter presents Pan-Africanism as a way for black Americans to rediscover their authentic cultural identity. Here, Frantz Fanon’s argument against such a static conception of national culture is absolutely correct. Revolutionary culture is not transmitted from the past, but continuously created anew and redefined through political struggle. This fits with the opinion of BPP artist Emory Douglas, who, in a later essay, is quoted as saying:
‘[O]ut of the struggle for liberation comes a new literature and art … This newborn culture is not peculiar to the oppressed Black masses but transcends communities and racial lines because all oppressed people can relate to revolutionary change which is the starting point for developing a revolutionary culture.’5
This cultural nationalism can have more explicitly reactionary consequences. This is notable from several black-nationalist organisations such as the Nation of Islam, which combined Black Power agendas with conservative social values and bizarre (often antisemitic) mythologies. Within the Black Panthers, this was exemplified by Eldridge Cleaver, who was notorious for his sexism and homophobia, and who later went on to become a born-again Christian conservative. Many of the essays in Black Power Afterlives address this, intending to overcome machismo ideology through a more ‘feminine’, nurturing approach to political activism. Intrinsically coupled with this, a New Age-inflected anti-modernism frames some of the essays, but this approach brings issues of its own.
This is clearest in Section 2: Sustainability and Spirituality. In the essay, ‘Ecosocialism from the Inside Out,’ Quincy Saul argues that the prison population, due to its external relation to the ‘matrix of capitalist modernity’, will be the vanguard of a new revolutionary project. He claims this will restore ecological balance and bring us into closer contact with the ancient spiritual wisdoms of indigenous people. The discussions around spirituality, for example in Fujino’s ‘A Spiritual Practice for Social Justice Activism: an Interview With Ericka Huggins’, come dangerously close to championing religion and spirituality for their own sake, as antidotes to the perceived bankruptcy of Western modernity.
Race and class
This all comes back to the neglect of class struggle, an inherent feature of nationalist ideology. For nationalist ideology to cohere, the existence of class struggle within the black community is implicitly denied, and the problem must be located in an external enemy. This external enemy is then held responsible for introducing antagonism into society and revolution is conceived as the restoration of a harmonious past. This approach, far from providing a liberatory effect, results in making the systems it criticises appear unsurpassable and omnipotent. The only way out becomes complete separation, with no hope for taking power and changing it at its core. This logic also underlay Cleaver’s decision to abandon political organisation altogether, in favour of a strategy of underground warfare. The seeming radicality of this act belied its reactionary presuppositions.
As stated above, this tendency is not present in all of the essays, and it is worth noting some of the exceptions. ‘Legacy: Where Were We, Where Are We, Where Are We Going,’ by Sekou Odinga and dequi kioni-sadiki contains an excellent discussion of the comparative weaknesses of the contemporary black movement, as well as a balance sheet of the BPP’s achievements and failures. This also serves as a much-needed reminder of the radicality of the BPP’s model; with their survival programmes and organisation of the rejected ‘lumpenproletariat’, they accomplished the huge success of transposing the discoveries of ‘Third World’ liberation struggles to Western conditions. On the other hand, Alex T. Tom’s discussion of the Chinese Progressive Association shows that, to be effective, this must be part of a broader interracial working-class strategy. These moments, where the writers show an understanding of the limits of race-based or nationalist organisation (as well as their potentials), are the most fruitful and bring a refreshing nuance to the discussion. They point towards what a revival of the radical core of the Black Panthers might look like today.
Black Power Afterlives is full of fascinating accounts of those carrying on the Panther legacy and makes a compelling case for a re-evaluation of the BPP’s lasting political influence. Despite its high ambitions, however, the book rarely engages in the sort of deep interrogation of Black Panther politics that is needed today. While it deserves praise for defending the BPP from the attacks of respectability politics, it is equally essential to understand what is and what’s not worth preserving of the Panther legacy. Here the book often falls short.
1 Diane C. Fujino and Matef Harmachis, ‘Introduction,’ p.2.
2 Ibid. p.12.
3 Matef Harmachis,‘The (R)evolution from Black Panther to Pan-Africanism: David Brothers and Dedon Kamathi at the Bus Stop on the Mountain Top of Agit-Prop.’
4 Diane C. Fujino, ‘States of Fugitivity: Akinsanya Kambon, Pan-Africanism, and Art-Based Knowledge Making.’
5 Diane C. Fujino, ‘Art That Flows from the People: Emory Douglas, International Solidarity, and the Practice of Co-creation,’ p.180.
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