Learning about the Black Panthers

Initially I had it in my head that both of the books my library had on the subject of the Black Panther Party (that I wanted – they had some older books, but I wanted shiny new ones with slightly more time perspective and declassified FBI documents, I hoped) were published by the University of Alabama Press. And I was going to say a few words about how fun it was for me to watch the Alabama quarterback being sacked over and over last night by South Carolina, almost funner than seeing my alma mater win after pulling a very sexy fake field goal stunt (when attempted by a less talented coach and team, this kind of play can fail miserably); but then I realized that the cruddy book was published by the University of Alabama Press, and the good one by the University of Arkansas Press, and now I feel like it would be mean to make fun of Alabama’s quarterback for being incapable of getting rid of the ball even when he has a player wide open a few feet away from him, unless I were following up by saying that the University of Alabama Press had done a really good book about the Black Panther Party. Turns out, they haven’t, or if they have it isn’t one of the two that I read. So I won’t say anything at all about football actually.

Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party, Paul Alkebulan

SKIP IT. This book is a hot mess: disorganized, riddled with printer’s errors, and nearly completely incoherent. And very short. And I hardly learned anything from it except a few people’s names, which was useful when I was reading the second, more useful book, Up Against the Wall, because I had an easier time keeping straight who was who.

Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, Curtis J. Austin

Hooray, this was more like it. I learned many, many things about the Black Panther Party from this book. As the title implies, Austin doesn’t try to skate over the episodes of violence and the extremely violent rhetoric of the Party, but nor does he demonize them like my American history classes in high school. Austin discusses the tensions within the Party, the ones that arose naturally and the ones that had a bit of help from the FBI, and explores the work of the leaders, the growth of the Party, and the activities of the various chapters, meanwhile reminding me why I have a hard time trusting the government.

As I mentioned briefly in my review of The Rock and the River, which was the reason I sought out some more information about the Black Panther Party, the view of the Party that you probably got in your American history classes is not all there is to the story. Although the Party initially and repeatedly emphasized black power and the use of guns, including patrolling the cops to ensure that they were not using undue violence against black people, their focus shifted in later years to include social programs like free breakfasts and free medical clinics for the communities in which they were active. The Party received the most media coverage for violent rhetoric, run-ins with the law, and black separatism, but they were actually very willing to pursue alliances with white leftist organizations like the Peace and Freedom Party.

This is not, incidentally, to call the Black Panther Party blameless saints AT ALL. Eldridge Cleaver, for one, sounds like a total nutjob. The Party emphasized black masculinity, with the result that there was a fair amount of misogyny and unpleasantness toward the female members. Arguments among the leadership and between various chapters across the nation made it difficult for the party to maintain a clear message; fear of FBI informants caused many valuable party members to be purged for very slight reasons.

The biggest thing I took away from this book, however, is that J. Edgar Hoover was a terrible person. When he was in charge of the FBI, they did all sorts of shady things to discredit the Black Panther Party. They installed informants in the various chapters who would try to incite the Party to greater violence; they sent anonymous notes (swear to God) to local gangs telling them the Black Panthers wanted to kill them; they sent even nastier anonymous notes to Panther supporters claiming that the kids who attended the free breakfast programs were being sexually molested; and they would do raids on Panther headquarters and break their stuff and destroy their food! The food that they were trying to give to poor children with their free breakfast program! Why would anyone ever do that?

Plus, do y’all know about Fred Hampton? He was the leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, and the FBI had their Party informant drug him, and then the Chicago cops raided the Black Panther Chicago headquarters on an illegal weapons raid and shot Fred Hampton in the head while he was sleeping in his bed with his pregnant partner.  They shot him right in the head while he was drugged. And that is why, although it is perfectly possible that many of the Panther leaders did wicked things, I have a hard time believing the claims leveled against them by the government. Because the government was being shady as hell.

In slightly strange conclusion, the Black Panther Party is also now inextricably linked in my mind with Oscar Wilde, for a few reasons. One, the word panther always reminds me of Oscar Wilde saying that his carrying on with London rent-boys was like feasting with panthers, delicious because of the danger. Two, Bobby Seale (co-founder of the party with Huey Newton) has the same birthday as this guy, which means that I will now always know Bobby Seale’s birthday. And three, the Black Panther Party is one of those things, like Oscar Wilde and his crazy life, where all parties involved have such a tremendous stake in lying that it’s difficult to know whom to believe in any given case. I do not know what Oscar Wilde would make of this mental connection I have made (I expect that if he could get past his Victorian race attitudes, he’d be pleased as punch, because Oscar Wilde was a man who could appreciate grand gestures of revolution), but I do not suppose the Black Panthers would be any too pleased. Oh well.