Panthers: a taste of commemoration


On Tuesday last, PBS aired Stanley Nelson’s film about the Black Panthers, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the black power group in 1966. I haven’t seen The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution yet, but I’m hoping to do so over the next couple of weeks. I teach about the Panthers as part of a wider course on US Civil Rights, and my students are always captivated by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers; I ask them to think about the ways that the narratives of Black Power change the ways we historicize the breadth and agenda of any coherent ‘civil rights movement’ of the 1960s.

Embracing ‘Black Power’, a slogan popularized by Stokely Carmichael in 1966, the agenda and activities of the Panthers cannot be cleanly separated from the wider movement. And this forces us to reassess the ways that we think about the aims and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Panthers were founded to protect black neighbourhoods from police violence, but their 10 Point Platform highlights a much broader set of aims, rooted in a Marxist critique of contemporary America, and a desire to examine the social and economic roots of racial inequality. Their popularity grew towards the end of the decade, and they benefitted from what Tom Wolfe called ‘radical chic’ as well as a publicity machine driven by their own newspaper The Black Panther and a curious and often fearful mainstream media coverage.

PBS’ own review of the documentary offers us five ‘takeaways’ from the film. One of these is that “Gender roles and gender equality didn’t always match.’ The New York Times focused on a similar theme in their review last October. The Black Panthers’ iconography was deliberately macho: Emory Douglas captured the image and perpetuated it through his stylized art.

The revolutionary critique that the Panthers advanced was masculinist and sexist, especially in the early days. Jakobi Williams has written about gender relations within the Party, and reminds us that there was no singular Black Panther Party, but a collection of chapters with different local priorities and modes of operation. And although half the membership of the Panthers was female by 1970, the leadership of the Party was dominated by men. That is, with one exception: Elaine Brown.

Born in the projects of North Philadelphia, Elaine Brown first became involved with the Black Panther Party in 1968. In 1974, she became the Chairman of the Party and led the Panthers for three years. Her autobiography, A Taste of Power was published in 1992, making her only the second female Panther to tell her story, after Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography (1987). Kathleen Cleaver’s long-awaited memoir has yet to appear, but is expected to be published under its current working title of Memories of Love and War.

Several women associated with the Panthers, but not members of the Party, have published their autobiographies: Angela Davis in 1974, Afeni Shakur’s memoir as told to Jasmine Guy, and defense attorney Evelyn Williams’ Inadmissable Evidence (1993).

Taken all together, these texts provide us with the basis of what we know about women’s experiences within the Party. So, it is good that documentaries like Nelson’s engage with the theme, even if Elaine Brown has criticized the manner in which he does so. Discussion of feminism, female critiques, womanhood within the Panthers is still quite rare.

I am currently writing about Brown’s book, and I am particularly interested in the way the genre of autobiography can be seen as a tool of protest. I am comparing Brown’s autobiography with several others written by female civil rights activists. I want to think about the ways that the genre of autobiography affords African American women the possibility to create and recreate their own images, explore their own voices, establish public presence, and extend their resistance to traditions (literary, social and political) which have traditionally excluded them.

Towards the very end of the book, Brown recounts a meeting with Robert Shetterly, the chairman of the Oakland Council for Economic Development. The meeting was to discuss an ongoing political campaign: the Panthers were backing a candidate for Mayor. Shetterly tried to end the meeting when he started to lose control of it. ‘You’ve had a very difficult life,’ he says, as if to defuse Brown’s anger. Brown’s response is an insight into the dynamics of control:

The point is not about my life, Shetterly. It’s about what I want. And I think you should know exactly what that is and how much I want it. By the time I realized that there was no place in America for a black girl, I discovered another trick. Even if I had been able to be white, there were no paths out of the powerlessness. The keys of the kingdom were gripped in the hands of a few white men – and only men. I could work for those men, if I ‘behaved,’ but I could never be them, have what they had, be master of my own ship. What I saw was that my oppression and my freedom were umbilically tied to the oppression and freedom of ally my people. So I became a Black Panther. (427)

I’m looking forward to seeing Nelson’s documentary. I hope he pays attention to misbehaving women. I can’t help thinking about Beyoncé — when black women ‘misbehave’, it is still seen as a problem. I wonder when that will change.

Superbowl 50: a tale of two Panthers

I missed the Superbowl last weekend. I almost always miss the Superbowl, because even though I am a fan of things American, I am not prepared to stay up half the night to watch guys in shoulder pads run into each other over and over again, for hours. But it turns out that this year’s game was one to watch. Not for the football, but for the half time show.

The NFL has a peculiar history with race relations. African American players were part of NFL teams from the beginning of a formal football league in the early 20th century, but from 1933 until after the war, teams did not recruit Black players. After the war, integration was slow, but by 2014 almost 70% of players in NFL teams were African Americans. The league still suffers from what ESPN has called a ‘coaching diversity crisis’, pointing to the results of a recent academic study on racial disparity in leadership positions.

It wasn’t until 2007 that a Superbowl was won by a team coached by an African American. Tony Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears to win Superbowl XLI. But Dungy himself had overcome career slumps of his own, possibly based on systematic racism within the NFL. In 2003 the Rooney Rule was introduced to attempt to even out the playing field (pun intended) for African American coaches, who were much more likely to be fired from their positions than their white counterparts. Since then, things have begun to change, but slowly.

So, when Beyoncé took to the stage last Sunday to sing her new song ‘Formation’ as part of the half-time show, she did so in an environment that was not racially neutral. When she followed Chris Martin and Bruno Mars with a stomping rendition of the song, complete with Black Panther iconography, she was performing black lives in an arena where there are still serious questions over who holds power. She was performing blackness in an America where African Americans still struggle to exercise economic power, and where mass incarceration has stripped a large proportion of the black population of their full citizenship rights. At Fox news, pundits’ heads exploded. Tellingly, Rudi Giuliani complained that the show was inappropriate because ‘middle America’ watched the Superbowl. He seems to think that middle America does not include black men at risk of being shot in the street by police.

Of course, song as protest is not new. Neither is commercializing protest. From Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn, to Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up and NWA’s Fuk da Police, artists and the labels that support them create, produce and make money from political protest. So, what was it about this show that was so provocative?

In yesterday’s Guardian, Syreeta McFadden’s article goes much of the way towards unpacking the answer to this. She outlines how the song speaks to young African American women and explains the resonance of the lyrics for a generation. She focuses mostly on the official video. I watched it for the first time this morning: it is incredibly evocative. The young kid with the hoodie challenging the police through dance is particularly effective. One wonders how long they would have stood still and watched him had that been a real life incident.

Reactions have focused on the ways that Beyoncé’s performance channelled the imagery of the Black Panthers (founded in Oakland, across the bridge from San Francisco, in 1966) and connected to the #blacklivesmatter movement. Black leather, afro hair, bodies draped with mocked-up ammunition and shotgun shells. It was interesting that Beyoncé chose to wear her lightened hair in contrast with her dancers: white benchmarks of beauty are still so dominant in a country where well over 70% of magazine covers feature white models.

The black female body has always been considered in a depoliticized way, stripped since slavery of its agency. Theorists like bell hooks have commented on the commodification of the black female body, its exploitation and framing in ways that are deemed acceptable for white men. Certainly the shock was that the female body was fighting back.

What I found particularly interesting is the way that nobody seemed to criticize Bruno Mars or Chris Martin. Martin’s opening and closing routines were rainbow-laden exhortations to ‘believe in love’. In the light of the Obergefell decision last summer, perhaps pundits are over the controversy of same-sex love, and at least Martin sang in English.

But Mars and his dancers were also dressed in black leather (leatherette? PVC?) with gold chains around their necks and afro hair. They pranced around the stage, in much the same way as Beyoncé’s dancers did. Was this acceptable because they weren’t singing about black rights? Fox’s Steve Doocy thought ‘Bruno Mars was fantastic’, but dismissed Beyoncé altogether. The inconsistency of his position makes the message clear: ‘black’ music is fine once it’s not political, and black men dressed in black leather are not as threatening as black women. Formation is a term of war, or battle: Beyoncé’s war cry, the resurrection of the protest song, and her donation with Jay Z of $1.5 million will ensure that the conversation continues.

The Carolina Panthers lost the Superbowl, by the way. I think the Black Panthers beat them.

Review: Women and Social Movements International, 1840 to the present

I found myself using some material today that I had downloaded from the ‘Women and Social Movements: International’ database a while back. For a couple of months in 2013, I had a trial access to the database so that I could write a review. This is the partner database to Women and Social Movements in the USA; both were created by Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish Sklar, and published by Alexander Street Press. Both are impressive in their breadth and content. My review for History Workshop Online is here.

Remembering Betty Friedan

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s death, on 4 February 2006. The New York Times obituary that appeared the following day credited her with igniting “the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States.” Certainly, her book The Feminine Mystique was incredibly important in kickstarting a mainstream discussion about the position of women in America of the early 1960s. But she was not alone in thinking critically about the changing landscape of gender politics in the US.

The previous year, Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl was published, and dominated the best seller lists nationally and internationally. Gurley Brown became the editor of a newly revamped Cosmopolitan in 1964, and became an icon for the single, career-minded girl of the late 1960s. Friedan sometimes wrote for Cosmo, but for the most part she poured her energy into the National Organization for Women (NOW), and sought policy change primarily in the areas of women’s pay and equality within the workplace. NOW was also at the forefront of battles around women’s rights to control their fertility, and famously disagreed about the ways that lesbians could contribute to the organization. Friedan was a founder member of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now Naral Pro-Choice).  The Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade (1973) seemed to suggest that the tide was turning towards protecting women’s rights to bodily autonomy, and the expectation was that this would feed into further steps towards equality.

Friedan’s later book, The Second Stage (1981) reveals both her optimism that feminism was positively impacting women’s lives, as well as her fears about the power of the anti-feminist backlash. (This last theme was picked up by Susan Faludi in her very influential Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women published in 1991). But two weeks after Friedan died, the legislature of South Dakota approved one of the most far-reaching anti-abortion measures introduced since Roe v Wade (1973).  Since then, political campaigns to repeal Roe have escalated, and many states have introduced formal legislative restrictions to dilute women’s rights to access legal terminations, as well as more informal restrictions through the closure of abortion clinics. Restrictions particularly affect poorer women who cannot afford to travel across states or across state lines in order to access legal terminations. On 1 January 2016, Texas House Bill 3994 went into effect, which assumes that all women seeking abortions in the state are minors, until they can prove otherwise. This kind of infantilization of women brings us back to the nineteenth century, when women were treated as non-political actors, minors with no capacity to consent. Betty Friedan would roll in her grave.

Back to the Feminine Mystique. One of the major criticisms of the book is that Friedan writes almost exclusively from the position of middle class white women, whose experiences we assume mirror her own. She did most of the research for the book in the late 1950s, surveying women that she had known during her time at Smith, the liberal arts women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her focus on middle class women is perhaps surprising, because she began her career working for leftist and workers’ organizations, and writing for their newspapers and magazines. She was certainly not ignorant of the difficulties experiences by working class women for whom the biggest problems were money and food, rather than a ‘problem that has no name.’ Gwen Jordan has written about the environment that Friedan responded to in Peoria here, in the pages of a journal that I co-edited last year. And colleagues and I have written about the reception, legacy and criticisms of the book here.  Most of the criticisms of the book grow out of our expectations of it, and are due to the heavy burden of being the ‘first’, of being the kind of groundbreaker that the NYT claims that she was. No one book could possibly address all women’s circumstances, aspirations, experiences of discrimination. Perhaps it was inevitable that the book would not speak to all women. But it certainly spoke to many: the first paperback copy sold 1.4 million copies.

The statement of purpose issued by the National Organization for Women was co-written by Friedan and Pauli Murray. We often think of NOW as representing those white, middle class, aspirational women that figure in The Feminine Mystique. But in reality, the steering committee of NOW was a much broader church. Pauli Murray had been an activist on women’s issues much longer than Friedan had. A graduate of Howard University’s School of Law, she argued for the application of the 14th amendment to issues of gender discrimination. A black, lesbian (she might now call herself genderqueer) activist who battled race and gender discrimination, her contributions have been largely erased from the popular history of second wave feminism. But she was just as important in those early years of NOW as Friedan was; in fact, she may have been even more important. The obituary published by the NYT after her death in July 1985 is much more cursory than that marking Friedan’s death.

Of course, we have allowed second wave feminism to be cast as a white movement. We have allowed the voices of non-white, non-heterosexual women to be erased from the popular memory. It was convenient to do so: an agenda that was organized around legal change on pay and employment equality was easier to digest in political terms. It was much more difficult to handle questions of economic and social inequality based on class, race, sexuality. I gave a paper at a conference last year at Oxford Brookes, and in one of the keynote lectures Prof. Angela McRobbie talked about the ways that feminism — even the latest wave of feminism (fourth?) — is still connected to a set of neo-liberal values. In order to make feminism useful or successful, we need to reverse the backlash, and think anew about the ways that feminism questions the very categories that produce inequality, particularly in terms of class and the wider gap between rich and poor. Can we break that liberal basis of feminism in the 21st century? Is that the new ‘problem that has no name’?

The NYT was correct: Friedan was a groundbreaker. But she did not transform the social fabric of the United States. She helped, but she was one of many, and if we remember Friedan in this way we must also remember Murray and the many others who confronted the triple constraints of class, gender and race. And in the current climate, where the winner of the GOP caucus in Iowa stands for banning abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood, and another high profile candidate openly admits that he would try to repeal marriage equality, then we should be even more vigilant to protect hard won rights, in Europe and the US, against attack from those who wish to return us to a bygone era.