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.