blackness redefined

Black Panther Party

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The Black Panther Party was a Black Power political organization founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966 in Oakland, California.

"What We Want - What We Believe" (1966)

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.

  2. We want full employment for our people.

  3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black Community.

  4. We want decent housing fit for shelter of human beings.

  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society.

  6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.

  7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.

  8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

  9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.

  10. We want land, bread, housing, eduacation, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the Black colony in which only Black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of Black people as to their national destiny.

(In: The Black Panthers Speak, 1970, 2-4)

–> Power to redefine Black community

Liberation and Political Assassination

There are two important turning points in Black activism. One is that in June 1966, Black civil rights fighter James Meredith was ambushed by white racists and injured. At this time, Stokari Carmichael, who once believed in non-violent struggle and served as the chairman of the "Student Non-violent Coordination Committee," officially broke with Martin Luther King and other moderate civil rights leaders. After that, they worked closely with the Black Panther party. The second turning point was after Martin. Luther King was assassinated in April 1968. This led moderate black activists to move towards more radical activism.

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Bobby Seale Speaks, 1969

"Naturally, these demands have a very international proletarian likeness to those of any people who are struggling against the three levels of oppression: the greedy, exploiting, rich, avaricious businessmen; the misleading, lying, tricky, demagogic politician, and  the atrocious, murdering, brutalizing, intimidating, fascist, pig cops. These three levels of oppression exist in virtually every country where there is overt capitalist exploitation and the minority, but oppressive ruling class circles of America are in the head of it all."

 

(In: The Black Panthers Speak, 1970, 78)

–> Redefinition of Black People as connected to all groups that are oppressed under capitalism

Huey P. Newton: "The Correct Handling of a Revolution" (1968)

"The Vanguard Party must provide leadership for the people. It must teach the correct strategic methods of prolongued resistance through literature and activities. [...] When the people learn that it is no longer advantageous for them to resist by going into the streets in large numbers, [...] [and when] the Vanguard group destroys the machinery of the oppressor by dealing with him in small groups of three and four, and then escapes the might of the oppressor, the masses will be overjoyed and will adhere to this correct strategy."

"The Vanguard Party is never underground in the beginning of its existence, because it would limit its effectiveness and educational processes. How can you teach people if the people do not know and respect you? The party must exist above ground as long as the dog power structure will allow, and hopefully when the party is forced to go underground the message of the party will already have been put across to the people."

 

(In: The Black Panthers Speak, 1970,  41-43)

Community Survival Programs

"Local chapters of the Panthers, often led by women, focused attention on community “survival programs.” They organized a free breakfast program for 20,000 children each day as well as a free food program for families and the elderly. They sponsored schools, legal aid offices, clothing distribution, local transportation, and health clinics and sickle-cell testing centers in several cities. These activities provided concrete aid to low-income communities and drew support for the Panthers." Read more here

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'Cop Watch'

Video: In California, citizens were allowed to carry guns openly on public property. Members of the Panthers carried arms and  followed police officers at a distance to make sure the police did not use brutality against black people.
Because of the Panthers' armed resistance and socialist beliefs, the FBI’s first director, J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers  “One of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security.” In 1969, the FBI declared the Black Panthers a communist organization and an enemy of the United States government. 

Did Cuba support the Black Panthers?

"During the 1960s strong ties of mutual support developed between the Black Panther Party and the revolutionary government of Cuba."

The support was complicated by the two fractions in Cuba:
"One faction, lead by Ernesto "Che"
Guevara, urged support for all revolutionary movements, including the Black Panther Party. Another more moderate faction wished to downplay such support as means of avoiding US reprisals. Ultimately this faction prevailed, leaving Cuban support for the Black Panther Party more rhetorical than real. While several members of the Black Panther Party and other African American radicals were granted asylum in Cuba [Robert Williams and Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver, Huey P. Newton, and Assata Shakur] their political activities were severely restricted. Among this group, then, disillusionment set in as to the revolutionary sincerity of the Cuban regime."

Reitan, Ruth: "Cuba, the Black Panther Party and the US BlackMovement in the 1960s: Issues of Security." New Political Science, 21:2, 1999, 217-230.

Government Suppression

The activities of the Black Panther Party were observed closely by US law enforcement. Bobby Seale was arrested for conspiracy after a protest at the Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago in 1968. In court, Seale's lawyer was unavailable and Seale was denied both postponement and self-representation. Seale verbally lashed out. In an extraordinary response, Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Bobby Seale to be bound and gagged. Hoffman sentenced Seale to four years in prison. Learn more here

Shootings and Arrests

The Hoover administration saw the Black Panther Party as an anti-US organization that colluded with foreign communist forces and began to arrest the Black Panther leaders nationwide. This is part of the anti-communist sentiment that was widespread in the US since the 40s and 50s.
Many local Black Panther Party branches in the United States suffered arson and explosions. However, the Black Panther Party did not give up their struggle. They elected Fred Hampton as the third-generation leader. However, this time the US government’s violent suppression escalated.
A special police team stormed into Hampton’s home in Chicago and shot him and and other party members. 
The remaining seven Panthers who were not killed were all arrested and indicted on charges of attempted murder, armed violence, and weapons charges. These charges were eventually dropped when during a later investigation, it was discovered that Chicago Police fired ninety-nine shots while the Panthers only shot once. 

Artwork by Emory Douglas. All of the pictures are taken from this NYTimes Article.

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"Revolution in Our Lifetime"

Thanks to the Black Panther newspaper, radical and captivating illustrations like these were published for the first time in any newspaper. The images represent a counterreality to mainstream media.

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Saul Williams: The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip Hop and Connected Writings (2006)

"What I do know is that I have been a hip hop head for years. I have nodded my head to the music that initially affirmed my existence as an African American male. And then, of course, as the music grew more openly misogynistic and capitalistic, I found myself being a bit more picky about exactly what I would choose to nod my head to." (XII)

"I was able to see that hip-hop was still voicing a centuries old desire for respect. I was also able to realize how much of a product of America it is. This cry for respect allowed me to lose
my impatience with hip-hop's overall infatuation with gangsters and realize that even that was simply a cry for power and to be recognized. Like so many, in cases when the oppressed regain a sense of power, the initial intent is to express or abuse that power in the same way that it was used against them."


(XXVII-XXVIII)

Saul Williams' Inspiration

In the Dead Emcee Scrolls, Williams claims that he found an elaborate script in a graffiti spray can, reminiscent of hieroglyphs. He was able to decipher the graffiti script over the course of several years by copying it into his notebook and found that it was a beautiful piece of poetry about ancient lienage, oppression and the power of the spirit. He started reading these pieces at poetry readings and finally published them. He writes that finding this piece of art by an unknown writer has made him into more of a poet than he was before and that he believes it was the original writer's intention that they should be released. (XXI - XXIX)

–> Hip Hop, poetry, and graffiti are all connected to an ancient lienage of art that affirm the spirit of the oppressed

Slam (Film, 1998)

"Afro-American Solidarity with the oppressed People of the world"

"Women started chapters and branches of the Black Panther Party as well. When we used to read some of the stories, you would see women in the Vietnam and Palestine struggle and in the African liberation movement. Women were an integral part of those movements so all that played into how I expressed them in my own artwork."


(Emory Douglas in the same NYTimes Article)

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"For the young, the old, the poor and the Black, living in America is brutal."

"Kids represent an innocence, and Tamir Rice is all I can think about looking at this. He was a young boy who was just playing, and his life was struck."


(Jordan Casteel in the same NYTimes Article)

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"All Power to the People" and "Community Control of Police"

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"Our Fight is not in Vietnam"

 "This image of a black man crying challenges our perceptions of masculinity and strength in our community. It acknowledges black people fighting in a war but questioning, “What is our war? What battles should we be in? And how do we make those decisions? What war is ours? What does it mean to be in battle with your own country?” The evidence is there in the photos on the helmet: We are being killed in the streets here but also being asked to kill or be killed in another country."
(Jordan Casteel in the same NYTimes Article)

–> Black People in Solidarity with all oppressed people, they are colonized in a similar way

"Slam is a 1998 independent film starring Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn. It tells the story of a young African-American man whose talent for poetry is hampered by his social background. It won the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival."

Learn more here

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Saul Williams: "Sha-Clack-Clack"

[...]
"Now is the essence of my domain and it contains all that was and will be. And I am as I was and will be, because I am and always will be that NGH. I am that NGH. I am that NGH.

I am that timeless NGH that swings on pendulums like vines through mines of booby-trapped minds that are enslaved by time. I am the life that supersedes lifetimes, I am."
[...]

–> Reclaims the trope of the African devoid of history
–> The poet can supersede time, but most Black people are trapped in the historical construction of race

"I am a negro! Yes negro, negro from _necro_ meaning death
I overcame it so they named me after it."

–> Overcoming death

–> This connects back to Robert Hayden's poem "Middle Passage":


"Middle Passage:

           voyage through Death
                                to life upon these shores."

Saul Williams, "List of Demands (Reparations)" (2008)

"I want my money back
I'm down here drowning in your fat
You got me on my knees praying for everything you lack
I ain't afraid of you
I'm just a victim of your fear
You cower in your tower praying that I'll disappear
I got another plan, one that requires me to stand
On the stage or in the street, don't need no microphone or beat
And when you hear this song, if you ain't dead then sing along
Bang and strum to these here drums 'til you get where you belong

I got a list of demands, written on the palm of my hands
I ball my fist and you're gonna know where I stand
We're living hand to mouth!

You wanna be somebody?
See somebody? Try and free somebody?"

–> Demand for reparations like the Black Panthers, idea that black people do not have much to lose when they rise up

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"We shall survive. Without a doubt."

Kendrick Lamar, "Blacker the Berry" (2015)

"Six in the morn'
Fire in the street
Burn, baby, burn
That's all I wanna see
And sometimes I get off watchin' you die in vain
It's such a shame they may call me crazy
They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or somethin', but homie, you made me
Black don't crack, my n***a
[...]
You sabotage my community, makin' a killin'
You made me a killer,
emancipation of a real n***a
[..]
The blacker the berry,
the sweeter the juice
The blacker the berry,
the bigger I shoot."

–> Response to the trope of black people as crazy and violent: White people created this problem through the systematic exploitation of black people 

A hopeful image amidst the anger and mourning:

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Remix for Black Lives Matter

Some of Emory Douglas' illustrations have been remixed for the Black Lives Matter movement. You'll find a selection of them here:

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Redefinition through Art

"Conceptually, Douglas’s images served two purposes: first, illustrating conditions that made revolution seem necessary; and second, constructing a visual mythology of power for people who felt powerless and victimized. [...] Departing from the WPA/social realist style of portraying poor people, which can be perceived as voyeuristic and patronizing, Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and affection."

 

Still Imprisoned

"[Jalil] Muntaqim is one of 19 black radicals, including two women, who are still imprisoned 40 or more years after they were arrested for violent acts related to the black liberation struggle. [...] The 19 incarcerated militants were all part of the 1970s black revolutionary movement. They fought for black power, they were convicted of killing for it – though many profess their innocence – and today they are still imprisoned for it." 

Read a Guardian article on the topic here

Supporters Suffered

Jean Seberg was one of the prominent white actresses who supported the Black Panthers.

"In 1970, the FBI planted the false rumour that Seberg was pregnant by a Black Panther Party member in order to 'cause her embarrassment' and 'cheapen her image' with the American public. Their plan worked." [...]

"The assault on her reputation set in motion the events that led to her death a decade later [when she committed suicide]."

Read an Independent article here

Connections

Naming Black Panther

'Black Panther' was first used in the Marvel comic in 1966, several months before it was used by the Black Panther Party. What is unclear is where the comic drew its inspiration from.

"One possibility is the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a political party founded by civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael in 1965 to register African American voters in Lowndes, Alabama, that had a black panther as its logo. Carmichael was a huge influence on the founders of the Black Panther Party, who the next year took the party’s name from LCFO’s logo."

Black Panther (2018, film)

The film was a major success and exceptional for its nearly all-black cast. Wakanda is depicted as a hidden utopian African nation that has wealth and technology.


–> Redefinition: African nation that was never colonized
–> This opposes the stereotype of a poor, 'uncivilized' Africa


On the other hand, there are also downsides to this hidden utopia:
Instead of using Wakandan resources to help Black people all over the world, they choose to remain hidden until the end of the film where there is a hint that Wakanda will start an outreach program in Oakland.
The film has been criticised by many activists because Wakanda's monarchy is not questioned and because international solidarity is downplayed.

Russel Rickford: "I Have a Problem with 'Black Panther" 
"Unfortunately, anyone committed to an expansive concept of Pan-African liberation — one designed to free African and African-descended people throughout the world — must regard Black Panther as a counterrevolutionary picture.
[...] Killmonger is a dark soul, a troubled child of the diaspora who vows to return to the land of his forebears, seize power, and distribute Wakanda’s unrivaled military weapons to oppressed black people across the globe.
In short, Killmonger is a revolutionary. The fact that he is presented as a sociopath is one of the most problematic aspects of the film. [...] [His] character exists to discredit radical internationalism. 
[The only white role in the film is a CIA operative:] The ironies here are legion. One strains to identify a greater foe of the African masses than the CIA, the agency that helped assassinate or subvert some of the continent’s brightest lights, from the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela."

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Black Panther Parallels

There were multiple articles that called attention to the resemblance between the images above: one shows the Black Panther protagonist and the other shows Bobby Seale in 1967.


"Only days earlier, the party had seized national attention when Seale led a troop of 24 men and six women to Sacramento, where members of the California legislature were preparing to outlaw the open carry of loaded weapons. [...]
With the heightened media scrutiny, Cleaver felt it crucial that a publicity photograph of Newton be created, one that would take advantage of the moment and raise national awareness of the BPP. Keenly aware of the power of image and personality, Cleaver placed Newton in an elaborate wicker chair, with a zebra rug underneath, and leaned two African shields against the chair.
[...]
Later, in his memoirs, Bobby Seale emphasized that the importance of the image lay not in the spear or the rifle, but rather the shields next to Newton’s chair, writing: 'This is what Huey P. Newton symbolized with the Black Panther Party — he represented a shield for black people against all the imperialism, the decadence, the aggression, and the racism in this country.'"

How Has Activism Evolved

Over two years, Ed Pilkington interviewed eight people imprisoned since the 1970s black liberation struggle. The goals they expressed are still similar to that of the Black Panther Party:  "a cross between a call for an end to police brutality not dissimilar to today’s Black Lives Matter, criminal justice reform that would sit comfortably with the American Civil Liberties Union, and a demand for full employment, decent housing and good education that might have come from the lips of Bernie Sanders."

Read full interview here

Ongoing Debate about Activist Strategies
The BLM protests in 2020 range from peaceful to violent. In comparison to the Black Panthers, BLM does not focus on armed resistance. Today there is no equivalent to the armed Black Panther 'Cop Watch.' This is likely due to different state laws about carrying guns openly, as well as the increased risk of being killed by police.

BLM, obviously, uses social media, photography and videos to a much higher degree than it was possible in the 60s and 70s. It is likely that the
Black Panther newspaper and the visual illustrations in it are a source of inspiration for today's online activism.

In respect to the BLM protests, it is noteworthy that Huey P. Newton claimed that
going to the streets in large numbers is not necessarily an advantageous strategy ("The Correct Handling of a Revolution"). Instead, he proposes destroying the machinery of the oppressor in small groups of three or four.

However, the prolongued protests in 2020 have been successful in alerting the public to the desperate need for change and have led to
several police officers being arrested. They have also popularized formerly radical demands such as defunding and abolishing the police.

The material on this page was compiled, created, and arranged by Iris Dietrich and Muxi Liu. 

Complete bibliography and list of references.