Conversation with a Black Panther about Womanism, Black Power and Intersectionality
The other day I was walking down the sidewalk listening to a podcast about intersectional social justice revolution- as you do- and a woman standing on a street corner makes eye contact with me, and smiles like she knows me. I take one headphone off my head, and smile back. Suddenly she has launched into a spiel about the ACLU: immigrant rights, protest rights and reproductive rights. I begin to try to find my way out the situation, but then I think about the irony of this meeting: why can I listen to politics all day on my headphones, but I try to run away when it’s a real person speaking to me about them? What is activism without the action, without the intention, without bumping into strangers and sharing a moment of solidarity?
I take my other headphone out of my ear, and her spiel becomes more personal as she talks about her own life and how she is affected by certain policies. When she is finished, I tell her thank you for being out here, and I was actually just listening to a podcast about many of the issues she just covered. Synchronicity.
Standing on that street corner, she introduces herself to me as Jay, and we continue to talk as she tells me about her life growing up in the city within the Black Panther Party.
I had recently watched a documentary about the party, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which premiered in 2016, so I knew a little bit about the party. A black nationalist and socialist revolutionary party founded in Oakland California by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, the party was created to actively address racial inequality.
The party took a militaristic stance, stating that sit ins weren’t going to do enough, violence was the only way to get real attention from the public. For some, while the Vietnam war raged abroad at the time and the draft went into effect, Black Panther members held the perspective they would rather shoot guns in the streets of the US than a foreign country.
The group originally organized around self defense in Oakland, but soon became a national and even international movement.
According to the law, anyone could carry a gun out in the open if they didn’t have a criminal conviction. Therefore, Black Panthers armed themselves with guns and followed the police, keeping a legal distance and observing “so called officers of the law” as they performed their duties.
The Black Panthers were not founded on principles of hating white individuals, but was founded on the principle of hating oppression and the white supremacist culture that has always had a hold on America.
They were not only focused on monitoring police interaction with citizens, but also created an empowering space for Black citizens in America, stating that “black is beautiful,” and embracing natural hair styles. They held a free children’s breakfast program with the idea that black children would have a better chance of succeeding at school with food in their stomach. Through these programs, the Black Panthers built community and expanded their influence in America.
Labeled a Threat
As I was standing on the street corner talking to Jay, I told her that before I met her today, I actually didn’t know that the Black Panther party still existed. She said that a lot of people didn’t. She said the Black Panthers had largely gone undercover due to COINTELPRO policies targeting the party.
COINTELPRO was a series of secret and often illegal surveillance by the FBI used to discredit and neutralize activities of black nationalists and other protest groups. Power in the hands of these dissenting voices in America was seen as a threat and members of the Black Panthers were harassed and had their phones tapped. COINTELPRO created suspicion within the community as secret FBI informants infiltrated it. During the FBI’s effort to destroy the Black Panther Party, some members of the party abandoned their families to protect them and chose to live together as a party and commit to it 24 hours a day. During Vietnam, the director of the FBI stated that the Black Panthers were the number one threat to US, and there were massive arrests.
Co-funder Newton was imprisoned for shooting a cop, and “Free Huey” protests took over the US while another leader, Eldridge Cleaver, fled to Algeria where he formed international collaborations of anti- American establishment sentiment. After Newton was released from prison, due largely to calls from the public, the FBI helped to drive a wedge between party leaders Huey and Eldridge Cleaver. In addition to the FBI assassination of party leader Fred Hampton at his home while he was sleeping, the FBI spread fear and terror within the party- essentially prompting it to fall apart.
Jay spoke to me about the militarism and patriarchal nature of the Black Panther party she grew up in, and said she was starting to separate herself from it now. Though the party was founded on the idea of racial equality- the same equality didn’t necessarily hold true in terms of gender. Ironically though, by the end of the 60s, the majority of the party were black women, though the image of the party was still male. The black women leading the movement were largely invisible to the public eye.
As Black Panther leader Elaine Brown states, “We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven.”
Jay then asked me if I knew what Womanism was, and I told her yes. She asked for my number and we decided we should hang out. Womanism is a term coined by Alice Walked in the 80s, points toward the intersections of race and gender and provides a space for black women to build community. Womanism is not excluding white women, it’s merely providing a space to center the black voice, which can be largely ignored by mainstream feminism. These spaces for centering voices is so important.
Towards the end of the public history of the Black Panther Party, co-founder Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland as they turned the party into a “get out to vote” movement. There was success, but not enough, and Seale lost the election. The massive arrests and trials surrounding Black Panther party members was more than the party could handle, and in the end they just didn’t have resources.
It’s important to remember that the Black Panthers fought against not only white supremacist culture, but also capitalism. They believed we could not be free in a system that relied on oppression, and believed we needed to create a new community structure.
While the documentary I watched really helped me in my understanding of the Black Panther Party, while talking to Jay on the sidewalk I realized how important being open to the spontaneity of life is as well. Instead of just listening to social justice politics through my headphones, I also need to be present with the people of the world and build radical community right here at home when I am presented with the chance. I can always go home and watch a documentary to inform myself later, but those person to person moments, you need to embrace them when you get them.
The Black Panther 10 Point Program
- We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community.
- We Want Full Employment For Our People.
- We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community
- We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.
- We Want Education For Our People That Exposes The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society. We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.
- We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.
- We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.
- We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.
- 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.
- We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace.
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