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Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and Their Legacy

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The first morning I sat down to review the latest literature on the Black Panther Party, the Oakland Tribune featured a story on the latest project to emerge from the Huey P. Newton Foundation: a Panther clothing line.

Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, eds.

Reviewed by Aaron Shuman

Thursday, August 30 2001, 4:17 PM

The first morning I sat down to review the latest literature on the Black Panther Party, the Oakland Tribune featured a story on the latest project to emerge from the Huey P. Newton Foundation: a Panther clothing line. David Hilliard -- the man who literally replaced Newton as Party head when Huey was jailed, and figuratively replaced him as executive director of his memorial foundation -- pictured smiling in Panther hat and t-shirt.

According to the article, shirts shipped in May, with sweatshirts to follow in late July for back-to-school marketing. A company representative at Fresh Jive, the clothing's manufacturer, explained, "Normally, you have to spend time 'building an image,' but the Panthers already have one, and this is clothing with a message." Hilliard added, "We always wore clothing that made a statement, and now we want clothing to educate young people."

This position -- the liberation pedagogy of clothing -- is one of the few omitted from this reader, which makes a fascinating effort to read the Black Panther Party through the concerns of a 21st century Left. The result is a heterodox collection of essays that forsakes clear ideological agreement, to admit a startling array of perspectives that testify to the Panthers' continued hold over the popular Left's imagination.

So it is that the memories of Yippie Stew Albert, self-proclaimed "official best white friend of the Black Panther Party," co-exist uneasily with tactical criticisms of the Panthers' alliances with white activists. So it is that Kathleen Cleaver's line on sexism and the Party -- that its gender relations be analyzed in the context of "what was going on in the world," not segregated from the sexism of society at large -- later followed by Erika Doss's interrogation of the dick thing in Emory Douglas's Party art. There's even a discordance of historical detail: if Ward Churchill's characteristically exhaustive analysis of The FBI's Secret War against the Black Panther Party is correct -- it assigns responsibility for such events as the Party's break with SNCC and war with cultural nationalists primarily to police instigation -- this would alter the assumptions of Party histories offered elsewhere. After agreeing to march behind the editors' banner, declaring the Black Panther Party "The most significant revolutionary organization in the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century," it's as if the book's nineteen authors scattered to occupy different intersections. They'd meet back at the convergence center, but some of them would take their meals in separate corners.

While some readers might find this chaotic, and hunger for a concluding essay to synthesize the book's observations, the editors have found an inclusive ethic that befits a Party that claimed only 5,000 members near its peak, yet reached millions more through its publications, service programs, and media profile. What the Party was depends on where, how, and when you interacted with it, and the book puts equal weight on the Panthers's "global solidarity" and its internal, regional variations.

Explicitly, the book rejects scholarly convention that "the Newton-led Oakland Panthers were...the 'real' Panthers." Former Panthers Mumia Abu-Jamal, Geronimo ji Jaga, Donald Cox, and Kathleen Cleaver all offer recollections of Party life weighted towards their experiences in East Coast or international sectors. Akinyele Umoja's and Russell Shoats's essays on the relationship of armed resistance groups to the Panthers specifically, and the civil rights movement at large, seek to correct the ideological perspective that lionizes the Oakland Panthers for their community service programs and electoral campaigns. Three essays trace the Party's evolving relationships with countries ranging from the Bahamas and Cuba to Algeria, while other essays examine the same with white American activists, sometimes treated as a nation of their own. The only perspective rejected outright is the Panthers-as-thugs model advanced by Hugh Pearson's Shadow of the Panther, which nonetheless receives a close reading and surprisingly polite criticism from Errol Henderson.

The end result is a reader that manages to rise above the self-defensiveness and internecine squabbling of the Left, to advance a new critical understanding of a signature historical movement. In particular, the book's "global/local" analysis -- its emphasis on dismantling the image of a Party centrally coordinated from Oakland, to examine how Party chapters actually operated and lived -- implicitly suggests that the organizational forms of the 21st century Left are not as new as commonly believed.

This theme is characteristic of the work of editor George Katsiaficas, an important writer with a knack for charting future directions for progressives. His Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 preceded the vogue of globalization analysis-chique. His follow-up, The Subversion of Politics, charts a post-'68 history of European autonomous groups that sheds invaluable light on the post-WTO movement, particularly when he examines its relationship to an emergent Green Party. As founder and editor of the journal New Political Science, Katsiaficas's publication schedule has increased in recent years with the production of an annual reader. Titles such as The Promise of Multiculturalism: Education and Autonomy in the 21st Century and Explorations of African Political Thought: Identity, Community, Ethics suggest a valuable effort to span the gap between Leftists who scorn identity politics and Leftists without a critique of them, and Routledge has reissued the NPS titles this year, in light of their sudden relevance.

Besides demonstrating an ability to pull together an all-star cast, Katsiaficas encourages a unique writing style -- fusing first-person memoir, journalistic reportage, theoretical abstraction, and obsessive detail, always with an ear for the grand opera on the world-historical stage, like the finest Indymedia tract, that richly rewards readers who make the effort. With Kathleen Cleaver, whose three essays whet the appetite of those awaiting her memoirs, Katsiaficas has put together an unusually pleasurable book to read.

Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party is available from Routledge  

Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.

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