Thursday, January 10, 2013

Elaine Brown: A Taste of Power

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In my search for a) knowing more about the Black Panthers and b) learning more about my town, I came on Elaine Brown's autobiography, "A Taste of Power." I've learned that part of the problem with histories of the Black Panther movement is that it was lived fast and furious, with many government-sponsored plots as well as the Huey Newton cult of personality, and early deaths of many important figures and it's hard to know exactly what to believe. Each person who tells the story tells it from their own hard-lived life, and while that doesn't mean they're not credible, it means that piecing it all together is difficult from the outside. For example, years ago I read "Soul on Ice" and was smitten by the powerful calls for equality. In Brown's and Haskins's books, on the other hand, Eldridge comes off as a divisive, misogynist, possibly sociopathic figure who often placed his own interests above that of the party, working hard at times to destroy the Black Panther party in order to take over. I can't say whether Brown's book is The Truth or not, but I enjoyed it so much, and felt her voice was so authentic, and so honest when it didn't serve her at all to be so, that this look at the party was a true glimpse.

I admit that I had never heard of Elaine Brown until the day that she spoke at an Oakland City Council meeting. The council was debating a measure that would give police an extraordinary amount of power on the city streets and in the Port during the height of the Occupy Oakland movement. Elaine Brown let them have it.

She also called them out on the fact that not one of them would be on the council if it hadn't been for her work in Oakland's electoral politics. As the camera pans on each of the bored council member's faces, watchers in the know realize that there was not one white man or republican on last year's council. In the 1970s, Huey Newton decided that just as China joining the United Nations was a "tactic of socialist revolution," Panthers running for office could also be a revolutionary move. As Brown writes, "casting a vote for a Black Panther candidate would be the first concrete expression of... consciousness" raised initially by the Survival Programs that had brought Oakland residents food, fair housing, etc. Newton decided Bobby Seale would run for mayor of Oakland and Brown would run for city council. They pair did not win in 1973, though they won approximately 40 percent of the electorate and registered large numbers of black voters in Oakland. Brown ran again in 1975 and lost, this time winning 44% of the vote. Along with the Black Panthers and their massive voter registration efforts, Brown's campaign was responsible for an enormous shift in electoral politics: if she had won in 1975, Brown would "have been the first non-Republican to be elected in Oakland since World War II, and the first black woman ever elected." Last years' City Council, entirely Democrat, can roll their eyes at Brown all they want, but they should thank her for paving their way. (Barbara Parker became the first black woman elected to city-wide office in Oakland this year.

Brown's book covers so much ground that it would be impossible to do justice to even a little of it. Brown grew up in Northern Philadelphia, a poor black neighborhood, but attended a fancy private school with rich white kids: her mother, a very powerful figure in her life, made sure that Brown had every possible opportunity. As she writes, at school, "she became white. At least until 2:17 PM," and then each summer "had to be on York Street every day, poor and black all day, every day." This split left Brown empty and identity-less- something she struggled not until she found the Panthers in Los Angeles, but until years later when she met Huey Newton and realized that he, too, felt the same thing. In the meantime, she was frequently beset by fear: "dissociation, the separation from everything, the feeling of being disembodied," and brings the reader into her life as a black woman who has no tools to understand that identity. "A Taste of Power" is the story of Elaine Brown: black woman learning to be black, learning to be a woman, learning to be a black woman, learning about empowerment, just as it is a story of the Black Panthers. A must read.