Friday, March 22, 2013

Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin: Black Against Empire

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It is not easy to find "authoritative" writing on the Black Panthers. In my quest for learning about the Black Panther Party, I've come up with some theories: lots of the Panthers were killed, so couldn't tell their stories; the Party collapsed in on itself so the party has many competing versions; and the Civil Rights version of history is the "acceptable" version, so that's what gets funded/studied. But Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin don't have to guess: "Black Against Empire" *is authoritative, I mean, it's even published by the University of California Press- those guys do their research. Part of the lack of an "adequate history," they write is because of the "character of state repression of the Party [that was] aimed specifically at vilifying the Black Panther Party." This "shaped public understandings and blurred the outlines of the history." In order to overcome this, "Black Against Empire" was written through a process of "strategic genealogy": Bloom and Martin work through the Panthers' political practices through contemporary documents and primary sources, using retrospective interviews and memoirs only as backups. It's a fascinating read, especially coming after reading Elaine Brown's autobiography. If I could have a do-over, I'd read "Black Against Empire" first, and then "A Taste of Power," for reasons I'll get into later.

Bloom and Martin believe the Black Panther Party (BPP) came into being and fell away at a specific time for a reason. Not since the Civil War, they write, "almost a hundred and fifty years ago have so many people taken up arms in revolutionary struggle in the United States." That's quite something when you think about it. The civil rights movement was fading, they say, though that is something I couldn't quite wrap my minds around: Bloom and Martin say that civil rights was failing to deliver what black people really sought. The civil rights movement was a call for citizenship, for "full and equal participation." Legally in the late sixties, African Americans were getting closer to achieving this. In reality, many were still facing the same old shit, and needed a movement that did with the Panthers did: challenged the very authority of the state to grant them that citizenship. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the founders of the BPP were angry and felt like they were living as colonized subjects. In founding the BPP they effectively channeled the rage of many other young blacks into a revolutionary group that sought to bypass the institutional channels that the civil rights movement was working through.

"Black Against Empire" basically covers the years from 1966 to 1971, though it is most comprehensive from 1967-1970. This is the time when the BPP were able to ally themselves with the anti-war movement at home and the anti-imperialist movements abroad. Ideologically, the BPP argued that black people were, like other people of color at home and abroad, a colonized people. They argued that theirs was a common cause with the North Vietnamese and all oppressed people and that police (pigs) were the occupying forces. As young white activists started protesting en masse against the Vietnam war and began feeling the blunt end of police oppression, this argument resonated. The BPP was anti-racist and believed in coalitions across racial groups while standing firm on black self determination. Abroad, the BPP found friends in places like Cuba, Algeria and China as they couched their arguments in Marxist language and allied themselves with the communist North Vietnamese.

Practically, the BPP gained strength through its self-defense tactics. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale figured out that one of the best ways to both organize "brothers on the block" and stand up for the black community was to police the police. This was hugely successful: so successful that in 1967 Assemblyman Mulford introduced AB 1591 to outlaw open carry. When Newton famously sent an armed delegation to Sacramento to protest this bill, the media coverage led to even more press and support for the Panthers. Armed self defense thus became a double edged sword of both an effective and illegal strategy for the BPP.

So why do I wish I had read this book first? "Black Against Empire" is presented as an authoritative political history of the Black Panther Party. I believe that it is, but having read Elaine Brown's book first, my impression of the BPP is anchored in her story, which is personal, detailed and by definition, autobiographically skewed. Reading "Black Against Empire" I found myself saying "that's not what Brown said," even though I know that means nothing as everyone lives their own story. I wish that I had read Brown's book saying "That's not what 'Black Against Empire' said." That being said, the two books compliment each other: where "Black Against Empire" is a political history and thus attempts to leave out the highly personal stakes of the BPP, Brown lived it, and her book gives the reader a true sense of the time.  Also, "Black Against Empire" ends abruptly, rushing through 10 years of Panther history, while Brown's direct involvement in the end of the era gives the reader a good picture of the school and the ultimate collapse of the Party.

If you want a book on the Panthers, read this one. With the backing of the University of California Press, it's got the weight of credibility. The authors are thorough in describing other literature and the book clearly leans to the left, which appeals to me. The book looks long, but that's partially due to extensive endnotes; it reads fast. Try it.