Authored by Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, Tracye A. Matthews, Mary Phillips, and Robyn C. Spencer
This article is a part of a two-part series. See Part 2 here.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) has declared 2016 the #yearofthePanther, a year with nationwide events to “reclaim the history and legacy of the BPP and to connect with current organizations.” Founded in 1966, the BPP developed as a political organization committed to the liberation of Black and oppressed people. The Panthers challenged institutional inequities by policing the police and provided much needed resources and services to the community. While they are most recognized for their breakfast program for children, they created over 50 practical community programs and grew into an organization with worldwide impact.
This weekend, the BPP will hold their 50th Anniversary Conference with the theme, “Where do we go from here?” It is a very relevant question in this moment of deep structural inequality, police killings of unarmed Black women and men, and environmental crisis. The past is in conversation with the present to build the future and an assessment of the living history and legacy of the BPP has taken center stage. Several hundred people will attend Panther sponsored panels and workshops from October 20-23. Hundreds more will take part in the events sponsored by local museums and schools over the course of the month and through the end of the year.
Ahead of this event, we, the IPHP collective, founded by four activist historians in July 2016 to center gender and sexuality in the history and memory of the BPP, have offered some guideposts for those who will be attending or watching this weekend’s events in Oakland, California – Panther birthplace and national headquarters.
Education for Liberation
“We fed them, we loved them, and we hugged them.” Ericka Huggins, April 16, 2010
The BPP reunion committee has organized three days of largely Panther led panels, workshops and community events to showcase key elements of the Panthers history. Among the expected focal points that those familiar with their history would expect, there are a few panels which promise to reveal less well known aspects of BPP history. The impact of parenthood on political work will be addressed on the father-son panel centered on education and liberation featuring Steve McCutchen and his son Alprentice A. McCutchen on Saturday 10/22 at 1pm. Steve McCutchen worked as a math and physical education teacher at the BPP’s Oakland Community School (OCS). The care work that Panther men did individually and as part of the political work at community programs, like the OCS, is rarely acknowledged. Men taught and took care of the children outside of the classroom and sent their children to the school as well.
This panel dovetails with the panel on Thursday 10/20 at 3pm, which features Panthers Ericka Huggins, M. Gayle (Asali) Dixon and educator Dr. Kimberly Mayfield Lynch, discussing the OCS. Huggins served as director of the OCS and Dixon taught art to preschool children at the school in addition to being an artist for The Black Panther, the BPP newspaper. Staffed and run by a dedicated group of Panther men and women (as well as non-Panther educators), this panel demonstrates women’s involvement in the leadership of the school and in individual classrooms.
Women were there through the end of the OCS in 1982, weathering the storms, and trying to hold things together for the love of the children. They have been in the photographs of BPP events, public and private, captured by photographers over the years (non-Panther and Panther alike). Yet, these are not the iconic or durable images that have come to define the BPP. This reality frames the decision of contemporary journalists, photographers and artists (especially during this 50th anniversary year) to re-present the women in the Party lest we forget the power of their presence.
In March and April, Laney College hosted a Sisters of the Struggle: Women of the Black Panther Party Photo Exhibit, co-sponsored by the BPP’s 50th Commemoration Committee and Black Lives Matter Women Activists, among others. BPP archivist and former member, Bill Jennings (Billy X), provided the photos for the exhibit. While the exhibit was refreshing for those who did not know this history, there is much to be gained by digging more deeply in establishment newspapers, left and progressive magazines, newspapers and journals of the period to find photographic images of BPP women that capture them in other spaces.
An exhibit hosted by the Black Panther Party 50 and Comrade Sister at Omi Gallery in Oakland brings a fresh perspective. The exhibit, Survival Pending Revolution, contains rare archival material from Oakland-based curator, Lisbet Tellefsen, and emphasizes the community programs, one of the main spaces where BPP women were highly visible as organizers and workers.
“To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others.” BLM-CU Principles
Love is something that is too often missing from understanding the 1960s. Love, commonly gendered femme, is often not associated with a reputedly macho organization like the BPP. But it was love for the people, love for comrades and love for freedom that attracted and sustained members of the BPP.
At the heart of this conference and gala is a reunion of people who survived the assault of the state, who did watch (guard duty) and filled sandbags together, who grew up together, convinced that their actions would change the world. The genuine joy at seeing freed political prisoners and grandbabies; the hushed conversations comparing notes on health; the proud affirmation of each other’s shared commitment to struggle in the face of ongoing injustices will be a beautiful thing to behold.
With a major exhibit on Panther women subtitled “archival and contemporary musings on love,” with the joyous reunion of Panthers bound by love, comradeship and decades in struggle, and with the critical embrace of a new generation of activists, love will be present when the Panthers gather in Oakland.
IPHP is #changingthenarrative
IPHP will continue to trace representations of gender and sexuality in the second half of our guide to the BPP 50th anniversary commemoration, but we wanted to close this piece with love. The IPHP trailer (below) describes the interventions in #changingthenarrative about the BPP that the collective is working on.
You’ll find the words love and liberation intertwined with feminism, globalism, and sexual identity, among others in our trailer (above). Please watch, visit our website and join our network. Follow us @iphproject
Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, is a Houston, Texas-based historian, independent scholar, filmmaker and former director of the BPP Research Project at Stanford University. Her research, publications and film projects have focused on BPP women, gender and community programs. Current projects include producing and directing a documentary on the OCS and writing a manuscript on BPP women and the community programs. @aleblancernest
Tracye A. Matthews is a historian, curator, and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the associate director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies and journals and she is currently writing a book on the gender and sexual politics of the BPP.
Mary Phillips is an Assistant Professor in the Africana Studies Department at Lehman College, City University of New York. Her research looks at women and gender in the BPP. She is currently completing a political history on Ericka Huggins. @mfphillips
Robyn C. Spencer is Associate professor of History at Lehman College, CUNY and currently a fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale. She writes on the history of the Black Power movement and is the author of the forthcoming book The Revolution has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party in Oakland. @racewomanist
Feature credit: Malik Edwards
All other images posted with permission from Omi Gallery @ Impact Hub Oakland. All rights reserved.