Authored by Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, Tracye A. Matthews, Mary Phillips, and Robyn C. Spencer
This article is a two-part series. Read part 1 here.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) 50th anniversary dovetails with the high tide of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In the context of a police violence epidemic against Black and Brown communities and headlines that ask “Does Black Lives Matter Pick Up Where The Black Panthers Left Off?” the connection between the past and the present is explicit. Activists reach back to the Black freedom movement for inspiration (“Assata Taught Me”) as well as cautionary tales (“this ain’t your mama’s civil rights movement”). The Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project (IPHP), a collective of four historians who center gender and sexuality in the history of the BPP, analyzed the 50th anniversary program to explore these connections.
Women have been present in the BPP since the first woman, Tarika “Matilaba” Lewis, then an Oakland High School student, walked into the BPP office in 1967 with the intention to join. Women’s centrality in the BPP is reflected in their visible representation in the almost three dozen panels, workshops and community events organized by the Panther reunion committee. On Thursday, 10/20 (1pm), Charlotte Hill O’Neal shares her story of African exile and ongoing commitment to community programs. Initially a part of the International Section in Algiers until it disbanded, O’Neal and her Panther husband, Pete O’Neal, went to Tanzania like so many other Black Power activists. There the O’Neals continued the Panther commitment to “serve the people.” Charlotte O’Neal’s presentation reminds us of the continuity of the Panthers’ international presence.
On Friday, 10/21 (11am), “Women of the International Section of the Black Panther Party” features O’Neal, Kathleen Cleaver and Barbara Cox. Cleaver is co-founder of the BPP’s International Chapter in Algiers in 1970, the first woman to serve on the BPP’s Central Committee as the Communication’s Secretary and a central coordinator of the “Free Huey”campaign. Cox was an international activist, organizing against the Vietnam War while in Europe. These three women experienced internationalism while married to powerful men and Cleaver and O’Neal both birthed their children while abroad. Parenthood was a key factor in how Panther men and women experienced international organizing and exile.
Women at the Helm
The “Survival Pending Revolution” exhibit opened Friday, 10/7, with a creative roundtable called “We Be The Key.” Tarika Lewis and Ericka Huggins, both on the roundtable, represent the longevity of women’s Party work. Lewis participated in the early years, outperforming men on the shooting range to earn respect, and creating revolutionary art for the Party’s newspaper. Huggins, joining in 1969, survived two years as a political prisoner and remained one of the longest serving members until 1981. On October 17th at Omi Gallery, a second panel, “Get in Formation: Women Lead the Party,” showcased Huggins, Lewis, M. Gayle (Asali) Dixon, Cathy Campbell and Carol Rucker, each leaders in their own right in specific BPP programs, as organizational decision-makers and in their current communities.
BPP women often are not credited as strategists and ideologues. Elaine Brown, along with Panther scholar Judson Jeffries, will interrogate Panther ideology on a panel Saturday, 10/22 (1pm and 3pm). Brown helped establish the first Breakfast program in Los Angeles, edited the Panther newspaper, replaced Eldridge Cleaver as Minister of Information and was head of the BPP from 1974-1977. Although this panel highlights Huey Newton’s genius and legacy, Brown was influential in electoral politics, coalition-building and as Party leader (when she elevated several women to formal leadership positions), all experiences that give her authority to reveal how she and party members analyzed, interpreted, implemented and remixed some of Newton’s ideas while he was incarcerated (1967-1970) or in exile (1974-77).
The everyday work of women is critical to the legacy of the BPP. The Panthers hold space in the tradition of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley on Friday, 10/21( 3pm) with a panel, “Self -Defense Against Police Brutality and Murders of Black and Oppressed People.” This panel centers the experiences of mothers mourning while organizing against the murder of their beloved relatives. Young women speak out as contemporary organizers in #OPEN (Our People Effecting Neighborhoods program), a panel centered around the group’s work in New Jersey on Saturday, 10/22 (3pm).
Reading the Silences
Political prisoners, political repression and coalition politics are areas that could be enriched by gender analysis. For example, the FBI’s Counterintellegence Program’s (COINTELPRO) insidious reach cannot be understood solely in terms of large scale arrests and murders of male political leaders. Beyond abusing and arresting women as well, COINTELPRO was also nimble enough to destroy support systems, undermine trust and close lines of communication. Vicious and often deadly political repression from COINTELPRO heightened all fault lines within the organization and exploited internal contradictions regarding gender relations and roles and sexuality.
In the 1990s, some Panther women embarked on a journey of healing in a series of retreats in an effort to begin healing from their traumas. The enduring legacy of some women learning self-care while imprisoned, often in solitary confinement, is reflected in an 11/9 public event Ericka Huggins will facilitate. It is a one hour session, “Meditation: The Revolution Within”, at the Omi Gallery, during which she will publicly display the power of a different kind of silence: “silence and recognition [that] brings us into a greater connection with our great selves. It is from this place that we can serve the people.” Indeed, during the 1970s, the BPP central headquarters attempted to incorporate a form of spirituality into its structure via its Son of Man Temple and via teaching meditation strategies to the youth at the Oakland Community School.
Huggins’ holistic approach resonates with the growing dialogue around self-care that percolates within many #BLM formations. The Panther conference program shows evidence of the impact of this cross-generational influence. The Panthers have set aside a space for community healing, for wellness and “to address collective trauma.” While tensions and unresolved issues likely will simmer under the surface, only visible to those in the know, the presence of these spaces of reflection has the potential to build bridges and stir souls. Panthers who attend likely will skew towards good health, emotional stability and disposable incomes. But the reality is that some are entering the last quarter of their lives as survivors who are scarred–emotionally, physically, financially–from their time on the front lines of America’s Black Power revolution. The idea of healing, self-care, holistic and spiritual health being part of this potential summit between youth and elders is not just heartwarming; it feels like emotional justice, a term popularized by journalist Esther Armah.
Sexuality will likely remain under the shroud of personal politics, although the many interwoven families and the last names retained long after relationships died tell another story. The Panthers were an organization of husbands and wives, same sex lovers, and brothers and sisters. The collective living some Panthers experienced and their relative youth, in the context of the sexual revolution, freed people in ways that scholars may never be able to capture. Although these matters will not have a formal place on the program, it is worth noting that the Panthers did question ideas about monogamy, the meaning of marriage, and the primacy of the nuclear family. The Panthers worked in solidarity with gay and lesbian liberation organizations in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the violence disproportionately faced by Black trans women and the growing challenge to heteronormativity in contemporary Black radical organizing spaces, it is appropriate that the Panthers have set aside a space at the conference for those who are gender non-conforming. The personal was deeply political to Panthers and the alternative institutions they attempted to build to prefigure the world they wanted to live in represent some of the greatest aspects of their legacy.
IPHP believes that reading gender and sexuality into the BPP’s 50th commemorative activities promotes an understanding of Black liberation movement politics that is as necessary to the Black freedom struggle as a study of the BPP’s Marxist ideology, armed self-defense and electoral campaigns. We will continue honoring and celebrating the Panthers’ extraordinary leadership as we challenge ourselves and others to #sayhername.
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