To say that much of America lacks an understanding of black history would be an understatement. Neither taught in schools nor adequately represented within public discourse, the history of black America remains largely invisible into the twenty first century. This is especially the case when thinking about the history of resistance and social movements – for all too many, they are hidden from the historic transcript. That is, the challenges to white supremacy, from slave revolts to the Dream Defenders, from anti-lynching crusades of the early twentieth century to the Black Panther Party, are omitted and misrepresented, turned into an illegible footnote to the larger struggle against white supremacy.
Joshua Bloom and Waldon Martin enter into this historic vacuum with Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (UC Press, 2013). Countering the broader erasure, its exploration of the Black Panther Party offers an important intervention against the surfaced treatment of the Black Freedom Struggle and specific counternarrative to the historic lies surrounding the Panthers. Although there have been several books to date – a number of collections and memoirs – that have worked to set the record straight regarding the Panthers, Bloom and Martin offer a groundbreaking intervention that thoroughly documents the complex and rich history of the Black Panther Party.
Like so many movements, organizations, and individuals, the Panthers have been erased from the historiography. More significantly, those inclusions are often defined by stereotypes (cue Forest Gump), flattened representations (cue The Butler), and the perpetuation of lies about the Panthers. Whether reduced to “gun-totting thugs” or imagined as a static organization, whether seen as a “media creation” or an insignificant footnote that had little impact, the myths and misinformation surrounding the Panthers has remained in place for more than forty years.
A core theme for the book is the dynamic nature of the Panthers. There is no single history of the Panthers but many histories. There is the history of the self-defense organization that seized upon the tradition of guns and freedom in an effort to challenge persistent and unchecked state violence. That is, in the face of police violence, police brutality, and the failure of the state to uphold and protect the rights of African Americans, particularly those segregated inside America’s ghettos, the Panthers filled that void. This isn’t the only history of the Panthers; there is the story of survival programs – health care, schools, breakfast programs – in Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, and countless other cities. There is the history of the Panthers transnationally – their direct organization throughout the globe and also their influence in China, Sweden, Cuba and many other places. There are the histories of organizations, from the Young Lords to the Brown Berets, who not only found inspiration in the aesthetics and the BPP platform, but with a shared ideology. There is the history of the relationship between the Panthers and the New Left, between the Panthers and wealthy white “allies.” There are many stories that highlight the complexity of the Panthers and the historicity of their ideology, tactics, shortcomings, and trajectory. And there are the histories of Huey Newton and Ericka Huggins, Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown, Aaron Dixon and Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Hutton, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Assata Shakur, and many more.
The book also spotlights these many histories, providing readers with a chronological and detailed understanding of the multiple histories, the dynamic shifts, and the fluid nature of the Panthers; yet it also brings to life the many locations, the many individuals, and the many movements that encompass the Panthers. While Black against Empire is the story of an organization it is much more a story of a movement.
A second and crucial theme to the book is it’s understanding of the Panthers within a larger history of social upheaval.
The Black Panther Party was also specific to its times. The times did not make the Black Panther Party, but the specific practices of the Black Panthers became influential precisely because of the political context. Without the successes of the insurgent Civil Rights Movement, and without its limitations, the Black Power ferment from which the Black Panther Party emerged would have not existed. Without widespread exclusion of black people from political representation, good jobs, government employment, quality education, and the middle class, most black people would have opposed the Panthers’ politics. Without the Vietnam War draft and the crisis of legitimacy ion the Democratic Party, few nonblack allies would have mobilized resistance to state repression of the Party. Without powerful anti-imperialist allies abroad, the Panthers would have been deprived of both resources and credibility (p. 13).
They further note understanding the history of this movement isn’t simply knowing the Panthers: “It’s not simply what the Panthers did” (14) – it’s how they did it, where and when they did it, under what conditions they did it, and how they responded to the shifting landscape. To understand the Panthers is to comprehend the landscape of late 1960s and early 1970s . . . to understand this era requires looking at the Panthers.
The book is very invested (& rightly so) in spotlighting the dialectics between the Panthers and the shifting social, political, racial, cultural, and economic landscapes. It sees the Panthers as an important challenge against U.S. Empire. Like the Panthers, the book documents the interconnections of Empire (see image above from Emory Douglas as illustrative here), making clear the many ways that people and communities throughout globe felt the reach of state violence.
While chronicling the history of the BPP, it argues that one cannot understand this organization (or these histories) without looking at: the influence of decolonization movements and Third World liberation ideologies, the anti-War Movement, the shifting political landscape resulting from the election of Richard Nixon, the existence of the Hollywood left, and deindustrialization; one cannot think about the ideological arguments and the “Freedom Dreams” put forth by the Panthers without looking at Fanon, Che, Mao, Malcolm, and countless others. Although it misses some important opportunities to show the ways that say Fanon’s discussion of violence or the idea of domestic colonialism impacted the organizational approach/tactics embraced by the BPP, it masterfully shows the ways that the Panthers built on the traditions of Malcolm and Robert Williams, Fanon and Mao not just its day-to-day activities but with its theorizing about the state, intercommunalism, and self determination. Policing the police or breakfast programs weren’t simply strategies, tactics, or part of the Panthers larger intervention against a racist capitalist state but theorization about the state and its challenge to American Empire.
While the book does leave out intellectual and theoretical contributions of say Fanon, instead simply noting his influence, the book does an excellent job highlighting the historic ingredients that give rise to the Panthers, even while not the shifting nature of the Panthers amid a fluid environment.
Despite its 400 plus pages, there are absences and omissions: it falls short in its discussion of the influences of the Black Feminist Movement, painting the Panthers shifting gender ideology as somewhat organic. Along these same lines, its erasure of the likes of Vicki Garvin, Ella Baker and countless other women who encompass the black radical tradition, points to further points of intervention.
As I read I also found myself wondering about the legacy of the Panthers. To think about the Panthers today is not simply reflect on historic recovery but also their ongoing contributions: policing the police, free breakfast programs and an emphasis on self-determination. A legacy of their challenge to empire is also evidenced in the increased power of the state, visible in the allegiance to discourses law and order and the rise of the prison industrial complex. While not a point of focus, the detailed history brings to life the legacies and the persistent violence that operate from empire.
- How was framing (pg 160) central to the emergence of the Panthers? Why is this so often erased from the discussion of Black Radical social movements
- In what ways were the BPP a product of the moment?
- How can we talk about social movements that spotlights the importance of the larger context while not erasing the ways that organizations and individuals made history
- Why were coalitions so crucial for the Panthers; in what ways do coalitions reveal the contradictory space which the Panthers had to occupy
- How were the Panthers as much a political intervention as a social movement
- Why did Panthers’ politics focus on creation of parallel institutions; why was this so important not simply in terms of organizing but in terms of theorizing and but in terms of a revolutionary mindset
- Why were the survival programs the biggest threat to hegemony?
- In what ways did the state neutralize the BPP and what does this reveal about social movements?