We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party
Mumia abu Jamal, Boston, South End, 2004
The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome: The Dead End of Black Politics
Norman Kelley, New York, Nation Books, 2004
Mumia abu Jamal’s membership in the Black Panther Party was used by the prosecution in his murder trial as a reason to sentence him to death in 1981. This questionable conduct by the prosecution and bench was but one instance in his trial for the murder of a policeman that can only be characterized as a miscarriage of justice. Since he was sentenced, Jamal has sat on death row, written commentary for various radio stations and websites, received a couple honorary degrees, spoken via tape recordings to high school and college commencements, and written several books.
His most recent book, We Want Freedom, is a history of the Panthers. Like other party memoirs/histories (from David Hilliard, Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale, to name a few), Jamal’s book is partly autobiographical. Yet, unlike those books, it is mostly a political, critical history of the party. Another aspect of this book that sets it apart from those other Panther books is that it is the first history written by a party member who was not in the leadership; it is written by a foot soldier. Consequently, it tells a story somewhat different than those written by the leadership. With all due respect to the Panther leaders, things look different to the foot soldiers in most organizations and the Panthers weren’t any different in that regard (although the differences weren’t that great).
Mumia does a great job placing the Panthers in the proper historical context. He starts with a brief history of various slave rebellions, relates anecdotes and historical evidence of various black self-defense groups, and then writes about the influence of Malcolm X’s speeches and writings on the BPP’s founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. This is where Jamal places the Panthers-an organization whose legacy lies with those African-Americans historically opposed to their oppression by the white-skinned capitalist class.
Given his status as a minor light in the Party-indeed more of a worker than a leader-Mumia relates his story of the Panthers in their heyday. Furthermore, his story emanates from Philadelphia, not Oakland or New York, which is where most other histories and remembrances of the Panthers were written. Consequently, he highlights Party activities that merited little mention in those other books. The Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in 1970, the success of the Panther’s community programs in Philly and throughout the country are but two such examples.
What is truly unique to Mumia’s book, though, is the fact that he addresses the role that the US government’s counterintelligence operation known as COINTELPRO played in the Party’s demise. One of the ongoing debates among leftist historians in the US is the importance of COINTELPRO. There are those who belittle its effect, blaming the failures of the organizers and leaders for the New Left’s collapse, while others tend to blame the government for everything-a process which often leads to a paranoiac fascination with conspiracies that wind in endless loops. Mumia spins a line between these two extremes and places the government’s manipulations of Panther personalities via various dirty tricks in their proper historical place (manipulations that fueled the split between the Oakland and New York wings). All the while, he does not let the reader forget that the FBI and other law agencies were intent on destroying the Black Panther Party by any means necessary.
Another important aspect of Mumia’s book is that he addresses the role women played in the Panthers. Although he acknowledges that the actions of several male members did not match the ideals of the Party in terms of treating women equally and not abusing them sexually, Jamal makes it clear that it was the goal of Panther leadership to have all of its members treat women the same as they would men. Jamal further emphasizes the leading roles various women played in the Party after Newton, Seale, Cleaver, and other leaders had been jailed, exiled, or murdered. These women not only answered the call, states Jamal, they led the Party to greater things, building the community programs and, in Oakland, creating an electoral political organization.
True to the cornerstone of Panther philosophy, Mumia’s history emphasizes the role class plays in US society. Indeed, one of the primary differences between the Black Panther Party and other nationalist organizations (organization that were termed reactionary nationalists by the Panthers and others on the left) was its insistence that the only true African-American nationalism had to be a revolutionary nationalism that based its thoughts in the economic history of Black Americans, from slavery to today’s situation of permanent lumpenism for much of Black America.
If one looks back at the mainstream civil rights movement that existed during the Black Panther Party’s time, they won’t find very many leaders who understood the role that class plays in US society. Indeed, one could argue that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was probably the only one. Unfortunately, Dr. King met his end as prematurely as many of the Panthers, thanks to COINTELPRO and the racism of US society. Also, like the Panthers, once he was gone, there was no one left who could truly carry on his work.
This is the underlying concept of Norman Kelley’s latest book, The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome: The Dead End of Black Politics. Kelley, the author of the Nina Halligan noir soul mystery series and a writer on the music business and African-American politics, argues quite convincingly that Black politics in America has become a politics devoid of content that not only fails to deliver, but can’t deliver the goods it promises. Furthermore, writes Kelley, the “post-civil-rights leadership has been politically co-opted and reduced to functional irrelevance.” This has occurred across the black political spectrum, from the NAACP to Louis Farrakhan, continues Kelley, leaving the supposed constituency of these groups and individuals with nothing but empty symbols like the Million-Man March and Al Sharpton’s 2004 political campaign.
Like Jamal, Kelley places the story he wishes to tell within the context of African-American history and the struggle for civil rights and liberation. Discussing the differences between WEB Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and the 1960s version of the NAACP and Black Power, Kelley makes the argument that the dichotomization of these differences created a situation that made it difficult for black America to move forward after legal segregation was outlawed. As King, Du Bois, and Huey Newton knew only too well, it was the racial nature of the class system (or maybe the class nature of the racial system) in the US that keeps African-Americans from a true equality. Yet, as Washington and the Nation of Islam (NOI) have pointed out in words and deeds, it is necessary for black America to create a somewhat self-reliant economy if it truly intends on destroying (or upending) that class system Unfortunately, writes Kelley, the attempts at self-reliance by the NOI have not translated into an economy that can sustain much more than those who adhere to the mosque.
Deservedly, Kelley saves his harshest words for those African-Americans who have given their soul to the Democrats. After discussing Jesse Jackson and the role he has tended to play since 1984, when he ran for the Democratic nomination and then, after failing to win it, campaigned for Walter Mondale in a losing campaign. Since then, Jackson’s politics have become not only more nebulous, but more right wing. In part because of this transition, he no longer seems able to rally very many folks to his various causes. Al Sharpton fares no better in Kelley’s eyes. In fact, Kelley goes so far as to label Sharpton’s 2004 campaign, the Scampaign.
Kelley offers some potential answers to the dilemma of 2004 America. One, which he suggests after a discussion of the positive role singer James Brown played in the 1960s with his release of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and other songs, is the idea that black musicians and performers should use their creative and economic clout to create their own economy, instead of selling out to the Hip-Hop pimps and the global capitalists that they work for. Another suggestion from Kelley revolves around black people withholding their vote in a very public way in order to get some results from the white establishment. Although this reviewer has little faith in US electoral politics, perhaps such an endeavor would produce results if it were done in the right way. However, it might be more fruitful if another grassroots party were to arise from the ashes of the ill-fated Panthers.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. It can be purchased by calling 1 800 233 4830.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org