As I first stumbled out of the haze of unconsciousness and began to see the true structure of society and the world, as I began to understand what drove and supported the political socio-economic forces, it was inevitable that I would be influenced by the Black Panther Party. As with many urban youth who lived rough, experiencing ghetto life with its grinding poverty and internecine violence, with the police sweeps and sanctioned violence, along with the general spirit of hopelessness that pervaded the community, the appeal of the party was at first superficial. I was drawn to the audacity in the stories of those so very young women and men who were seeming facing off with the state in the form of the state’s protector — the police. Although I didn’t understand, I was only seeing the surface of what the party was about.
I was aware of some of the survival programs that the party had organized and their provocative slogans. As I read more to get an understanding of the party’s actual ideology, my reading expanded and my own ideas took shape. I became aware of the class struggles in addition to the racial struggles — I had assumed that the condition of minority groups in this country was primarily race based. Now I became aware of the guiding hand of economics in the affairs and destiny of peoples and nations in conjunction with the politics of race.
Through the books and speeches of the BPP, I became familiar with Marx, Lenin, Fanon, Sartre, Che and so many others through whose analysis and actions revealed a different way of considering human events and condition. They also revealed to me the value of setting examples to motivate and consciousness-raise. At first I made what I’ve now come to see as an error in my attempts to bring myself to socialist though, at the expense of free thought. But I realized that dialectical materialism does not bring everyone to the same conclusions, certainly not always at the same time.
Our cultural perspectives are not illegitimate, nor should they be denied in order to fit into any ideological category. A people’s history will inform their view and approach to the issues that have bearing on them, on their condition. Their specific needs may require addressing in ways that are unique to those people, and may not be suitable for other peoples’ circumstances. If people deny that then they are denying themselves the flexibility and effectiveness to meet their needs, solve their problems and advance a common good. This is one of the reasons for the importance of the BPP.
The articulation of the struggle could be — when it needed to be — sophisticated, with a higher level of vocabulary and Marxist-Leninst terminology. Then, when it needed to be — the articulation of the party could be iconoclastic, and even vulgar with the turn of a phrase more easily understood by the lumpen-proletariat, the streetcorner man. Huey Newton and George Jackson spoke to us in both ways. They knew when to because they were as we are. Same history. Same soul. There was no need to pretend in order to manipulate the people. The straight forward speech and fearless actions is what got my attention. Then Huey proceeded to expand my imagination with his own as he described intercommunalism. George served as an example, not only of what a person could survive, but also of how hope and purpose could be restored to a life that had be designated as a throwaway.
The Party existed in a different era than ours. Some things are better, some are worse. Yet what remains exactly the same is the need for people to be conscious of the forces that affect their lives and threaten to dictate their fact, along with the urgent need to seize those forces and address those needs.
The most effective organizers and motivators of people of the underclass are those who can speak the language of the underclass on the one hand, taking the frustrating and complex, making them plain. While on the other hand demonstrating what someone like themselves are capable of with the depths of their understanding and the heights of their courage — remaining unbroken where others have broken under less pressure.
In the present, criticism is leveled at those women and men who risked all of themselves, sacrificed so much — even their own lives. Their errors and excesses have been highlighted in history. Although we can recognize the accuracy of some of that criticism, it would be a grave error on our part to allow those things to prevent us from accepting the lessons in their analysis of the origins, significance and relevance of class and racial struggle, nor should we fail to acknowledge the dedication and examples of courage that were demonstrated by people so young.