In my previous post, I discussed how reading Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” affected my view of the Black Panther Party. Today I will review how the revelations of another former Black Panther stunned me further, sealing my disillusionment.
When the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Nationalism in the United States are recounted, the litany of leaders we remember are generally Black men. We know much of the stories of Martin Luther King Junior, Malcolm X, A Philip Randolph, Medgar Evers, and Stokely Carmichael. But though the men were in the spotlight, Black women played a crucial and unsung role in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. I had heard whispers of the intraracial conflicts and sexism experienced by Black women within both movements for years. Elaine Brown was named as one of these women. So in October of 2019, I checked her autobiography, “A Taste of Power”, out from the library. Brown’s account of her time with the Black Panther Party and her stormy relationship with Huey Newton allows you to see behind the slick popular image of the BPP. You see more than the huge cottony afros, black berets and rifle carrying young Black men, and the life beyond the veil is quite ugly.
Elaine Brown begins her life in a poverty-ridden area of Philadelphia. Born in a time when segregation ruled in the South and North alike, Brown experiences some adversity in her youth. Her vivid descriptions of the street harassment and attempted sexual assault she experienced at the hands of Black teenage males in her neighborhood resonated with me. Though she was recounting events that happened in the late 1950s, her words easily echoed what I and other young Black women encountered forty years later.
There was one bright light that softened the roughness of inner-city living and segregation for Elaine: her hard-working single mother. Elaine does not describe her mother as particularly affectionate. However, I saw love and care in her mother’s dedication to finding educational opportunities for Elaine, the kind of opportunities that would allow Elaine to escape the ghetto and facilitate her entry into America’s middle-class.
Elaine had a different future in mind. Though she graduated from an all-girl prep school in Philadelphia and attended Temple University, she dropped out after one semester and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a songwriter. Elaine ended up working as a waitress at a strip club and being the mistress of a much older, wealthy white man. Elaine’s married paramour baptizes her in the world of radical politics. Though she and her lover parted ways, Elaine remained interested in activism. After the assassination of MLK Jr, she attends her first Black Panther Party meeting and soon becomes a member.
As discussed in my previous post, I do not think it is difficult to see why the BPP initially appealed to so many Black Americans. After decades of taking the non-violent approach yet being met with increasing brutality, by the 1960s many of us, especially the youth, were tired of turning the other cheek. So the message of self-defense and eager endorsement of the Second Amendment found plenty of willing recipients at that time. Yet there was much more to the BPP than this. In Elaine’s account of her time with them, a darker and less heroic image emerges.
Prior to reading Brown’s autobiography, I knew that Eldridge Cleaver, admitted and convicted serial rapist, was part of BPP leadership. Nevertheless, my stomach churned as Elaine Brown adoringly describes him, her initial desire and admiration for him made quite clear. Elaine was not alone in her fawning over Cleaver. He had quite a fan club, all Black women who were aware of what he had violated other women but were unbothered by it.
Brown’s feelings towards Cleaver, however, were a fleeting schoolgirl crush in comparison to the stormy relationship she developed with BPP co-founder Huey Newton. Enamored with Newton’s intellect, revolutionary zeal, and strapping physique, Elaine’s friendship with Huey turns into something more. Brown does not shy away, however, from informing her readers of Newton’s belligerent, violent, and intoxicated alter ego. Though Brown was devoted to Newton and his party, the respect was not mutual in my opinion. One of many examples of this is Newton essentially pimping Brown out for the benefit of the BPP. When the Panthers are strapped for cash, Newton asks Brown to sleep with a wealthy Hollywood BPP sympathizer in exchange for $10,000. Brown, eager to please her leader and down to support the Party in any way, agrees to the request. Afterwards, Newton crudely jokes to Brown that her genitalia is so good it has a $10,000 price tag attached.
As Brown’s memoir continues on, I also noticed the violence that BPP leadership doled out to those within their organization, a fact which repelled me as much as sexism and exploitation Black women faced in the BPP. Though Elaine rises through the ranks and is close to Newton, she is not exempt. She is savagely beaten by a male Panther on one occasion, and Newton himself slaps her. The violence Brown experienced at the hands of men in the BPP was not an outlier, and it was the beating of yet another Black woman in the Party that finally pushed her to leave. Terrified for her life and that of her young daughter, Brown flees without warning.
When I started reading “A Taste of Power”, I had already abandoned my naïve and rose-colored view of the BPP and similar groups. But finally hearing the sordid details from someone who lived through it killed any remaining respect I might have had. Though the BPP is still lionized and viewed as inspirational by many in my community, I feel differently. I cannot ignore the sexism experienced by Black women in the party, the extortion of Black business owners by the party, and the violence meted out to those who dared challenge any of the above.
I believe that the rank and file of the BPP had the best of intentions and likely believed in the cause of Black liberation. I cannot say the same of the leadership, and I cannot forgive and forget the harm the leadership caused to those they supposedly existed to protect.