By SALAMISHAH TILLET OCT. 2, 2015 NYT
The Black Panther Party at its peak, circa 1968: young African-American men sporting black berets and leather coats, awe-inspiring Afros, raised fists on campuses, megaphones on street corners and rifles on the steps of the California State Capitol.
By 1970, Tom Wolfe had canonized these images as “radical chic” in his famous cover article for New York magazine when he wrote, “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big,” adding, “these are real men!”
From media coverage to popular memory, most representations of the Black Panther Party have largely focused on its male leaders, the founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and the minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver. And yet, the group that began in Oakland in 1964 as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, with its main organizing efforts targeting disaffected young African-American men in cities, was over two-thirds women by the end of the 1960s.
As Stanley Nelson’s new documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” now in release, reminds us, the party struggled with these founding gender contradictions. As women increasingly reached all levels of the organization, male leaders had mixed responses to their push for equality.
The party’s media strategy continued to valorize the images of its revolutionary men. By the beginning of the next decade, however, Newton began incorporating demands for gender and sexual equality as part of the party’s platform — even as, Mr. Nelson’s film shows, his personal actions toward women might have violently contradicted his progressive philosophy.
“We knew going into the film that by the early 1970s, women were the majority of the party,” Mr. Nelson said in a phone interview. “But we also knew that’s not how the story is usually told, so telling that became one of the objectives.”
Like their male counterparts, young women joined the Black Panthers because they believed in its platform of armed self-defense to end police brutality and state violence. They also saw themselves as “vanguards,” militant advocates for the economic and political equality of African-Americans here at home and allies of the Communist movements in Cuba, China, Mozambique and Vietnam.
But, like so many others of their generation, black women actively sought organizations that challenged gender stereotypes in the larger society. And because many of these women were committed to eradicating racist as well as sexist attitudes, some found what they were looking for in the Panthers.
“I would say that the women who were drawn to the Black Panther Party were all feminists,” said Ericka Huggins, the widow of the slain Panther leader John Huggins and the first woman to open a Black Panther Party chapter, in New Haven, where she served as deputy chairwoman. She went on to clarify in a phone interview: “Not in the way that feminism is looked at today, in which you have to go step by step in order to claim yourself as a feminist. But we generally believed in the political, social, economic and sexual equality of women and girls.”
In her forthcoming book, “What You’ve Got Is a Revolution,” the historian Ashley Farmer describes how Panther women would go on to shape the internal and sometimes internecine debates about gender equality and racial militancy in their women’s groups, in the Panther newspaper and elsewhere. At the same time, they often led and sustained the organization’s most successful community programs — the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, the Liberation Schools and the People’s Free Medical Centers — long past the Panthers’ prime.
“I think the hidden discussions within the party were about what it meant to be a new black man and new black woman, and that eventually led to new narratives about gender roles,” said Tracye Matthews, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago.
What was progressive about the Panthers’ practices of equality — like having men cook in the breakfast programs and arming women to fight — also fostered tension. “They were constantly forced to confront how their theory of equality played out in real life and in the context of real oppression,” Ms. Matthews concluded.
One of the most outspoken critics of sexism within the Black Panther Party (and of Mr. Nelson’s film, for that matter) may be Elaine Brown, who was also the only woman to lead the organization (from 1974 to 1977). She wrote about the gender contradictions extensively in her 1992 memoir, “A Taste of Power,” but, in the film she acknowledges that challenging Panther male chauvinism was not always successful. “Did we overcome it? Of course we didn’t. Or as I like to say, ‘We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven.’ ”
It might have been state, not divine, intervention that created the political vacuum that allowed women to rise to positions of power in the party. In 1969, when national and local law enforcement officials unleashed their strongest and most violent attacks against the Panther leadership, they primarily targeted men.
“I don’t think that the police in San Francisco and Oakland took women that seriously as leaders because of their own chauvinism,” said Kathleen Cleaver, the Panthers’ first communications secretary and the former wife of Eldridge Cleaver. As a result, “many of the men in the party ended up being arrested, going into exile or underground, or dead.”
In response to this void, the Panthers’ fluctuating gender philosophy became strategic practice as the organization relied on those who remained: the women who continued to steer the party and its community programs.
While many pop-culture depictions of the party, like Mario Van Peebles’s 1995 film “Panther,” have paid “scant attention to the heroic contributions of female Panthers,” as Michael Eric Dyson’s review noted at the time, one other film stands out. In Tanya Hamilton’s 2010 film “Night Catches Us,” the heroine is Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), an ex-Panther turned defense lawyer whose husband was brutally murdered in a standoff with the Philadelphia police. Ms. Hamilton said in a phone interview that she made Patricia the heroine because “she had an obligation to the movement, and not just to the exciting or radical parts, but the functioning parts: feeding kids, making sure they stayed in school and protecting the neighborhood.”
She continued: “And for Pat, that protection went far beyond the role of being a Huey Newton standing on the corner to having her house be a central place for people who needed things. I envisioned her as a remnant of the most beautiful part of the Panthers.”
¬Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination.” She is writing a book about Nina Simone.