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A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story.

BOTH DAVID HILLIARD AND KATHLEEN CLEAVER, FORMER LEADERS OF THE Black Panther Party, have stated that they do not recognize the Black Panther Party that Elaine Brown describes in her new memoir. Cleaver, now a university professor of law, is quoted in The New York Times Magazine feature (January 31, 1993) on Elaine Brown: "Elaine gives a very negative description of the Black Panther Party; the organization she wrote about is not the organization I belonged to."

Hilliard, now a union organizer, made a similar statement when he spoke about his own memoir in January at Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley, California, explaining, however, that his active years in the party were in the early period, 1966--1970, and Brown's national leadership spanned the 1970s. Hilliard went to prison in 1971, just about the time that Newton brought Elaine Brown to Oakland, and Newton expelled him from the party, abandoning him to three years of prison. By the time Hilliard was free, Brown had become head of the party and Huey Newton was in exile in Cuba. Kathleen Cleaver, with her husband Eldridge, were also active in the early period and then expelled.

Therefore, Elaine Brown's account is important for an understanding of the decline of the party and of Newton. She does not pretend that her memoir is the story of the Black Panther Party, but rather her personal story, "a black woman's story" of "a taste of power."

When Huey Newton was freed from prison in 1970, he brought Elaine Brown to Oakland to replace the expelled Eldridge Cleaver as Minister of Communications and editor of the party newspaper. As chairman, Bobby Seale was Newton's enforcer until his own expulsion. Newton set the standard for arbitrary discipline, rules made up along the way from which only he was exempt, and all down the line, violence was the method used. Brown relates an example:

One morning, we were an hour late. Bobby began screaming at me. It

would cost the party money.... Too much time had been spent editing, he

shouted, looking at me. I was the editor, and I was responsible, and I was

subject to discipline for that.

I took the punishment, the way most comrades did. Bobby's order was

sufficient. There was no real appeal. It was our judicial system, made up

mostly as we went along. If we had been in Bolivia with Che, we told

ourselves, we would be shot for violations of rules or orders. Discipline

was essential in the vanguard, we told ourselves. So I silently faced the

punishment, which was always an act of violence.

John Seale was strangely gentle with the ten lashes I received from the

whip he held. We were in a small basement room at national headquar-

ters. My bare back hardly felt the sting.... My rage was so intense, each

lash stung me only with the face of Bobby, who was not there. My skin

developed welts but was unbroken by the tenth lash. I refused the

attempts of John and the other men there to put salve on my back (Brown,

p. 275).

When Brown complained to Newton, her lover although he lived with and would later marry another woman, he promised to make it up to Brown: "Then he laughed, and kissed me, over and over, until I shamelessly abandoned the business of Bobby Seale and allowed myself to forget Gwen" (pp. 275--276).

Elaine Brown was ordained by Newton to assume command of the party in 1974, when he fled to Cuba to elude new murder charges. Hilliard reports that Newton was said to have chosen Elaine Brown as his top official because the choice amused him. He quotes Panther supporter, Marty Kenner:

Her loyalty was very valuable to Huey. Her weakness was her strength;

she had no place to go, could organize no independent base. Huey would

chuckle that she might be a son of a bitch, but she was his son of a bitch

(p. 365).

During her three years' tenure in Newton's absence, Brown welded the party into a powerful local and state political force, in part facilitated by the 1974 election of Jerry Brown as governor. In the process, Brown confronted virulent sexism, which she described in the following way:

A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best,

irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. A woman attempting

the role of leadership was, to my proud black Brothers, making an

alliance with the "counter-revolutionary, man-hating, lesbian, feminist

white bitches." It was a violation of some Black Power principle that was

left undefined. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was

said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the

black race. She was an enemy of black people (p. 357). Her strategy for functioning as a woman was to rely on the membership's loyalty to Newton, and it worked, to an extent:

...I had introduced a number of women in the party's administration.

There were too many women in command of the affairs of the Black

Panther Party, numerous men were grumbling....

It was a given that the entire Black Power movement was handicapped

by the limited roles the Brothers allowed the Sisters and by the outright

oppressive behavior of men toward women. This had meant little to me

personally, however.... And because of Huey -- and now Larry -- I had

been able to deflect most of the chauvinism of Black Panther men. My

leadership was secure. Thus, in installing Sisters in key positions, I had

not considered this business. I had only considered the issue of merit,

which had no gender....

Oddly, I had never thought of myself as a feminist. I had even been

denounced by certain radical feminist collectives as a "lackey" for men.

That charge was based on my having written and sung two albums of

songs that my female accusers claimed elevated and praised men.

Resenting that label, I had joined the majority of black women in

America in denouncing feminism. It was an idea reserved for white

women, I said, assailing the women's movement, wholesale, as either

racist or inconsequential to black people.

Sexism was a secondary problem. Capitalism and racism were primary.

I had maintained that position even in the face of my exasperation with

the chauvinism of Black Power men in general and Black Panther men

in particular.

Now hearing the ugly intent of my opponent's words [one of her

opponents in the 1974 election of the Oakland City Council, a black man,

had denounced her as a lesbian!, I trembled with a fury long buried. I

recognized the true meaning of his words. He was not talking about

making love with women -- he was attacking me for valuing women.

The feminists were right. The value of my life had been obliterated as

much by being female as by being black and poor. Racism and sexism in

America were equal partners in my oppression.

Even men who were themselves oppressed wanted power over women.

Whatever social stigma had been intended by the label "lesbian" --

always invoked when men felt threatened, I observed with the benefit of

hindsight -- did not concern me. It was simply the rattle of a man

terrorized by a social order dominated by other men. It was a social order

I was bent on destroying. But his accusations did wake me.

There would be no further impositions on me by men, including black

men, including Black Panther men. I would support every assertion of

human rights by women -- from the right to abortion to the right of

equality with men as laborers and leaders. I would declare that the agenda

of the Black Panther Party and our revolution to free black people from

oppression specifically included black women.

I would denounce loudly the philosophies of the Karengas, who raised

the name of Africa to justify the suppression of black women. I would

lambaste the civil-rights men who had dismissed the importance of

women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker and Daisy Bates and even

Kathleen Cleaver. I would not tolerate any raised fists in my face or any

Black Power handshakes, or even the phrase "Black Power," for all of it

now symbolized to me the denial of black women in favor of the freedom

of "the black man."

I would claim my womanhood and my place. If that gave rise to my being

labeled a "man-hating lesbian, feminist bitch," I would be the most

radical of them (pp. 362--363, 367--368).

Elaine Brown's response at the time, however, was not to write or publicly state the above, but rather to confront, with her male bodyguards, her accusing campaign opponent, threatening him "with bodily harm if he ever so much as spoke my name again in public" (p. 368).

Brown used the established Panther method of discipline, albeit fueled by her new-found feminism. She recounts meting out punishment to Steve, a Los Angeles Panther, one who had in fact beaten her nearly to death before she took command of the party:

Four men were upon him now.... Their punishment became unmerciful.

When he tried to protect his body by taking the fetal position, his head

became the object of their feet. The floor was rumbling, as though a

platoon of pneumatic drills were breaking through its foundation. Blood

was everywhere. Steve's face disappeared (p. 371).

Not only did Elaine Brown and David Hilliard experience the Black Panther Party at different periods of time, but they also came from distinctively different life experiences. Their class backgrounds seem to mark their distinct points of view as much as gender does.

In each memoir, the lengthy accounts of their childhoods are heartbreaking. Elaine Brown was raised as an only child by her mother in one of the poorest, meanest ghettos in urban America, North Philadelphia. Despite grinding poverty, Brown's mother tried to give her everything -- private schooling, music lessons, pretty dresses, self-esteem, and the will to get out, which she did as soon as she was able. Landing in Hollywood in the early 1960s and trying to sell her original songs, she was oblivious to the Civil Rights Movement until a wealthy, older white man kept her as a mistress and educated her. When she broke the relationship, she became involved in community action following the 1965 Watts uprising and was recruited to the Los Angeles Black Panthers soon after they formed in early 1967. Except for a stint as a high-paid cocktail waitress at the prestigious "Pink Pussycat" in West Hollywood, Brown never experienced the grinding work world of her mother or most poor people; a quality of elitism and rugged individuality pervades her views.

David Hilliard was born in Alabama and spent most of his youth in West Oakland. Hilliard, Newton, Seale, and the other core founders of the Black Panther Party were all first-generation Californians, transplanted from the South and Southwest when their families moved to where the jobs were in the postwar boom. Hilliard dropped out of school, married, and had a child before he turned 20. He describes the world of work, starting at the bottom at the shipyards:

I go for jobs. I have no true skills -- I have no idea where I fit in the work world -- my dream's a simple one: to wear a suit and tie to work....

[F]rom the first day I abhor the work. My job description is "laborer" and I'm responsible for the plainest, meanest tasks: cleaning up after the skilled electricians, plumbers, and welders renovating the ship's hold. The work pays six dollars an hour and comes with medical benefits, but I hate the demanding, dirty drudgery. I push the wheelbarrow filled with plasterboard, nails, and tiles, thinking, I'm better than this, I don't deserve to be here. I've been up since six, throwing garbage around for the last two hours, and want a drink badly. I don't feel proud about earning money for Pat and myself; I resent the fact that this tiring, spiritless slaving is the only way I can make an income. I dump my lead from the wheelbarrow into the vat and dust and noise surround me. I feel trapped, that time is passing me by; as I haul the wheelbarrow back to collect more junk, I see myself as an old man before my time, already used up.... The work isn't hard. The work is dumb, demanding neither skill nor intelligence and earning not an iota of respect.

The frustration -- a bitter, blind anger -- builds in me.

...I'm transferred to another job. Now I'm a chipper, working on the deck, attacking the floor with a tool whose blades break the tiles, cleaning off the paint. The job carries more status than laborer: it demands a degree of skill and comes with a tool. Yet I feel more trapped than ever before. My father had been a chipper once in Mobile, and every time I sink to my knees and face the endless tiles -- more tiles than you can chip in a day, more tiles than you can clean in a week -- a despair settles over me: I'm repeating my father's life.

...The longshore work is temporary and the job periods are too short to permit me unemployment benefits. So I fill the rest of the time working at the huge canneries that hire during the harvest -- Del Monte, Hunt's, the packing plants for the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant. We stand in front of the gates waiting to be called, the straw bosses selecting the workers every morning.... At the canneries I hear there are full-time positions at the Gerber baby food plant.... Next day I'm stacking baby-food boxes on ten- to twelve-foot-high pallets, arranging the cartons in a pattern that balances the weight and keeps the construction steady: ten across one way, tie the box, ten the other....

Everything becomes a justification for getting drunk... (pp. 100--112).

A tone of humility and loyalty infuse Hilliard's memoir. He brilliantly deromanticizes labor and working-class "culture," perhaps unconsciously getting to the heart of the failure of the Left -- its patronizing approach to workers and inability to believe in their revolutionary capacity, offering them dull programs of reform instead of the knowledge and tools of revolution. Hilliard feels he was rescued by revolutionary politics, by Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, and even today he appears grateful, whatever the cost and the suffering. His view is similar to that of the American "blue-collar" poet, Charles Bukowski, himself rescued by poetry, another form of revolution:

I always resented all the years, the hours, the

minutes I gave them as a working stiff, it

actually hurt my head, my insides, it made me

dizzy and a bit crazy -- I couldn't understand the

murdering of my years....

I knew that I was dying.

something in me said, go ahead, die, sleep, become as

them, accept.

then something else in me said, no, save the tiniest bit.

it needn't be much, just a spark....

I think I did.

I'm glad I did.

what a lucky god damned

thing. ("spark," in The Last Night of the Earth Poems, 1992: 158.)

David Hilliard was on the labor market during the early 1960s, the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination. The time of Malcolm X:

Kennedy's been shot a week ago and a black man is speaking to Mike

Wallace, pointing his finger at Wallace; he talks with such clarity,

energy, and purpose that his finger seems a sword, cutting through

Wallace's purposeful obfuscation.... He's talking truth. Truth I've never

heard before: in this society the victim is called the criminal and the

criminal is turned into the victim.... I lock on his face. He's saying what

I'm thinking... (112).

Hilliard was ripe for recruitment when his boyhood friend, Huey Newton, with Bobby Seale, formed the Black Panther Party in October 1966.

I get Huey's book, The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. I lie down, unconscious of my family's presence, my mind totally absorbed with the Party and politics, eager to absorb the lessons of what Huey calls "the black bible."

I open the yellow and black cover, struggle through the preface written by a Frenchman named Jean-Paul Sartre, and start reading the first chapter, "Concerning Violence."

"National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formula introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon."


I reread the paragraph.

I'm lost. I have the dictionary in one hand, the book in the other, and I can't get past the first page, can't get past the first paragraph, barely the first sentence. I might as well be reading a foreign language. Practically every word is unknown to me. I shuttle from the book to the dictionary, looking up these abstract, abstruse concepts -- colonialism, decolonization, spontaneity, self-consciousness, tabula rasa, mutatis mutandis -- figuring out the dictionary definition, then trying to apply the meaning to the sentence. By the time I've put one together, I've forgotten the previous two.

I close the book (p. 120). Yet Hilliard did not give up. Huey Newton assured him he could learn; he attended political-education classes and did learn. The party became his life.

...the twenty-eight-hour day of the Black Panther Party.... For us time is

meaningless. Days are endless; weeks and months disappear overnight.

A meeting drags on forever; one colossal event begins before the last one

has ended. We get used to a constant speediness. Ordinary time leaves us

restless, fidgety; we need tension. Even when I come home exhausted, I

pace around, craving contact and movement as powerfully as I yearn for

cocaine later on. Phones and cars become our fixes. The phone puts you

in touch with everybody. The car lets you know you're not standing still

but going outlaw on a collision course with destiny (pp.


Huey Newton was arrested in October 1967, and was not free until 1970. In mid--1968, the FBI COINTELPRO was instituted to destabilize the Black Panther Party using methods ranging from "dirty tricks" disinformation to assassination. In December 1969, Chicago Panther leaders, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, were murdered by the police with FBI complicity. Newton emerged from prison into a minefield.

Hilliard identifies November 1970 as the time when he first realized the party was deteriorating. The Panthers organized a "constitutional convention" in Washington, D.C.

The weekend is a disaster.... [T]he only people who show up are already

converted white movement types. In six months the massive popular

appeal of the antiwar and radical movement has vanished. Kent State has

scared away the thousands who last spring seemed ready to become


Now the people who attend only want to promote their own programs.

We're preaching armed struggle, while they're breaking off to form their

own factions. In the past, conferences would attract new people. This is

a scruffy-looking, mangy crew. They don't inspire confidence. I wouldn't

want to join them (p. 314). Even the white Left, also in disarray and targeted by COINTELPRO, was drawing support away from the Panthers. The party was guided by a new theory when Huey emerged from prison in early 1970. Hilliard writes:

In prison, Huey has developed an analysis of the present political

moment. Nation-states, he argues, are things of the past. Nationalist

struggles, even revolutionary ones, are beside the point. Capital domi-

nates the world; ignoring borders, international finance has transformed

the world into communities rather than nations. Some of these commu-

nities are under siege -- like Vietnam -- and others conduct the siege,

like the United States Government. The people of the world are united in

their desire to run their own communities: the black people in Oakland

and the Vietnamese. We need to band together as communities, create a

revolutionary intercommunalism that will resist capital's reactionary

intercommunalism (p. 319). The Left, Hilliard writes, disapproved of Huey's new theory and accused the Panthers of offending Marxism.

"Well, we're not Marxists," we answer. "We are dialectical materialists,

and if that means that we come up with different answers than Marx,

we're all right with that, because Marx wasn't a Marxist either -- he was

a dialectical materialist too."

Something else fuels the Left's criticism of Huey. They like us picking

up guns and shooting it out with the pigs. But they don't want us as

theoretical leaders. Certainly their response is as uncomradely as pos-

sible. Seeing a movement fragmented into gay groups, women's groups,

Third World groups, et cetera, Huey proposes a general theory to define

this phenomenon and channel its energy. The movement replies by

telling him he's boring and irrelevant (pp. 320--321).

By 1971, the party had lost its moorings, sustained only as a personality cult around the increasingly violent and arbitrary Huey Newton. The party opened the Lamp Post, a nightclub in West Oakland:

The Lamp Post comes to symbolize a new influence guiding Huey: The

Godfather. Before, we've used Cuba, Algeria, and China as examples of

revolutionary struggle. Now Mario Puzo's novel provides the organiza-

tional map, a patriarchal family, divided into military and political wings

(p. 339).

Within a year, the Lamp Post had become Huey's base of operation for drug dealing and strong-arming competitors: "Huey attacks people without warning, terrorizing customers and party members. No one calls him on his behavior, but everybody talks about it behind his back."

Elaine Brown lasted as a party leader for less than a year after Huey Newton returned from exile in Cuba in 1977; she fled with her daughter when Newton ordered the beating of one of her female staffers. Newton fell increasingly into cocaine and alcohol abuse, albeit while successfully pursuing his doctorate at U.C. Santa Cruz; he was shot dead on a West Oakland Street in September 1989. Brown entered psychotherapy and began writing her memoir in the early 1980s. After leaving prison, Hilliard floundered after some promising starts and entered the nightmare of crack addiction, which he describes in gut-wrenching detail. Hilliard and Newton socialized and did drugs together during the 1980s until Hilliard entered a program. It was Huey's death that made him decide to write the memoir.

These two books comprise a powerful oral history. Both memoirs exhibit an honesty that is absolutely necessary if we are to understand those revolutionary times, their meaning and legacy. That history is made up of thousands of stories that need to be told. Without apologizing or negating their revolutionary views, Hilliard and Brown have set a new standard for future stories.
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Author:Dunbar Ortiz, Roxanne
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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