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

Elaine Brown. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1994. 463 pp. $14.95.

Huey Newton's of act Elaine Brown to succeed him as leader of the Black Panther Party in 1974 was historic. Whatever his self-serving motives might have been, his act put a black woman at the helm of the most militant, predominantly male organization in America at the time. Most of us outside the Black Panther Party and outside of Oakland, California, did not know about Elaine Brown's role because the national media limited its coverage to the activities and publications of Huey Newton, George Jackson, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver. Until now, very few black women who were active members of the Party (other than Angela Davis and Assata Shakur) have published anything related to their experiences in the organization. Brown's A Taste of Power is, therefore, historic in its own right as a chronicle of one black woman's rise from a childhood in a working-class black community in North Philadelphia, up through the ranks of a national black organization. In telling her story, Brown reserves a place for herself in the history of black resistance movements in America.

Coincidental with Elaine Brown's assumption of power in the Black Panther Party during the 1970s, literary critics were reconsidering the significance of autobiography in the development of American literature. One of the first significant critical studies of African American autobiography at the time identified two basic modes: the testimonial and the blues. The black testimonial autobiographer, according to Elizabeth Schultz, seeks to objectify and develop a specific conviction and sharpen its reader's ideas about the black community and the white community. Examples of black testimonial autobiography include The Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Washington's Up From Slavery, Wells's Crusade for Justice, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The blues autobiographer, by contrast, involves the reader in her or his attempt to discover meaning and explore consciousness. Deeply imbued with the author's own sense of black culture and heritage, the blues autobiography deepens the reader's sense of the complexity of the black community. Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road, Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi Wright's Black Boy, and Nate Shaw's All God's Dangers are among the many blues autobiographies Schultz treats. Elaine Brown's A Taste of Power fits nicely into the blues genre of African American autobiography for several reasons, not the least of which is the trope of song writing and singing through which she renders her personal narrative.

Elaine Brown's narrative is one continuous blues lament for the love and protection of a man. Beginning with her fatherless childhood in Philadelphia, through a series of adolescent and young-adult love affairs with black and Jewish middle- and upper-class men, and culminating in her obsessive love for Huey Newton, Brown admits she was attracted to powerful men she wanted to fill the space of the doting father she never had. She was born out of a love affair between her working-class mother Dorothy and a prominent black Philadelphia dentist whose wife and elitist family refused his request for a divorce. In retrospect, Brown maintains a deep but conflicted affection for Dorothy, who scrimped and saved to provide her child with every opportunity to rise above the darkness and dirt of their north Philadelphia neighborhood. To this end, Elaine was given ballet and piano lessons, and enrolled in predominantly white elementary and high schools. She grew up with a foot in two different worlds. Relishing her time among her white school mates, she was driven by a passion for mastering Latin and all the Western literary classics. She graduated among the top students in her high school class. Resenting her long summers spent playing on the block in her black neighborhood, Elaine conformed nonetheless to the expected Street behavior and learned the sassy black dialect just to avoid the ridicule of her peers. Her only means of smoothing over these glaring contrasts in her early life was to compose and sing songs at the second-hand piano her mother bought "on time."

Once in the Panther Party, Elaine composed songs to honor many of the black men leaders she admired: Eldridge Cleaver, John Huggins, George and Jonathan Jackson, and Huey Newton. One could say that she sang her way to the top of the Party, in that Newton was attracted to Brown's tape-recorded voice while he was in prison. Upon his release, he not only made her one of his many lovers, he ordered every chapter of the Panther Party to learn one of her songs as the organization's national anthem. Equally mesmerized by her voice, Eldridge Cleaver mistakenly assumed that Elaine Brown was completely devoted to his faction of the Panther Party and threatened to have her killed when she informed him otherwise. The Panthers arranged a meeting between Elaine and Suzanne De Passe, an executive in Motown Records, to draw up a recording contract. The money she earned was expected to go into the coffers of the Black Panther Party. The night before the meeting, Elaine was subjected to a brutal beating by a male Panther during which she believed she was going to die. This beating, along with a variety of other physical assaults at the hands of other Panther men, left her wondering what her many songs indicated about her reliance on the power of men. Loneliness and fear of death, she decides, were the reasons, but none of her male associates had been willing or able to shield her: "Life was the shadow of death. And I was still alone in that. There was no father, no God, no man to stand between me and death, or me and life, if I wrote psalms to them forever" (310).

Schultz contends that experiences related in blues autobiography are not unmitigatedly brutal; they are too staggeringly complex. Elaine Brown's rendition of the brutalities she both endured and then inflicted on other Panthers once she came into office reflects her own efforts to sort through the moral questions related to her relationships with the Panthers. A woman can be corrupted by power as easily as a man, she realizes, and this marks an important intellectual distinction between Elaine Brown and the hundreds of black women blues singers known for their agility with knives and fists. Brown grapples with whether her complicity in the brutalities was out of a desire for revenge or to discipline Panther men into accepting her as the authority figure in the Party. Is there no way, other than through threats and intimidation, for a black organization to maintain control of its membership? She cannot seem to arrive at a satisfactory answer to any of the questions her narrative raises. But since experiences of the past are always part of the continuing present in this genre, a blues autobiographer, as Ralph Ellison explained in his discussion of Wright's Black Boy, writes out of an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness to "finger the jagged grain."

True to the blues form, Brown's narrative leaves her life history open-ended. She is on a plane escaping the Oakland Panthers after Huey Newton's return from exile in Cuba signaled a dismantling of every bridge she had erected to the centers of white power in California. It is an escape for her life, she feels, and for the life of her daughter sleeping on her lap. The narrative closes with the words of a song she composed for that child.

The reader is left yearning for a sequel to this 450-page book. Brown is such an engaging storyteller, and her life is so full of extraordinary experiences, that one becomes attached to A Taste of Power because it calls her away from any other demands her life may make on her. It is a continuation of the autobiographical narratives of the many African American slave and free black women in America, but it is also a very individualized narrative in which Brown clings to a citadel she builds to herself as one who lived fearlessly according to her own personal creed.
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Author:Deck, Alice A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:1368
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