Bobby Seale, 70 years old, founder and former Chairman of the Black Panther Party, is heavy-lidded, heavy-set, and bald. This is ironic: if the Black Panthers were united on anything, it was their hatred of baldness. Full, picked-out Panther afros (particularly those of women) are distinct symbols of pride, self-worth, revolutionary progress; bald white pates are emblematic of the old shirking, repressive, and repressed weak-minded pig. In the short film May Day Panther (1969), which was screened at his June 28 appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Seale is pictured at a podium during a “Free Huey” rally, screaming “baldhead pig punks better get out of the way!” “The white youth of today have begun to react to the fact that the ‘American Way of Life’ is a fossil of history,” Eldridge Cleaver, the Panther’s Minister of Information, wrote in Soul on Ice (1968). “What do they care if their old baldheaded and crew-cut elders don’t dig their caveman mops?”
Seale’s famous visage, with those perpetual half-moon grooves beneath his eyes that made him seem weary but alert and angry, has faded along with his wiry physique and the spectacular Panther wardrobe (he showed up at BAM in buttoned-down short sleeves and wide-legged pants). So much the better. It makes it easier for the many who still regard him as a hero to listen to what he has left to say. The theater that hosted him was packed with a few hundred mostly young people, most of whom were of color, all of whom stood to applaud his appearance and again to applaud his departure. They listened intently, laughed generously at Seale’s humorous stories (many of which has been telling since 1970), and responded to a few of his bon mots with “right ons” and “mm-hms.”
Seale has a garrulous and hopelessly digressive speaking manner, tinged with Northern California-isms (“hellafied” made a frequent appearance), as casually sloganeering as it was in the Panther days, perfect for nostalgic reminiscence. But for all the clear history that this technique may have obscured, one fact emerged through repetition: the Black Panthers were always a precarious organization, and they worked extremely hard at what they did, mostly to keep themselves alive. Seale paced the stage with his microphone, describing the origins of the Party in an Oakland “War on Poverty” office, where Huey P. Newton, then a student taking law classes at night, and Seale, then an engineer, haphazardly spun out a 10-point platform for the Party, which at that point had no members besides themselves and a few of their friends. There was nothing newly radical about the platform, he pointed out; it merely drew upon another revolutionary document, the Declaration of Independence. Then he recited the first two paragraphs of the Declaration at lightning speed, like a schoolchild (it’s also the text of point ten of the Panther Party Platform), before firmly quashing the rumor—though nobody present had raised it—that Huey Newton taught him how to fire a gun. It wasn’t true, Seale insisted. He taught Huey, having himself learned from Texas cowboys.
The original full name of the party was “The Black Panther Party for Self Defense.” The old Mao Tse-Tung slogan about “power” and “the barrel of the gun” became associated with the Panthers from their constantly espousing it, but it’s important to remember that they took up Maoism well after they took up arms. At BAM, Seale repeated the astonishing story that he tells in his book Seize the Time (1971) about how they got their guns. One day (the story goes), Newton asked Seale, How much money you got? About $45 or $50, Seale responded. Why? Newton had seen millions of Chinese waving Mao’s “little red book,” Quotations From the Chairman, on TV. “I know how we can make some money to buy some guns,” he said. They bought out the stock of Red Books at a Chinese San Francisco bookstore at a wholesale price, and sold 2000 of them at an antiwar rally at Berkeley, making $170, which they used to arm themselves.
Seale seemed to affirm what, looking back, we might reasonably have concluded: that the Panthers’ improvisatory practices always outpaced their theory and their rhetoric in quality, depth, and effectiveness (excepting the word “pig,” the goofy derisiveness of which remains unmatched in leftist vocabulary). Seale became most animated in describing the Panthers’ free community food program, which he spearheaded, and which he outlined in exhaustive, fascinating detail (first, they had to go to Idaho to buy potatoes wholesale; then they had to distribute whole chickens among 10,000 grocery bags within an hour to keep them from spoiling; when they unveiled the grocery bags in a church, the chicken glittered under the lights and all the gathered gasped; and on and on). One audience member commented that his own Wisconsin public school had instituted a free breakfast program for children modeled after that of the Panthers. Seale was also justly proud of the Panther community police patrols. The brutality of the Oakland police toward the black community was well known in certain circles, but the Panthers made it legendary. This had nothing to do with Mao, and everything to do with their impressive knowledge of the law and constitutional rights, and their skills at dogged organizing. Seale impersonated Newton’s manner of monitoring a police officer, speedily reciting the exact legal language that guaranteed his right to do so.
Seale’s eloquence, though, was ragged, marked often by repeated phrases that he tended to swallow up even before he had pronounced them, like “avaricious corporate rich,” which itself seemed to be a stand-in for still mustier lines of his heyday, like “fascist ruling class infested in the government.” It made you suspect what Stokely Carmichael, the originator of the phrase “Black Power,” suspected back at the time: that the Panthers overproduced their variously Marxist ideologies, and their insanely heated rhetoric and cultivation of murderous imagery hurt their community-based causes, which were almost more radical in their lack of obvious theoretical allegiance. Why, for example, did the party produce posters of Huey P. Newton on an African throne, a gun and a spear in one hand, posed like Joseph Mobutu, the contemporaneous military dictator of the Congo? (Newton has a zebra-skin carpet instead of leopard.) And why Maoism, anyway? Panther memoirs describe the arduous classes in which potential members had to learn their Mao backward and forward to earn the respect of higher-ranking members; the effects of such education appear negligible at best. Watching videos of Panthers haranguing crowds at rallies, crying out “Is this the answer?!” while waving the Red Book, one is tempted to yell “No!,” against the actual answer of the crowd.
Ask yourself these questions, and you begin to confront the obscure, difficult, extraordinary history of Black Power in the United States—a history that until very recently was maligned or outright suppressed by parties across the political spectrum. Certain agents in the popular culture (e.g., Public Enemy) never forgot the Panthers’ importance; but political and historical organs have always portrayed Black Power as the civil rights movement’s evil younger brother, responsible for everything from white flight and the urban crisis to the failure of black politics as a whole. Only now are historians finally restoring Black Power to the larger picture of the politics of black America (Peniel Joseph’s Waiting ’til the Midnight Hour is a salutary example). Only now is it becoming common knowledge that men on the front lines of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s putatively nonviolent marches were packing. Only now does it again seem reasonable to declare that the state monopoly on force meant, as James Baldwin pointed out, that policemen were destroying black men, women, and children just like the US military was eliminating Vietnamese villages, and that it might have been right to take up arms in self-defense. Seale reminded the crowd of the traumatic murder of Fred Hampton at age 21, who was murdered by police in his bed. He described, chillingly, how the Panthers ran straws through the 99 bullet holes that riddled Hampton’s wall and bed, at least 98 of which had been fired by police. Initial official reports argued that Hampton and the other Panthers in his apartment were armed and attacking, but an examination of two bullet wounds in Hampton’s head, shot at point-blank range, proved that he was murdered lying down.
It’s true that the Panthers, with their crazed ideological and personal controversies, were guilty of tearing themselves apart. After his release from jail, the increasingly paranoid and narcissistic Newton moved to a heavily guarded Oakland penthouse and added drug dealing as one of the Panther’s “community programs,” partly to support his own habits. In 1974, as Newton’s behavior drove rifts in the party, Seale either had the good sense to leave or found himself forced to leave because of his good sense, despite having made a strong showing for the mayoralty of Oakland as the BPP candidate the previous year.
But no one bears as much guilt as the armed wings of the United States, whose repression of Black Power was unremittingly brutal, totalizing, and—in the end—successful. In the grim world of counter-reaction that emerged in the wake of this repression, the ideology and tactics had been officially discredited by the government, by historians, by cultural critics, by journalists. For the rest of us, all that remained of the Panthers, as of much of the New Left, was mere imagery. Cinema, television, and photography repeatedly gave us the “best of …” compilations, a trend that continues to this day. A couple examples will suffice for many. Martin Scorsese’s recent Bob Dylan documentary shows us newsreel clips of Mario Savio and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and of Martin Luther King, but strips them of context, giving us only the feeling of revolt without the reason. The “Summer of Love” exhibit currently at the Whitney is even more egregious: it not only omits the politics of the time, but also, like Sal’s Pizza in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, it has no black people on the gallery walls—as if 1967, not incidentally the summer of the Detroit and Newark uprisings, had been a summer of “white love only.”
Against this moribund, self-vitiating museum of the left, the living person of Bobby Seale, stripped of the image-consciousness that made him a celebrity, proved invigorating. For all of his grandstanding and missteps, Seale made the older members of the audience remember, and the younger ones understand, that the Party had succeeded where it had been most clear-headed and diligent about the needs of the community it sought to represent, evidenced by its free breakfasts, its sickle-cell anemia testing, and its police monitoring, among other accomplishments. Miraculously, Seale’s essential heroism—unlike much of the Black Panther Party—had survived. As we filed out of the auditorium, into Brooklyn and the rain, the resurrection of tradition produced a distinct feeling of renewal; it seemed possible again to envision the dawning—in Eldridge Cleaver’s inimitable phrase—of “a new day in Babylon.” This coupled with another, harsher vision: that of a country which would destroy its own citizens and those of other countries to preserve its permanent war economy and its profligate way of life, and of a people that might be driven to take up arms, less out of hope than from the purest kind of desperation.