Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Black Panthers Vanguard of the RevolutionYesterday, for the first time this year, I went to a movie. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is a documentary about the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. There was a lot I knew about the panthers but the film revealed my ignorance. It also put previously disparate pieces together to tell a really important story. The film will have a relatively limited release, but I’d guess that it will show up on your PBS station in the near future.

It’s been an especially rough stretch in the neighborhood lately – shootings, vigils, and funerals – so the film got me thinking about justice movements and social change. Here are a handful of things I noticed as I watched:

Women played a huge role in the movement. The panthers conjure iconic images of men in leather jackets, berets, and sunglasses. Men like Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver certainly filled important and public roles. But the film was intentional to show how many women filled not just the rank and file positions but also provided leadership. Sexism and gender discrimination existed within the Black Panthers like they do everywhere, yet women like Kathleen Cleaver and others played a significant part it making the party and its platform what it was.

Women drilling with Panther flags. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.
Women drilling with Panther flags. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

Taking care of yourself is a revolutionary act. At least it is when you’re surrounded by urgent needs and opportunities. Like most of us would,the film shows many of the party’s leaders struggling to set aside time to be replenished and refreshed. Maybe it’s too much to expect, but what becomes clear as the film progresses is how deeply tiring this work was. As the years passed it became harder to maintain the focus and energy of the early years, especially as the outside pressure and attacks mounted. I wonder what might have been had this movement cultivated an expectation of care and rest alongside its zeal and courage.

It’s hard to create and sustain something from nothing. Unlike much of the Civil Rights Movement in the south, the Black Panthers (as, perhaps, representative of the larger black nationalist movement) were much less associated with African American churches. Someone smarter than me can explain why these movements developed in different ways, but the film revealed many of the panthers to be ambivalent about the church and its role in the revolution. As the government attacks and deception increased, th movement began to turn in on itself- there was nowhere else to go. My bias is showing here, but I wonder what might have been different had the movement been more sympathetic to the churches and – more difficult perhaps – vice versa. I’m aware that much of the Civil Rights movement also suffered and splintered at roughly the same time, but my hunch – my not well-defended theory – is that the spirit of Rev. Dr. King could be found more robustly continuing on local levels than could be seen with the ethos of the black nationalist movement.

Charles Bursey hands plate of food to a child seated at Free Breakfast Program. Photo courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch.

White supremacist oppression often manifests as internal division within justice movements. Of course, this is not some coincidence of racism but a deliberate characteristic of it. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was an horrific and effective threat to the panthers using their tools of deception and violence to tear the party apart. We see the same today when pundits decry so-called black on black violence without telling the larger and truer story of the racist systems that have been at work on these minds and bodies since the country’s inception. It is one of the terrible lies believed by so many Americans, that they are justified in standing apart from the violence raining down on their fellow citizens, believing themselves to be innocent of whatever vague menace is hovers above the mayhem and death.

The Black Panthers and the history they represent need to be remembered well in this moment. We can learn so much from their courage, strategy, and liberated imaginations. There enemies, too, with their uncreative but unrelenting tactics, have a lot to teach us. Are we ready to learn?

“The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended…”

The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended; it is accelerating. The movement of those forty million Europeans to the North American continent was only the beginning. There is not place on the globe today that can stand secure and changeless. It is all changing. It is changing before our eyes. No one can predict what will happen to global culture in even the near future. If you have come out of the pilgrim tradition of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the promised Land, and have used that magnificent opportunity only to become a Philistine, then take heed. Do you live comfortably behind high walls and bronzed gates, and worship regularly at the altar of Baal? Are you pleased with the prospects of Social Security and a special pension plan, or the apparent security of America’s nuclear deterrent and the overwhelming power of its society and technology? If that provides comfort, then live in fear and trembling, because it will all be taken away from you as surely as the security of our forebears. I proclaim it.

-Zenos Hawkinson in a sermon in 1978. Hawkinson was a history professor at my denomination’s college and he was addressing a people with strong immigrant memories.

“…we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.”

We can appropriate and in some fashion use godly powers, but we cannot use them safely, and we cannot control the results. That is to say that the human condition remains for us what it was for Homer and the authors of the Bible. Now that we have brought such enormous powers to our aid (we hope), it seems more necessary than ever to observe how inexorably the human condition still contains us. We only do what humans can do, and our machines, however they may appear to enlarge our possibilities, are invariably infected with our limitations. Sometimes, in enlarging our possibilities, they narrow our limits and leave us more powerful but less content, less safe, and less free. The mechanical means by which we propose to escape the human condition only extends it; thinking to transcend our definition as fallen creatures, we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.

-Wendell Berry, “Two Economies” (1983).

“…the black church has trained her members to live biblically and hope-fully in a foreign land.”

From Slavery to Reconstruction, from Jim Crow to Donald Trump the black church has trained her members to live biblically and hope-fully in a foreign land. Her preaching has been faithfully biblical. The miseducation of the neo-evangelical black student fails to learn names like Charles Adams, James Perkins, E. K. Bailey, A. Louis Patterson, E. V. Hill and C. L. Franklin. Some in the academy make black preachers to be mere entertainers, jesters of the cultural court. This is both dishonest and irresponsible.

There is this implicit abhorrence for social application of the gospel in the critique of the black church. The witness of black preaching is that our submission to the authority of scripture demands that we engage societal injustice. The black church has not historically engaged in social justice in lieu of the gospel. It does so because of the gospel. My generation will have to give an account for our strange silence in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is the first time that the black pulpit has not been at the forefront of the moral conversation of systemic injustice against black people in America. The witness of Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, M. K. Curry, Jr., Dr. Martin King, Jr. and countless others is that they edified the church through the exposition of biblical propositions. They taught America to live according to our ‘professed’ Christian ideals.

-My friend, Pastor Charlie Dates, wrote this wonderfully direct and, apparently, necessary apologetic for the Black Church on his church’s blog. While I’m deeply committed to the multi-ethnic church, I am also a happy defender of the African American churches in this country for theological and historical reasons. In fact, without the witness and theological articulation of the churches, our multi-ethnic church would very quickly default to the whiteness of our majority culture.

David Foster Wallace on the Limits of Irony

GROSS: Yeah, well, I think it’s – I think it’s just, like, very perceptive of you to put your finger on the limitations of, like, the need for irony but at the same time, the limitations of irony.

WALLACE: Irony, as far as I could see – and, you know, you can take college courses for three years on just what irony is, so there’s something – I guess I’m going to assume that everybody kind of knows – when David Letterman comes out and draws himself up to his full height and says what a fine crows, you know, echoing the Arthur Godfrey of decades past, that’s the kind of thing that I mean. Irony and sarcasm and all that stuff are fantastic for exploding hypocrisy and exposing what’s wrong in extent values. As far as I can see, they’re notably less good at erecting replacement values or coming any closer to the truth. And the thing about it is they’re a terrific tool and they were used really well. We’re just still using it, it seems to me, as a culture, 35, 40 years after it really had some use.nd the thing about it is they’re a terrific tool and they were used really well. We’re just still using it, it seems to me, as a culture, 35, 40 years after it really had some use.

Fresh Air interview, 1997.

Almost 20 years after this interview, it seems to me that DFW is even more right about irony and its exhausted limitations today.