Eds., Hilliard, Weise and Brown – The New Huey P. Newton Reader (Seven Stories Press)
Born in the middle of WW2, Huey P. Newton was the seventh son of a Baptist minister from Louisiana. He had a religious upbringing, but was a tricky student and quickly became radicalised. He founded with others, in the 1960s, the Black Panther Party, as it became clear that the civil rights movement was a limited vehicle for black emancipation.
This book is structured very well. It shows the early struggles, the police harassment, the permanent unfairness. It moves on to the rise of the Panthers and the inevitable war with the authorities. The shootings, the trial, the fallouts. The narrative arc launches you a good way into the history of the Panthers, so that you are ready for the complicated, more diasporic end. The editors have done a fine job. David Hilliard and Elaine Brown were Panther Party mainstays.
The introduction adds material on gender and sexuality, an inclusion which partly necessitates the use of the word ‘new’ in the title.
Newton’s description of black, underclass masculinity is very incisive. ‘The lower socio-economic Black male is a man of confusion’ he wrote, he ‘faces a hostile environment and is not sure that it is not his own sins that have attracted the hostilities of society.’ It could equally apply to the white working class lumpenremainder of Britain in the 2010s. It could be written about many men in Manchester today.
Newton spoke up for lesbian and gay rights. He admits in that section that he has phobias about male homosexuality, but not female. Newton often mined his weaknesses like this, in order to gain strength. He had a great internal temperature gauge. He probed himself as he probed the outside world. He gave a psychological readout, he tried to take the measure of self and other and where they met on cold concrete, but he was never afraid to make damning judgments about that place. He eventually concludes that the words ‘faggot’ and ‘punk’ have to be expunged from societal use.
Newton was also a very good writer. He could lay a dynamite phrase. An index of first lines shows this: ‘I first studied law to become a better burglar.’ ‘Jail is an odd place to find freedom.’ ‘Knowing how to struggle is the essence of winning.’ ‘Men were not created in order to obey laws. Laws are created to obey men.’ There’s the occasional gloss, here on von Clausewitz – ‘Politics is war without bloodshed. War is politics with bloodshed’. But it shows that Newton was well-read, Marx, Dostoyevsky, as well as his peers, recent and late, Malcolm X and WEB Du Bois.
I Picked up Seize the Time by Bobby Seale and Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver when studying for my MA at Goldsmiths, in the Sociology department. To me, the Warmington Tower book chuck-out points glowed like shrines.
When I eventually started to read those books, written by the Black Panthers in the late 1960s and 1970s, I was alarmed. Cleaver’s Soul on Ice in particular shocked me. Cleaver was an active and deliberate rapist. He later renounced, but at one point the rape of white women was a political act for him. The material in this book on Cleaver’s split from the party lays into this side of Cleaver’s life, among other things. Cleaver, Newton wrote, paid ‘white women a childish compliment’, he ‘ascends the heights to their vaginas’ by ‘stepping on the bodies of black women’.
Huey Newton eventually died at the hands of a drug dealer, as homophobic and misogynist black slogans began to ring in the ears, alongside cut-up jazz, all sucked into a massive culture industry, spat out the other side to a cash register kerching.
Of course there is a dialectical otherside to this music too, but in some ways Newton’s death date in 1989 could not be more appropriate. The winners of this industry were often white. None of that is solved.
Cleaver lived another decade, ricocheting between Christianity and crack addiction, he ended his life in California in a bad way. He designed, in between these apparent behavioural poles, a male codpiece that put the penis on display, excused by a passage in Deuteronomy.
Earlier, Cleaver had Timothy Leary placed under ‘revolutionary arrest’ for promoting drugs. Newton appears like a solid academic intellectual by comparison. Almost boring, but no, Newton is the real deal.
Yes, this is the place to begin, but the latter half of the book, actually, is the richest. There’s some material on Newton’s exile in Cuba. There’s even a Dialectics of Nature. I had thought Engels’ essay of the same title a failure. Engels’ claim was in part that the dialectic is to be found ‘out there’, beyond human language. I have always disagreed.
But Newton’s take on this theme is as far from Engels essay as one can get. It combines his critique of war with ecopolitics. From here we travel through intercommunalism and pan-Africanism to the chilling border of Reagan’s America in 1980. Here are the things we know least, loose threads that are never dead ends, but lead into the future.
But it is worth returning to some of the things we all know about The Panthers too, in order to see a world that has become lost to us. The unending oppression eventually yields to militant action. The Panthers policed The Police. Visibly armed, they stood a distance away from any cop-citizen interaction in their neighbourhood, asking the citizen if they felt threatened.
They were also Marxists and here’s a simple fact to be re-astonished by: The Black Panthers were Dialectical Materialists with shotguns. In America, in the heart of the greased industrial consumer machine, during its prime time.
If you watch the film on the Mark Duggan shooting, with its roots in the killing of PC Blakelock, you must understand that the situation Newton describes from the mid-1960s, when he starts to write and publish, right up to the end of his life, has not gone away.
Yet at the same time our world is so very different. At one point I began to understand that the American right to bear arms has other dimensions. In Britain, the idea that one might legitimately take up arms against oppression has always been a non-starter. England has been perhaps the main seat of Imperial White Power after all.
The declaration of independence and the right to bear arms is a clear legitimate constitutional place Newton can go back to. In England, one can only ever return to an endless tangle of decaying ideas. The closest we have to it is in the conflicts in Ireland up to the 1990s.
To watch black American schoolchildren singing ‘time to pick up the guns’ on old footage of the Panther free breakfast programs is to shuttle back to another universe. But it is no longer even a parallel one.
There are of course, places where questions arise. Elaine Brown’s introduction describes the killing of a cop as a ‘shooting-death’ and the killing of a Panther as ‘murder’. I remain agnostic on the ethics here, but I will say that the book never glosses the more difficult parts of the Panther Party history. It actively prods you and – crucially – asks you to make your own mind up.
At the end of an essay on Self-Defense, Newton warns of a timely execution – like the Old Testament prophet Amos – of the whole power structure, for being ‘too wrong for too long’. Now there’s a slogan for our time.
More recently Zizek wrote that the ‘future of the American radical Left will be Newtonian – or there will be none!’
After reading this book I could be persuaded to agree, it’s a brilliant single-volume introduction as to why.
– Steve Hanson