Date: Thu, 9 Mar 1995 18:23:08 GMT
On The Question Of Sexism Within The Black Panther Party
By Safiya Bukhari-Alston, 9 March 1995
The May 5, 1993 N.Y. Times Op-Ed page exchange between former Black Panther Party member Elaine Brown and Color Purple author Alice Walker about former Black Panther Party member David Hilliard's book This Side Of Glory, where Alice Walker criticized the Black Panther Party's male leadership as sexist, make glaringly obvious that it's necessary to put the issue of sexism in the Black Panther Party in its correct perspective. Alice Walker, in what is hyped to be an attack on sexism within the Black Panther Party, seems to spend more time attacking what she presumes to be the sexuality of the male leadership, i.e. her allusions to homoeroticism. While Alice plays with the question of what she presumes to be the sexuality of the male leadership, I will attempt to address the issue of sexism. By anybody's definition, these are not interchangeable words.
The error everyone seems to be making, supporters and detractors of the Black Panther Party alike, is separating the Party from its time and roots and looking at it in a vacuum. Quite clearly, the Black Panther Party came out of the Black community and its experiences. The membership of the Black Panther Party was recruited from the ghettos of the inner cities. The Party itself was founded in Oakland, California in the spring of 1966 by two Black men who came straight out of the ghetto and met on the campus of Merritt College. It was founded as a response to the rampant police brutality against the Black community committed by the notorious Oakland Police Department.
Bobby Seale and Huey Newton envisioned the Black Panther Party (for Self Defense) as just that, a community-based organization which sought to defend the community against police brutality and set an example of revolutionary activism. In defining the work of the Party they looked to other struggles around the world and to Mao Tse Tung's Red Book Quotations of Chairman Mao for direction. The Eight Points of Attention and the Three Main Rules of Discipline were lifted directly from this book. One of the Eight Points was Do Not Take Liberties With Women. This was a monumental step forward in addressing the issue of the treatment of women. The simple fact that the issue was placed in/on the books was a step forward. Now we had to make it a part of our everyday lives, the everyday lives of the lumpen who were the majority element of the Black Panther Party.
On October 28, 1967, only one year after the founding of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton was incarcerated following an incident where a police officer had been killed and Huey was wounded. This, along with the march on the California State Capitol at Sacremento with guns, catapulted the Black Panther Party into national prominence.
The ideology of the Black Panther Party developed out of the struggle of people of African descent in the United States for freedom, a struggle which began on the slave ships and continues today. This struggle is seen through the prism of Marxism-Leninism and scientific socialism. It was an attempt to overcome the romanticism and idealism which was characteristic of Black organizations at the time and replace it with a pragmatic analysis that allowed for "social practice" being "the criteria for truth". Nonetheless, it had its own unique analysis of which class was the vanguard of the struggle for Black liberation.
The Party believed that the only group that was capable of moving the struggle forward was the lumpen proletariat (lumpens) - i.e. the brother and sister "off the block" (the last hired and the first fired), the hustler, the welfare mother, etc. The Party felt that they were at the bottom rung of the totem pole and had nothing to lose. It was this element that the Black Panther Party recruited from the ghetto and tried to politicize.
How does this relate to the issue of sexism within the Black Panther Party and the movement in general? In order to understand the issue of sexism in the Party it is necessary to review the historical experience of Black people in this country as well as the climate in which the Black Panther Party came into being. We took those facts and set them within the historical framework of the Black experience.
What, then, was/is the Black experience in this country?
We were brought over in the same condition, packed like sardines in the bowels of slave ships. We were herded like cattle to the slave auctions and sold to the highest bidder to be used as workhorses, studs, breeders, and household help. We were defined by our capabilities as breeders, studs, or slave labourers. The women were further categorized by how pleasing they were to the eyes of the slavemasters. The destruction of our culture, which started with the stealing of our language, religion, and children, was completed when we began to measure our own worth by how many women the Black man could "pleasure" at a time and how many children we could have.
Since they had been stripped of their manhood in every way but the ability to "pleasure" women and make babies, the sexual act soon became the measure by which the Black man measured his manhood. The Black women worked right alongside the Black man in the field and she worked in the Master's house. The Black man could not defend or protect his family, while in most cases the Black woman was the one who defended or protected the family from the slavemaster's wrath by any means necessary.
Having been deprived of our Africanism, we began to take on the persona of our slavemasters and fill the void of our lost culture with the slave culture that was foisted upon us. It is this that is the root of the sexism that is plaguing our communities today. Unlike the sexism that is characteristic of the white community though, the sexism of the Black community has its basis in racism and self-hate. The division in the Black community between the Black male and the Black female did not just come about on its own. It was carefully thought out and cultivated. After the end of chattel slavery, Black men, for the most part, couldn't get jobs. The Black woman had to be the breadwinner as well as the homemaker. This, in conjunction with the already festering sore of having to stand by and watch while the woman was raped and made to bear the master's children and then wet nurse the children of the white women, was too much for the Black man to handle psychologically and resulted in the Black man casting the blame for his situation at the feet of the Black woman. As time went on this love/hate/anger triangle began to manifest itself in the sexism that is present today in the Black community.