Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., the authors of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, have a very ambitious goal: to tell a better history of the Black Panther Party than anyone else. Their method is stated up-front. They want to trace the history of the Black Panther Party through its stated politics. This history takes us from the meeting of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to the expansion of the party to over forty cities around the country all the way to the death of Fred Hampton and the final dissolution of the Panthers. Through it all, the authors have a deep respect for the Panthers as true revolutionaries and warn those who came after the party that they’ll never be able to achieve what the Panthers did without understanding the people like they did.
This was actually my first time reading a book about the history of the Black Panther Party. All of my previous information about the party came from the Internet, movies and some YouTube videos. As a history of the Panthers, this was a great one. Bloom and Martin take you from the very beginning to the very end and do a great job at explaining what they believe made the Panthers into a popular and well-run organization. They note that while the Panthers were a product of their times, they organized effectively to meet the needs and concerns of the people. They fought against the draft and police brutality while at the same time creating community programs such as free breakfasts for kids and clothing drives for the neighborhoods they worked in. These positions gained them support from both poor blacks and white allies.
Bloom and Martin also stress the importance of Third World Liberation to the Panther project. The Panthers understood black people in the United States to constitute a sort of colony within the United States itself. With this idea, they pushed for solidarity with other Third World Liberation movements such as the North Vietnamese and Chinese communists. They also understood themselves and the black poor to be at war with the United States and pushed for a revolution at home. In their first few years, they aggressively pushed insurrection and revolution through fighting police brutality and state repression.
Bloom and Martin argue wonderfully for their understanding that the Black Panthers understood the milieu they found themselves in a created a working, replicable politic for pushing against the status quo. They track the downfall of the Panthers as the state dialed down the draft and moved more blacks into the middle class through jobs programs and affirmative action. This made the popular base of white liberals and moderate blacks evaporate and left the tension in the party exposed. With the leaders of the Panthers wanting to focus on survival tactics to wait until the moment was ripe for revolution, some local groups wanted to push for revolution right away, believing that it would draw the masses into action. These tensions were the end of the party.
While the book is great, it could definitely be better. There are a number of issues hampering this history and had Bloom and Martin spent more time on it, this could have been THE book on the Panthers.
One of the issues is that the narrative is garbled. The book seems to move more or less chronologically, but certain sections will jump from 1970 back to 1968 or 1969. Eldridge Cleaver goes into exile in Cuba in one section and but is speaking in the United States in another, and returns to the public sphere in yet another. Bobby Seale is arrested and jailed, speaking in Connecticut, in jail, held in contempt and being prosecuted in Connecticut. All of these happen without adequate explanation of how Seale got out of jail each time. One of the biggest issues of the book is Seale’s prosecution for murder in Connecticut but we’re never even told how the trial actually unfolded. Angela Davis joins a knock-off Panthers Party in Los Angeles and disappears until she’s at a rally for the real Panther Party then we’re told she’s a love of George Jackson. The manhunt for her is never even mentioned. Stokely Carmichael is an important figure in the beginning of the book, disappears in the middle and is inexplicably called a ‘bootlicker’ in the end. Many of the threads of the narrative are tangled or hidden.
Another problem with the book is that it never really goes into the Black Panther Party’s actual politics. We’re told they believe in Third World Liberation and that they struggle against Police Brutality, but those are the most we get. Intercommunalism (Huey Newton’s idea) and the idea of the lumpenproletariat being the revolutionary class (Eldridge Cleaver’s idea) are brought up only in passing. Indeed, only two pages of this book are spent looking at the Marxist-influence of the party’s ideas. We don’t know how Che, Mao, Marx and Fanon really influenced them; we’re just told that Party members were required to read them and that some leaders were well-versed in their works. For a book purporting to analyze the politics of the organization, it was very lax on that analysis.
Lastly, one of the things Bloom and Martin found important was the alliances the Panthers forged with Third World Liberation movements and white allies. We are treated to some information on how the Young Lords, The Red Guard and the Young Patriots were all influenced by the Panthers and how the Panthers mobilized white allies to support, demonstrate and raise money for Bobby Seale’s murder trial, but we’re left wondering what other projects the Panthers collaborated on with these groups. We’re told that after the United Against Fascism conference, they created National Committees Against Fascism around the country that allowed whites to join, but they are never mentioned again. What were their daily activities? How did they organize? What were the tensions in the groups, if any?
While there are criticisms to be made about this book, I still very much enjoyed it. As my first Panther book, I learned a great deal of information I had not known before. I learned that David Hilliard rather than Newton spearheaded the community service programs. I also learned about numerous other Panthers who often are not talked about: Ericka and John Huggins, Bunchy Carter and Doug Miranda. If you don’t know much about the Panthers and want to learn more, this is a great introduction.