: Racism and Resistance. How the Black Panthers Challenged White Supremacy. Bielefeld 2017 : Transcript – Verlag für Kommunikation, Kultur und soziale Praxis, ISBN 978-3-8376-3857-8 240 S. € 19,99

: Out of Oakland. Black Panther Party Internationalism during the Cold War. Ithaca 2017 : Cornell University Press, ISBN 978-1-5017-1342-2 XII, 306 S. $ 24.95

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Rebecca Brückmann, Department of British and North American History, University of Kassel

#BlackLivesMatter has been a social media hashtag, a communication strategy, and a political program for black equality since 2013. It has also become a point of reference for recent scholarship on the 1960s and 1970s Black Power Movement, in particular the organizational model and ideologies of, and state resistance against the Black Panther Party (BPP). Franziska Meister’s Racism and Resistance and Sean Malloy’s Out of Oakland, too, trace the ark from the BPP’s emergence in Oakland, California, to current #BlackLivesMatter activism. Both books provide a chronological account of the BPP’s history and identify the quest for Black public visibility as one of the activists’ central tenets. Whereas Franziska Meister takes a cultural approach, Malloy analyzes the BPP’s actions in an international and transnational context in relation to the Cold War and anticolonialism. Both works offer valuable contributions to the scholarship on BPP aesthetics, programmatic evolutions, and the state’s response to the Panthers’ activism.

Meister’s Racism and Resistance is organized in three topical parts. First, Meister gives a chronological overview of the Party’s history and strategies, then she details the state’s response to the BPP’s emergence, and finally Meister analyzes the media’s ambivalent role in regard to the Party. Meister’s conclusion highlights the BPP’s legacy and implications for today’s anti-racist activism. Perhaps surprisingly, Meister writes that she will discuss race “from a black perspective” (pp. 8 and 16) without explaining what constitutes such a perspective and as to how she intends to provide it. Meister also states that “the role of women within the Party is comparably well researched” (p. 8), which is an equally surprising claim given the gap in scholarship on women’s roles at the BPP’s grassroots levels across chapters in the US.

Referring to Charles W. Mills’ critical race theory and Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, Meister frames the BPP’s actions as a revolt against black invisibility, which she defines as “the psychological, cultural, and social constellation of blacks in a society dominated by whites and thus manifests itself on a structural level as well” (p. 16). Meister seeks to challenge the “dominant ideology of colorblindness” (p. 14) and understands the BPP’s activism as a continuing struggle for black visibility.[1]

In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, issuing a Ten Point Program that detailed their political demands for black equality. Both Meister and Malloy stress the importance of anti-capitalism, Malcolm X’s black nationalism, and Frantz Fanon’s anticolonial theory, including anticolonial violence as an act of self-re-creation, for the BPP (Meister pp. 21–26, Malloy pp. 23–28). Meister and Malloy show that the Panthers understood the African American community as an internal colony which was “imprisoned in ghettos” and thus part of the history of “racialized colonialism” (Meister p. 24 and Malloy p. 28). The Party sought to overturn this system through revolutionary action.

Meister’s narrative revolves around the Panthers’ perceived “invasion” of California’s State Capitol in Sacramento in May 1967. Armed Party members had entered the legislature in protest. Police disarmed the Panthers and removed them from the building. Meister argues that the Panthers’ actions and “a visual imagery reminiscent of resistance fighters […] reinscribe[d] and reconstruct[ed] the black body as a black warrior in Babylon” (p. 33), a tactic to visualize black people’s oppression and to mobilize black communities. Although the Panthers at the Capitol had not broken any laws at the time, this dramatic protest, their armed patrolling of the police in Oakland, and the activists’ martial attire soon led to the passage of the Mulford Act which prohibited the public carrying of loaded guns.

Meister shows that the Panthers’ documentation of police violence and racial biases in the US justice system in combination with the Party’s community programs (including free breakfasts for school children, liberty schools, community health clinics, and prison activism), the BPP newspaper The Black Panther’s “new iconography of black men and women,” and the BPP’s physical presence “in the heart of the ghetto” achieved “Black Visibility,” which aimed at exposing the white supremacist, systematic oppression of black people (pp. 38–48). The BPP’s activism was thus subversive: The Panthers wanted to be perceived as an “alternative to US government,” and the BPP consciously employed provocative strategies to elicit reactions (pp. 69–83).

In Meister’s narrative’s second part, she convincingly and captivatingly analyzes how the US state responded to the BPP’s subversive actions. Meister highlights repressive police measures, including unauthorized home raids and the arrests and imprisonment of large parts of the BPP leadership. She identifies the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), President Richard Nixon and the federal Justice Department as the “principal architects of the repression” (p. 92). In addition, Meister gives an account of the FBI’s covert Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) measures that were launched against the BPP in 1967, including extensive surveillance, sabotage, infiltration and creation of paranoia within the BPP and white support groups, which lead to purges of BPP members in 1969 (pp. 90–121).

In a third step, Meister examines the role of the media in relation to the Panthers. Creating “attention” was the sine qua non of the Panthers’ quest for black visibility, Meister argues, and mass media played an ambivalent role in this quest for “maximum impact” (pp. 123–126). The Panthers criticized the “whiteout on black news,” the uncritical adoption of police statements, as well as dehumanizing and stereotyping portrayals of black people. Hence the BPP resorted to building its own counter-public. In this struggle, the newspaper The Black Panther played a crucial role in creating a “group identity and coherence” (p. 145).

Meister concludes that the Panthers’ activism was firmly rooted in “twentieth-century black protest”: The BPP “drew from the civil rights movement’s moral crusade for justice” but repudiated that civil rights leaders “had always recognized and welcomed the existing US system and society” (p. 161). Meister continues that prominent civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. aimed at perfecting the union “by fighting against selective laws in what they considered an otherwise neutral legal system” (p. 162), which is an overgeneralizing claim given King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail in 1963, the Poor People’s Campaign (briefly mentioned on p. 162) or the evolution of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s programs and actions between 1960 and 1966, for example.

The BPP’s most important legacy today, Meister cogently concludes, is “their insistence upon the recognition of the centrality of race in shaping one’s being and their ingenuity in laying bare and confronting the structural foundation and dynamics of racism” without essentializing race as a biological given (p. 192) – a position that reverberates with #BlackLivesMatter today. In sum, Meister’s Racism and Resistance offers a solid overview of the BPP’s struggle for black equality, and Meister makes convincing observations on the Panthers’ quest for insurgent visibility and the importance of medial representations. Meister only briefly touches upon the BPP’s international outlook and transnational networks, which is the central focus of Malloy’s Out of Oakland which provides a detailed, convincing, and engaging history of the Panthers’ diverse international relations and the BPP’s history from 1966 to the early 1980s.

Malloy sets out to chronologically analyze the Panthers’ transnational activism during the 1960s and 1970s and argues that understanding the BPP’s internationalism is crucial to understanding the Party and its history. Central themes in Malloy’s book are the “link between the Panthers’ domestic analysis” of power structures “and their international engagement with revolutionary governments and movements” in Africa, Asia, and Europe, which Malloy sees as “mutually reinforcing” each other (p. 3). According to Malloy, the BPP’s internationalist approach was “crucial to the party’s growth and endurance” (p. 15).
Malloy subsequently traces the BPP’s programmatic and activist roots and evolution, the break between Huey Newton and the BPP’s Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver and the subsequent split of the BPP in 1971, and the Panthers’ legacy (pp. 3–4).

Each chapter weighs the Party’s respective successes, failures, and important turning points in its history, including the Mulford Act, Newton’s arrest, and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver’s flight to Algeria. Malloy shows that the comparatively small BPP group in Oakland rose to “international prominence” by skillfully seizing upon black traditions of self-defense, black internationalism, Third World anticolonial movements and revolutions after the Second World War, and the advocacy of “revolutionary nationalism” in order to achieve black self-determination. Malloy argues that the BPP offered a “powerful alternative worldview” that challenged “capitalism and white supremacy” and “American liberals’ complicity in both” (p. 15). Malloy readily admits that by focusing on the BPP’s (predominantly male) leadership, his narrative pays little attention to women’s contributions to the Party’s international strategies and actions. Malloy nonetheless attempts to include important female figures, including Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, and Tarika Lewis when his sources permit to do so (p. 15) and points out heteropatriarchal ideologies in the BPP (pp. 104–105).
In the book’s first part, Malloy details the history of black internationalism and anticolonialism in the 1950s and early 1960s, citing Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Harold Cruse, and the Revolutionary Action Movement as important influences on the BPP’s founders Newton and Seale (pp. 19–45). Whereas black internationalism could successfully recruit new allies for black Americans, Malloy notes, it also proved difficult in practice due to diverging interests among racialized people across the globe and the political pressures of the Cold War (pp. 31–34).

In chapters two and three, Malloy details the BPP’s founding in 1966 and early actions in Oakland. The Party changed “dramatically” in the following two years, Malloy shows, by expanding from a local group to a national organization faced with internal and external pressures (pp. 70–71). The BPP’s successes can be attributed to the development of what Malloy calls “anticolonial vernacular,” disseminated through The Black Panther newspaper and Douglas Emory’s art. Malloy shows that the BPP’s anticolonial vernacular linked the “black colony” of African Americans in the US with Third World countries through a shared “history of racialized colonialism,” and thus “provided a common thread that helped tie together” the BPP with its international supporters (pp. 72–82). Simultaneously, Malloy points out that transitioning anticolonial rhetoric into anticolonial action proved more challenging than the vernacular suggested. Questions remained as to how to leverage a “global majority of color as allies into revolutionary change” in the US (p. 76).

The book’s fourth and fifth chapters examine how the BPP put anticolonial rhetoric and symbolism into action and encountered successes, roadblocks, and failures in its quest for international solidarity. Malloy details the BPP’s and Eldridge Cleaver’s political networks with New Left groups in Germany and Scandinavia (pp. 118–128), Cuba and Algeria (pp. 129–149), and North Korea and Vietnam (151–160). Malloy stresses the BPP’s shift from broad internationalist rhetoric to Cleaver’s attempts to establish “direct, government-level contacts” which enabled the Party to operate as an alternative ambassador on the Cold War world stage while leaving it vulnerable to shifts in official state diplomacy (pp. 158, 190).

Although Malloy describes Cleaver’s interactions with international resistance groups in Algiers and goes on to show that Cleaver developed anti-Zionist stances after the Six Day War in 1967, the book fails to mention the devolvement into anti-Semitism when discussing Cleaver’s approval of Black September and the Munich Massacre in 1972 (pp. 145–146, 196–200). In Race and Resistance, Meister, too, touches on the FBI’s attempt to “deliberately construct the Panthers as anti-Semitic” without giving more attention to Cleaver’s and international co-operative partners’ stances (p. 116), which would have been an additional and important transnational angle for both studies.

The final three chapters of Malloy’s Out of Oakland give a detailed and captivating account of the split between Cleaver and Newton after the latter’s release from jail in 1970 and the subsequent fracture of the Party a year later. Whereas Cleaver continued to pursue militancy and plan for guerilla warfare, Newton’s re-assertion of control over the party went hand in hand with a programmatic realignment (pp. 148–166). Malloy demonstrates that Newton oriented the BPP back to its local roots in Oakland and the Party’s community services and began to pursue a reformist approach (pp. 174–201). Malloy gives an outline of the BPP’s splintering into the Oakland group, the international Revolutionary People’s Communication Network surrounding the Cleavers, and the militant, underground Black Liberation Army until the Panthers’ dissolution in 1982 (pp. 212–240). Malloy concludes that the Party’s successes and failures remain relevant to current debates about white supremacy, colonialism, and marginalization. The BPP’s history, “fraught with tensions and contradictions” (p. 243), leaves the important legacy of “the continuing salience of the colonial model to make sense of the situation of African Americans” (p. 244), Malloy asserts.

Meister’s and Malloy’s books are useful and complementary contributions to the history of the Black Panther Party, the Black Freedom Struggle, black internationalism, 20th century US domestic and international politics, and 20th century cultural studies. In its approach, scope, linguistic and organizational clarity as well as analytical depth, Malloy’s Out of Oakland provides a fresher and more nuanced examination of the BPP’s evolution.

[1] See also Nikhil Pal Singh’s conceptualization of the Black Panther’s activism as “an insurgent form of visibility”; Nikhil Pal Singh, The Black Panthers and the “Underdeveloped Country” of the Left, in: Charles E. Jones (ed.), The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, Baltimore 1998, p. 83.

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