Just Finished Reading: Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P Newton (FP: 1973)
After reading a previous book by a co-Founder of The Black Panther Party I couldn’t very well resist a biography of the senior partner. But what a different book this was. Where Bobby Searle’s memoirs where almost a chaotic ‘stream of consciousness’ this volume covering largely the same events and same time period was impressively structured and logically laid out. Where Searle’s narrative ran after ideas like hunting dogs chasing rabbits this memoir was tightly structured and analytical. It really didn’t surprise me that much to learn that the author had gained a PhD during his early political career.
Starting with a brief overview of his family history and his childhood living in varying degrees of poverty the narrative quickly moved to discuss his formative years in the rundown areas of Oakland, California. He neither glorified nor apologised for the low level crime he was responsible for justifying it in several ways. What I did find interested though was his response to a question of why he didn’t commit more crimes or bigger crimes to ‘live the high life’. His answer, as with much else in this intriguing biography, was multi-layered. More crime, he maintained, would put him at increased risk of being caught and doing serious prison time – something he was all too aware of. The increased wealth, he maintained, was illusory and could vanish in a second leaving little behind. Finally living a life of crime in order to live well in a Capitalist society was simply buying in to the underlying system with he was starting to question and reject. So, he committed only enough crime to rent an apartment, pay his way through college and to give him the free time to read books and politically educate himself. He was, very much, an enlightened petty crook!
But the question was: what to do with that political knowledge to help his community against predominantly white power oppression. Riots and uprisings, becoming all the more regular, achieved nothing more than more oppression and more black bodies in the morgue. The way out of this was to raise Black consciousness and give power to the people. To do this the original small number of Panthers began ‘patrolling’ the police – visibly armed. Not only did this raise their profile in the Black community it also gave the police pause whilst they worked out how to respond. Over the months ahead the Panthers became a fixture in Oakland and beyond as their fame spread. But, of course, it wouldn’t be long before the authorities responded. This began a long period of arrests for all of the major leaders of the party, infiltration by government agents, ideological splits and arguments, and an increasing number of deaths at the hands/guns of the police and other Black groups who felt threatened by the Panthers growing power and prominence in the Black Community. But I think what really called down the wrath of the white power structure was the start of grass roots programmes such as the Breakfast for Kids scheme and the offers of free legal aid and other assistance that was politicising an increasing number of Black voters. The final nail in the coffin, as far as the authorities were concerned was when the Panthers started to successfully reach out to other disaffected and disenfranchised poor groups in potentially revolutionary significant numbers. Such a thing could not be allowed to stand. Ending the narrative after his frankly bizarre fourth trail for a crime he did not commit this is an intriguing and often fascinating look at the building of a radical revolutionary group in a modern western state bringing to light the absurdities and contradictions inherent within Capitalism itself.
I’m glad that I read the three Black Power books in the sequence I did (completely by accident!). The Malcolm X book gave me an overview and a detailed insight into the problems and possible solutions. Searle’s biography gave me a rough and ready view from the ground of what was going on and this volume tied things together with theory and political philosophy to mean something. A must read for anyone interested in Black America. Next, after a short one book diversion, is a three book collection looking at the darker side of our technological future.