Bringing the Vanguard Home: Revisiting the Black Panther Party’s Sites of Class Struggle

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By the sum­mer of 1968, less than two years after its incep­tion, Oak­land, California’s Black Pan­ther Par­ty was run­ning out of space. Signs of the Black Pow­er organization’s rapid growth were espe­cial­ly evi­dent at its Grove Street office, which by this time, was “bust­ing out at the seams,” with “piles of newslet­ters, leaflets, but­tons, [and] flags” over­flow­ing into mem­bers’ homes.1 Not sur­pris­ing­ly, state agents were equal­ly privy to the Party’s increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty among local res­i­dents; dur­ing the same year, increased rates of incar­cer­a­tion, police-led mur­ders, and the polit­i­cal exile of Pan­ther men result­ed in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly female mem­ber­ship.2 In the midst of height­ened FBI and police repres­sion of the orga­ni­za­tion, David Hilliard, the Party’s then Chief of Staff, recalls in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy that by Sep­tem­ber, he no longer felt safe in his home or the Par­ty office.3

Thus, the search was on for a new base of oper­a­tions. With the help of friends and the pool­ing of orga­ni­za­tion­al funds, Hilliard quick­ly locat­ed an ide­al site on Shat­tuck Avenue, mid­way between Berke­ley and Oak­land. Aside from the buffer that the col­lege town’s busi­ness­es would afford Hilliard’s fam­i­ly against “the mar­gin­al­ly more civ­i­lized Berke­ley police” at this par­tic­u­lar loca­tion, Hilliard envi­sioned addi­tion­al ben­e­fits to pur­chas­ing the prop­er­ty:

We could hold meet­ings, press con­fer­ences, and store the paper in the wide space on the ground floor. Upstairs in front we can put out the paper; in back are plen­ty of rooms, includ­ing the kitchen. From the base­ment we can build tun­nels to the back­yard of a friend of Eldridge’s who lives near­by, escape routes in case of attack.4

Fur­ther, aware of the house’s ample size, Hilliard pro­posed to his wife, Patri­cia, the idea of with­draw­ing their chil­dren from Oakland’s pub­lic schools and home­school­ing them at the new res­i­dence. His plans quick­ly mate­ri­al­ized. After out­fit­ting the bed­rooms with bunk beds and equip­ping every desk with a tele­phone, Hilliard and his com­rades cov­ered the win­dows with steel sheets and placed sand­bags along the walls.5 Soon “the chat­ter of peo­ple work­ing, the chaos of last-minute details, some non­sense about the kids upstairs, some mem­bers sacked out on the floor in sleep­ing bags,” filled the house with an atmos­phere that Hilliard recalls, felt “famil­iar, nat­ur­al, right.” He called the new domain, “home, head­quar­ters, embassy.”6

But what do we make of the tri­par­tite rela­tion­ship that Hilliard describes? Beyond what it sug­gests about the cen­tral role that the organization’s Chief of Staff played in the Black Pan­ther Party’s ear­ly years, the image he pro­vides is telling on at least one addi­tion­al lev­el; it offers us a key win­dow through which we can more ful­ly exam­ine the organization’s sites of class strug­gle. While Hilliard may have been the only Par­ty mem­ber to actu­al­ize plans for build­ing an under­ground escape route in his back­yard (and he might have been suc­cess­ful, had the city’s under­ground sub­way sys­tem not backed up the water lev­el, caus­ing the tun­nels to flood), the “home, head­quar­ters, embassy” he depicts was not unique. In fact, accounts of Pan­ther house­holds out­lined in mem­oirs and biogra­phies of for­mer mem­bers, orga­ni­za­tion­al doc­u­ments, and FBI files sug­gest that for numer­ous Black Pan­thers, the home exist­ed as a lim­i­nal space, at the nexus of fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, and work life. More specif­i­cal­ly, for many Black Pan­thers, the house­hold func­tioned as a pri­ma­ry site of con­tes­ta­tion between the Par­ty and the state over the terms of social repro­duc­tion.

While much has been writ­ten about how the Black Pan­ther Party’s brand of black rad­i­cal­ism oper­at­ed as a spec­tac­u­lar pol­i­tics – in the streets, in front of gov­ern­ment build­ings, and in com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters – few schol­ars have ful­ly explored the more inti­mate ter­rains over which the BPP attempt­ed to mul­ti­ply its rev­o­lu­tion­ary ranks. If the state active­ly hin­dered the abil­i­ty of black work­ing-class fam­i­lies to per­form the dai­ly tasks of repro­duc­tive labor by rel­e­gat­ing them to ghet­tos rid­den with police vio­lence, by incul­cat­ing their chil­dren with a pub­lic school cur­ricu­lum void of black his­to­ry, or by offi­cial­ly pathol­o­giz­ing black female-head­ed house­holds, Par­ty mem­bers respond­ed with col­lec­tive calls for self-deter­mi­na­tion.7

Yet, Black Pow­er mil­i­tan­cy, and state respons­es to it, did not always occur in those spaces most vis­i­ble to the pub­lic. Rather, the home and fam­i­ly unit were just as like­ly tar­gets of gov­ern­ment sub­ver­sion as the more vis­i­ble urban ter­rains that have become the cen­tral back­drop of Black Pan­ther iconog­ra­phy. Equal­ly impor­tant, the Pan­thers’ anti-colo­nial pol­i­tics were often trans­mit­ted across gen­er­a­tions not in Par­ty offices or com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters, but behind closed doors, in the inti­mate spaces of liv­ing rooms, kitchens, and back­yards.

Specif­i­cal­ly, this essay inves­ti­gates the ways in which the home and fam­i­ly unit func­tioned as polit­i­cal and politi­ciz­ing spaces for Par­ty mem­bers and their chil­dren. In the con­text of the organization’s pol­i­tics of self-deter­mi­na­tion, this essay seeks to under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of those moments when Black Pan­thers’ most per­son­al domains trans­formed into refuges from state vio­lence, venues for the polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion of chil­dren, and quar­ters that accom­mo­dat­ed Par­ty mem­bers’ exper­i­men­ta­tions with var­i­ous liv­ing arrange­ments. I ask: what sym­bol­ic or mate­r­i­al sig­nif­i­cance, if any, did con­cep­tions of par­ent­hood, chil­drea­r­ing prac­tices, or the home, have for those inter­est­ed in the Par­ty, and for those bent on its demise? Sim­i­lar­ly, to what extent did these phe­nom­e­na func­tion as mech­a­nisms of Black Pan­ther social­ism? Uti­liz­ing a range of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources includ­ing auto­bi­ogra­phies of for­mer Par­ty mem­bers, news­pa­per arti­cles, and gen­er­al stud­ies of the orga­ni­za­tion, I con­tend that these more domes­ti­cal­ly-insu­lat­ed inter­ac­tions were as cen­tral to the Party’s polit­i­cal prac­tices as mem­bers’ more overt orga­ni­za­tion­al labor.8

Background

Like the Party’s gen­der the­o­ries, the ideas the BPP espoused about par­ent­hood and fam­i­ly were nei­ther mono­lith­ic nor sta­t­ic through­out its twelve-year lifes­pan from 1966 to 1982. And while Oakland’s Black Pow­er group nev­er released an offi­cial state­ment artic­u­lat­ing the role of fam­i­ly and chil­dren in the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion, ques­tions about father­hood, moth­er­hood, and fam­i­ly struc­ture fig­ured promi­nent­ly in orga­ni­za­tion­al the­o­ries and prac­tices from the group’s ear­ly stages.9

In fact, on many lev­els, the Party’s estab­lish­ment by Huey New­ton and Bob­by Seale served as a response to U.S. Sen­a­tor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s con­tro­ver­sial 1965 study, The Negro Fam­i­ly: The Case for Nation­al Action. Draw­ing on a com­pi­la­tion of soci­o­log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and his­tor­i­cal research, Moyni­han ulti­mate­ly attrib­uted the high unem­ploy­ment and school attri­tion rates among blacks in low-income cities to the struc­ture of black fam­i­lies. Black moth­ers and matri­ar­chal house­holds were par­tic­u­lar­ly trou­bling to Moyni­han, as his report would cast both as debil­i­tat­ing to the social and eco­nom­ic progress of black men and male youth.10

Per­haps it is not sur­pris­ing, then, that tropes of the recla­ma­tion of black man­hood, which could be achieved through a man’s abil­i­ty to pro­tect his fam­i­ly, fill the pages of the BPP’s ear­ly lit­er­a­ture. In his ear­ly writ­ings, Newton’s response to the matri­ar­chal fam­i­ly form offers an iron­ic cor­rob­o­ra­tion of many of Moynihan’s asser­tions about the state of black father­hood. His 1967 essay, “Fear and Doubt,” for exam­ple, depicts the black hus­band and father as a deject­ed fig­ure, con­sumed with feel­ings of guilt over his inabil­i­ty to pro­vide for his wife and chil­dren. Unable to finan­cial­ly sup­port or pro­tect his fam­i­ly, he ulti­mate­ly “with­draws into the world of invis­i­bil­i­ty.”11 Newton’s trope of invis­i­bil­i­ty is cou­pled with a rhetoric of pro­tec­tion and sur­vival that under­scores the para­dox­i­cal nature of the black father fig­ure; both a prod­uct of gov­ern­men­tal neglect and the tar­get of police-sanc­tioned vio­lence, he is at once invis­i­ble and hyper­vis­i­ble. Echo­ing Newton’s per­son­al writ­ings, the BPP’s agen­da of com­bat­ing police bru­tal­i­ty inscribed a ver­sion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary black man­hood that was direct­ly tied to the pro­tec­tion of the home and fam­i­ly. One of the organization’s ear­li­est doc­u­ments, Exec­u­tive Man­date Num­ber One, for instance, called on mem­bers to defend the homes and per­sons of the black ghet­to from oppres­sive state forces.12

But schol­ars of the BPP’s gen­der pol­i­tics, includ­ing Tra­cye Matthews remind us that the Par­ty main­tained flu­id, and at times con­tra­dic­to­ry notions of famil­ial rela­tion­ships as the organization’s polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy trans­formed over time, in con­stant dialec­tic with exter­nal con­tem­po­rary dis­cours­es.13 Even New­ton, while rein­scrib­ing Moynihan’s patri­ar­chal con­cep­tions of fam­i­ly and mar­riage, at oth­er moments posit­ed the “bour­geois fam­i­ly” as “impris­on­ing, enslav­ing, and suf­fo­cat­ing.”14 In line with cap­i­tal­is­tic forms of prop­er­ty own­er­ship and exploita­tion, the nuclear fam­i­ly sym­bol­ized a direct chal­lenge to social­ist modes of par­ent­hood and sib­ling­hood.

Moving Away From the “Bourgeois Family”

Cer­tain­ly, Huey Newton’s cri­tique of the nuclear fam­i­ly mod­el did not fall on deaf ears. In fact, even before the pub­li­ca­tion of his “Fear and Doubt” essay, Black Pan­thers were already exper­i­ment­ing with com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments and sex­u­al rela­tion­ships. The image of Pan­ther homes as at once serv­ing as sleep­ing quar­ters, all-night din­ers, and orga­ni­za­tion­al meet­ing cen­ters abound in Pan­ther mem­oirs.15 Look­ing at a hand­ful of Pan­ther fam­i­lies, in the fol­low­ing sec­tion I trace the ways in which home life man­i­fest­ed itself for both those indi­vid­u­als who worked for the Par­ty, and those whose lin­eage bound them to Black Pan­ther pol­i­tics. By map­ping the spa­tial lay­outs of Pan­ther house­holds, by trac­ing the nature of child­hood devel­op­ment includ­ing the edu­ca­tion and social­iza­tion of Pan­thers’ chil­dren, and by exam­in­ing Par­ty mem­bers’ con­cep­tions of par­ent­hood, this sec­tion asks: how did mem­bers of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty pre­pare their kin for a post-cap­i­tal­ist future?

Mary Williams offers a telling exam­ple of the com­mu­nal­ism that was char­ac­ter­is­tic of many Pan­ther house­holds. Born in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia in 1967, Williams was exposed to the Bay Area’s cul­ture of black rad­i­cal­ism from a young age. Dur­ing the BPP’s ear­ly years, her moth­er, Mary Williams, sold issues of The Black Pan­ther, the organization’s lit­er­ary mouth­piece, to local res­i­dents, and helped facil­i­tate the group’s com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice pro­grams. Her father, Louis Ran­dolph, served on the Party’s com­mu­ni­ty police patrols until his arrest and incar­cer­a­tion in Soledad Prison in 1970 on charges of the assault and intent to kill a police offi­cer.16 Her father’s polit­i­cal pris­on­er sta­tus and her par­ents’ ulti­mate divorce meant that Williams and her sib­lings were exposed to dif­fer­ent types of fam­i­ly set­tings grow­ing up. From time to time, the Williams chil­dren stayed with their uncle, Lan­don Williams, who also worked for the Par­ty. As a child, Mary rec­og­nized that her uncle’s deci­sion to live inde­pen­dent­ly with his wife and child, out­side the con­fines of Pan­ther hous­ing, was some­what unique. Where­as her uncle resided in “his own tidy lit­tle apart­ment,” oth­er mem­bers of the rank-and-file set­tled in Par­ty hous­ing, “which meant bun­k­like [sp] quar­ters and often sleep­ing on pal­lets.”17 While Williams reminds us of the diver­si­ty of liv­ing styles among Par­ty mem­bers, her account also echoes the theme of mobil­i­ty – evi­denced by the con­stant flow of com­rades – that is cen­tral to David Hilliard’s account of his Shat­tuck Avenue home. As the cas­es of Mary Williams and the Hilliards indi­cate, then, the con­stant move­ment of peo­ple with­in the house­hold serves as a telling sym­bol of the insep­a­ra­bil­i­ty of per­son­al and polit­i­cal spaces for Pan­ther fam­i­lies.

Move­ment between res­i­dences was also a com­mon expe­ri­ence among Pan­ther youth. Dori­on Hilliard, son of David and Patri­cia, recalls spend­ing much of his child­hood mov­ing from state to state as a result of his par­ents’ deep involve­ment in the move­ment. Iron­i­cal­ly, although his was a child­hood of con­stant relo­ca­tion, Dori­on remained ful­ly sur­round­ed by Black Pan­ther cul­ture. Near­ly twen­ty of his rel­a­tives belonged to the Par­ty, adding a sense of nor­mal­cy to his engage­ment in learn­ing polit­i­cal songs and writ­ing to incar­cer­at­ed Pan­thers – activ­i­ties that might oth­er­wise have been con­sid­ered strange and “un-Amer­i­can” by his non-Pan­ther peers.18 At the same time, how­ev­er, his Black Pan­ther lin­eage was also evi­denced by what was delib­er­ate­ly absent from his family’s home: TV, nurs­ery rhymes, and G.I. Joes.19 His par­ents’ deci­sions regard­ing what they would and would not expose their chil­dren to are reveal­ing on at least two lev­els; on the one hand, their ban­ning of tele­vi­sion view­ing sug­gests a lev­el of reg­i­men­ta­tion and dis­ci­pline with­in the Hilliard house­hold. Sec­ond­ly, David’s and Patricia’s pro­hi­bi­tion of G.I. Joe toys may be under­stood as their unwill­ing­ness to accom­mo­date sym­bols of the state in their home, a pos­si­ble indi­ca­tion of the Party’s firm rejec­tion of the U.S.’s involve­ment in the Viet­nam War; a con­flict the Par­ty under­stood as an exer­cise in U.S. impe­ri­al­ism.

For oth­er chil­dren of Black Pow­er fam­i­lies, the wed­ding of Par­ty and fam­i­ly life at times posed chal­lenges for the exis­tence of more inti­mate par­ent-child rela­tion­ships. Eric­ka Abram, the daugh­ter of for­mer Par­ty chair­man Elaine Brown, recalls how her mother’s com­mit­ment to the work­ing-class rev­o­lu­tion at times led to a degree of phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al dis­tance between the two. Brown’s lead­ing posi­tion often required her pres­ence abroad, meet­ing with lead­ers of social­ist and anti-colo­nial move­ments in places such as North Korea and Chi­na as part of the BPP’s efforts to build inter­na­tion­al coali­tions.20 Still, even when the two shared the same liv­ing space, the fre­quent pres­ence of Brown’s body­guard often pre­clud­ed Brown and her daugh­ter from spend­ing exclu­sive time with one anoth­er. For many years, theirs was more of a pro­fes­sion­al and polit­i­cal­ly-ori­ent­ed rela­tion­ship. After Brown’s depar­ture from the Par­ty in 1977, she and Eric­ka moved in togeth­er, thrust into a new sit­u­a­tion in which they would both learn to exist as moth­er and daugh­ter. Years lat­er, in an inter­view with jour­nal­ist, John Blake, Brown and Abram would remem­ber it as an awk­ward expe­ri­ence because for so long, they had lived more like com­rades.21

Eric­ka Abram was among many chil­dren of Black Pow­er orga­niz­ers whose ear­ly years were embed­ded in expres­sions of van­guard activism. To be sure, the theme of duty to one’s com­mu­ni­ty appears reg­u­lar­ly in bio­graph­i­cal and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal sources. At a young age, Eric­ka worked along­side Par­ty orga­niz­ers dis­trib­ut­ing food to local youth as part of the BPP’s Free Break­fast for School Chil­dren Pro­gram, one of the organization’s more than forty com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice pro­grams.22 Reflect­ing on her ear­ly grass­roots work over thir­ty years lat­er, Abram describes a dual­i­ty to this phase of her life. Being polit­i­cal­ly aware as a child, she con­tends, was both pur­pose­ful and demand­ing. She notes, “Some­times I didn’t want the respon­si­bil­i­ty of being awake. I just want­ed to be like oth­er kids. I want­ed to watch car­toons.”23 Here, Abram’s under­stand­ing of her past echoes what Dori­on Hilliard described ear­li­er as an insu­lat­ed child­hood, one that was at once reward­ing in its com­mu­nal­ism, yet nec­es­sar­i­ly dis­tinct from the dai­ly oper­a­tions of the more apo­lit­i­cal ado­les­cence.

For oth­er mem­bers of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion, their place in the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion was delin­eat­ed even before birth. In July 1969, near­ly one year into his life as a polit­i­cal exile, BPP Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion, Eldridge Cleaver, was joined in Algiers by his wife and BPP Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Sec­re­tary, Kath­leen Cleaver, who at the time was sev­en months preg­nant with their first child.24The Cleavers named their son, Maceo, after the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Cuban rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Anto­nio Maceo, and on the day of his birth in Pis­sem­silt Alge­ria, The Black Pan­ther announced that the Cleavers’ child would imple­ment the Party’s ideals “until the pigs who enslave the world are wiped out from the face of the earth.”25 Wit­ness­ing his par­ents’ efforts in devel­op­ing an inter­na­tion­al net­work of anti-colo­nial sol­i­dar­i­ty undoubt­ed­ly con­tributed to Maceo’s own bud­ding con­scious­ness of class dis­par­i­ty, and his role in the strug­gle against it. As an adult look­ing back on his ear­ly years, Maceo Cleaver asserts, “We knew we were free­dom fight­ers. We real­ized that there were a lot of injus­tices and that it was our respon­si­bil­i­ty to speak up and say some­thing about it.”26

The pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty over the indi­vid­ual that was cen­tral to Black Pan­ther pol­i­tics affect­ed oth­er realms of inter­per­son­al rela­tions as well. Beyond the ways in which com­mu­nal think­ing may have shaped children’s dai­ly activ­i­ties and self-aware­ness, the organization’s van­guard sen­si­bil­i­ties also informed how indi­vid­ual mem­bers con­cep­tu­al­ized par­ent­hood. Again, the case of Elaine Brown and Eric­ka Abram serves as a use­ful exam­ple. Like many Black rev­o­lu­tion­ary Nation­al­ists, Brown posit­ed the over­throw of the rul­ing class as inher­ent to one’s parental duty. But the rev­o­lu­tion nev­er came. Abram con­tends that the dis­il­lu­sion­ment her moth­er felt upon leav­ing the BPP in 1977 stemmed both from an unre­al­ized polit­i­cal project, as well as Brown’s feel­ings of parental fail­ure. In an inter­view with John Blake, Abram says of her moth­er, “In her mind, she failed me because she didn’t change the world for me.”27 Brown adds, “We thought we were going to cre­ate some­thing new or die try­ing. We didn’t think we would leave our kids right back where we start­ed.”28

For some, col­lec­tive par­ent­ing also involved col­lec­tive forms of dis­ci­pline. While Par­ty mem­bers with chil­dren employed a range of dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tices, mem­oirs and bio­graph­i­cal sources sug­gest that it was not uncom­mon for Pan­ther par­ents to exper­i­ment with non-puni­tive mea­sures. Eric­ka Abram remem­bers instances in which she was asked to make amends with her peers after a dis­pute by writ­ing essays on lead­ing black fig­ures such as Jack­ie Robin­son.29 In this sense, some activists uti­lized dis­ci­pline as a mech­a­nism to expose the daugh­ters and sons of mem­bers to the organization’s polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion efforts. And, per­haps not sur­pris­ing­ly, par­ents them­selves were not exempt from receiv­ing such dis­ci­pli­nary actions. Dur­ing her mem­ber­ship in the BPP’s Brook­lyn branch, Safiya Bukhari often brought her daugh­ter, Won­da with her to the Party’s office dur­ing long work days. When her com­rades detect­ed signs of parental neglect such as a dia­per that was over­due for chang­ing, Bukhari some­times faced reper­cus­sions in the form of vol­un­teer work assign­ments. On one occa­sion, her com­rades tasked with clean­ing a com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers’ apart­ment. In anoth­er instance, after wit­ness­ing Safiya raise her voice in front of Won­da, Bukhari’s col­leagues assigned her the job of writ­ing an essay on Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.30

As the Par­ty grew in mem­ber­ship by the end of the 1960s, con­ver­sa­tions about the rela­tion­ship between the Par­ty, fam­i­ly, and par­ent­hood assumed new forms. The BPP’s Chica­go branch offers a telling exam­ple of the ways in which the per­son­al was polit­i­cal for Black Pow­er rad­i­cals. In 1972, the leader of the Chica­go chap­ter, Audrea Jones, issued a posi­tion paper address­ing both the recent growth in Par­ty mem­ber­ship and the ris­ing num­ber of chil­dren born to Pan­ther women. Reflect­ing her anx­i­eties about the increased strain on Par­ty resources which had been used to sup­port mem­bers and their fam­i­lies, Jones advo­cat­ed for a change in the organization’s pol­i­cy con­cern­ing birth con­trol and fam­i­ly plan­ning. Specif­i­cal­ly, she pro­posed a four-step pro­gram that would require all Pan­ther cou­ples intend­ing to have chil­dren to com­mu­ni­cate with “respon­si­ble mem­bers” of the Party’s Review Com­mit­tee, which includ­ed the Finance Sec­re­tary, Per­son­nel, and Min­istry of Health. After assess­ing the “objec­tive con­di­tions” of a giv­en cou­ple under review, the Com­mit­tee would present a rec­om­men­da­tion to the Party’s Cen­tral Com­mit­tee. Ulti­mate­ly, the lat­ter group would have the final say regard­ing whether or not a cou­ple should pro­ceed with plans to start a fam­i­ly.31

While Jones’ pro­gram nev­er became offi­cial pol­i­cy, only two years lat­er Pan­ther lead­ers did issue a man­date requir­ing all mem­bers to use birth con­trol.32 Aside from what it reveals about the momen­tum gained in the Black Pow­er Move­ment by the ear­ly 1970s, the pro­posed ini­tia­tive is reveal­ing on anoth­er lev­el. At a time when the rhetoric of “geno­cide,” “ster­il­iza­tion,” and “anni­hi­la­tion of the black race” flood­ed the pages of The Black Pan­ther, the orga­ni­za­tion imple­ment­ed its own mea­sures to cur­tail and reg­u­late the sex­u­al activ­i­ty of its cadres. Iron­i­cal­ly, the same peo­ple that the state active­ly sought to con­trol through sur­veil­lance, incar­cer­a­tion, dis­place­ment and mur­der, became key sites through which the Pan­thers’ black rev­o­lu­tion­ary nation­al­ism grew beyond its self-sus­tain­ing lim­its.

But while we may draw par­al­lels between the organization’s intro­duc­tion of a new pol­i­tics of sex­u­al and famil­ial respon­si­bil­i­ty and con­cur­rent state attempts to pro­duce vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty among Black Pan­thers, there is a dan­ger in equat­ing these two phe­nom­e­non. While state agen­cies such as the FBI’s Counter Intel­li­gence Pro­gram oper­at­ed with the intent to phys­i­cal­ly erad­i­cate black mil­i­tants, BPP efforts to cur­tail the birth rates of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion reflect one of sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tion­al strate­gies used to mit­i­gate resource scarci­ty in order to sus­tain the Par­ty and its pro­grams. Rather than inter­pret­ing such fam­i­ly plan­ning ini­tia­tives as repro­duc­tions of state efforts to extin­guish Black Pan­ther rad­i­cal­ism and its lega­cy, then, we might bet­ter under­stand these poli­cies as exam­ples of mem­bers’ attempts to pre­serve their capac­i­ty to serve their com­mu­ni­ties and build a more egal­i­tar­i­an world for future gen­er­a­tions.

The Home and the State

As not­ed above, the Black Pan­ther Party’s attempts to deter­mine the con­di­tions of the social repro­duc­tion of its cadres nev­er occurred in iso­la­tion from sim­i­lar state projects. Just as the home and fam­i­ly unit act­ed as impor­tant domains in which Pan­thers cul­ti­vat­ed a uni­fied black body politic bent on the over­throw of cap­i­tal­ism, so too did the state rec­og­nize these spaces as cru­cial to its own agen­da of anni­hi­lat­ing the orga­ni­za­tion. Gov­ern­ment offi­cials’ fram­ing of the BPP as anti­thet­i­cal to a safe nation is per­haps best illus­trat­ed by J. Edgar Hoover’s mul­ti­ple warn­ings to the Amer­i­can pub­lic that the Black Pan­ther Par­ty – and its Free Break­fast for School Chil­dren Pro­gram in par­tic­u­lar – posed a pri­ma­ry threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty.33

But what did the state’s attempts to inscribe its own nation­al bor­ders mean for fam­i­lies of rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ism in the 1960s and 1970s? And in the con­text of social repro­duc­tion, in what ways did agen­cies like COINTELPRO and local police depart­ments enter the Party’s inti­mate spaces while car­ry­ing out the state’s mis­sion to elim­i­nate black rad­i­cal­ism? Cer­tain­ly, few sites of Pan­ther activ­i­ty were left untouched by the government’s repres­sive hand. Evi­dence of state pen­e­tra­tion of the Party’s inter­nal oper­a­tions abounds in Pan­ther mem­oirs, through sym­bols of wire­tapped phones, parked police cars sta­tioned out­side of mem­bers’ homes, and house­hold doors laden with police-fired bul­let holes.34 A fuller under­stand­ing of Par­ty-state rela­tions, then, war­rants an exam­i­na­tion of those moments of gov­ern­ment intru­sion in the less pub­licly vis­i­ble realms of BPP activ­i­ty – par­tic­u­lar­ly those spaces in which Par­ty mem­bers fed, housed, edu­cat­ed, and social­ized their kin.35

Cer­tain­ly, chil­dren were not exempt from the mon­i­tored sta­tus that char­ac­ter­ized so many BPP fam­i­lies. Tar­get­ed at home, at school, and in some cas­es, as mem­bers of exiled fam­i­lies, chil­dren became pri­ma­ry avenues through which gov­ern­ment agents pro­duced vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and dis­rup­tion with­in both the Par­ty and its indi­vid­ual fam­i­ly units. David Hilliard offers one of the most insight­ful exam­ples of the extent to which Hoover’s agency would go to obtain infor­ma­tion about the Black Pow­er orga­ni­za­tion. When the Hilliards’ six-year-old son, Dar­ryl, was sent home from school for start­ing a fire in his class­room, admin­is­tra­tive offi­cials alert­ed Darryl’s par­ents that the school might press charges. When the fam­i­ly received a knock on their door one week lat­er, they were greet­ed by a man in a busi­ness suit, his FBI badge in hand. Hilliard recounts that when the agent informed David that his son was at risk of fac­ing seri­ous charges, the man used the inter­ro­ga­tion as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to sur­vey the inside of their home. Angry and amused, Hilliard remem­bers think­ing to him­self, “In the face of the war­fare I’m brac­ing for, this fool­ish­ness strikes me as real­ly con­temptible, pathet­ic.”36 After ask­ing the agent if his threat of tak­ing Dar­ryl to tri­al was seri­ous, Hilliard asked the man, “A six year-old boy? Is that how des­per­ate you are? Wor­ried about six-year-old rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies?” Although Hilliard read the sit­u­a­tion as a moment of embar­rass­ment for the FBI agent, his ques­tion was not unfound­ed. Years lat­er Hilliard would aver that the FBI and local police would “use every weapon in their arse­nal to destroy the Par­ty,” includ­ing chil­dren.37

At times, the state’s inva­sive mea­sures inten­si­fied to such a degree that some activists no longer felt that Oakland’s pub­lic schools pro­vid­ed safe spaces for black youth. In fact, Hilliard and Seale were among the first Par­ty mem­bers to with­draw their chil­dren from the Oak­land Pub­lic School Dis­trict after cas­es of their repeat­ed harass­ment by teach­ers due to Seale’s and Hilliard’s polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions. Hilliard and Seale would also be the first Par­ty mem­bers to enroll their chil­dren in the BPP’s new­ly estab­lished lib­er­a­tion schools.38 For the sake of brevi­ty, I will not address the his­to­ry of the organization’s alter­na­tive schools here. How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to note that such polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion ini­tia­tives, on many lev­els, exem­pli­fy the Party’s agency in deter­min­ing the nature of the edu­ca­tion­al and social devel­op­ment of Oakland’s black youth. The Oak­land Com­mu­ni­ty School – the Party’s first and longest-run­ning lib­er­a­tion school – for exam­ple, served as both a safe haven for scores of local chil­dren, and as a direct cor­rec­tive to a white-washed pub­lic school cur­ricu­lum which many Pan­thers felt alien­at­ed non-white chil­dren.39

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the state’s intru­sion into the per­son­al realms of Amer­i­can black rad­i­cal­ism tran­scend­ed nation­al bor­ders as well. Although most of his involve­ment with the BPP took place out­side of the U.S., as the head of the Party’s Inter­na­tion­al Chap­ter, Eldridge Cleaver was also ful­ly aware of the pre­car­i­ous posi­tion of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Pan­thers. As polit­i­cal exiles, the Cleavers under­went con­stant relo­ca­tion, between and with­in nations, employ­ing a range of tac­tics to pro­tect the con­fi­den­tial­i­ty of their family’s where­abouts. In a 2006 pub­lished col­lec­tion of his writ­ings, Eldridge recounts, “We had to be very secre­tive about where we kept our chil­dren, often keep­ing them in hid­ing places sep­a­rate from where we were stay­ing.”40 He adds, dur­ing the family’s near­ly sev­en-year peri­od in exile, he and Kath­leen placed their son and daugh­ter in hid­ing for one year.41 When these mea­sures left Eldridge feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble still, he went as far as lying to his chil­dren about his own iden­ti­ty. It was a failed attempt, how­ev­er. After their father repeat­ed­ly stressed to Maceo and Joju that his was name Hen­ry Jones, they refused to believe him.42

While the Cleavers’ case is by no means rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the numer­ous Pan­ther fam­i­lies that found polit­i­cal asy­lum abroad dur­ing the Party’s years of oper­a­tion – the archives have left us with few sources detail­ing the expe­ri­ences of such fam­i­lies – their tra­jec­to­ry offers a win­dow into the com­plex and diverse nature of how mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry black rad­i­cals nego­ti­at­ed fam­i­ly respon­si­bil­i­ties and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the rev­o­lu­tion. Ana­lyz­ing the Cleavers’ expe­ri­ence in par­tic­u­lar may fur­ther help to expand our under­stand­ing of how repro­duc­tive labor oper­at­ed with­in Pan­ther fam­i­lies. That Eldridge Cleaver’s efforts to pro­tect his chil­dren from state repres­sion assumed the form of a false iden­ti­ty sug­gests that for some, fam­i­ly devel­op­ment was a nec­es­sar­i­ly pre­car­i­ous and at times, alien­at­ing process.

Conclusion

While schol­ar­ship on the Black Pan­ther Par­ty has only recent­ly begun to explore the organization’s spa­tial pol­i­tics, few authors have sit­u­at­ed the home and fam­i­ly unit as key sites of Par­ty mem­bers’ class strug­gle. Just as pub­lic parks, gov­ern­ment build­ings, and the streets became cen­tral domains of Black Pow­er activism, Black Pan­thers also uti­lized less obvi­ous spaces to imple­ment their brand of rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ism. Signs of the organization’s rejec­tion of a cap­i­tal­is­tic state, and Pan­thers’ attempts to wres­tle con­trol from the state in secur­ing a future for their kin, can be seen in mem­bers’ parental prac­tices, liv­ing arrange­ments, and in the social­iza­tion of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion. And as news­pa­per arti­cles, mem­oirs, and state sources reveal, the state was not hes­i­tant to infil­trate these spaces in its efforts to mon­i­tor Par­ty oper­a­tions. For it was pre­cise­ly with­in these realms of social repro­duc­tion that the co-con­struc­tion of the Pan­ther van­guard and Hoover’s “Amer­i­can” nation mate­ri­al­ized.


  1. David Hilliard, This Side of Glo­ry: The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of David Hilliard And The Sto­ry of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty (Albu­querque: Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co Press, 2008), 201. 

  2. Eric­ka Hug­gins and Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Women, Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Edu­ca­tion: The Black Pan­ther Party’s Oak­land Com­mu­ni­ty School,” in Want to Start a Rev­o­lu­tion? Rad­i­cal Women in the Black Free­dom Strug­gle, eds. Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne  Theo­haris, and Komozi Woodard (New York: New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009), 165. 

  3. Hilliard, This Side of Glo­ry, 208. Hilliard notes that he and fel­low Pan­thers felt increas­ing­ly vul­ner­a­ble to police infil­tra­tion after Par­ty co-founder and Min­is­ter of Defense, Huey New­ton, was found guilty of killing Oak­land police offi­cer, John Frey, and sen­tenced to two to fif­teen years in prison. Newton’s con­vic­tion took place on Sep­tem­ber 8, 1968. See Joshua Bloom and Wal­do Mar­tin, Black Against Empire: The His­to­ry and Pol­i­tics of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2013), 199. 

  4. Hilliard, This Side of Glo­ry. 208 Here, Hilliard refers to Eldridge Cleaver, who ini­tial­ly served as the organization’s Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion and ulti­mate­ly led the BPP’s inter­na­tion­al chap­ter until his depar­ture from the Par­ty in 1971. Eldridge Cleaver, Tar­get Zero: A Life in Writ­ing, ed. Kath­leen Cleaver (New York: Pal­grave McMil­lan, 2006), Intro­duc­tion. 

  5. Hilliard, This Side of Glo­ry, 208-209. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Here I refer to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s con­tro­ver­sial 1965 study, The Negro Fam­i­ly: The Case for Nation­al Action, in which Moyni­han attrib­ut­es high unem­ploy­ment rates among black men and youth in urban areas to the pre­dom­i­nance of female-head­ed fam­i­lies. In the fol­low­ing sec­tion I pro­vide a fuller dis­cus­sion of the Moyni­han Report. Daniel Patrick Moyni­han, The Negro Fam­i­ly: The Case for Nation­al Action. U.S. (Wash­ing­ton: Depart­ment of Labor, Office of Pol­i­cy Plan­ning and Research, 1965). 

  8. It should be not­ed that the fol­low­ing is not an exhaus­tive overview, nor does it account for the nuances of indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences with­in and among Pan­ther fam­i­lies. Due to the skewed nature of source mate­r­i­al – most mem­oirs and bio­graph­i­cal accounts reflect the per­spec­tive of mem­bers who held some kind of lead­er­ship posi­tion in the Par­ty – and the spa­tial con­straints of this essay, I will focus on only a hand­ful of Pan­ther fam­i­lies. Fur­ther, because of spa­tial con­straints, this essay is less con­cerned with how the body, sex, mar­riage or gen­der fac­tored into the Party’s social­ist pol­i­tics. Final­ly, while I have not yet ful­ly engaged with lit­er­a­ture that deals with the­o­ries of child agency, this essay will more so focus on how chil­dren raised by Par­ty mem­bers (what I call “sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Pan­thers”) were social­ized with­in the Party’s inti­mate spaces, rather than pro­vide an argu­ment about how mem­bers of this gen­er­a­tion defined their own polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties. 

  9. I have found no offi­cial Par­ty-endorsed state­ment about the role of fam­i­ly and chil­dren in my research. All men­tions of fam­i­ly, chil­dren, and par­ent­hood I have come across in orga­ni­za­tion­al doc­u­ments and lit­er­a­ture on the Par­ty reflect the views of indi­vid­ual mem­bers. 

  10. Moyni­han, The Negro Fam­i­ly. 

  11. Huey New­ton, To Die For the Peo­ple: The Writ­ings of Huey P. New­ton (New York: Ran­dom House, 1972), 80-81. 

  12. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Pow­er: A Black Woman’s Sto­ry (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), 152; James Tyn­er, “Defend the Ghet­to”: Space and the Urban Pol­i­tics of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty,” Annals of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Geo­g­ra­phers 96, no. 1 (2006): 112. 

  13. In her study of the Party’s gen­der pol­i­tics, Tra­cye Matthews con­tends that the socio-polit­i­cal con­text in which the BPP devel­oped reflect­ed an amal­ga­ma­tion of black cul­tur­al nation­al­ism, fem­i­nism, and Moyni­han­ian ideas about men’s and women’s social roles. As such, Black Pan­thers’ indi­vid­ual gen­der con­scious­ness­es were nec­es­sar­i­ly shaped by their nego­ti­a­tion of these par­tic­u­lar gen­der par­a­digms and the Party’s inter­nal dis­cours­es. Tra­cye Matthews, “‘No One Ever Asks, What A Man’s Role in the Rev­o­lu­tion Is’: Gen­der and the Pol­i­tics of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty, 1966-1971,” in Jones, The Black Pan­ther Par­ty Recon­sid­ered (Bal­ti­more: Black Clas­sic Press, 1998), 276. 

  14. Tak­en from Matthews, “‘No One Ever Asks,” 276. 

  15. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, David Hilliard explains that dur­ing the BPP’s ear­ly years (before his fam­i­ly relo­cat­ed to the Shat­tuck Avenue res­i­dence in 1968), he and Par­ty Chair­man, Bob­by Seale, offered their homes to hold Par­ty held meet­ings, man­age the organization’s finances, and engage in oth­er orga­ni­za­tion­al labor. His liv­ing room, he notes, served as a count­ing office, and his kitchen remained open to mem­bers day and night. Hilliard, This Side of Glo­ry, 164. 

  16. Mary Williams, The Lost Daugh­ter (New York: Blue Rid­er Press, 2013), 3-4, 6. 

  17. Ibid, 9, 26. 

  18. San­dra Davis, “Rebel Fruit: Chil­dren of Black Mil­i­tants,” YSB 3, no. 5 (1994), 76. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Bloom and Mar­tin, Black Against Empire, 318-322. 

  21. John Blake. Chil­dren of the Move­ment: The Sons and Daugh­ters of Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Mal­colm X, Eli­jah Muham­mad, George Wal­lace, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Stoke­ly Carmichael, Bob Moses, James Chaney, Elaine Brown, and Oth­ers Reveal How the Civ­il Rights Move­ment Test­ed and Trans­formed Their Fam­i­lies (Chica­go, IL: Lawrence Hill Press, 2004), 166-167, 170, 174. 

  22. Begin­ning as ear­ly as 1966, the year of the Party’s for­ma­tion, Black Pan­ther com­mu­ni­ty pro­grams pro­vid­ed local res­i­dents with a vari­ety of ser­vices, from health care and edu­ca­tion to trans­porta­tion of the elder­ly. Such pro­grams served the dual pur­pose of offer­ing gov­ern­men­tal­ly-neglect­ed urban pop­u­la­tions basic human neces­si­ties, as well as serv­ing as mod­els of social activism for Oakland’s work­ing-class and unem­ployed sec­tors. The Dr. Huey P. New­ton Foun­da­tion, The Black Pan­ther Par­ty: Ser­vice to the Peo­ple Pro­grams, ed. David Hilliard (Albu­querque: Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co Press, 2008), 3. 

  23. Blake, Chil­dren of the Move­ment, 168. 

  24. Cleaver, Tar­get Zero, xx-xxi. On Christ­mas Day of 1968, in efforts to eschew his arrest result­ing from an armed alter­ca­tion with police in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, Eldridge dis­guised him­self as a Cuban sol­dier, embarked on a freighter, and dis­em­barked in Havana. This migra­tion would ini­ti­ate a sev­en-year peri­od of refugee sta­tus for Cleaver, dur­ing which time he and his wife would raise two chil­dren before return­ing to the Unit­ed States in 1975. Ibid. 

  25. Quot­ed in Davis, “Rebel Fruit,” 76. 

  26. Ibid. 

  27. Blake, Chil­dren of the Move­ment, 177. 

  28. Ibid, 177-178. 

  29. Ibid, 168. 

  30. Safiya Bukhari, The War Before: The True Life Sto­ry of Becom­ing a Black Pan­ther, Keep­ing The Faith In Prison And Fight­ing For Those Left Behind (New York City: Fem­i­nist Press at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, 2010), 23. 

  31. Angela LeBlanc-Ernest, “‘The Most Qual­i­fied Per­son to Han­dle the Job’: Black Pan­ther Par­ty Women, 1966-1982,” in The Black Pan­ther Par­ty Recon­sid­ered, ed. Charles E. Jones (Bal­ti­more: Clas­sic Press, 1998), 319-320. 

  32. Ibid, 320. Accord­ing to for­mer Pan­thers JoN­i­na Abron and Elaine Brown, not all women in the Par­ty adhered to the direc­tive. 

  33. Tak­en from Brown, A Taste of Pow­er, 156; Mar­tin and Bloom, Black Against Empire, 211. 

  34. Here, I refer to the case of Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark, both of whom were killed by Chica­go police while sleep­ing in Hampton’s apart­ment on Decem­ber 4, 1969. State inves­ti­ga­tions of the mur­der would reveal that the FBI pro­vid­ed the Chica­go Police Depart­ment with a set of blue­prints map­ping Hampton’s apart­ment. Present dur­ing the killing, Hampton’s (at the time eight-month preg­nant) wife, Deb­o­rah John­son, sur­vived. Bloom and Mar­tin, Black Against Empire, 237-239, 245. 

  35. For many Pan­ther fam­i­lies, the home served as both a site of refuge and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. To a large degree, mem­bers of the Par­ty were well aware of which house­holds exist­ed more promi­nent­ly on the government’s radar, so much so that mem­bers of the Oak­land chap­ter uti­lized the term “safe hous­es” to refer to those res­i­dences that were less reg­u­lat­ed by local police and FBI agents. Brown, A Taste of Pow­er, 8. 

  36. Hilliard, This Side of Glo­ry, 200. 

  37. Ibid, 201. 

  38. Hug­gins and LeBlanc-Ernest, “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Women,” 168. 

  39. Hug­gins and LeBlanc-Ernest, “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Women.” 

  40. Cleaver, Tar­get Zero, 266. 

  41. Ibid. 

  42. Ibid. 

Author of the article

is a graduate student in the Department of History at UC Santa Cruz.