June 29, 2014

A Black Dyke Reflects on the Panthers

[It's Pride, at least here in NYC. In honor of that fact, I am posting here an article that Comrade Google suggests is not otherwise available on the Internet. It appeared as one of a stunning roundup of pieces by Black LGBTQ writers in The Advocate in one issue in the 1990s, under the irresistible title "Black Out."

By me, they should all be online, but I am posting this one for obvious reasons. It is by Alycee Lane, then a grad student at UCLA. In it she discusses what the Black Panther Party had meant to her—as an elementary school "baby dyke" in Buffalo and then later as she learned about Huey Newton's famous speech in which he welcomed the women's and gay liberation movements and called on the BPP to work with them. That was in 1970 when the modern queer movement was first erupting in all its Stonewall-fueled glory—and when many other self-styled revolutionary and socialist organizations shied away from it, or adopted appallingly homophobic stances. 

There's a lot about our history to be learned from this short piece, and there's always a chance that it won't be up at Fire on the Mountain forever, so if you agree with me on its importance, I encourage you to save it and to make sure others have access.]

The Black Panther Party And Gay Liberation

By Alycee Lane

I really wanted to be a member of the Black Panther Party when I was younger. I imagined myself one day galvanizing the other kids in my neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., and conducting a righteous raid on that one house I passed on the way to my integrated school—that horrifying white house that donned, hatefully, a sprawling banner stained with the curse WHITE POWER. Yeah, I was going to conduct a righteous raid. I figured this was the Panther thing to do, especially since I had seen the brothers walking proudly with their guns, policing the police, who were, in my young opinion, somehow connected to the curse.

In spite of their guns and "baaad black man" attitudes, it never occurred to me to feel intimidated by or afraid of the Panthers. For they never failed to greet me with love—"Good morning, little sister" and "How are you doing in school? Making those grades? Learning about your history?" I simply wanted to be with and be like them. I didn't know about the Panther
sisters. I wish I had. Their names would have been important for me to speak as I became a woman.

Nevertheless, in seeing the brothers, I decided that I would free Huey Newton, whose face was postered on abandoned buildings and liquor-store windows. Newton was cofounder and minister of defense of the Black Panther Party. He had been arrested for allegedly killing a cop in 1967, and the government was intent on sentencing him to death (though he lived another 22 years). I can still see the image my child self conjured—a pigtailed baby dyke clad in leather, breaking Newton's chains and "offing the pigs" as I escorted him to freedom. (My relationship to leather is marked by so many fantasies.)

As the years passed, I learned more about Newton and his Black Panther Party. I read the ten-point platform and program he and co-founder Bobby Seale developed in 1966, which covered both the immediate needs and long-term desires of black communities. I discovered that, in addition to providing protection from police harassment and violence, the Panthers also protested evictions, taught classes in black history, established free breakfast programs for schoolchildren, and opened the People's Medical Care Center in Chicago.

In my research into African-American gay and lesbian history, I stumbled upon a letter Newton published in August 1970 in the party's newspaper, the Black Panther. Addressing "the revolutionary brothers and sisters about the women's liberation and gay liberation movements," Newton asserts "whatever your personal opinions and insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion," The move was without precedent in black communities. Newton further states, "There's nothing to say that a homosexual cannot also be a revolutionary. And maybe I'm now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that 'even a homosexual can be a revolutionary.' Quite on the contrary, maybe a homosexual can be the most revolutionary."

The letter is fraught with the tension between Newton's own homophobia and sexism and his commitment to revolution. It also reveals his inability to recognize black lesbians and gays (emphasized by the fact that the picture accompanying the letter shows white lesbians and gays marching in a picket line). I don't know how this letter was received in black communities or by the Panthers themselves (who included in their ranks Eldridge Cleaver, the party's minister of information, who in his work Soul on Ice asserts—among other things—that "if lesbians are anything, they're frozen cunts.") I do know that the change in Panther attitudes was not in any way swift and that many African Americans looked upon womens' liberation and gay liberation as counter-revolutionary.

Unlike black underground and mainstream papers, many white gay rags reprinted and commented upon Newton's letter. The comment varied. The ADVOCATE, for instance, clearly speaking for mainstream white gays, printed in a 1970 editorial entitled "Sorry, Huey" that the "overwhelming majority of gays, we believe, do not want to destroy this nation and replace it with---well, what are you going to replace it with?" Others, like the Great Speckled Bird, an underground gay newspaper, in the same year wrote—with reservations—that "the publication of this letter is an important event in the development of the revolutionary movement in the United States." Organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front embraced the Panthers with open arms, while others practiced a hopeful wait-and-see policy.

Regardless of how all this played itself out within black communities and the white gay and lesbian movement community, this letter is crucial history for me to hold onto as an African American lesbian who is not supposed to go home as who I am. The letter gives what reading my history always gives me: hope—the hope that I can be myself in my own community without feeling fear or feeling betrayed, Certainly, I know that Newton and the party were plagued with inconsistencies and much of the bullshit that tears apart so many organizations and potential coalitions. Learning about the Panthers has taught me that too. But still I'll celebrate Newton and the Panthers—especially on Feb. 17, Newton's birthday—and think on those moments when my 8-year-old self went strutting down the street in my imaginary Panther uniform, lifting my fist high and saying to any sister or brother walking by, "Power to the people!"

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I totally forgot that I wrote this piece! Thanks for reposting it - you made my day.