Women Who Lead: Black Panther Party, 10/29/2019, #8
Born January 26, 1944, Angela Davis is an activist, academic and author, known for her positions and political impact as an intersectional feminist icon, a civil rights and social justice warrior, and a member of the Black Panther Party and Communist Party. In Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, she establishes herself as an imaginative thinker who knows how to integrate many forms of geopolitical struggle into the conventional male dominant themes of black movements. Throughout the book, the idea that the Black struggle must be shifted to encompass issues related to individuals other than Black men is pervasive:
“I don’t think that we can imagine Black movements today in the same way that we once did. The assumption that Black freedom was freedom for the Black man created a certain kind of border around the Black struggle which can no longer exist.”
This is a powerful idea that leads me to challenge the ways in which I think about black liberation.
One such challenge that arises from the “border around the Black struggle” involves the treatment of black women in political organizations. Black women engaged in a lot of unrecognized labor in the party: according to Frankye Malika Adams, “Women ran the BPP pretty much. I don’t know how it got to be a male’s party or thought of as being a male’s party.” The fact that black women were overshadowed also reflects are larger problem I have observed: in black movements, black women’s issues are typically glossed over or unrecognized. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement typically focuses on black male victims of police brutality, but police brutality against black women (e.g sexual assault) is often left undiscussed. Even within the Black Panther Party, there were unhealthy power imbalances that enabled misogyny, sexual misconduct and overall mistreatment of black women in the party. In “We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party”, Abu-Jamal entertains the idea that this misconduct occurred because many of these men, “for the first time in their lives, exercised extraordinary power over others.” Though this may be true, it is important to consider the fact that this particular kind of abuse exists outside of these contexts, warranting consideration of the issue within discussions of black struggle.
Another issue that conventionally occupies space outside of this “border around the Black struggle” is anti-Muslim racism, an issue Davis raises multiple times in the book. It is important to remember that a large proportion of the Muslim population is also black, yet they are often excluded from discussions of Black liberation. Anti-Muslim racism, most notably, has perpetuated perceptions that affiliate Muslims with terrorists. This is extremely dangerous to their agency and safety, as we have seen by the targeted harassment of black women wearing hijabs. Terrorist labeling is a form of institutional oppression and gaslighting, in which focus is shifted from the real, most threatening domestic terror threat: white supremacy. Davis highlights this very tactic of ideological labeling against movement activists of the BPP who were otherized and institutionally punished for their radical views: this was done against Davis, herself, who was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted in 1970 as well as Assata Shakur, who now resides in Cuba. More recently in 2017, the FBI created the label, Black Identity Extremists, given to black activists of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The hypocrisy of the US government is demonstrated by the expeditious and fervent labeling of black movements as terrorist organizations, while conveying an ongoing reluctance to label white nationalist groups as terrorists.
Two other issues, which Davis also mentions and which I believe to also be classified as being pushed outside the “border of Black struggle” are LGBTQ and immigrant liberation. Though not explicitly ‘black’ issues, it is often forgotten (or willfully ignored) that black people do occupy these groups. Many issues, such as the killing of black trans women, are often pushed to the periphery of the focus of black liberation. The way Davis frames the exclusion of these issues demonstrates the holistic and integrative thinking necessary to achieve true freedom. It has also inspired me to be more cognizant of the way I speak about black issues.
Angela Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Haymarket Books, 2016
Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2004)
Stephen Shames, from the book “Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers”
“Inside the Black Panther Party.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/inside-the-black-panthers-photographer-stephen-shames/3/