A corollary to all of the research I’ve recently undertaken on America’s political and economic development in relation to slavery is a desire to engage with post-emancipation black radical thought. This led me to purchase Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton and a few others that I will be reviewing later.
The book then opens up to a philosophical discourse on the differences between Revolutionary Suicide and Reactionary Suicide. The reactionary suicide is the person who adopts the values, attitudes and beliefs of white, American colonial culture. The form that this takes for black people is either economic predation upon other black people – what Newton calls “the worst form of niggerism” – or just apathy in the face of repression by police and others. Revolutionary suicide is the perspective held by those that are actively antagonistic to such a racist political economy and culture. Newton does not dance around the fact that this is a form of race and class-consciousness that is viewed by many as a systemic threat to institutional racism and that as a result it is very likely that one would be killed for their beliefs and actions. To be a revolutionary is to recognize that one’s life will end from something other than old age or illness. It is an awareness that police and the Klan equate with a target. The way Newton describes it, to be a revolutionary suicide one must have great heroic fortitude.
Newton does not start out a revolutionary but as a sensitive son of a preacher that enjoys poetry and self-improvement through reading. The way he conceives himself, there were two distinct fraternal influences vying for his interest. Sonny Man was a hipster and schemer that operated on the fringes of society without a job but with lots of status symbols while Huey’s other brother Melvin was well read and studying to become a professional. The different approaches to adulthood/freedom was something that for a brief period would divide his psyche.
The honesty with which Newton discloses a number of his early behaviors linked to Sonny Man provides not only a convenient narrative arc for the story – from sinner to saint – but also reflects on his changing principles and values. From a petty thief and pimp to a self-proclaimed defender of the black community is quite a leap – one also made by Eldridge Cleaver – nevertheless the Bay Area was quite a radical environment at the time and rather than continuing to engage in lumpen behavior he starts to formulate a party to help look out for the guys on the street being harassed just for their race.
The impact of Huey’s secondary schooling is at best marginal, being that he describes himself as someone who does not like being forced to learn material that he sees as uninteresting or which perpetuating a narrative of black inferiority. He is a weak reader, but commits himself to rigorous self-study with Plato and Descartes. When he feels that he finally has the capabilities to successfully complete a college course, he decides to enroll. This was a period where African-American studies were beginning to make its way onto registration sign-up sheets and leftist campus activists were plentiful. This engagement with those of a counter-cultural bent and those with Marxist sympathies further contributes to Huey’s appreciation of the intellectual life. Malcolm X, Castro, Marx, Mao, Sartre, DuBois and Fanon are the major philosophes that are referenced here as formative influences.
These people and key authors cause Huey both to question a number of his value and personal practices as well as encourage him to try novel forms of living and engaging communally. First attracted to the Afro-American Association, he later finds the organization too self-serving to those leading it and disconnected from the needs of the people to maintain active membership. Being someone that values the perspective of the normal people on the street, we come to see the emergence of the Black Panther Party as a defense against sociopolitical and economic injustices. In this Newton goes into a number of reflections on the conditions of blacks in America and relates these to the planks which the Panther’s promoted as a path to Black Liberation. The rapid spread of the organization following the Sacramento brouhaha is underdeveloped for my taste, but I’m sure other treatments of the party will be able to answer other questions I had about it.
Towards the end of the book is an extended description of the trial. While important for illustrating a number of the prosecution’s seemingly corrupt practices for getting a conviction, I found that it and the depiction of the jails dragged on. All in all, however, I thought this was great book with insight into Huey’s mind and history!
Some films about the Black Panthers