Review of Revolutionary Suicide

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!

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Some films about the Black Panthers

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Review of Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

I’ve been wanting to read Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto for several years. I’d come across it when I first started teaching and had looked into a number of critical pedagogy books to inform my teaching practice. I picked it up now that I’m returning to teaching a public high school as a refresher to all those books by Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. I’d not paid close enough attention and what I’d expected to be a more empirical approach to looking at different manners in which there is consciousness raising manners in which to teach in the class room instead got a collection of speeches lengthened into articles. After having read the author’s I’d previously mentioned, I wasn’t that impressed. Rather than what I didn’t like, however, I’ll start with what I did like.

As a criticism of mass schooling on the industrial model, Gatto’s is pretty typical. Students become alienated through the school institution. They don’t learn things that will often help them in real life, they aren’t able to follow paths that interest them, the bell schedule is structured so that they feel that little is worth devoting a significant amount of time to, the learn to value themselves based upon an external authority, they learn intellectual dependency, they learn no real personal or spiritual values other than submission to the state, the learn disconnection from the community.

While a lot of these criticisms are true, the age of the books printing doesn’t address the fact that many new Federal government initiatives have addressed some of these by encouraging project, problem and inquiry based learning methods related to Common Core. In this, the book is dated. The teaching of mindfulness practices and emotional intelligence methods for dealing with problems is another area the book is silent upon. Overlooking this, however, I think the book is on point. There is a great need for student’s learning to be connected to their immediate needs and community. Gatto’s focus on the all-positive family, however, rings hollow from my own experience. When previously teaching in public schools the level of involvement was low and the anecdotes that I heard between kids in the hallways was not all that encouraging as to the types of acculturation that they were receiving at home. And this is in large part the turn towards the thrust of my criticism.

What I didn’t like was Gatto’s right-libertarian, anti-school union bent of the author’s suggestions. In this regard the success of the book and the paid public speaking gigs he refers to gets cast in a different light. It’s because his critique is aligned with the assault against public school unions and the pro-charter/homeschool movement. Thus while I think that his congregational approach to teaching, wherein students act as the market demanders for the subjects that they want to learn, I also feels that it does a disservice to “professional” educators. I agree that a certain degree of professional experience or personal devotion to a subject qualifies someone with the content knowledge to teach is does not always grant them the methods for successfully conveying this information to students. This stems from the fact that typically after people have mastered a number of elementary skills they have difficulty conveying the steps that they took to learn them. Gatto’s libertarian perspective thus, also, isolates and dehistoricizes the students/parents he speak of. He claims that a number of American economic illnesses stem from industrial American education rather than the specific dictates of capitalism. This is something that is addresses in limited detail, but it underlies all of his opinions. All in all I enjoyed reading it, but if someone was interested in the same content dealt with in greater depth Illich and Freire are who to look to.