What I thought I knew about the Black Panther Party and what I learned about them from reading this book is less valuable than recognizing that the world has changed so little.
A bold and fascinating graphic novel history of the revolutionary Black Panther Party.Founded in Oakland, California, in 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a radical political organization that stood in defiant contrast to the mainstream civil rights movement. This gripping illustrated history explores the impact and significance of the Panthers, from their social, educational, and healthcare programs that were designed to uplift the Black community to their battle against police brutality through citizen patrols and frequent clashes with the FBI, which targeted the Party from its outset. Using dramatic comic book-style retellings and illustrated profiles of key figures, The Black Panther Party captures the major events, people, and actions of the party, as well as their cultural and political influence and enduring legacy. from Bookshop.org
I grew up in the era of education where the only Black people we learned about were: the slaves (sad), Ruby Bridges (so brave), Rosa Parks (go Rosa, go!), Harriet Tubman (brave again), and Martin Luther King, Jr (his dream, you guys!). Everything connected to Black history was glossed over and cherry picked for uplifting stories of those brave people who took a stand for freedom and equality. I learned about Frederick Douglass and Emmett Till on my own – thank you biography section for kids! – so I knew there was more to it but, honestly, you won’t learn about it in American schools.
Even today, most elementary school students learn black history through a montage of uplifting and exemplary people and the timeline of American history generally goes: American Revolution (slavery, oops, black people aren’t people), Civil War (freed slaves), WWII (black people fought too!), Civil Rights Era (see brave brave people above) Barack Obama (racism is over!). Every MLK Jr. Day schools do activities and the older kids listen to the speech (cut to highlight the dream part). Are there amazing teachers out there who are doing more? Absolutely. But the textbooks are not new, the standards are math and language arts heavy, and when time needs to be saved it is usually social studies that is cut away. Here in Illinois, most of 8th grade is saved for studying for the Constitution test which, judging by people’s tweets, is information immediately forgotten.
When I was a kid I knew there was a Black Panther Party. I actually thought Malcolm X was the leader of this party. But, why? The only thing I can think is that the general message was that Dr. King was a “good” Black man and Malcolm X and the Panthers were “bad.” That was it. Why were they bad? They used guns! They were violent! Finding reliable information about the Panthers proved nearly impossible when I was younger and I am always at a loss to recommend books to younger readers on the subject. Now, I finally have a source that is reliable and digestible, even when the history is difficult, to recommend to kids today about the Black Panther Party. You know what, maybe not just kids.
David F. Walker’s extensive research into the Black Panther Party is clear from reading the book. At 170 pages, it is a longer graphic novel but the illustrations, by Marcus Kwame Andersen, create beautiful continuity. The book focuses on the individuals as well as the programs the Panthers put together from their inception to their unravelling.
More important, really, than the story of the party is the historical context that is so often missing. The book begins with the myth of the Black Panther Party, the story that some may know at least a little of through school. But, before the Panthers is essential and it is information that is missing when the Party is discussed. I had no idea that forty-one civil rights leaders and workers were killed in violent attacks between 1955-1968. History class makes the bad and the ugly look like exceptions when the systemic racism and the “white’s only” reality was far worse that not being able to drink from a water fountain or sit at the lunch counter. It must have been terrifying to be black, especially in the South, during this time. What would make a man equal? Knowledge and a gun.
On Monday, the Chicago Tribune reported that, in 2020, Black gun customers accounted for the largest increase of any racial group. Mark Olivia of the National Shooting Sports Foundation believes the increase was motivated by more people worried about personal safety after the chaos and rioting we experience in Chicago last year. ““It became very apparent to people that you have to be your own first responder,” he said.
This is precisely the thinking that prompted Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale to form the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in October, 1966. The police brutality of the 96% white police force in Oakland was so pervasive. The formation of the Party felt like the only opportunity available to stop the murder of so many unarmed Black people. The Party also hoped to be the voice of the community and the opportunity, through education and food programs, for equality.
After their formation, the Party continued to change and grow. They served breakfasts, opened a school, and tried to educate the Black population about their rights through pamphlet distribution. The Panther party changed, grew, and spread across the country and around the world. And, like so many historic white organizations, the Panthers knew they could call on each other when trouble arose.
But trouble was always following the Panthers. Ronald Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover made it their mission to thwart, dismantle and discredit the individuals and the group. The book may have left me confused as to my feelings around the Party and some of the people, but I am clear on how I feel about Hoover’s work and the reactionary nature of Regan’s responses – history has shown them both to be on the wrong side here.
But even the authors note at the end that how you feel about the Panthers should change as you read more and, even if you are like me and you can’t come to a conclusion on everything, everyone deserves to know the real history of the Black Panther Party. If you are looking for more information, this book is an excellent place to begin.
Tell me, please! How much Black History was included in your American History Studies?
If you didn’t attend an American School growing up, how familiar are you with the Black Panther Party?