Elaine Brown | A Taste of Power, Pantheon | 1992 | 30 minutes (7,440 words)
Elaine Brown is an American prison activist, writer, lecturer and singer. In 1968, she joined the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party as a rank-and-file member. Six years later, Huey Newton appointed her to lead the Party when he went into exile in Cuba. She was the first and only woman to lead the male-dominated Party. She is author of A Taste of Power (Pantheon, 1992) and The Condemnation of Little B (Beacon Press, 2002). She is also the Executive Director of the Michael Lewis Legal Defense Committee and CEO of the newly-formed non-profit organization Oakland & the World Enterprises, Inc.
Her 1992 autobiography A Taste of Power is a story of what it means to be a black woman in America, tracing her life from a lonely girlhood in the ghettos of North Philadelphia to the highest levels of the Black Panther Party’s hierarchy. The Los Angeles Times described the book as “a profound, funny and…heartbreaking American story,” and the New York Times called it “chilling, well written and profoundly entertaining.” Our thanks to Brown for allowing us to reprint this excerpt here.
* * *
Her skin was very white. She was a porcelain doll, and just as delicate. I never resented what Masai felt for her. It was understandable. Jean Seberg was truly beautiful.
We had met Jean in the early part of that terrible year of 1969. David had “assigned” Masai and me to see her. She was another white movie star who wanted to help.
A small group of Hollywood helpers had already begun to astound us with their support for our chapter by the time we met Jean. If we had thought about it, it was a natural alliance.
Historically, artists were the traditional allies of movements for social change. In the twentieth century, the art of filmmaking had produced men like Charlie Chaplin, so progressive he became a personal target of J. Edgar Hoover’s anti-Communist campaign. There had been the Hollywood Ten, and tens more, who were blacklisted from the film industry for refusing to cower before U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist raid on America.
Recent history gave further testimony to that affiliation. The civil-rights movement, the most potent surge for social change in the history of America, had been vigorously supported by artists, black and white. When the latter-day Black Power people seized leadership of the black struggle, they shunned all white involvement, raising fists in white faces. White artists found their support of that movement rejected. Whatever the hazards of association, the Black Panther Party seemed to make a place in the sun for sympathetic whites. White artists were the first to come in out of the cold.
As Los Angeles and New York were the main homes of the artistic communities America fostered, the party chapters there began developing relationships with liberal and progressive white artists. In New York, there were such notable supporters as Leonard Bernstein. Our chapter in Southern California, however, was becoming the beneficiary of the support of the most powerful collection of artists in America: the Hollywood film industry’s actors, actresses, producers, writers, and directors.
People like Don and Shirley Sutherland, and the writer Don Freed, and actors like Jon Voight and Susan St. James and Jane Fonda, and, most consistent of all, producer Bert Schneider had begun lending us their homes for fund-raising soirees that produced thousands of dollars in hard cash. They subscribed to and helped obtain other subscriptions for our newspaper. They sent monthly checks for our breakfast program, and paid our incessant bails. As most black artists, along with other black professionals, steered around and away from us, we clutched Hollywood, and did not analyze it. We thanked our stars.
That was what made me so resentful of author Tom Wolfe’s wholesale appraisal of such white supporters with the epithet “radical chic.” The influential and popular Wolfe coined that phrase to characterize the rich and famous suddenly latching on to the Panther cause—with the added counterimage of the black Mau Mau, who operated a flimflam to privately exploit the radical chic.
The bevy of white “star” supporters were, the cosmopolitan Wolfe suggested, only casting themselves in a more interesting role, to enliven the boring comfort of life between their real roles. I thought his well-touted term was, at best, a superficial stereotype. At worst, that label, as it seeped into the lingo of the times, ridiculed our supporters with a judgment that could make them recoil.
It was true that some of those cinematic souls were motivated by something less than concern over the plight of poor and oppressed black people. It was equally true that there were ordinary black opportunists in our revolution, as in our ranks. Among those at the various parties and brunches our steady supporters sponsored, there were surely those who wanted to satisfy their curiosity about mythical black men. There were surely those titillated by the danger and daring seemingly involved in being near real black “militants.” There were surely those who imagined themselves vicariously linked to some dramatic revolutionary act. There were surely those who simply found it the thing to do in 1969.
None of that was the point. We were dying, and all of them, the strongest and the most frivolous, were helping us survive another day.
There was nothing at all radically chic about Jean Seberg. From the moment Masai and I entered her rented house in Beverly Hills, I felt her genuineness and decency. She was expressive, like a little girl, excitedly interested in our programs. Transplanted from an all-white, all-American youth in Iowa, she really wanted to know about black people, about the nature of our oppression and the price of our freedom.
She had supported other efforts of blacks in the past: the NAACP—surprisingly, when she was a teenager in Iowa; and, more recently, the school and other social programs of a flashy, independent Muslim named Hakim Jamal (whom Masai knew). She had come to the realization, she told us, that black people could never be treated fairly or justly unless entire systems in America were revolutionized. She wanted to support such an effort.
Her friend, fellow actress Vanessa Redgrave, through whom she had made initial contact with us, considered Jean foolish to become involved with the Black Panther Party. While it was never clear to me precisely why Redgrave felt that way, Jean had her own ideals. She simply believed what she had been taught back in Marshalltown, embodied in the words about freedom and equality found in the Declaration of Independence. To me, Jean seemed a free spirit and a true believer.
After several hours of listening to Masai and I discuss the ideals and goals of the party, and the specifics of our programs, she offered her financial support—and something more, I sensed, as she and Masai lapsed into a long, personal conversation about Hakim Jamal.
Masai and I visited her about once a week after that. Soon I saw no point in going with him.
That was months before the raid on our office and Fred Hampton’s assassination. Jean had given us quite a bit of money by then. She gave it in incremental amounts, several thousand dollars at a time. Our arrangement was that she would telephone Masai or me when she had a contribution to make. She would simply leave a message that she had called. An envelope of cash would then be delivered to my mother’s house for one of us to pick up. She used a pseudonym when she called, “Aretha,” after the Queen of Soul. The three of us had laughed in deciding on that name. Jean felt if she was known as a major contributor to the party, she would not get work in Hollywood, and would not, in turn, have the resources to continue. It was logical.
That first meeting with Jean was also some time before I became pregnant with Masai’s child, before he began spending most of his time in Oakland, before his sudden marriage. It was also before Masai’s wife, too, became pregnant—which gave rise to Jean’s dubbing him “Johnny Appleseed.”
When I returned to Los Angeles after Fred’s funeral in Chicago, I called Jean. She was out of the country, but she made arrangements to get some money to our chapter as soon as possible.
The main office on Central Avenue could not be occupied. Thousands of rounds of Los Angeles Police Department ammunition had punctured and destroyed the walls of our two-story building. There were so many bulletholes that light from the front of the building shone through to the back. So many tear-gas canisters had been tossed into the building’s windows and doors that people passing by the building on the street still became nauseous and teary-eyed.
The damage had been done by an army: the LAPD’s new, and previously unknown, Special Weapons and Tactics team, known as SWAT. SWAT, a funny acronym, its sound descriptive of its intentions for us, was billed as an “urban guerrilla counter-insurgency team”—superior to and superseding the Metro Squad.
Before the raid on our office, no one had heard of SWAT. People had seemed incredulous when we told them about those dark blue trucks containing heavy artillery and military materials and specially trained men that had sat outside the Central Avenue office in November, a month before. Now it was clear that the LAPD had spent several hundred thousand dollars to actually create a military force to do one thing: eliminate the Black Panther Party in their domain.
In one fell swoop, they had tried to destroy our Southern California office and our Southern California chapter. They had come at three in the morning with a search warrant and a battering ram and a helicopter and a tank and those dark blue trucks. They had assaulted the headquarters building, as well as two other facilities.
SWAT team members assaulting our headquarters had sustained substantial wounds, while Panthers had not—at least not any serious bullet wounds. Albert Armour, at another facility, had even survived, after fighting SWAT team units alone for half an hour, firing from the rooftop when the building was overtaken and the few others there were forced to surrender. Tommye Williams had been the most serious casualty of the assault, taking a ricocheted bullet in her leg.
Later, however, they had all been beaten mercilessly. Kidneys had been collapsed by gun butts. Teeth had been kicked out by combat boots. Eyes had been stomped closed.
Later, after the five-hour battle on Central Avenue, our typewriters and mimeograph machines and telephones had been smashed. Our posters had been ripped from the walls. Our pots and pans and food and books had been strewn wildly, angrily, over the second-story floors. Our files had been demolished. Our furniture had been broken; our roof caved in.
As I walked through the headquarters building with a gas mask, I was overcome by the wreckage committed by rage. I stared at the hundreds of cigarette filters sprinkled on the floors. My comrades had stuffed them into their nostrils when gas masks had failed them, to keep from being forced outside. They had hunkered down behind the sandbags and reinforced walls and fought like madmen and survived. Now they were all in jail under exorbitant bails for extravagant charges.
Reviewing the devastation, I wondered how long our spirit could last. After visiting my eighteen comrades in jail and the hospital wards of the jail, I knew the police had damaged us severely. Still, they had destroyed neither our chapter nor our will. We would start again.
* * *
It was hard to be pregnant under the circumstances. As March 1970 drew near, however, and I began to feel the regular movements of a living being inside me, the anger and rage of 1969 were assuaged. In the hours of quiet in my bed in the chapter’s house in Compton, where I now lived, I would touch the outline of my swelled belly. There would come what seemed a response. I could see it! It was delightful, the sight and feeling of a little being turning, reaching, moving inside my body. I took to talking to the baby and telling it what was happening.
Now we were being stopped in our car by a pig named Zeigler. He was forcing us out of the car at gunpoint and delightedly announcing that if he shot me in the stomach, he could “kill two birds with one stone.” Now we were speaking at a huge mass rally for the eighteen L.A. Panthers in jail from the December raids; and cheering with the thousands over the testimonial of “Bebe,” the lady who lived around the corner from the Central Avenue headquarters. She was addressing the crowd, her wig cocked “ace-deuce”: “Yeah, the police come early in the mornin’, rootin’ us up out of our houses, tellin’ us not to say a thing. And I say to my friend, ‘Why they doin’ this to the Panters? When I’m sick, I can’t call no doctor. I calls the Panters, and they come see ’bout me.’ And she say, ‘That’s right, honey.’ And then I say, ‘And when I ain’t got no food for my children, I calls the Panters, and they come see ’bout me …’ ”
Now we were making a speech at an Emma Lazarus Jewish Women’s Club meeting, where old Polish ladies who had fought the Nazis with guns and refused to go to the gas chambers were telling me to stop smoking while I was pregnant.
Now we were singing to a hundred thousand people gathered in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for an antiwar rally, where David’s speech, which suggested the war be ended by killing Nixon, triggered his arrest for “conspiracy to kill the President.”
Now we were meeting “Aunt Jean” at the airport, where she announced that she, too, was pregnant.
“Can you believe it?” Jean Seberg declared excitedly above the din as I greeted her at the L.A. airport.
She touched my stomach and spoke to the baby: “Aunt Jean is having a baby, too!”
This, I thought, was the “wonderful secret” she had told me about over the telephone, girlishly enticing me to meet her at the airport if I wanted to hear more.
“No, Jean, I can’t believe it,” I said, feeling afraid for her.
I felt no one would understand about the boy in Mexico she was telling me had fathered the child. For all intents and purposes, she was still, married to French author Romain Gary. She still lived with him officially in France. It was a marriage headed for divorce, but a divorce that would be complicated given the Catholic-grounded French divorce laws.
I told her all that.
“Romain is my friend more than my husband. He’ll understand when he sees how happy I am,” she said, beaming.
She had met the father in Mexico, where she had just completed a film about Mexican revolutionaries. The boy had a part in the film. He was more than an actor, she swore. He was a revolutionary himself, she said, as I recalled another love affair she had had during a different film. Maybe she had confused everything. Maybe Tom Wolfe was right. But I had come to love Jean. She was happy, and she needed to be loved.
“So you had a love affair,” I finally declared, “but this is really foolish, Jean.” I tried suggesting she return to Mexico to have an abortion.
“You should be happy for me,” she exclaimed brightly, sidestepping everything I had said. “You, of all people, should be really happy for me. I want this baby, don’t you see?”
She was going back to France, anyway, to wind up her life with Gary.
“I am happy for you,” I said, resigned to the notion that she did not live by the rules.
Her blond hair was still close-cropped, a remnant of her debut film Saint Joan. She looked the part even then. She was the part, an absurd girl who could never accept brutality or oppression or injustice, and who really believed in love.
She handed me a present she had bought for her “niece or nephew” and kissed me goodbye.
* * *
I was sure Jean would have held my hand. I longed for someone to do so, though I tried to be stalwart. I realized I had done nothing to prepare for the moment of the birth of my baby. The Vietnamese women had their babies one day and got back into battle the next, I had told myself. I was, after all, a revolutionary. There were bullets or prisons waiting to take me. There was the grave, ultimately. Surely I could have a baby.
The pain was more than I could bear. I felt alone, and sad for being so. I felt powerless. I did not want to go through with it. I could not believe I would have to give birth to that baby who had been with me for those past months, whose face I did not know. A living being would actually have to emerge from my body. I was frightened.
Masai, who in the last month had decided to behave like the father of my child, arrived at the hospital. He brought my mother with him. Dorothy Phillips, a Sister in the party who lived with me and the others in the Compton house, was there. She had driven me to the hospital at four in the morning, Masai being elsewhere with his pregnant wife. Neither my mother nor Dorothy, nor even Masai, however, was allowed to see me. Because he was not married to me, Masai’s paternity was irrelevant to the Catholics who operated Queen of Angels Hospital—none of whom, I thought, had to have this baby.
Giving birth was endurable until the moment there was no break between the labor pains. I had thought it would be a 5-4-3-2-1-0 operation. There was one sustaining pain now, hard and unbearable. I begged the nurse coming to check on me for some thing to ease the pain. She responded by telling me to breathe properly. I had forgotten to go to those stupid classes for breathing, I now remembered. I was changing my mind about natural childbirth, I told her arrogantly. She went off in a huff.
On each of her more-frequent returns to my room, I implored her to give me something to help ease the pain, simultaneously trying to retain some pittance of dignity—lost in my physical appearance; reduced to absurdity by the enema I had been forced by some unknown person to take; stripped away by the shaving of my pubic hair. She remained firm.
After about five hours of such exchanges, beside myself with pain and frustration, I changed tactics. “Fuck you, then,” I finally shouted at her back, banging my elbows on the bed’s sidebars, which she had furiously raised.
Marie Branch, the only black medical professional who helped us at our free clinics in L.A. arrived and took command. She forced them to accept her as my private nurse.
She made them unstrap me. Before she arrived, I had been given a shot of something known commonly as “twilight sleep,” to temper my hostile attitude. I had tried to get out of bed, where, according to medical text, I was to remain prone. The drug had only made me hysterical. To keep me in place, leather straps had been harnessed across my feet and chest. Marie ordered the staff to free me and let me have my baby sitting up, which, by then, was all I wanted.
The hysteria and pain subsided. My mind grew silent, contemplating the magnitude of the process. A being was coming out of my body; a being who had been breathing inside my dark womb would soon open its eyes to me, a separate person, its mother. Would he be happy? I wondered. Would she be whole, not damaged by my life and the way I was living it? Would he grow up in a welcome world or a still-hostile one? I suddenly loved that little being whose face I did not know. She was more than revolutions or oppression or freedom or time or death. To give that being life, I would die. I did die, for my ego vanished at the moment of her birth. Ericka.
* * *
It was June of 1970, three months after Ericka was born, right after the fantastic and dirty little story had been printed in the Los Angeles Times about Jean Seberg. We were still reeling from the repercussions of columnist Joyce Haber’s FBI-sponsored story.
Let us call her Miss A… She is beautiful and she’s blond…
… According to those really “in” international sources, Topic A is the baby Miss A is expecting, and its father. Papa’s said to be a rather prominent Black Panther.
Jean had called me and cried over the story. It had been published around the world, landing on the front covers of French journals. She had pledged she would never return to the United States.
Romain Gary had slapped her around because of it. He had accepted the pregnancy at first, but the publicity hurt him, and he hurt her.
Panthers were outraged by the possibility of its truth, grumbling about which Central Committee member had “fucked that white bitch.” Hollywood supporters were worried about their own association with the party.
No one was interested in the truth. The FBI had done well. Its telephone wiretaps had picked up information about “Aretha” in conversations between her and me, or her and Masai. They had placed FBI “interpretation” on the funny little appellation “Johnny Appleseed,” which Jean had given Masai after she learned he was fathering two children, his wife’s and mine. They had followed him on his visits to her. They had made their move.The secret, internal memorandum the FBI’s Los Angeles office forwarded to Hoover in April 1970 read:
Bureau permission is requested to publicize pregnancy of Jean Seberg, well-known movie actress, by Raymond Hewitt (“Masai”) of the Black Panther Party by advising Hollywood gossip columnists in the Los Angeles area of the situation.
It is felt that the possible publication of Seberg’s pregnancy could cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public.
Hoover’s immediate response had been:
Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the Black Panther Party and should be neutralized. Her current pregnancy by Raymond Hewitt while still married affords an opportunity for such effort.
I talked to Jean a few times afterward. I would never see her again. She would return to Marshalltown to have a bizarre funeral for her stillborn baby, madly displaying the little corpus in a glass casket to refute the FBI. Years later, she would commit suicide in France.
Now, in June, Eldridge Cleaver was calling me away from the never ending madness. That was how I felt as listened to David Hilliard. Eldridge was forming a delegation of radical American journalists to join him in North Korea. He had left Cuba and was now in exile in Algeria, where he had met the North Koreans.
I was to join this delegation to North Korea, David was saying, as a representative of the Black Panther newspaper. David was slightly perturbed about that. Eldridge had specifically ordered that I be sent, as deputy minister of information for Southern California. While David said he was comfortable with the idea of my going, he seemed distraught that Eldridge had not requested that a member of the Central Committee be part of the delegation. After all, Emory Douglas, minister of culture, and Masai, minister of education, had accompanied David to see Eldridge in Algiers in 1969.
In any event, David himself could not leave the country. He was facing trial. The federal “kill Nixon” charge had been dismissed. David was, however, preparing for the trial on charges stemming from the April 6 events that had sent Eldridge into exile.
We would be in North Korea three weeks, David was explaining. Eldridge would outline everything about the nature of the trip when we met him in Moscow. My heart sang.
I returned to Oakland weeks later, in early July. David wanted to see me before I left the country. I was planning to leave that evening and had with me my packed bags and passport. It was rather ludicrous to have a passport, I thought with a smile, since travel to North Korea was specifically forbidden to U.S. citizens. But we were not U.S. citizens. We were outsiders, runaway slaves. At any rate, I was ready. I had made arrangements for my little Ericka to be cared for by my comrades; Gwen Goodloe would personally supervise it all. I was ready to see Papa again.
“Find out when Eldridge plans on opening the International Section office,” David said in our secret meeting.
I made mental notes.
“Find out if Kathleen is returning,” he said, referring to Eldridge’s wife, who had joined him when he moved to Algiers. “Ask him what really happened to Byron Booth. Did D.C. make it to Algiers?” he continued, speaking about San Francisco captain Don Cox, who had disappeared after a shoot-out in the Hunters Point section of San Francisco. “Tell Papa my case looks bad. I’ll probably do some time …”
David went on for almost an hour, thrusting me into a whole new world. I had not known that D.C. had been sent to Algiers. I had never heard of Byron Booth. Apparently he had disappeared after arriving in Algiers. I did not know there was to be an International Section of the Black Panther Party. In listening to David, I realized that the party seemed to be growing into a legitimate member of the international family of Communists.
Before taking me to the airport, David had to make a stop at the party’s national headquarters. The aroma of spicy barbecue was wafting through the rooms of the building. The Bay Area branches were about to hold an anti-Fourth-of-July picnic and rally in West Oakland. Tons of ribs and chicken were being roasted over charcoal in the facility’s back yard. The kitchen was filled with Sisters and Brothers making potato salad and lemonade.
David ushered me into a small office to wait for him. There were several Panthers inside awaiting work assignments. I sat down next to the only one I knew, Jonathan Jackson. He was reading a book by Che Guevara.
“Have you spoken to your brother, lately?” I asked, interrupting.
He had, he said, without looking up. It was typical behavior for Jonathan. I thought he was too serious most of the time, though he was only seventeen years old.
The year before, he had seriously asked Angela Davis to permit him to be her bodyguard. Angela had become caught in a morass of media and police attention over her battle with UCLA, based on the university’s refusal to reinstate her faculty position because she was—by then—a member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. Jonathan had also learned most of the songs on my album, Seize the Time, after I brought it to his family’s home in Pasadena on one of my visits there; in particular, the song written for Franco, “The Panther,” dubbed “Get Guns and Be Men.” He was most serious about his beloved brother, George Jackson, his imprisoned hero, whose book, Soledad Brother, was about to be published. Jonathan and his mother, Georgia, had recently moved their things from Pasadena to Berkeley, into one of the party’s houses there, so that they could visit George regularly at nearby San Quentin prison. He had been transferred from Soledad prison after he was charged with the murder of a prison guard.
Even when Georgia joined us in the little office, Jonathan did not look up from his reading.
“Jonathan! At least stop long enough to give Georgia a chair,” I said, giving him an admonishing smile.
Georgia greeted me with a hug and a wink.
“Oh yeah. Right on,” he said, getting up without putting down his book. He leaned against a wall near his mother and continued reading.
I chatted with Georgia a few minutes, until I saw David waiting in the doorway for me.
I kissed Jonathan goodbye on the cheek. It was the sweetest face, one had to kiss it. His fair complexion took on the blush of a boy. He finally looked up with his big, questioning, sad eyes.
“Okay. See you later, Sister Elaine,” he eked out with unbelievable shyness.
I boarded an Oakland-to-Los Angeles shuttle flight and waited in the L.A. airport to meet Robert Scheer. By arrangement, he was to be my traveling companion. Scheer and I took a nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Paris a few hours later.
Scheer was a writer, and one of the editors of Ramparts magazine. He was also some sort of radical hippie, it seemed, from Berkeley. With a group of his white radical friends in the area, he had formed something called the Red Brigade, whose purpose was unclear to me, even as he talked about it. Scheer also, according to David, had been instrumental in getting Eldridge into Cuba.
He and I would be joining some of the others in Paris. We would meet Eldridge and the rest in Moscow. The United States had diplomatic relations with the French; the French had diplomatic relations with the Russians; the Russians had diplomatic relations with the North Koreans, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Those who met Scheer and me in Paris were also white, Jan Austin and Andy Truskier and Anne Froines and other radical journalists. There would be eleven of us in all, including Eldridge.
When the Aeroflot jet landed in Moscow, it was dark. Eldridge loomed forward out of the crush of heavyweight Russians. He was elegant and not in the least worn. He had on an all-white suit and was still wearing the earring in his pierced ear. He greeted me first, expansively taking me into his arms. It had been a long way back to him.
Surely the Russian tsars and nobility were frustrated even in their death. Ordinary peasants had not only seized power from them, their peasant hands had laid claim to the vestiges of their royal reign. The beautiful Baroque hotel we entered had once belonged to them. Its wide marble stairwells had been theirs. Its crystal chandeliers and Byzantine rugs and tapestried walls had been theirs. The elegant balcony doors of the room where Eldridge and I slept had been theirs. The turrets of the basilican edifices rising in the distance sparkled in the morning light. The Russian summer sun filled the room when we flung open our balcony doors.
I was musing about the history it all represented as I listened to the voice of Eldridge. He was addressing the entire delegation, now gathered in our room. Of the eleven members, only he and I were black. Besides the whites, there were two Asians: a young, diminutive Japanese woman and a fellow from San Francisco’s Chinatown, whose face was overwhelmed by acne.
“Babylon must be burned,” Eldridge was saying. “But the Black Panther Party is abandoning its duty to take Babylon down…”
I grew attentive.
“The fact is, there’s a split in the party. The right wing has seized the reins of leadership and put a muzzle on the Panther. The vanguard party has become a breakfast-for-children club.”
Was he serious? Was he constructing another of his well known grand metaphors, a bizarre one? Like me, the others were stilled by incredulity, their pens frozen over the note pads they held.
“But I represent the left wing of the party,” he proclaimed, “the International Section, headquartered in Algiers. We’re saying it’s time to clip the right wing operating out of national headquarters, dominated by the reformist David Hilliard and his nepotistic hierarchy, which includes his reactionary brother, June, and his silly wife, Pat.”
I could hardly think, much less respond. It was impossible to believe what I was hearing.
“Babylon is quiet. Pigs are comfortable. Why? Because the vanguard is cooking fucking breakfasts instead of drawing guns!” he boomed.
Had exile driven him so mad he did not see? Had he been given some new mind-altering drug that had erased the police raids and assassinations from his brain? He had obviously forgotten the detail of the party mandate, based on the teachings of Malcolm X, that no member speak against another outside the ranks.
“The entire movement will follow suit,” Eldridge went on to open mouths. “I’m not going to stand for it. You can’t stand for it…
“The left wing of the vanguard party is calling upon you, our white, radical Mother Country brothers and sisters —and you others—to stand with us. Support the International Section, the hijackers and the ex-cons and revolutionary warriors in exile, who mean to set fire to Babylon. With your assistance, the real party can rise again, and we can return to finish what we started,” he finished in a dramatic whisper.
“I’m sorry,” Jan Austin boldly interrupted, putting down her pen and notepad. “What exactly do you want us to do? We’re not in the party. We’re journalists and writers. Why are you telling us this?”
“So that,” Eldridge said with a sigh, “with the might of your pens you will spread the word throughout Babylon. Recognize the left wing. Tell everybody who the true revolutionaries are. Take the correct line. Call for the bombing of pig strongholds. Urge the kidnapping of the children of the bourgeoisie. Demand that the bastions of Wall Street be burned to the ground. Stir some shit in Babylon. Show some fucking spirit!”
“Is that why you asked us to travel all the way here?” Andy Truskier asked, unmoved.
“Basically. I had to talk to all of you in person. I had to personally let you know what was happening to the party. With the help of Scheer, I handpicked each of you for this mission.”
I noted Bob Scheer’s silence.
“I’m trying to get this train rolling again. But I can no longer communicate with any of the members of the Central Committee in Oakland. They’re all Hilliard lackeys. I brought Sister Elaine here to be my personal emissary. She’s loyal to me. She and I go a long way back. She’s going to take the message back to the true believers in the party, so they’ll know it came from my lips. I’ve had word a lot of them are sick and tired of the bullshit. So you don’t have to worry about the part y’s business. Do your thing, and we’ll deal with the party …”
Looking out of a window, all I could wonder was when and how he had come to the conclusion that I would be his emissary to advance a rift inside the party. Was he so arrogant as to imagine that my expressions of love for him had meant I would help him destroy the Black Panther Party?
“Of course, we’ll go to Korea and talk to them about promoting the thoughts and writings of good ole Comrade Kim Il Sung,” he continued. I promised them we’d get Kim’s entire works published in the U.S. I’m sure we can do that, can’t we, Scheer? That’s why they arranged this whole thing. But yes, I needed to see all of you on this more serious matter. I need your under standing. Can you dig it?”
“Right on,” those who opened their mouths mumbled, new acolytes of the massive man who sat before us, one whom I did not know and, it occurred to me, never really had known.
It lasted another hour—Eldridge’s attacks on the party, on David, on everything sacred. Later, when we were away from the others, I challenged the minister of information of the Black Panther Party.
I told him flat out that the saddest thing about how absolutely wrong he was about David was that David respected him. I asked him why he could not see that it was David who had held the party together through all of the hell we had faced since he left. Furthermore, David had always been in constant communication with the minister of defense, the leader of the party, Huey P. Newton, in prison at San Luis Obispo, whom Eldridge had not attacked.
He told me I did not understand. He knew David. David was ignoring the directives of Huey, whose hands were tied, because David was “pussy.” That was why the party was stuck in reform. He knew what was happening. I did not, for which he might forgive me. David was destroying the vanguard, buying more eggs than guns.
The rank and file wanted to move. Loyalty to the party was the only thing holding them back. He had solid information about that from Brothers out of New York who had joined him in Algiers. Who were these “Brothers,” I asked him. All I needed to know was that they were the bad motherfuckers. Anyway, anybody with eyes could see how weak the party had become. This had been echoed, Eldridge said, by a Trinidadian Sister named Connie Matthews. She worked with a Panther support group in Europe and had come to Algiers to talk to him about how the party’s reputation in the international community was stained, how nobody was taking the party seriously anymore.
“And after sitting in Algiers,” I said, “listening to these so called Brothers and this Connie Matthews, you want to …”
“Listen! Shut up and listen!” he commanded. “They just confirmed what I already know. There’s unrest in the rank and file, and even on the streets—remember the Weathermen thing? —over the fact that the Hilliard dynasty has damn near forced everybody to put down their guns. I hear this shit everywhere. Even in Algiers! I’m not going to stand for it!”
We argued for hours. Rather, I more and more patiently tried to explain that David was seriously committed to the revolution and that the party was on the correct road.
“The party can’t do battle with the pigs alone,” I said earnestly. “Take a look at our losses, if nothing else, Eldridge. Our own people are becoming afraid of us. Every time the pigs attack us, the whole community suffers. The people just aren’t ready for that. The only thing holding the party and the people together is the programs …”
“Bullshit!” he shot back. “Revolution has to be won, not coddled like eggs. The Hilliards are so punked-out and gun-shy, they’re making the vanguard look like a reformist bitch.”
“Nobody’s put down the gun, Eldridge, but if we don’t have the programs, we won’t organize the people to pick up the gun. And it’s the people,” I reminded him as forcefully as I dared, “who will, after all, ultimately make the revolution… Face it, Eldridge,” I pleaded, “the only thing we’ve done so far to advance the struggle, besides losing a lot of Brothers, is the programs.”
“I don’t give a fuck about some serve-the-people programs. Anybody who doesn’t want to deal with the struggle has to have his ass dragged down the revolutionary road, kicking and screaming if necessary. I’m talking about the same thing I’ve always talked about, ‘revolution in our lifetime’ and I mean it…”
“You mean the revolution that will die with its secret because all the revolutionaries will have died trying …”
“You’re too emotional. Can’t you see I’m drafting Whitey to take the first heat—Weathermen and all that, and these motherfuckers. Look. I just want to get rid of those weak-assed Hilliards right now. That’s all. There’s only one way to get that done and hold the party together … Now, I brought you here to help me accomplish that.
“All you have to do is sound the alarm. Do it because you love me. What the fuck. Take a .45 or something, walk into national headquarters,” he went on seriously, “and put it to David’s head. Tell the motherfucker you’ve come with a message from me: I’m taking back the Black Panther Party in the name of the true revolutionaries. And don’t worry, I’ve got backup for you, Brothers waiting for the word from me.”
“You must be kidding, Eldridge.”
By dinnertime, after we had drunk a second round of vodka and the beef Stroganoff had been served to the “delegation” at long tables in the opulent, mirrored dining hall, Eldridge and I had stopped speaking. The last thing he said to me before I left his room and tried to find another for myself was that he would bury me in Algiers.
“I picked you!” he had shouted furiously. “I picked you to take care of this. You’re the perfect candidate. A woman that everybody in the party knows and that everybody knows loves me. Just like I know it. The fucking anthem is my song … Stop acting up, and ‘let your love come down,’ “he said with a chuckle.
“Eldridge, you’re crazy … I can’t deny I loved you. I have truly loved the idea of you. But you can’t be serious about any of this … Please … Look, I’ll go back and I’ll leave the party, and I won’t? tell anyone anything. I know you can find yourself another emissary. ‘Cause it’s over for me. It’s all over, Eldridge.”
“You won’t get back, bitch, unless you do what I say! Do you actually think I’d let you walk away from here and mess up the cha-cha?!” he shouted, standing over me now, seated in the room with blue taffeta drapes and bedspread. “Besides, there ain’t nobody else. I couldn’t exactly tell David to send one of the rank and file. I certainly couldn’t call on any of those studs on the Central Committee. All their sorry asses belong to the Hilliards. You’re it, bitch!”
I tried not to cry or shake.
“If you don’t want to work with me, it’s simple. I’ll bury your ass. In Algiers. I’ve got a burial ground there, you know.” He laughed, throwing his head back. “I’ve put two niggers in the ground already. Boumedienne doesn’t give a fuck,” he said referring to the Algerian president. “I do as I please. It ain’t Cuba. I got AK-47’s and twenty niggers, and I will put your ass in the fucking ground!”
”I’m not going anywhere but back to the States,” I cried out, getting up from the bed. ”I’m leaving now. I’ll take a plane from here, alone—tonight, if necessary.”
“And I’ll beat your ass right here and now if you move … Anyway, it’ll be a hard way back.” He laughed again. “I’ve got your passport. Remember? Got all the passports. If you want it, deal with the Russians or the Koreans. But I don’t think you have the heart to put yourself in the middle of an international scandal over it. Do you?”
“You’re right, Eldridge. It’s more than I can handle,” I said in a resigned whisper.
I stepped away from him, trembling.
In that second, I suddenly saw him, knew him. Eldridge was a man so afraid of facing prison again, he had left David behind to take the weight of the charges of April 6. Eldridge was a man who had stood naked before the police, walking away with a surface wound to his heel, while Bobby Hutton, half his size and age, had been mowed down before his very eyes. Eldridge was a man who was a rapist, a man who lashed out at women—in fear.
He was undoubtedly capable of inspiring others to act. There was no question that if I were pushed to Algiers, he could inflame his nebulous “niggers” to do what he willed with me. But his own claims to manhood hovered beneath the skin of a man who was, more than anything, a rapist.
“You’re right,” I repeated. “Right about the passport. Wrong about me. I’m not Kathleen. I do not take ass-kicking. You can kill me here and now, but that’s what it’s going to take. ‘Cause if you touch me, I guarantee you, one of us will die tonight! And I don’t think you’ve got the heart to risk an international scandal. You wouldn’t have any more countries to run to.”
His eyes smiled as he walked past me. He quietly opened the door of the room to leave.
“Later, baby. Later.”
* * *
From A Taste of Power, originally published 1992.