A Look Back At Black Panther Women Amid The Party’s 50th Anniversary
The Black Panther Party (BPP) turned 50 this year and it seemed that everywhere you looked there was a celebration, event, exhibit or new book. Founded in Oakland, California, in October 1966, the BPP formally existed for 16 years. The BPP’s founding document, “The 10 Point Platform and Program,” highlighted poor employment, education, housing, health care, rampant police violence and harassment, the desire to fix an unfair legal and military system and a general call for freedom, self-determination and peace. These were a few of the injustices that combined to make people see the Panthers as an answer to a society that after years of civil rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s, seemed to have so much further to go.
The people who flooded into the BPP came from local community colleges, high schools, and the streets. Most members did not join for the same reasons; some joined to take a stand against police brutality, segregation and inferior conditions, others joined because they wanted to make an impact on their local communities while many were merely attracted to their ideology and bold style.
The Party was an organization of young men and women from all walks of life; there is no one image that captures them all. Yet, the majority of the images accompanying the 50th anniversary celebration have been decidedly male.
However, the story of Black Panther women should not be forgotten. Women who joined the BPP were as young as 16 and as old as mid-30s. Their education ranged from high school to college. Women remain hidden because there is a historical, sexist backlash against focusing on women in black political movements. The feeling is, if we focus on women in the movement, we detract from the serious problems confronting black men in America. This is not the case at all. BPP women made great contributions to the organization and endured the same repression and oppressive tactics as the men did. Focusing on women’s experiences allow us to see a more complete picture of what it meant to be a Panther.
Panther women were revolutionary doers and teachers, editing, writing and creating art for the BPP newspaper, teaching art in the classroom, designing fliers and banners for events and singing in the BPP’s Son of Man Temple choir. Panther women were also poets, spoken word artists, and singers, all while fighting alongside Panther men.
Who are these women who gave their all, including their artistic talents, to make a difference in their communities? How did their gifts and talents build the community and their organization? How does their art change the way we understand what the organization was about, how they fought and the society they envisioned?
Meet JOAN “TARIKA” LEWIS, aka Matilaba (Oakland, CA).
Joan “Tarika” Lewis was the first young woman to join the BPP at 16-years old, already an accomplished musician and Black Student Union member at Oakland Tech High School. Regarding her decision to join the Panthers, she explains, “I put down my violin and picked up a gun.” She was the first woman to serve as graphic artist for the BPP’s newspaper, creating images to highlight social ills and reflect the Black community practicing armed self-defense.
Meet ERICKA HUGGINS (Los Angeles, CA; New Haven, CT; Oakland, CA).
Panther Ericka Huggins was a dedicated BPP soldier for 12 years. She was a poet, writer, organizer, Party newspaper editor and the Director of the BPP’s Oakland Community School. She was imprisoned for two years for a crime she did not commit due to the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) created specifically to destroy political organizations. Huggins’ poetry included references to resistance and freedom as well as expressions of solidarity. She wrote poetry honoring special occasions in fellow Party members’ lives and even homages to fallen Panthers. In her poem, “Fire and Rain,” (1972) Huggins expresses the ways in which we can internalize our own oppression and the power we have within ourselves to free our communities from mental slavery.
Meet M. GAYLE (ASALI) DICKSON (Seattle, WA; Oakland, CA).
Asali Dickson worked as one of a few women graphic artists for the Panther newspaper, known for a realistic style that influenced male Party artists. She was also an art teacher at OCS. Her art reflected the struggles such as racism and inequality present in the black communities across the nation. Capitalism and the economy take a central place in the work she produced for the Party paper. In the image to your left, Asali highlights poverty’s impact on black families. The women observing the chart displaying the steep price increase of food realize that their paychecks are not enough to afford the high cost of living.
Meet ELAINE BROWN (Los Angeles, CA; Oakland, CA).
Elaine Brown was BPP Chairperson for three years, the only woman in the Panthers (or any other revolutionary organization during the time) to serve at this capacity. She is a singer and songwriter, writing and singing the Party’s national anthem and recording two albums, Seize the Time (1969) and a self-titled album (1973). She was also an editor of the BPP paper and an author. Her self-titled LP was released under Motown’s Black Forum label and includes the song “Until We’re Free,” which speaks to the injustices in our society. Her powerful and soulful lyrics make vivid the discrimination she experienced growing up in Philadelphia, surviving the violence of poverty and her continued fight for emancipation. Brown’s autobiography is “A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story” (1993).
Meet AFENI SHAKUR (New York, NY).
The late Afeni Shakur joined the BPP in New York. She was a community worker and wrote articles that appeared in the Panther newspaper. She was also one of the New York 21, a group of Panther men and women strategically attacked by the FBI and charged with multiple conspiracies and later acquitted. She also contributed to shaping hip-hop culture via motherhood—she birthed her son, the late actor, lyricist and beloved rapper, Tupac Shakur, while she was in the BPP, exposing him to political ideas at an early age. As an empowered black man, he often articulated various forms of oppression as well as recorded music that reflected his activist roots.
Meet ASSATA SHAKUR (New York, NY).
BPP member Assata Shakur is a writer and artist. She volunteered in the Party’s free Breakfast program and did healthcare work. She was a target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. Falsely accused of killing a New Jersey State trooper and sentenced to life in prison, Shakur eventually escaped, living in Cuba today. Like Huggins, Shakur is a poet who captures the history and spirit of communities of color.As the Black Lives Matter Movement has mobilized communities across America, “Assata Taught Me” demonstrates conscious political engagement. There is much to learn from her about self-determination, self-pride, and the importance in standing up for your rights. Many hip-hop artists have honored her, including Common in his song, “Assata” (2000).
In addition to inspiring political activists, Panther women have inspired sports figures and contemporary artists. San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, recently hosted a Know Your Rights Camp for youth in Oakland, attended by Ericka Huggins, at the Omi Gallery, the same location for their current installation honoring BPP Women, “Survival Pending Revolution.” Common recorded “A Song for Assata,” in honor of Assata Shakur praises her sacrifices as a black woman fighting for freedom for the black community. Solange is unapologetically black in her style, lyrics, and music. On her new album, A Seat at the Table, Solange aligns herself with the “Assata Taught Me” movement as demonstrated in her interlude, “Tina Taught Me,” during which the listener learns that Solange’s black consciousness was influenced by her mother. In addition, Alicia Keys’ newly-released album, HERE, includes an interlude by Elaine Brown reciting the poem, “Black Mother,” by Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, founder of the BPP’s Los Angeles Chapter. The poem acknowledges the pain black women and black mothers experience due to the society’s oppressive forces.
Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, Tracye A. Matthews, Mary Phillips, and Robyn C.Spencer, authors of some of the leading essays about gender and Black Power, founded the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project in July 2016. LeBlanc-Ernest is a Houston-based independent scholar and filmmaker; Matthews is a Chicago-based historian, filmmaker, curator and associate director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Race, Politics and Culture; Phillips is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Lehman College/CUNY; and Spencer is
an associate professor of History at Lehman College/CUNY.