BOOK REVIEW : An Insider’s Look at Black Panther Party : A TASTE OF POWER: A Black Woman’s Story by Elaine Brown ; Pantheon $25; 509 pages

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You’d have to write a book to write an adequate review of Elaine Brown’s “A Taste of Power.”

It’s astonishing as a historical document of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, the most militant black organization of the ‘60s. It’s heart wrenching: the story of a young black girl raised in North Philly who, by the time she’s in her 30s, is over in China taking tea with Chou En-lai, and--back in Oakland--negotiating fiercely with the CEO of Clorox, and then , back at home, taking physical beatings from her Panther subordinates, so that they can feel secure about their “manhood.”

The author treads a path of loyalty and reason here. She writes about the organization with admiration and affection--and candor. One feels that she is not out to settle any kind of “score” but to chronicle a history that might never be written.


Movie makers, where are you? This narration is as wild and moving as “Bonnie and Clyde.” It’s as adventurous as “Lawrence of Arabia.” It has more gore than 14 “Terminators.” And it also has beautiful, touching, heartbreaking accounts of a lonely black childhood, where Elaine Brown lives with a granny, an aunt and a single mom who works in a sweatshop stealing pretty dresses for her beloved, her darling daughter.

This account is based square on four “corners,” and four points of view. Brown writes first as a political being, a Black Panther who rose so high in that hierarchy that--when Huey Newton fled to Cuba--she became its chief executive (in spite of every kind of grumbling from Panther street warriors).

Brown sees racial oppression in national and global context; every political word she writes pounds home a lesson about commerce, money, racism, communism, you name it. She writes as a black who, pushed by her mother, scrambles out of the most dire poverty.

She scathingly sets the record straight on her socially prominent father who refuses to even consider that he might have descended from slaves--and refuses to loan her $10. She salutes the Panthers for their heroic efforts to integrate their difficult past and their seemingly hopeless future.

But what makes this book such a glowing achievement is that Brown also writes as a child remembering her fears, her social setbacks and triumphs, her jump-rope rhymes, her ballet lessons, her first kisses and dances, her narrow escape from gang rape. She remembers everything.

Then, toward the end of this story--which takes the author from birth to the morning she flees from the Panther Party, taking her own child, afraid for her life--she begins to ponder what it is to be a black woman , why it is necessary to take these beatings, these careless blows, these slaps and whacks from guys strung out on cocaine. If there’s going to be a revolution, she reasons, it should be a revolution for everyone, not just the men.


All this brings up the thorny question of what manhood means in America, or perhaps the world. The tragedy of Huey Newton, as we see him here, is that he had the political insights of a great financier or statesman; he did enormous good, only to be brought down by misplaced loyalty to his entourage of irresponsible thugs.

Through all this, of course, the FBI wanders through, Keystone Cops from Hell, pumping bullets into Panthers, tapping phones. Inside the organization, Eldridge Cleaver flees to North Africa. Huey Newton flees to Cuba. They pass the time receiving political guests and beating their wives. And so the Panthers are destroyed, from inside and out.

Yes, they were a militaristic revolutionary organization dedicated to the overthrow of the American government. But on a parallel track, their enormous social contribution to the blacks and the poor in America remains in physical evidence everywhere, like school breakfast and lunch programs. It can even be said that every black in America elected to political office owes an indirect debt to the Panthers.

This review doesn’t begin to touch the wonderfulness of this book. Think of our police inventing SWAT teams, just to crush the Panthers. Think of the diminutive Ike Turner, along with Tina, telling an audience of irate Panthers he won’t sing for them because he hasn’t been paid enough. (Here, the author takes off her high-heeled shoes, scrambles up on the stage and forcefully attacks a backup singer.) This is a profound, funny and--for the second time--heartbreaking American story.