Memories of the Revolution : Elaine Brown has examined her years as a Black Panther. Rage gave her a story to tell, she says; now she hopes to inspire a new generation.
For three years Elaine Brown had lived in Paris, where she says the color of her skin mattered far less than who she was.
But it wasn’t long after her plane landed in the United States that Brown says racism enveloped her like a mighty fog.
The prejudice, she says, is intangible, yet palpable. Brown saw it in the face of a Boston bellboy who greeted her with an attitude; and in a hotel clerk in Beverly Hills, who didn’t believe she was a guest: “It’s incredible the rage I’ve felt. And I’ve only been here three weeks.
“I actually hate this country. It’s such an insult to be black in America.”
Once, such anger transformed her. It changed a woman, indifferent to the civil rights struggle, into a member and then chairwoman of the revolutionary Black Panther Party. It gave Brown courage to lead that organization when its co-founder, Huey P. Newton, fled to Cuba.
Rage gave her a story to tell.
“I wrote a book about what it’s like to be a black woman in America,” Brown says of her memoir, “A Taste of Power.” “And that’s a hell of a thing.”
Hers is the story of a little girl who thought she was nothing, but who grew to realize her value. The Black Panther Party, a militant organization that began and ended in Oakland, was a critical part of that self-discovery.
“There’s a point at which you’re black in this country, poor, a woman, and you realize how powerless you are,” Brown says. But, as a Panther, “there was this moment I tasted power, finally coming to the point (where) I realized I was someone of value. . . (and) rejected anyone who said I wasn’t.”
Under Brown’s leadership, from 1974 to 1977, the Black Panther Party went from a cadre of young militants known primarily for their guns and clashes with the law to a critical component of Oakland’s political and educational landscape.
Brown continued the party’s efforts to feed and provide free medical care to the poor and expanded the model Oakland Community School. A massive party effort to register black voters was instrumental in the election of Oakland’s first African-American mayor, Lionel Wilson.
And when political leaders wanted to ensure funds for a freeway extension that could rehabilitate downtown Oakland, they went to the Black Panther Party for support. Brown gave her blessing, as long as blacks benefited from the hundreds of jobs generated by the linkage.
But not long after Newton returned, Brown’s public life ended and her private world began to crumble. Sexism in the party, reined in while Brown was in control, now seemed poised to run rampant, according to her book. Brothers brutally beat a female Panther--with Newton’s blessings.
In 1977, Brown, 34, took her 7-year-old daughter, Ericka, and ran for her life.
“People ask why I ended the book when I left the party,” she says. “It’s because when I left the party, I felt I had died.”
Brown returned to Los Angeles and worked at Motown Records for two years. Living more like an average American than a revolutionary, she then drifted from job to job here. She has spent the last three years living mostly in Paris, working to finish her book.
But in that time out of the spotlight, Brown was not forgotten.
On a Thursday afternoon, they pack Eso Won bookstore in Inglewood to hear her. They are revolutionaries, past tense and wanna-bes.
Standing in the back are former Crips and Bloods, come to seek guidance and pay their respects. In a wheelchair sits Albert Armour, a former Panther who hasn’t seen her since Newton’s 1989 funeral. One man totes an album of revolutionary songs written and recorded by Brown during her Panther days, hoping she’ll remember they met long ago. And a young woman cries, honored to meet the activist for whom she was named.
Los Angeles is the last stop on Brown’s three-week book tour. She stands before the crowd, beautiful, copper-skinned. And the ‘60s rhetoric comes alive. In her vocabulary, police are still “pigs” and compromising blacks are still “Negroes.” She delivers biting remarks with school-girl sass.
“You can’t put kente cloth on Clarence Thomas and make him a black man,” Brown says, sparking laughter throughout the small store. The nicest thing she can say about President Clinton is that he’s not Bush. And poor black neighborhoods are “internment camps. Places where we’re cordoned off.”
Pauses seldom punctuate her speech. She tells her story in long bursts, with a street poet’s rhythm.
“A lot of us romanticize history,” Brown says. “We pretend we came out of the womb with our fists raised.” It’s not true. “Some of us were gangbangers.”
And some were like her--little girls who just wanted to be white.
Brown was born March 2, 1943, in Philadelphia. Her mother worked in a factory and often stole pretty dresses for her only child to wear. There were ballet classes and piano lessons. But Brown says nothing eased the pain of growing up poor in a black North Philly neighborhood.
She discovered another existence when she attended a mostly white elementary school. “I realized there were two worlds--the white one and the black one,” she remembers. “And the black one was rough. So I wanted to be white.”
It was, Brown says, her most difficult revelation in the book. But it was necessary, she says. Any black person who denies understanding what W.E.B. DuBois meant when he spoke of the duality of black folks’ souls is “lying like a dog,” she says.
“That’s the one (thing) we’re terrified of talking about . . . that we’ve been taught to hate ourselves, and no matter how many times we say we’re black and proud, America keeps reminding us how valueless our lives are.”
Brown briefly attended Temple University, before moving to Los Angeles in April, 1965. She had heard about the civil rights movement, but not thought much about it, she writes. She worked at the Pink Pussycat strip club, waiting tables while Watts burned. She met a white writer named Jay Kennedy and they became lovers.
Her revolutionary consciousness budded when she taught piano in the Jordan Downs housing project. Brown saw her childhood reflected in her student’s empty eyes. She decided then to begin devoting her life to the struggle for her people’s liberation.
Brown’s book details her odyssey through the Black Panther Party, from 1968 when she joined its Southern California chapter to 1977 when she left the group.
Brown speaks of J. Edgar Hoover’s declaration of war on the organization; of becoming Newton’s lover and hand-picked successor; of Panthers being slain on college campuses and in their beds.
The book is not without its critics. Kathleen Cleaver, who once sat on the Panther’s central committee and was then married to its one-time minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver, says that Brown ignored or misrepresented key events--such as the party rift that ultimately led to the Cleavers’ 1971 expulsion.
“I found the book real limited in terms of accuracy,” says Cleaver, who now teaches law at Emory University in Atlanta. “It lacks dates, names, places . . . (and) she downplays the serious role of a counter-intelligence program in splitting the Black Panther Party.”
But Ericka Huggins, a former Panther whose husband was killed at UCLA by a rival black militant group in 1969 and who stayed with the party until it was disbanded in 1982, praises Brown’s work.
“I loved it,” says Huggins, who directs a San Francisco-based program serving people with AIDS. “It’s her life. She wrote from that perspective. . . . I don’t think she exaggerated, lied or told any untruths.”
In her memoir, Brown acknowledges her own and the party’s problems. But she does not apologize.
Yes, the Panthers were violent, but they existed within a violent society, she says. Yes, there was sexism--she was beaten more than once--but Panthers were products of the very system they battled, sometimes perpetuating behavior that should have been cast away.
And despite the negatives, Brown says she felt sadness leaving behind a movement that proclaimed the right of black people to be treated like human beings; an organization that fed hungry children and called it revolution. She felt the loss of leaving family behind, and the disillusionment of forgoing a way of life that made her feel whole.
“I couldn’t imagine finding anything else to do that would be meaningful,” Brown says. “To participate in life in America, and not be in the Black Panther Party would be to accept life in America . . . to deny everything I thought.”
But to stop participating entirely, she acknowledges, is to “talk yourself out of living completely.”
Brown says she discovered much about herself during the eight years it took to complete “A Taste of Power.”
“I never realized how much I loved Huey (Newton) till I wrote this book,” she says. They saw each other only once after her departure.
An early morning phone call in August, 1989, told her that Newton was dead, felled by bullets during a suspected drug deal in Oakland. Brown attended the funeral, saying “I owed him that.”
She says she hopes that what she wrote about Newton will inspire a new generation. And that they will learn from the party’s successes and mistakes.
“There’s a certain tendency to glamorize what the Black Panther Party was,” Brown says. “We have to be able to defend ourselves, and not be victims. But talking about a toe-to-toe assault on the U.S. government is a bit romantic.”
If the consciousness of a new generation can be solidified, she says, an even better organization can be built--one that unites middle class and poor, intellectuals and uneducated. Conditions for blacks have not improved, Brown believes, but she is hopeful.
In Los Angeles, where Brown says she was reborn, she plans to make a contribution.
Brown says she will take a third of the money earned from her book and build a school in South-Central Los Angeles--perhaps at 41st Street and Central Avenue, where the Southern California Panther headquarters once stood.
She envisions the school as the nucleus of a larger enterprise; an African-American cooperative where blacks can start businesses and provide services to their community. It will be another step, she believes, toward liberation.
And liberation must come. “You know we’re not going to have gone through all of this and not be free,” Brown says, before offering a warning. “If we’re not free, this country is going to be finished . . . . And I don’t care.”