Updated: Aug 19, 2020
The Black Panthers had a very specific iconography in contemporary press coverage, one that has endured despite all the work which has been done to provide a holistic view of the revolutionary party. When someone says, ‘Black Panthers’ the immediate image that often comes to mind is one of men dressed in black leather, strapped with assault rifles storming state capitals and patrolling the streets of California. Although these patrols and shows of force were a key part of Panther Policy, the over representation of these in the media served largely to discredit the movement as hyper masculine and aggressive. Little coverage was given to the Breakfast clubs, legal clinics and many other social programmes that the Panthers pioneered in local communities ran by the women who truly held up the party. Although the history books remember Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton, we should not overlook Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown who held the party together in their most challenging times.
Bobby Seale (left) and Huey Newton (right), founders of the Black Panthers
In 1973, Huey P Newton, co-founder of the party wrote an autobiography detailing the origins and ideology of the BPP as well as the personal events of his life including his incarceration at San Quentin. He called this autobiography, ‘Revolutionary Suicide’, a nod to the driving force that underpinned many if not all the Black Panther policies. In the introduction, Newton outlined what he believed to be the only three options for African-Americans in 60s/70s America. One he described as, ‘reactionary suicide’; this, he explained, was when someone took their own life in response to social conditions which are overwhelming and drive people to helplessness. Newton draws on Dostoevsky’s character, Marmeladov, from Crime and Punishment, who argues that poverty in of itself is not a vice; ‘for while society may drive the poor man out with a stick, the beggar will be swept out with a broom’. This is ‘reactionary suicide’- utter dehumanisation and despair that drives people to take their own lives. The second reality that Newton observes is one of resignation, which he describes as a kind of ‘spiritual death’ where people accept that their socio-economic condition will never change. It appears that Newton is very much interested in this particular group. He maintains that this is the group that, despite ‘the death of the spirit’, can be convinced to fight systems of oppression.
Finally, Newton explains his theory of ‘revolutionary suicide’,
Although I risk the likelihood of death, there is at least the possibility, if not the probability, of changing intolerable conditions. This possibility is important, because much in human existence is based upon hope without any real understanding of the odds. Indeed, we are all- black and white alike- ill in the same way, mortally ill. But, before we die, how shall we live? I say with hope and dignity; and if premature death is the result, that death has a meaning that reactionary suicide can never have. It is the price of self-respect.
Newton took the mantra of dying on your feet rather than living on your knees as far as it could go. He always maintained that this was not about having a ‘death wish’ but in fact the opposite. Revolutionary suicide is about living but living only under the condition that everyone is treated with dignity. Forty-seven years later and the current BLM protests across the US and UK are embodying this principle of Revolutionary Suicide. The threat to protestors is very real; COVID 19, police brutality and instances of ‘friendly fire’ through overcrowding etc. As Newton would point out, there is nothing romantic about this form of protest. The threat of death is very real and yet still there are people fighting across Europe and America to end racial oppression.
The concept of revolutionary suicide does, however, have some very worrying implications, namely that black death is a necessary precursor to meaningful change. Newton positions black lives as a vanguard, whose death may be required in service to the greater movement. Huey paraphrases Mao, saying that,
Death comes to all of us, but it varies in its significance: to die for the reactionary is lighter than the feather; to die for the revolution is heavier than Mount Thai.
Hope is a funny thing. For someone who was relentlessly pursued by COINTELPRO, who suffered solitary isolation in a maximum-security prison and battled with addiction to come out and place hope as the centre piece of black resistance is impressive and speaks to the fortitude of the black community. Revolutionary suicide is not a resignation; it is an uncompromising statement of hope, a torch which BLM is carrying into protests today.