Bobby Seale is a political activist and educator, and was a founder of the Black Panther Party (BPP), established in 1966 in Oakland, California during the Civil Rights movement. He is the author of Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton (New York: Random House, 1970), from which an excerpt has been taken for the purpose of analysis that interprets and historicizes gendered meanings within it and in the larger context of the Civil Rights movement and general social movements.
The BPP, as already stated, began during the Civil Rights movement. Other social movements were also happening at that time in the late 1960s, and included the Black Power movement, and women’s movement. The Cold War was at its height. The Vietnam War, which began in 1957 and ended in 1975, took place in Vietnam, which was divided into Communism in the north and non-Communism in the south, whom the United States supported according to its Cold War policy. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968. In the post World War II period, the United States was ripe with suspicion, distrust, and misunderstandings, and experiencing social and political turmoil, tremendous change and upheaval.
Congress had recently passed civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 when the BPP started up in 1966. The Civil Rights movement began to transform from a focus on legal discrimination to the social, political, and economic inequalities between blacks and whites. Racism had infiltrated social and political institutions and corporations, corrupting, for instance, capitalism. The BPP was very much opposed to capitalism for this reason, and regarded socialism as superior. Seale said it clearly, “But the very nature of the capitalistic system is to exploit and enslave people, all people. So we have to progress to a level of socialism to solve these problems. We have to livesocialism”.
The BPP was originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense because they rejected integration and nonviolence in favor of self-defense, which included arming themselves with guns. Guns played a very significant role in the BPP and the use of guns was acceptable only within strict parameters. The correct attitude of a gun owner in the BPP was explained according to Seale, “As a citizen in the community and a member of the Black Panther Party, he’ll go to the firing range and take firing practice, but he’ll follow all the gun laws and he won’t conceal his weapon, or other jive stuff. He’ll follow the rules and be very dedicated. He is constantly trying to politically educate himself about the revolutionary principles and how they function, to get a broad perspective. He’ll also defend himself and his people when we’re unjustly attacked by racist pigs…” Encouraging this specific behavior when bearing arms promotes a sort of normative masculinity (Connell). Men were expected to conform to the values and convictions of the BPP, for example commitment to the community, and by following the prescribed conduct of manhood, such as controlled aggression (i.e. “The nature of a panther is that he never attacks. But if anyone attacks him or backs him into a corner, the panther comes up to wipe that aggressor or that attacker out, absolutely, resolutely, wholly, thoroughly, and completely…” as militantly asserted by Bobby Seale).
Seale’s ideology of a true revolutionary, who is someone who engages in a revolution, was indistinguishable from his ideology of manhood. Whenever he speaks of revolutionary practices, he speaks of men performing them. For example, in the excerpt from Seale’s autobiography, he states, “A true revolutionary will get up early in the morning and he’ll go serve the Free Breakfast for Children. Then when that’s done, he’ll go and he’ll organize a boycott…He’ll do revolutionary work in the community”. The notion of the revolutionary evokes a sense of a timeless patriarchal masculinity.
BPP created their own model of manhood based on humanism, “Panther manhood”, which besides adopting self-defense methods of violence and identifying with guns and panthers, believed strongly in community work. BPP ran programs that provided services such as free drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation, free clothing, free classes on politics and economics, and free medical clinics. “Panther manhood” was accessible only to males who were 16 years of age and older. “If he wasn’t a man, he could get on out of the Party” (Seale). Males younger than 16 but at least 12 to 14 years of age could become “Junior Panthers”. Manhood was a discrete category, based in biology and age.
The BPP challenged white hegemonic masculinity by working to unite all oppressed people in a fight against capitalism, inequality and racism. Their ten-point program outlined their goals for universal economic and social justice, and addressed freedom, full employment, restitution, decent housing, truthful education, exemption from military service, an end to police brutality, the release of all black people from jail, fair court trials, and a black colony.
Women were included in the oppressed that the BPP was trying to liberate, and the BPP instructed men in the proper treatment of women. Seale blamed the poor treatment of women on “past social conditioning” and sought to eliminate conventional gender roles to foster gender equality. Interestingly, however progressive this was, these new rules were formed by the male leaders of the BPP, and could seem to be a sort of a generous patriarchical move to reward the women for their support of them in the community and in the BPP as an organization. Or perhaps there weren’t enough men to fill the roles that women came to occupy.
Another way in which the BPP and its male leaders could have appeared patriarchal, is through their rescue efforts of other black men who were engaging in morally unacceptable and futile activities, such as drug dealing and pimping.
The BPP, who practiced gender equality, not only aspired to be revolutionaries who stood up for oppressed people, but also provided community services and support, typically feminine-coded work to strengthen and improve them. According to Cuordileone, “events and upheavals in the 1960s helped defuse its (an exaggerated cult of masculine toughness and virility in American political culture) worst excesses and reconfigure the political landscape”. The BPP certainly seems to exemplify this change in the post World War II period in the United States.