We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party

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Despite both the somewhat legendary status of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the state’s sustained campaign to destroy the Party and the black revolutionary movement, there has been relatively little quality scholarship concerning the Black Panther Party. While this is slowly changing as more work is published concerning the Party and its legacy, of which Mumia Abu-Jamal’s We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party is an example, there is still not a single book that encapsulates the history of the Black Panther Party and appraises its legacy. Although Abu-Jamal’s book is not the single volume history of the Black Panther Party that is so desperately needed, it is one of the better works concerning the Party.

We Want Freedom is not a complete history of the Party; rather it is one former Party member’s attempt to weave his personal experiences in the Black Panther Party into both the history of the BPP and the greater context of black resistance to their position as an oppressed population in the United States. Abu-Jamal opens the book with a chapter that places the BPP in the context of black resistance in the United States from colonial times to the Watts rebellion of the 1960s and the BPP’s attempt to bring a more organized form, and indeed revolutionary, mode of resistance as a manifestation of black discontent. This revolutionary resistance took the form of an organized and highly disciplined political formation with the modus operandi to “serve the people.” To this end the BPP organized armed patrols to monitor police behavior in black neighbors, free breakfast programs for children, free clinics, and free clothing programs–all of which were simultaneously political and concrete, meeting the needs of the communities in which they were based–a fact that led to the phenomenal growth of the Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the concomitant effort to neutralize the BPP by the state. Indeed, by 1969 over forty chapters had formed encompassing thousands of members while the party sold an estimated 10,000 copies of their Black Panther newspaper each week.

Abu-Jamal’s book is not an attempt to provide the complete history of the BPP but rather it is an examination of the political group that provided the author’s first experience with radical politics. Mumia Abu-Jamal joined the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party at the age of fifteen and became actively involved at the local and national level. Using his own experiences in the Party as the foundation and expanding it with a critical reading of existing sources on the BPP, Abu-Jamal examines not only his own personal involvement but also the experience of women in the Party, the sort of “everyday experience” of being a Panther, the evolution of the Party’s ideology, and the responses of the state to the BPP. While the portions of the book dealing with the evolution of the Party’s ideology and the state response to the Party benefit from the eloquence of Abu-Jamal’s writing, the topics (especially the state response to the Party) have been given a fair amount of attention elsewhere. It is in the coverage of the experience of women and the rank-and-file members of the BPP that We Want Freedom makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the BPP. In his chapter titled “A Woman’s Party,” Abu-Jamal uses his own experiences with the strong leadership of women in the Party as a base for an exploration of the contributions of women to the Party–which were substantial–as well as a simultaneous debunking of much of the erroneous information that has been published regarding women in the Party. Much of the writing on the BPP has advanced the opinion that the BPP was a macho group that treated its women as second-class members, an assertion easily dismissed by Abu-Jamal’s insightful analysis of women’s role in the Party. Of course, as with all movement groups in the 1960s and 1970s there were issues regarding the treatment of women within the BPP yet the group provided opportunities for leadership by women and made efforts to address its own treatment of women.

“A Panther’s Life” is another chapter providing unique insights into the Party, focusing on the lives of the “ordinary” members of the Party, using Abu-Jamal’s experiences and other sources to come to a general overview of what life in the BPP. This chapter is particularly important in light of the published work on the BPP, much of which has focused on the “extraordinary” personalities within the BPP–Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, David Hillard, and the like–who, while clearly playing important roles in the history of the BPP, had little interaction with the non-leadership members that provided the energy for the day-to-day operations of BPP programs and organizing efforts. Abu-Jamal examines the living arrangements of Party members (most lived in collective houses with other Panthers), the realities of newspaper sales, member demographics, and relationship of Party members with their communities. While any study of the Black Panther Party is one of oppositional culture and resistance, too often these studies have fallen into the trap of focusing on the leadership without looking at the base that gave the Party its effectiveness, thus echoing the methodologies of the dominant culture. As such, Abu-Jamal’s analysis will hopefully provide a new direction for studies of the BPP.

While not the single volume history of the Black Panther Party that is needed, We Want Freedom is an insightful exploration of the BPP and its legacy. Readers seeking a better understanding of the BPP and its contributions to history as well as its place in the fabric of black resistance will find We Want Freedom an important and compelling read. The Black Panther Party has long been one of the most misunderstood radical groups of “the sixties,” although with the publication of We Want Freedom, hopefully a new generation will be exposed to the ideas of the Black Panther Party, and more importantly, learn from its history and use it as a starting point to advance revolutionary struggles in the present.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, (South End Press, 2004).

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