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Huey Without Tears

Huey P. Newton, 1942-1989

WHEN I FIRST met Huey Newton that July of 1967 in San Francisco, I was as intensely in love as only very young women can be. I was captivated by the soft-spoken, enigmatic, bril­liant writer named Eldridge Cleaver I had met that spring. He had come to speak at the Black Student Conference the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had held on the Fisk campus, and as SNCC’s Campus Program secretary, I had spent many hours in his company. In tandem with our commitment to revolutionary change, my romance with Eldridge had blossomed, and following three months of talking on the telephone and exchanging letters, I went out to see him in California.

SNCC’s chairman Stokely Carmichael had inspired a black power movement that was breathing new life into the floundering civil rights struggle. Those of us in SNCC thought that of all the mili­taristic urban groups espousing black power, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense gave flesh and blood to our revo­lutionary ideas, which had outgrown the civil rights arena. Huey’s face-to-face confrontation with police, in which he had shouted, “Draw your gun, pig, and I’ll draw mine!” gave him heroic stature in those days when police were killing blacks with impunity.

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Eldridge had become the minister of information in the phalanx of black revo­lutionaries organized by Huey Newton into the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Huey had heard Eldridge speak on the radio about his program at the Black House — a cultural center he had started — and had promptly asked him to join the Panthers. But the Panthers were an armed organization, and paroled con­victs were prohibited from possessing weapons, so Eldridge’s affiliation was not publicized. He signed the articles he wrote in their newpaper anonymously as “Minister of Information.”

Eldridge’s prison involvement with the Black Muslims had made him the target of harassment, and when he was finally released on parole in December 1966 he became what prison authorities referred to euphemistically as a “special study” case. He was required to report weekly in person to his parole officer. But as a consequence of his having been arrested that May, along with the 21 armed and uniformed Panthers who had marched into the California state capitol in Sacra­mento protesting a new law to ban the carrying of weapons within city limits, Eldridge had been placed under extreme restrictions. When I arrived, he was not allowed to travel outside of San Francisco and was prohibited from making public statements of any kind.

The Panther’s headquarters were in Oakland, but Eldridge risked violating his parole if he were caught driving across the bridge to Oakland. So the Pan­thers regularly trooped over to his studio apartment on Castro Street.

I always knew when Huey was on his way to see us, because his footsteps on the stairs outside were always twice as fast as anyone else’s. He was invariably in a hurry, and rushed into the room full of excitement over the immediate crisis or project he wanted Eldridge’s help on. He usually spoke rapidly, his high-pitched voice rising and falling in a peculiar cadence.

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Huey was not a tall man, nor especially muscular. But his smooth, reddish-brown skin, his large, deep-set dark eyes, and that rakish devil-may-care expression made him extraordinarily appealing. He was handsome, energetic, charming, and fearless. He had a reputation among Oak­land’s toughest street fighters. In this elite company, he was considered the best. But his volatile aggressiveness was enveloped, at least in the company of women, by a gracious, cultivated exterior that concealed all but a glint of his under­lying ferocity.

Bobby Seale and Huey had met at Merritt College in Oakland in a black student organization, part of the bur­geoning “black consciousness” movement that was sweeping college campuses. But unlike many students, neither of them was content to pontificate in relative comfort about the urgent problems facing black communities, to be what Bobby contemptuously referred to as “armchair revolutionaries.” In October 1966, while Bobby and Huey were on the payroll of one of the poverty program projects in Oakland, they founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

They adopted the style and structure of foreign revolutionary organizations, with Huey taking the title of Minister of De­fense, as opposed to President, and Bob­by calling himself Chairman. Bobby Hut­ton, one of the street kids their program was supposed to serve, whom they called “Little Bobby” to distinguish him from Bobby Seale, became their first member and the organization’s treasurer. They modeled the 10-Point Platform and Pro­gram for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense on the Nation of Islam state­ment “What We Want, What We Believe,” that appeared on the back page of every issue of Mohammed Speaks.

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In the wake of the 1965 Watts riot, an organization called the Community Ac­tion Patrol had come into being. Its members, all dressed similarly, drove around the streets of Watts to protect black residents from the type of police abuse that was provoking riots across the country. The image of that group had stuck in Bobby’s and Huey’s minds. Both had been deeply affected by the assassi­nation of Malcolm X and wanted to cre­ate a genuine means for blacks to exercise the self-defense Malcolm had advocated, in particular against the violence perpet­uated by those Huey called “racist dogs”: the police. Oakland’s police, with whom Huey had had his share of run-ins, were renowned in the black neighborhoods for their brutality and arrogance.

The first action they planned was to send out patrols, armed with guns, tape recorders, and law books to follow the police in the streets of Oakland. They consciously sought to destroy the fear the police engendered, confronting them in broad daylight, while openly carrying guns — Huey with a riot shotgun and Bobby with a .45. At the time, California law permitted the open carrying of weap­ons within the city limits, as long as no live round of ammunition was held in the chamber. Huey’s aborted law school ca­reer was sufficient to unlock the secrets hidden within arcane law books.

Huey’s girlfriend at the time, LaVerne, who planned to have a classical music career, did not approve of Huey’s involvement with the Panthers. He was her ac­companist at rehearsals and concerts, and she believed her singing career would be jeopardized if Huey got more involved with the Black Panthers. Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, Bobby Hutton, and other close friends who followed Huey’s lead in forming the party were pulling him in the opposite direction. In those heady days when the Vietnam war was tearing the entire body politic into shreds, its blood­stained reality made social revolution seem like a valid alternative to integra­tion; for many blacks thought that we were trying to get inside a house already on fire.

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I returned to San Francisco again that November, and Eldridge and I got mar­ried. By then, Huey was in the Alameda County Jail, locked in a cell atop the courthouse that sat on the edge of Lake Merritt. In late October 1967, not too long after Che Guevara was killed in Bo­livia, Huey had been jailed for murdering Officer John Frey. Frey had stopped Huey late one evening for a traffic check; and in the ensuing gun battle, Huey’s passenger escaped, Officer Hilliard was wounded, Huey was shot in the stomach, and Frey was killed. Huey was indicted for murder and faced the gas chamber if convicted.

At the time of the shooting, most of the Panthers, including Bobby Seale, were doing time on charges stemming from their arrest in Sacramento. When I got to San Francisco, they no longer had an office; the newspaper had not been published in months; they had no money; and the passage of a law banning the open carrying of weapons had put an end to their patrols. But Huey was facing the gas chamber if nothing was done. So, Eldridge asked me to help him mobilize a defense for Huey. He knew that taking on such a visible role might jeopardize his parole, but, he told me, “Keeping Huey out of the gas chamber is more important than keeping myself out of San Quentin.” By the time of the trial, the support we gathered for Huey had ballooned into a full-fledged “Free Huey” movement.

This momentum led to the rebirth of the organization Huey had started, but now with the abbreviated name the Black Panther Party. No longer a squad of armed men, it became a multipurpose black liberation movement advocating “Power to the People” that took the Leave-It-to-Beaver mentality of white America by surprise, and projected a brand new black image as ferocious and fearless as Huey Newton. Even though he remained behind bars, Huey became a living symbol of the transformation of black America. He was more a legend than a leader. The tumultuous insistence that blacks’ rights be respected, Huey’s need to defend himself, and the Panthers’ political platform of self-defense all com­bined into a powerful message for change.

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Aside from a few brief visits in the county jail, I never saw Huey Newton again. In September 1968 he was convict­ed in a compromise verdict of voluntary manslaughter and sent off to San Luis Obispo to serve his sentence. By then Eldridge was fighting to stay out of pris­on on bail; he, along with five other Pan­thers, faced charges stemming from an­other shoot-out with the Oakland police, in which “Little Bobby” was killed, days after Martin Luther King’s assassination. He lost the court battle and left the coun­try a fugitive. We were reunited in Algeria the following year. In 1971 Huey expelled us from the Black Panther Party by transatlantic telephone call, setting in motion the “split” in the party, one of those violent internal struggles over the the direction of the organization provoked by the FBI’s counterintelligence program. There was no further communication un­til I got a call from him last year. He said he wanted to talk. We agreed to get to­gether. He seemed to have attempted a reconciliation of sorts with some of the people who had loved and fought for him but whom he had perplexed and infuriat­ed by the string of bizarre and brutal episodes that had become his life. But the attempt fizzled.

His murder, like Abbie Hoffman’s sui­cide, gave me a deep sadness. Their deaths, in a sense, serve as an epitaph to the ’60s. Their passion and flamboyance, brilliance and vision defined our era, en­hanced our lives, and changed history — ­but could never calm the insatiable de­mons within that took them away. ■

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1989 Village Voice obituary - remembrance of Huey Newton by Kathleen Cleaver

1989 Village Voice obituary - remembrance of Huey Newton by Kathleen Cleaver

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‘Contraband Cinema’ Brings Political Films to BAM

BAM’s 33-film program “Contraband Cinema” asks, per its manifesto, “What makes a political film?” Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) concludes that there’s no other kind, reading worker alienation from a series of movie scenes set outside of factories, from the Lumière brothers to Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Pasolini’s awesome, awful finale, gets an ironic Independence Day screening. Transposing the Marquis de Sade to Fascist Italy, Pasolini creates a Sadean anti-utopia in a sealed Lake Garda villa, where old whores and establishment authorities clinically subject kidnapped youths to horrible abuse. The director’s contradictions have never been more volatile, as he indicts power structures, godless liberation (“We Fascists are the true Anarchists,” one exploiter states), audience participation, and his own libertine libido. Had Pasolini not been murdered a week before Salò‘s release, it’s difficult to imagine how he would’ve followed this self-immolating performance, which retains the power to disturb in the era of the sham-seditious blockbuster. (Rented by undercover cops shaking down a gay bookstore, it prompted a 1994 obscenity case—thrown out—in my hometown of Cincinnati.)

Troubling images of another kind emerge from the great French ethnographer Jean Rouch’s study in colonial pathology, Les Maîtres Fous (1954). Rouch narrates the annual ceremony of the Hauka sect, whose adherents, everyday workers from Ghana’s “Black Babylon,” allow themselves once a year to be possessed by demons, alter egos representative of the Anglo ruling class, as they role-play a parody of life among the elite while frothing at the mouth. 1970’s Eldridge Cleaver finds the Black Panthers’ minister of information trying to move the conversation forward from White Devils, visibly fatigued by his Algerian exile following a shoot-out with the Oakland PD. Director William Klein made some of the worst “radical” pabulum imaginable, but in colluding with Cleaver, he gets a complex and magnetic figure down on film.

The middle-class white runaways of Underground (1976) certainly memorized Cleaver’s rhetoric. Filmmakers Emilie de Antonio, Mary Lampson, and Haskell Wexler powwow with four Weather Underground fugitives in the middle of their decade on the run, prompted by the accidental explosion of their 11th Street townhouse. (The FBI unsuccessfully subpoenaed the three directors for their footage.) Rewatching his younger self, William Ayers reported being embarrassed by the group’s “rigidity and the narcissism.” Well . . .

The classic counterculture political film has its numbing orthodoxies, like anything: Marxist-revolutionist dictums applied to new oppressed classes while earnest tone-deaf folk music oppresses the ears. 1989’s Chameleon Street, by contrast, is the rare party of one. The theme is faking it in America. Writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr. stars as whip-smart “I think therefore I sham” William Street, a real-life black Detroit con artist who reinvented himself more times than, say, Eldridge Cleaver, chasing the almighty dollar by posing as a reporter, convict, doctor, and Frenchman (“Pépé le Mofo”). Chameleon Street is a really funny success story, well-matched to Nathanael West’s A Cool Million (like West, Street fakes his way into the Ivy League), with a tricksterish, appropriative style. Harris tunes his baritone to imitate Orson Welles and Barry White, but he says something that’s entirely his own.

The “Contraband” of this series’ title is, perhaps, a misnomer. You will not be set on with rubber bullets and truncheons while leaving BAM. In fact, God-bless-America in its crudest form gets the closing-night last word, via Sly Stallone’s Rocky IV (1985). The film is comprised almost entirely of Burt Young interacting with a robot butler, skull-rattling punch-outs, and flashback/workout music videos scored to Survivor and John Cafferty, as HGH poster boy Stallone villainizes Soviet champ Ivan Drago’s steroid use. Rocky mumbles for peace, Mikhail Gorbachev slow-claps, and, four years later, the Berlin Wall crumbles. Who says art can’t change the world?

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The Great Down-Low Debate

Richard Pryor used to do a bit where he joked about his experiences “fucking the faggot.” He wasn’t declaring himself gay, far from it, and no one listening assumed as much. He was just admitting that he could get off by screwing another guy. Pryor made his living parading life’s dirty little secrets onstage. In this case, the fact that a lot of black men “get with dudes,” as we now say when being circumspect.

That was 1971, before identity came to America’s bedrooms. While some black folks have since assumed our place in the gay rainbow, many have rejected sexual identity in favor of keeping Pryor’s secret undercover. In a much discussed 2000 U.S. Centers for Disease Control survey, a quarter of black men who acknowledged that they have had sex with other men identified themselves as heterosexual, compared to around 6 percent of their white counterparts.

A more recent CDC study, released this February, has shoved these men under the microscope like never before. The report estimated that over 30 percent of twentysomething black “men who have sex with men,” the CDC’s deliberately neutral term, are HIV positive. It put the number at 33 percent in New York City, which is a higher rate of infection than in the general population of any sub-Saharan African country other than Botswana.

The study has left everyone trying to figure out why African American gay men seem uniquely immune to HIV prevention efforts. Increasingly, people believe the answers will be found only when we figure out what makes guys like Tevin (a fake name) tick. Born and raised in New York City, this self-assured 25-year-old is a portrait of the young, savvy urban black male. Dressed hip-hop casual—in a baggy sweater, khakis, and spotless white kicks; with his smooth, dark skin, tight goatee, and cornrows, Tevin is a lady’s dream. But he’s also the Don Juan fantasy of a certain group of men: guys who live “on the down low,” or DL.

“I like girls. I have a girl,” Tevin says with a smirking shrug. “But every once in a while, ’cause women can be very stressful, I might chill with a dude. And it’s just having fun. If something pops off, it pops off. Give each other a pound and meet up later.”

Tevin won’t have anything to do with gay culture, doesn’t know anything about it and couldn’t care less. By and large, his thoughts on the subject are in lockstep with most of black America’s: It’s all good if it’s your thing, but I ain’t no punk.

Nor is Tevin willing to accept a sexual orientation. “I consider myself just sexual,” he professes. “A freak!”

But this polished detachment doesn’t quite veil a much more complicated set of emotions. The brother is in love. He met Jason (also a fake name) at a fight party eight months ago, and the two have been “in each other’s face” ever since. Although they don’t mess with other men, Tevin is quick to make it clear that doesn’t mean they are “quote unquote dating.” Still, there’s a lot more popping off here than sex.

“It’s crazy but, yeah, the feelings are strong,” he admits.

Tevin’s met guys in the past who have claimed to be “DL.” But they always proved to be fakers and ended up acting queer. Jason’s not like that. He has no interest in women, but he still flirts with them. He doesn’t try to be affectionate with Tevin in public. And most important, he doesn’t flame out.

“I think if you’re a dude, you should act like a dude, look like a dude, talk like a dude. If you’re a chick, you should act like a chick,” Tevin explains. “When you start mixing ’em up, that makes me nervous. I wouldn’t disrespect people who act like that, but it just turns me off.”

This cult of masculinity is at the heart of being DL. Men like Tevin style themselves as prototypes of black manhood, and gender benders don’t cast well in that role. Nathan Kerr, a gay Caribbean American whose Brooklyn marketing firm produces safe sex ads targeting DL men, says he’s conducted focus groups where even flamboyantly feminine black men rejected the gay label because of its perceived weakness. “Gayness was seen as the whole sissy fag thing,” he explains.

Feminist cultural critic bell hooks argues that this perceived conflict between gayness and black macho also underpins homophobia in the community today, and dates back to the Black Power movement of Pryor’s years. For hooks, when Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver declared of his gay brother, “The white man has robbed him of his masculinity, castrated him in the center of his burning skull,” it stuck.

Ironically, openly gay writer James Baldwin, Cleaver’s primary target, was then—and for years remained—one of the movement’s most vocal defenders. Baldwin even excused Cleaver’s attack as the misguided defensiveness of a “zealous watchman” over blackness. But decades later, the watchman’s words still echo through hip-hop culture. As Ice Cube has reminded us, “true niggas ain’t gay.”

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This homophobia, argues hooks—whose latest book, Salvation, dissects what she sees as a communal “crisis of lovelessness”—is indicative of a larger discomfort with sexuality. “Black folks can’t even talk in a healthy way about straight sex,” hooks complains. “How are we going to talk about gay sex and s/m and bisexuality and so on?”

In the meantime, the problem with gay identity for men like Tevin is that it disqualifies them for the Black Man identity they prefer. And since sexual liberation has robbed them of the right to simply slip off and “fuck the faggot,” they’ve developed the DL.

Of course, DL is itself a way of organizing one’s life around the common trait of sexual desires, complete with a unique language. Solicitors in personal ads and chat rooms signify degrees of authenticity with coded monikers such as “serious DL brotha” and “real roughneck nigga.” The latter splinters off into the related but distinct “homo-thug” identity, which allows Pryor’s faggot of today to still qualify for the violent conception of black masculinity popularized by gangsta rap.

But many unambiguously gay African Americans have responded to the DL and homo-thug trends by declaring these guys nothing more than repackaged closet cases. And they warn that the segmented lives such identities create are dangerous—both for the guy on the down low and his unsuspecting female partner. Tevin, like most DL men, has never told his girlfriend, with whom he lives and has a child, that he sleeps with men as well. He asserts his burgeoning affair with Jason in no way conflicts with his love for her, and that his concealment of it is thus not lying.

Tevin also says he always uses condoms. But even if so, is he an anomaly?

There’s little research to determine how often black men eschewing sexual identity use protection with their male or female partners, but both the CDC and gay-identified blacks working in AIDS prevention point to the 2000 report for guidance. All of the men in that survey were positive, and many believe the respondents who called themselves straight help form an “HIV bridge” that is responsible for skyrocketing infection rates among both African American women and homosexual men. It’s why, some gay activists say, public health needs to encourage DL brothers to be more honest with themselves and their lovers of either gender.

“You can’t address the risk if you don’t talk about the context in which it happens,” sighs Timothy Benston, who coordinates Soul Food, a Gay Men’s Health Crisis program that targets African Americans. “Black gay men lead schizophrenic lives.”

If so, retort those in another corner of the intensifying debate, it’s schizophrenia caused by “gayified” blacks trying to shove a white concept down the community’s throat. “One of the assumptions gay makes is that if you don’t call yourself gay then you’re in the closet,” snaps Cleo Manago, an Oakland area AIDS activist who is a leader in the “Same Gender Loving” movement on the West Coast.

That movement aims to discard pink triangles and rainbow flags—symbols created by and for Europeans—and build a new identity around words and concepts created by and for black people. Among the first to go, Manago says, is the in and out of the closet dichotomy that serves only to emphasize separation from the larger community. “Instead of demanding that people respect you because of how you fuck, do something within the community,” Manago rails.

And when it comes to HIV prevention, he says, the problem has been that the “old guard” black gays leading the effort “still pull a defiant gay anchor around,” pushing an out-of-touch political agenda that alienates those they are trying to reach.

But gay activists respond that Manago is peddling a cultural relativism that should stop at the closet door. “Most people in our community are saying, ‘Represent! Represent,’ ” pleads Maurice Franklin of Gay Men of African Descent. Franklin notes that he and others like him live and socialize as open gays in the black community. “It doesn’t mean that we have to go out carrying rainbow flags,” adds activist Keith Boykin. “But we do have to acknowledge sexual orientation.”

Which is just fine with Tevin. And as for whether or not he’s lying or repressed, and what it means for his and his partners’ HIV risk, that’s not his question to answer. “I don’t feel like I’m pushing anything back,” he claims. “I’m not saying how you choose to deal with your situation is wrong, but I’m good where I’m at.”

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GMAD will host a conference June 14-17 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, to discuss HIV and black gay men. Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. will be among the speakers. For more info, call 212-929-8750.