Video School

Voices of Black Panther women

Produced by University of California, Berkeley

At once heartfelt, mirthful, infuriating, and inspiring, this panel brought together five Black Panther Party women to discuss their roles in the historical party for the self-preservation of African-American life and liberty through armed resistance and socialist organization. Although the panel was held in 1990 at the University of California, Berkeley, about twenty years after the violent destruction of the party through US government COINTELPRO efforts and the introduction of drugs into the African-American community, many of the women appeared under the pseudonyms they had been forced to assume for survival. Asked to speak about the question of chauvinism, the answers ranged from open acknowledgment and frustration, to empowerment. This video provides an important historical document portraying the often under-acknowledged role that women played in the party, not only as lieutenants and soldiers in its armed wing, but also as caretakers, secretaries, artists, pedagogues, administrators, writers, cooks, and organizers.

The panel, moderated by Kilu Niasha, consisted of Arty McMillan, ex-wife of party cofounder Bobby Seale, who was secretary of the national Black Panther Headquarters; Sheva Haven, who was the founder of the George Jackson people’s free health clinic and employed in an AIDS clinic at the time of the recording; Terica Lewis, artist and illustrator for the Black Panther Newspaper; Belva Butcher, assistant to the Party’s central committee; and Magita Rahman, charged with coordinating and founding the first Party school, and in 1990, director of the Healthy Babies Project, an organization founded to counter the high rates of infant mortality in Oakland, and to provide support for pregnant women endangered by poverty and drug abuse.

As these six women speak, we hear the rhetorical prowess and personal power that were fostered by political education and the demands of revolutionary struggle. Terica Lewis, a poet and artist, although acknowledging the problem of chauvinism, speaks forcefully to the importance of putting the struggle before any internal conflicts that, she insists, can only weaken its power. As a woman, raised in a racist and chauvinistic culture, it is impossible, she says, “to live in the ocean without getting wet.” Yet when a brother refused to acknowledge her authority on account of her gender, she’d reply, “You can speak to me. Or you can speak to Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.”

During the question and answer session, moderator Kilu Niasha read the call for the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, which I reproduce here because of its echo with our contemporary situation, as we see astronomical rates of mass incarceration and torture in a multibillion-dollar prison-industrial complex, and as resistance to violence against African-Americans continues to mount following the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and so many others:

“The hour is late and the situation is desperate. As a nation, America is now in the middle of the greatest crisis in its history, the Black Panther Party believes that the American people are capable of rising to the task that history has laid before the nation. We therefore call for a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention to be convened by the American people to write a new constitution that will guarantee and deliver to every American citizen the inviolable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We call upon the American people to rise up to repudiate and restrain the forces of fascism that are now rampant in the land and which are the only real obstacles standing in between us and a national resolution to the national crisis. We believe that Black people are not the only group within America that stands in need of a new constitution. Other oppressed ethnic groups, young men who are slaughtered as canon fodder in modern avaricious wars of aggression, our neglected elderly people, will have an interest in a new constitution that will guarantee us a society in which human rights are supreme and justice assured to every man, woman, and child within its jurisdiction. For it is only through this means that America as a nation can live together in peace with our brothers and sisters the world over. Only through this means can the present character of America, the purveyor of exploitation, misery, death, and wanton destruction all over the planet, be changed.”

This panel was part of a series of three events organized by the Graduate Assembly, University of California, Berkeley, and took place on October 26, 1990 at Booth Auditorium, Boalt Hall, University of California, Berkeley.

Noura Wedell‘s program composes a loose foray through different viewpoints on reproduction.