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  • Enna Uwaifo

A Conversation with Kathleen Cleaver

Kathleen Cleaver delivering a speech at FSU in Tallahassee, Florida in 1971.
“Revolutions are dangerous. It requires real people, real mobilisation”

In March, friend of YHP Zainab Abbas invited members of the Young Historians Project (YHP) to meet Kathleen Cleaver, the former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and ex-wife of the late Eldridge Cleaver. YHP’s last project explored the history of a group parallel to the Black Panther Party – the Black Liberation Front. Like the BPP, the BLF were met with the attacks from the state, such as the arrest of its founder Tony Soares. We engaged in a lengthy and deeply insightful discussion with Kathleen, traversing decades of stories. Our conversation involved the current political climate, and how we can best place ourselves in the effort to change our communities. Alongside snippets of our time with Zainab and Kathleen, this blog attempts to compare and piece together the state of activism today and in the era of the Black Power movement, as well as the journey we have ahead.

“You think you can change the cultural hegemony without a revolution? Gimme a break. How do you think you can change the cultural hegemony? Asking for change? Petitioning for change? Having movies saying if you do this, things will change? No… Revolution just means change. But usually it takes a war of some sort to change.” – Kathleen Cleaver

'Power to the People' encapsulated the BPP’s definition of revolution and was the energy that ran through its members’ psyche. The Black Panther Party for Self Defence, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, first challenged the police state through arming Black citizens to do their own patrols, but of the police. For Newton and Seale, intellectualism was not the cure for societal ills, action was. The BPP uniform of a black beret, black leather jacket and black trousers, remains a powerful symbol. Kathleen described the look as “clean and inexpensive”. Therein lies its genius – it was widely accessible for the Black working class. For me, the most powerful symbolism the BPP employed through their aesthetic was the gun. The gun represents an uncompromising philosophy adopted by the BPP, inspired by the Robert Williams’ 1962 book Negroes with Guns, which was Black people’s right to defend themselves. The gun challenged the image of the virtuous, non-violent Black activist founded in the strategic moralism underpinning the Civil Rights movement. The Black Power movement ushered in a new age of self-defence, secularism, and political pragmatism in the face of destruction.

Kathleen Cleaver (left) talking to YHP members
“But how did it free us?” – Sonia Sanchez

During our conversation, we reflected on the current faces of Black activism and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Kathleen proposed we reflect on a quote from Sonia Sanchez, an African American poet, to adequately scrutinise BLM – “But how did it free us?” Black Lives Matter is an organisation and movement formed to challenge and protest police brutality in the US today. Kathleen mentioned one of founders Black Lives Matter releasing an autobiography and she said, visibly annoyed, “Well how did that free us?”. Her question made me think of Deray McKesson’s uniform – his infamous Patagonia blue vest. McKesson is known for being a leading BLM activist. He is one of the founders of Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign consisting of 10 policy proposals. Recently on the Oscar red carpet, McKesson was photographed wearing a black tuxedo, a white shirt and a black bow tie, to distinguish himself, he embellished his outfit with his activist uniform, the Patagonia blue vest. A terrible aesthetic combo. When I think of Deray McKesson, I think of his activism and his identity as a Gay Black man. However, I do also think of his blue vest. To me, it is an empty statement. For McKesson, it "keeps him grounded in his purpose". Although I cannot judge his personal stylistic preferences, I can explore the effectivity of his activism and the efforts of BLM as a whole. Are they just treating the symptoms of racism or curing the disease? Does BLM’s platform look like the prerequisites for freedom? Whilst both were founded in ending police violence, the means of doing so between the Black Panther Party and the BLM movement are very different. The BPP had a socialist revolutionary agenda, whereas BLM utilise non-violent, reformist tactics.

For Kathleen, the BLM movement had the character of a 'counter-revolution'. Kathleen stated “I have no use for them frankly, that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something that’s helpful, but they are not doing anything that I consider helpful to anybody. Whoever they are helping, I don’t know of. But I know many of them are making names for themselves.”

The BPP newspaper, known as the Black Panther Black Community News Service, was distributed both nationally and internationally. Today, mass communication has taken on a totally new shape through the revolution of the internet and social media. The BLM movement is able to communicate to the masses for free. The mobilisation of voices only takes a millisecond through the magic of social media and the use of a hashtag. But I could not help but think about how can these shifts in consciousness materialise into real change?

YHP member Jasmine Brienburg succinctly identified the problem with BLM and modern social movements, stating that “activism is sellable” and shrouded with “populism”. What is BLM selling that leaves a bad taste people’s mouths? In the slogans “Stop shooting us” and “Hands up, don’t shoot” lies the remnants of “a plantation mentality” says Elaine Brown, who was the chairwoman of the BPP in 1974. Brown associates it with pleading with the 'Master' to spare’s one life – thus reinforcing the position of the powerful versus the powerless. We have to admit “Hands up, don’t shoot” is a far cry from “Power to the people”. The essence of the BPP that inspired the world was the message of directing your own destiny. As noted by Bobby Seale, Newton saw the potential in brothers off the block, brothers who had been out there robbing banks, brothers who had been pimping, brothers who had been peddling dope, brothers who ain’t gonna take no shit. The Black Panthers were extremely powerful because they refused to be fatalistic about the conditions of black communities and encouraged Black people to resist oppression through education and defiance.

Towards the end, we did a mini photoshoot, Kathleen was more than willing to let me flex my amateur photography skills to capture her beauty. I got some lovely shoots of her and captured the sisterly love between Zainab and Kathleen. After ensuring that we were well-fed, Zainab showed us some relics gathered throughout her life, including a Christmas card she received from the Obamas. She also showed us her name card from a NYU event held in 2012, reuniting Panthers from the US, UK, India, and Australia – with Zainab representing the UK and Kathleen representing the US. She introduced the concept of the 'Politics of fear' into the discussion. I understood this to mean a political ploy used to instigate fear in the public by creating or misrepresenting a social 'threat' – often leading to the public giving the state permission to eliminate the 'threat' and increase protection. This in turn allows the state to increase security, surveillance, and restriction of freedoms.

“The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country." – J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972

One of the stories Kathleen told us was how she met Assata Shakur at a party in Cuba whilst she was there for the Havana Film Festival. The story was exciting, but it later slipped into sadness. Assata Shakur was a former member of the Black Liberation Army. She was convicted of first degree murder and escaped from prison to Cuba, where she received political asylum. She currently has a $2M 'dead or alive' bounty on her head. “It is to erase her” Kathleen stated. This made me think of how history is documented today, and whose story gets to be told. Looking at history, it is easy to feel defeated. But we must remember that there are always ways to challenge the status quo. The Black Panther Party’s patrolling is today’s video camera. We have more resources than ever to be educated on how to empower ourselves, to connect with one another, and understand the world we occupy. The methods of the BPP and the BLF can be used to inspire the youth to imagine a life beyond their current situation – to encourage young people to challenge oppressive systems and channel their anger to transform society.

More importantly, our discussion with Kathleen Cleaver reinforced the importance of the Young Historians Project in documenting and rediscovering hidden histories in Britain. People espouse the language of wanting change through their frustrations with racism and other oppressive systems in society. But it is not enough to be conscious of oppression or to just be affiliated with being on the “right” political position. There needs to be a will to know your role in changing things, or else you risk being stuck in political apathy or victimisation. Everyone should get comfortable with being uncomfortable if you truly want to be on the “right side” of history.

Zainab Abbas and Kathleen Cleaver (left to right)

Kathleen Cleaver, 2018

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