An anthology commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers focusing on the ordinary lives of its members.
The Panthers’ fungible reputation still affects American race relations. Co-editors Shih, a photojournalist and former contributor to the Financial Times, and Williams (Dean, Arts and Sciences/Fairfield Univ.; Teaching U.S. History: Beyond the Textbook, 2008, etc.) note their project was inspired by Shih’s portraits of Panther members, which “demystify the group and present its former members as they are today.” They divide the book into five sections to examine members’ routes into the group, its strengths in coalition building and community action, and the violent counter-reaction by the government. These are developed into a fuller narrative via several essays by other scholars such as Peniel E. Joseph, who connects the Panthers’ famous leadership to the outlook of their lesser-known followers: “Like many young black men of their generation…[Huey] Newton and [Bobby] Seale chafed against institutional racism, inadequate education, and police brutality.” Many interviews capture a similar sense of youthful outrage; as a Japanese-American Panther notes, “we weren’t any different in the way the larger society was treating us.” Some contributors address the slippery nature of the Panthers’ story, which tends to simplify their radical politics and sensationalize leaders’ demands for armed self-defense. As Jama Lazerow explains, “a series of problems frustrates any attempt to accurately characterize the rank and file of the Black Panther Party.” Interviewees acknowledge less romantic aspects of the movement, such as its eventual violent fracturing, which they insist was fomented by the FBI. Such flaws are contrasted with overlooked initiatives such as food pantries and medical care; as Alondra Nelson argues, they “placed these matters in the context of their broader political strategy.” The surviving radicals regard their Panther years as formative; many went on to careers in social services or even government.
An interesting celebration of a unique era’s activism, with greatest appeal to progressive readers.