Black People : From the Bullet to the Ballot: An Unfavorable Review of a Work on the Black Panther Party

Discussion in 'Black People Open Forum' started by RAPTOR, Dec 13, 2013.


    RAPTOR Well-Known Member MEMBER

    United States
    Sep 12, 2009
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    by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

    Historians are supposed to help us make sense of the world, by illuminating the forces and trends that shape the lives and destinies of ordinary people. But historians in the service of power do something else. Whether carelessly or carefully, they omit and distort to come up with histories that justify today's establishment as the inheritors of a noble tradition of struggle on the part of ordinary people. It's time for more people's histories of our movement, and of the historic Black Panther Party. Regrettably, this is not one of them.

    For all of 1969 and most of 1970 I was a rank and file member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. For many young people like me, the BPP, or as we still call it, “the party” was a personally and politically formative experience, a challenging graduate level introduction to the practical politics of black, and of human liberation, full of many more lessons than our heads could absorb at the time. These lessons came at a great cost to many of our families and comrades, including decades of imprisonment for some of us, exile and early deaths for others.

    It's the job of peoples' historians to and interpret and share those lessons, to nail them up where everyone can debate and discuss them, so that ordinary people can better understand the forces that shape our lives. Unfortunately, the peoples history of the Black Panther Party and the movement in Chicago hasn't been written yet.

    “From the Bullet to the Ballot:” Dr. Jakobi Williams 2013 book for which the author says he interviewed a number of my own comrades and accessed Chicago Police Red Squad files at some personal risk to himself, falls well short of helping us understand the party in Chicago, the context from which it emerged, why it flourished and eventually folded, or what its lasting impacts were. Though Dr. Williams denies that his book draws a direct and causal link between the efforts of the party in Chicago and the current crop of black faces in high corporate, military and government places, with President Barack Obama at the top of that heap, there can be no doubt that his title alone does precisely that.

    Establishment historians have a different sort of gig than peoples historians. The establishment historian has to justify, to legitimize the forces currently in power, to depict their rule as the inevitable outcome of just and meritorious struggle. The black misleadership class needs its historians to tie it firmly to the Freedom Movement, the Black Power movement, and even to the Black Panther Party because even when power flows from the top down, legitimacy flows from the people, from the bottom up, from the streets to the suites.

    Henry Louis Gates and Peniel Joseph are the best examples of black establishment historians, spinning tales of black history whose happy ending is always the election of Barack Obama in 2008, omitting, bending and distorting inconvenient facts as needed along the way, and swapping marketing constructs for explanations of social forces to achieve their happy ending. In the final chapter of Gates' PBS series, Many Rivers To Cross, they ascribed the success of the Black Panther Party mostly due to the romantic appeal of big naturals and black people with guns.

    To his credit, Dr. Williams' history does quite a bit better than this, but still lands squarely in bed with Skip Gates, Peniel Joseph and the lazy establishment historians on these four points:
    1. In “From the Bullet to the Ballot,” all mention of socialism, class struggle and explicit opposition to capitalism, every one of which were prominently featured in Chicago and national BPP speeches, publications and political education classes, is made to disappear.
    2. All or nearly all mention of opposition to US empire, and the wars in Vietnam and colonial Africa as part of the motivation of the BPP, is also erased, and the broad current of black opposition to the Vietnam war fed by the experience of black vets, among others, goes unexplored. To hear Dr. Williams tell it, black Americans of my generation didn't get excited about much of anything overseas until maybe the anti-apartheid movements of the 1980s.
    3. In place of the BPP's opposition to capitalist economic oppression at home and the draft and imperial war overseas, Gates and Joseph explain the BPP's wide popular appeal to the sheer coolness of big naturals and black people with guns. Dr. Williams goes a different way and says the success and historic impact of the BPP in Chicago was its successful interracial “coalition building.” Curiously, he then assigns the BPP to what they all call the “Black Power Movement,” something not especially well known for coalitions across racial lines.
    4. Authors don't choose their book titles lightly. Williams is a smart guy. He knew that casting the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the ultimate happy ending of black history was in demand when he chose his title “From the Bullet to the Ballot: the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party & Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago.” The notion that he really meant something else kind of fails the laugh test.
    Here's how the 4 points above play out in Williams' book: