Queen Bey and the BPP

With all of the stir caused by Beyoncé, her song Formation and the subsequent Super Bowl performance, I figured this would be a good time to do a history lesson on the Black Panther Party (BPP). Given the recent comparisons of the BPP to the KKK, nw seems as good a time as ever. I will not dive into how amazing the performance was, there are plenty of black women who have written about it from the most credible perspectives. Today we’re doing the Black Panther Party.

No, having acronymns and wearing mostly one color doesn’t make them the same. I won’t do a rundown of the KKK. They’ve murdered thousands of black people and allies in their various forms since the end of the Civil War. Their tactics brutal and their message hate. America’s homegrown terrorists. The BPP is NOT that. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was not the first nor the last black organization formed out of resistance and exclusion (shoutout to Stacy Dash for thinking we shouldn’t have things like that i.e. NAACP, BET).

*I would like to add a brief disclaimer here, I personally have much more to learn and study, however this will cover the basics so we can settle these discussions with facts not misinformation*

 

Over 5,000 full time party workers, 45 chapters nationwide, and 250,000 papers sold weekly at their height. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Both were members of activist groups in college in Oakland, California. Their ideology was farther left than many of their contemporaries (black nationalists like Malcolm X): they believed that there was a difference between racist whites and non-racist whites, they believed black capitalists were included amongst exploiters and oppressors, and that overthrowing the capitalist system was crucial. Bobby Seale said:

“We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitive capitalism with Black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism.”

Yes. These Black Panthers, these pro-black revolutionaries that have been likened to the racist terrorist organization the Klu Klux Klan, believed in the same fundamental economic principle as 2016’s heralded savior, Bernie Sanders. They understood that capitalism at its root, is an oppressive system, and in order to free ALL Black peoples, they must work towards the destruction of such an oppressive system. They also opposed some of the segregation-based Black Nationalist views of the day that believed in the evil of all whites (“white devils”).

Their methods were brash, sometimes offensive and intimidating. But they worked towards economic achievement for their community and focused on educating children who otherwise would not have learned their history. I won’t list everything the group has done since 1966, some I agree with others I do not. The Party still exists today, but we know the argument being made is against the BPP peak, the berets and afros of 1966-1973 or so. Without listing every individual’s biography and rap sheet (as volumes can be and have been written on Bobby Seale and Huey Newton alone), the BPP can be summarized in one anecdote:

The BPP started the Free Breakfast for School Children Program in 1969 in Oakland, California. The program grew, and spread across their other chapters. Thousands of young children from impoverished, still unofficially segregated, black children from Oakland to Harlem were being fed breakfast before school each day. Alongside feeding the children, they also provided education, health care etc at their centers. Teaching students about their own history in a way their local schools would not (and still do not, pickup your younger sibling’s history book and see how these stories are framed). This program led to Head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover to say the following:

Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP, and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities… to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.

Among other programs, the BPP opened health clinics, a free ambulance service, a free food program (specifically healthy food) and black student alliances on college campuses. This Party needed toe be neutralized? Maybe it was what they stood for that Hoover thought needed to be destroyed:

 

Freedom. Their goals aren’t too different from the fight happening today, their message of power for themselves and their people not too different from Beyonce’s declaration of souther pride. The reception hasn’t been too different either.

“Always stay gracious best revenge is your paper.”

-Beyonce, Formation

“Five-star dishes, food for thought bithces. I mean this shit is, Bobby Seale making meals, you can’t resist.

-Kendrick Lamar,

The Father of Rock and Roll

Of course, it’s Black History Month. History is my favorite subject. It’s what I major in. It’s what I plan to teach, and it’s my nerdy pleasure. So to celebrate BHM, I’m going to write a feature in Black American History each week (UPDATE: haven’t had Wi-Fi for a few days, so this first one will be Wednesday, the rest on Monday). We all learned in school about George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, MLK and Malcolm X. Although many of their stories have been whitewashed and made safe for elementary age children, they’re important figures nonetheless. But I want to focus on contributions people don’t always expect. Moments in history black people are not often given credit for, or that are more complex than on the surface:

Most will credit black people with Jazz, Blues, R&B, and of course Hip Hop. Innovative genres that all played into the next, a mirror of our history so to speak. Of course certain genres are acknowledged to be founded by other cultures in America. Nobody is rushing to credit us with Country music, although we are represented in that space in modern times. Most casual music fans chalk up the start of Rock N’ Roll to the wave begun by Elvis Presley in the 1950’s and 60’s. The logical end to the swing and miscellaneous dance crazes of the WWII generation spurred out of the Roaring Twenties. Music evolves with the times, so Elvis was just the next logical step for that genre, birthing Rock and Roll.

But that isn’t the whole story. Rock and Roll started before Elvis graced stages and melted the hearts of women. Before Elvis, was the inventor the duckwalk, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Member, and the first to put Rock music on wax, so to speak, Chuck Berry.

Charles Anderson Edward Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926. He served three years in prison from age 18-21. He was a father of four. He had a college educated mother, and a self-reliant carpenter for a father. Chuck Berry lived in a highly segregated community, in the south, in one of the most oppressive times in American History. These are the quick highlights. The facts you can find on Wikipedia really quickly. Down to the real story. How we ended up with Rock N’ Roll.

Playing jazz songs by guitar in the Sir John’s Trio in 1953, a band started by a high school friend, Jonnie Johnson. Playing in local nightclubs, Chuck gained a reputation for his lively performances and showmanship, while also mixing in upbeat country songs along with their jazz and pop set. This style of music, a black man performing traditionally white songs and putting on a show, attracted an increasingly segregated audience. With growing popularity, Chuck Berry began making trips to Chicago in order to attract the attention of record labels and eventually sign a contract. After meeting blues performer Muddy Waters, he was directed towards Chess Records. He presented the record label with his song Maybellene, signed a contract and recorded his eventual #1 hit on May 21, 1955. The first rock song was recorded and distributed.

Chuck Berry would go on to put out 18 studio albums, 45 singles (only one went #1, although many spent weeks on the charts), and was still performing as recently as 2014, at the age of 87. As described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “he played western guitar licks over a base of rhythm and blues. The distorted sound of Berry’s guitar captured the rough, untamed spirit of rock and roll.” While tame compared to today’s rock stars, without Berry’s foundation, The Rolling Stones and Beatles might have been singing bluegrass. A genre not often associated with the history of black people in this country, but an important figure in musical, and our history nonetheless.

 

 

*Duckwalk can be seen at 1:15 mark of video

“Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul, Chuck Berry is rock n’ roll, you may dig on the Rolling Stones but they ain’t come up with that style on their own.”

-Mos Def, Rock N’ Roll

 

**I own none of the photographs or videos linked in this post