I’m a Man (Part 2)

by Oivvio Polite

Translated by Jennifer Hayashida

From a Swedish horizon it is easy to identify the Swedish Left of the 60s as an identity project for bourgeois youth and to think of projects in other countries as more “real.” While the Swedish 60s were about identity, the global 60s were about real questions of social justice. FNL, postcolonial liberation movements, Black Power – all that was “for real” while the student union occupation at Stockholm University was a game of make-believe.
If you look more closely at the projects outside Sweden you of course see that they are not uncomplicated heroic liberation movements that unfold in a “reality” beyond questions of self-image and representation. Not so surprising, perhaps, but easy to forget.

It is rarely as obvious as when you look at the Black Panthers. It is difficult to point to a single substantial reform brought about by their work. Other, more moderate organizations, had pushed for and won anti-discrimination cases in the courts. Granted, the Panthers ran a number of community programs, but it is not thanks to those activities that they have become heroes to hip-hop artists since Public Enemy. They are celebrated for being one of the most powerful catalysts to change the representation and self-representation of black people.

Stokely Carmichael

Stokely Carmichael

The Panthers did not make a plea to the conscience of white America. Their tactics were uncompromising confrontation, or at least an idea of confrontation. As Eldrige Cleaver says about Stokely Carmichael: “[He’s] calling for a showdown with racism.” Is racism something that you can confront once and for all, like when Clint confronts Lee Van Cleef? The Panthers’ writings are permeated by that kind of strikingly masculine rhetoric, on a linguistic as well as an analytic level. Cleaver names Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” as the “Black Bible” that teaches “…colonial subjects that it is perfectly normal for them to want to rise up and cut off the heads of the slave masters, that it is a way to achieve their manhood, and that they must oppose the oppressor in order to experience themselves as men.”
The violence is for Fanon a philosophical necessity in order for the colonized to be able to be able to transform the self into a subject. It is an aspect of Fanon’s thinking that his postcolonial rediscoverers have difficulty handling, but which suited the Panthers perfectly.
For Cleaver, Huey Newton’s complete fearlessness and readiness to resort to violence make him a messiah. Through his behavior Newton shows other black men that they also can be just that: men.

“I cannot help but say that Huey P. Newton is the baddest motherfucker ever to set foot inside of history.” Bobby Seale

Black Panther national chairman Bobby Seale, left, and Huey Newton

Black Panther national chairman Bobby Seale, left, and Huey Newton

Still today that type of statement possesses a seductive quality. Even for me. And it is not simply that I am black and male, and have my own chauvinism to deal with. Above all, I am shaped by a culture that still equates violence and masculinity and a fully formed subject. The civil rights activists also saw normative masculinity as a central question, but they tried to achieve it by being clean, Christian, and upstanding.

The Panthers transformed society into a theater where they staged a western drama with a new character in the lead: “a crazy motherfucker who won’t back down to anything or anyone.” Like when they gathered, armed, on the lawn of the California State Assembly in Sacramento, practicing their constitutional right to bear arms. It was with this type of gala performances that the Panthers transformed the image of the black man from the lazy imbecile Stepin Fetchit to 50 Cent, from a ridiculous stereotype to a frightening one.

Dad and his friends were politicized in Sweden. As I see it, it was that shift in attitude from “I’m as clean-cut as you are” to “I’m tougher than you are” that got them to change. To not actively participate in the civil rights movement was completely in line with their bohemian drive away from everything that smelled middle-class, to not align themselves with the Panthers would have been just as middle-class.

In his autobiography the journalist Leonard Malone writes about his first meeting with the Panthers in the spring of 1969.

When I first saw Bobby Seale and Masai Hewitt marching down one of the
airport’s corridors, dressed in black turtle neck sweaters, black pants and jump
boots and with black mongolian caps with the bright red Mao buttons pinned on,
and carrying long cardboard tubes as if they were bearing the shotguns that they
had become notorious for, but where of course only posters. I had the distinct
feeling (similar to those feelings I had experienced during LSD trips) that I was
being projected into the future, They exuded a futuristic air about them; as if
history had suddenly accelerated and we were now living during a time when
the American revolution was really happening in the classic revolutionary sense;
like when Fidel and Che arrived on the beaches of Havana in the boat they had
named Grandma.

Solidarity committees for the Panthers were formed in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo. The core of the Stockholm group was made up of younger black guys, Vietnam draft dodgers, visiting students, and white Swedish girls around the same age. They sold Panther newspapers, raised money, organized exhibitions and informational meetings.
Alma Murphy, one of only a few black female artists who came to Scandinavia in the 60s describes it this way:

I was in my late twenties when I came here. And the Panthers, some of them
where, you could say boys in a sense. One thing that happened, I think as a result
of slavery, was that many black men where over delighted that white women took
an interest in them. And in return, often they treated them very badly. These girls often became the whipping horses for the whole racist story. And the black women…
I don’t know where we fit in. We could be met in the street with “hey sister, hey sister”, but not in a nice way. There wasn’t really a place for me. There was no
reason to include someone like me.

There was no room for black women in the liberation process of these black men. Maybe because it was a project that demanded there be women who were not working towards their own liberation projects.
My dad, my stepbrother, and I spent the summer of ’78 with my grandmother in Newark, New Jersey. The mothers stayed behind in Stockholm. I was six, Dad was forty-six. He had not been back to the U.S. in fifteen years. Grandma’s house had a color TV with Spiderman in every room, a pink tiled bathroom, ice slushes on the porch, the street outside full of playing kids, two cars in the driveway. Many of the memories from that trip in fact take place in the back seat of a giant Cadillac with red leather seats. One time we went for a ride after breakfast. Dad clad in a jaballa and slippers. At home we didn’t have a car, but here Dad was a good driver.

Leroi Jones

Leroi Jones

One day we visited Leroi Jones, one of Dad’s old friends. They had hung out together in Greenwich Village in the 50s, but had known each other as far back as high school. Dad was a few years older and when they were really young he had been an intellectual mentor for Leroi, inspired him to read and write and, later on, to move to New York. Since they had parted ways, Leroi had established himself as one of his generation’s most renowned writers and had moved back to Newark. He had two sons who were a few years older than I was.
That summer in the U.S. takes up a lot of space in my childhood memories, but Dad rarely talked about it. He used to return to a few things: that they had turned his old neighborhood in Newark into a parking lot, that one of my older cousins stole something from my brother, and then the visit with Leroi. Leroi’s two sons tried to light the family’s house on fire that day when we came to visit. That’s at least what Dad used to claim. Dad may not have become a celebrated writer, but at least he could control his kids.

In 1984 I was twelve, pre-pubescent, and hanging out in the city with friends who did “the electric boogie.” One time when we were dancing on Sergels Square I saw Dad in the audience. He stood there in his loden coat and hat and looked miserable. Afterwards he said something about having devoted his entire life to getting away from ghetto culture. I don’t think I understood what he meant. Maybe I would have understood if I was twelve years old today, but in 1984 the “immigrant youth” had not yet been invented and was not available as a potential identity for me.
That year Leroi’s autobiography was published. He sent a signed copy to Dad. “For Allen, my main man from those ‘thrilling days of yesteryear.’” I remember that Dad and Mom sat at the coffee table, absorbed by the book. Dad is only mentioned once or twice as Allen Polite, but all the more frequently by another name: Steve Korret. Steve is an individual who has great influence over Leroi in his teens and who inspires him to move to New York, but he is also someone Leroi in the end sees through as a kind of neurotic poser, someone who pretended to be a poet but who in reality was a boor.
Unlike Carlene’s book, this one contains quite a few notes in the margins, mostly guesses about the real people hiding behind various aliases. Lita is Dad’s first wife Lola. Charlene is Carlene, hardly masked at all. By Tim Poston’s name Dad has added “Tom Postell?” in pencil. The only ones who have been allowed to retain their real names are the superstars: Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Allen Ginsburg. Towards the end of the book he takes the opportunity to confront Dad and everyone else who left.

I came to New York then in search of [art]. I thought it had something to do
with intellectuals, intellectualism, white people, “classical” music, the smell of
coffee downtown late fall. There where people who had told me this as well. I had inspected this landing field before being blown out of school. The people I’d met,
like Steve Korret, projected that. But then, later, as we ourselves were pried apart
by our lives’ trajectory, I could see some things I wish I’d known

I came into New York hyped by the delusions even the pathology of an older generation, one who when “the deal went down” scattered or sought the “primary source,” Europe, like there had never been a conference in Berlin in 1884 to divide up Africa like a pie.

“When the deal went down,” when Huey Newton rode into town to confront “the Man,” then the wheat was separated from the chaff, then it was revealed who were the men who rose up for “the cause.” I don’t subscribe to the black nationalist program, not as it looked in the 60s and not the way it looks today. But I have also stopped admiring Dad’s anti-racist strategies, and then not just because of the price people around him had to pay.

Read PART 1

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oivvio_polite_fotograferad_av_sannah_kvist

 

Oivvio Polite is a 42 year old writer and programmer born in Stockholm. A collection of his writings was published in 2007 under the title: “White like me”. website: oivviosarkiv  Twitter: @Oivvio

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1 reply

  1. Very interesting conclusion.

    The impact & legacy of 1960’s liberation movements is always worthy of discussion. I just think it’s a shame that so many choose to reduce the global Panther movement to a misogynistic phenomena that accomplished little.

    Criticising a radical, & subsequently suppressed movement is fairly easy – the real challenge for thinkers today is to reconcile the acknowledged male chauvinism within the Party with the equally acknowledged legacy of powerful females in the liberation struggle.

    Like

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