Enjoyed this exhibition, if enjoyment is the right word. More like an awkward mixture of nostalgia and anger. Nostalgia for an era that, from a relatively safe distance, was a magically heroic time. With all those iconic black leather coats, cool shades and defiant Afros, what youthful man or woman with half-formed ideals of equality and justice would not be inspired.  And then there were the guns. By any means necessary. Afro-Americans defiantly standing up to the racists – those in uniform, those in white hoods and those just in everyday clothes. Yes, the nostalgia was definitely kicking in but so too was the anger. Here we were, seventy years on and still the police brutality. Still the racist murders. Still the extremes of poverty between Black America and the white middle classes. Endemic poverty that living under eight years of a Black president could not even shift.

There were so many awe-inspiring pieces of art on display. Too many to single out any one, but I did find myself fascinated by the displays of the Black Panther newspaper. Reading the front-page editorials and studying the graphics and one couldn’t help but be transported back to those terrible yet terribly exciting days. Plying my trade as a history teacher in North West London, with classes consisting of 90% Black faces, I took immense pleasure in showing my classes films from that era, my favourite being the PBS ‘Eyes on the Prize’. And from this stunning two-hour documentary of the US Civil Rights movement, nothing was more captivating than those electrifying speeches from Malcolm X. Even today they still send a shiver down the spine.      

Mt students were transfixed. Malcolm was telling a Harlem street crowd that they were not equal to the white man. No, they were not equal to him – they were better than him. Who was he to be equal to with his endemic racism and his pale pasty skin? How I would love to watch the proud faces of those young Black students as they absorbed those clever, defiant words. Of course, Malcolm was to soon move beyond the limiting concept of Black skin and White skin, but at that moment, both in the US and in Britain, those words struck like lightening. Here was no Uncle Tom. No Sir. Here was a man who had the temerity to say those four historic words; ‘By any means necessary’. And that is exactly the strategy that the Black Panthers would seek to employ.

After the exhibition I bought a DVD about the Black Panthers from the Tate book shop. Produced by Stanley Nelson in 2015, it provides not only a crisp history lesson on the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, but also a stark reminder of what may come again. At the moment, in the US cities, we have the Black Lives Matter campaign, but what happens, I found myself asking, when that campaign fizzles away while the police killings and beatings continue? Will the Black Panther Party re-emerge or will something entirely new present itself? And with the Trump administration stoking the racist divisions, and with openly declared white supremacists strutting about in the White House, an armed militant response might be the only legitimate response.

One thing that particularly fascinated me in the Black Panther film was the division that emerged between those that wanted to pursue an armed campaign and those that favoured a more peaceful community based policy. Of course, the BPP was at its most effective when it employed both strategies simultaneously, so it was somewhat puzzling to learn that the party would eventually split along these not mutually opposing paths. The split was no doubt exacerbated by the FBI who launched a barely clandestine policy of murder against the Panther leadership. This state sponsored assassination policy intensified when the leaders of the BPP started meeting with other revolutionary leaders in Africa, Asia and South America. The US imperialist state was most definitely not going to countenance aa armed revolutionary movement right in the heart of the empire. This became doubly true when hundreds of thousands of white middle-class kids began their campaign against the long-running US imperialist war in South East Asia.

So here we are in 2017, some seventy years on from the Civil Rights Movement, and it is damn hard to determine whether things have got better or not. For those that have ploughed through the six series of The Wire, the answer would have to be a resounding NO. In fact, one could argue that things have actually gotten worse. Not necessarily worse in terms of poverty, incarceration or state violence, though the figures are still truly shocking, but worse in terms of the ideology that so many young Black people have bought into. Compared to the collective spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, so much of modern Black culture comes across as gangster-ish, individualistic and highly misogynist. That is the view from the outside looking in. Perhaps that is just the view that has been carefully inculcated by the corporate media. Perhaps that communal spirit of the 1950’s and 60’s is still alive and just waiting its moment. I hope so because it could inspire not just the Afro- American communities but all those communities around the globe, Black and White, that have been marginalised, down trodden and economically and politically oppressed by a ruthless and uncaring neo liberal global regime.

End JPK Copyright 7/8/17

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