Black Manhood and Women Revolutionaries: Gender Dynamics in the Black Panther Party (by Liam Toney)

Standards:

This lesson is intended for students in grades 11-12.

Reading Standards:

Craft and Structure: Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

Craft and Structure: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.

Overview:

This lesson will help students understand the importance of a news organ such as The Black Panther (TBP) in framing women as revolutionary figures. Students will thoroughly dissect a short primary source from TBP, and critically evaluate how language and structure is used to frame women’s experiences in the Black Panther Party (BPP).

Framework:

Students will be provided with background information on the history of the BPP, and will read a secondary source that specifically addresses women’s experiences in the party. Armed with this general background information, students will each identify several “key gender issues” that are addressed in the reading. Students will then do a close reading of a primary source from TBP, specifically evaluating how the source addresses their “key gender issues.” Students will be asked to analyze how specific words and phrases are used to empower women, and how these words and phrases fit in with the BPP’s ideology. Due to the short length of the primary source, students will have the opportunity to analyze aspects of the source like word choice and repetition – aspects that are often hard to grasp in a lengthier (and thus more daunting) source. Students will also gain insight into the importance of propaganda like TBP.

Essential Understanding:

The Black Panther Party evolved from a small, all-male, highly militant cadre into a large organization where revolutionary women were actually the majority. The Black Panther, by framing women as powerful, fierce fighters as well as mothers, facilitated this transformation.

Essential Questions:

  1. How did the BPP’s structure transform over time?
  2. How did male chauvinism manifest itself in the BPP?
  3. Why did women’s experiences in the BPP change over time?
  4. How did TBP serve to tear down misogynist views?
  5. Why might female Panthers have dismissed or even scorned white feminist movements?

Glossary:

organ – a newspaper, magazine, or other means of communicating information, thoughts, or opinions, especially in behalf of some organization, political group, etc.

male chauvinism – the belief, held or alleged to be held by certain men, that men are inherently superior to women.

misogynistic – reflecting or exhibiting hatred, dislike, mistrust, or mistreatment of women.

cadre – a group of activists in a communist or other revolutionary organization.

Introduction:

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 in Oakland, California, as an organization to fight against police brutality.[1] It subsequently evolved into a large organization with more than 40 chapters across the nation.[2] Dominant beliefs about gender roles in the BPP also transformed during this time. This gender-related transformation in particular is evident in the articles and graphics published by The Black Panther, the BPP’s propaganda newspaper, which ran for 14 years from 1967 to 1980.[3] The first issue of The Black Panther described the BPP’s members as “the cream of Black manhood,”[4] clearly defining the BPP as a male-dominated organization.

Soon, Panther leaders realized that the BPP’s masculine doctrine could cost them valuable female supporters. In July of 1969, Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the BPP, addressed this with a letter published in TBP, instructing Panther men to treat women as equals.[5] Following this shift, Emory Douglas, the illustrator for many of TBP’s issues, created “back-cover, two-color, poster-like images of women brandishing guns or knives that romanticized Panther women as warriors.”[6] The BPP starting using TBP to frame women in a more empowering light. However, women’s experiences in the BPP were still profoundly challenging. In the Chicago chapter of the BPP, for example, several women left the party when they realized that they couldn’t raise a child and also be a fully participating member of the BPP.[7] Women had to juggle multiple roles if they wanted to be a Panther.

A large transformation of the Party occurred in 1972, when the BPP closed down many of its national chapters and re-centralized power back in Oakland. There, the BPP formed a collective society, with a new social structure that was based on Marxist principles.[8] The nature of this community naturally began to foster dialogue concerning issues such as reproductive rights and equal sharing of housework. These dialogues were beneficial to female Panthers, and caused some remarkable changes: Indeed, in 1974, Elaine Brown (who had been editor of TBP from 1970 through 1972)[9] became the chairwoman of the BPP after Huey Newton fled the U.S. for Cuba. Additionally, at the peak of the BPP membership, women made up roughly two thirds of the organization[10] – a stark contrast from the BPP’s initial membership demographic. The primary source you will examine is an article that was published in August of 1969 in TBP.

Materials:

“Lecturer explores women’s role in Black Panther Party” (Background article to read before class)

“Message to Revolutionary Women” (Primary source)

Activities:

This lesson has been designed to fit into one very full 50-minute class period. If discussions get lengthy, an extra class period may become necessary. A few classes of background on the Black Panther Party, though not strictly required, would be an ideal starting point for this lesson.

Students should read the background article (provided in the Materials section) before the first class.

Begin with a brief (10 minutes or so) lecture on the background material presented in the Introduction above. Then, have the students split off into small groups of four to five. Using your background lecture and the background article they read for class, students should come up with several “key issues” they think that Panther women would have wanted addressed. Urge them to be as specific as possible. After five minutes, tell groups to select one student to be their spokesperson. Have the spokesperson from each group share the “key issues” that the group came up with. Compile these, and record them so students can reference them later. Then, pass out a printed copy of the primary source to every student. Have students read the source aloud, each student reading one sentence of the source.

Then have the students break off into groups again. Each group should “mark-up” one copy of the source, underlining, circling, or highlighting phrases and words that appear significant, or instances of repetition or other intentional efforts on the part of the author. After about 10 minutes, have the students come back together, and have a different spokesperson share that group’s findings. Under a document camera, “mark-up” a copy of the source with all of the group’s notes. Ask the students why these words and phrases were chosen.

As homework, assign each student one of the “key issues” that the class came up with. Have them write one substantial paragraph investigating how the primary source addresses the “key issue” – or if the issue isn’t addressed, some potential ideas for why. The next class, have students briefly share what they came up with.

Additional Sources:

[1] Jakobi Williams, ““Don’t no woman have to do nothing she don’t want to do”: Gender, Activism, and the Illinois Black Panther Party,” Black Women, Gender & Families 6, no. 2 (2012) https://muse.jhu.edu/.

[2] Williams, “Illinois Black Panther Party.”

[3] Matthew W. Hughey, “Black Aesthetics and Panther Rhetoric: A Critical Decoding of Black Masculinity in The Black Panther, 1967—80,” Critical Sociology 35 (January 2009): 30, doi:10.1177/0896920508098656.

[4] Linda Lumsden, “Good Mothers with Guns: Framing Black Womanhood in the Black Panther, 1968–1980,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 86 (December 2009): 903, doi:10.1177/107769900908600411.

[5] Lumsden, “Mothers with Guns,” 905.

[6] Ibid., 904.

[7] Williams, “Illinois Black Panther Party.”

[8] Peter Hart, “Lecturer Explores Women’s Role in Black Panther Party,” University Times, February 19, 2004, University of Pittsburgh.

[9] Lumsden, “Mothers with Guns,” 904.

[10] Hughey, “Black Aesthetics,” 40.

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