The Black Panther Party and Hustler Masculinity in Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story

Lamar Garnes

In her memoir, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, Elaine Brown recounts and explores her intimate encounters with what she perceives to be power when she is a youth in Philadelphia to when she becomes leader of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles. Often these encounters involve black men in urban spaces vying for power through their performances of masculinity that relegate her to a position of powerlessness. Although Brown’s relationship to power is present in her early relationships with men as the illegitimate daughter of an absent, upper-class black father, the teenage property or booty of street gangs in the North Philadelphia ghettos, a onetime dominatrix, and the mistress of Jay Richard Kennedy, it is most pronounced in her tenure as a member and later as the chairperson of the Black Panther Party. Through her relationships with men in the Black Panther Party, Brown reveals not only her desire to attain power but also how these men’s performances of hustler masculinity, a stylized urban performance of masculinity that hyperbolically mimics hegemonic masculinity in the poor urban space, subjugates women like Brown and undermines the Party’s political objectives.

Literary critics have devoted little attention to Brown’s narrative while those of the other black women in the Black Panther Party have garnered much critical attention from literary critics. Margo Perkins’s Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties is one of the only critical studies that concentrates on Brown’s as well as Angela Davis’s and Assata Shakur’s autobiographies. In her study, Perkins argues that these autobiographies are political and that the women form their autobiographical identities around their activism. She states, “Because of the nature of their activism as well as the character of their perspective narratives is quite different, their stories taken collectively offer important insight into the range and quality of Black women’s experiences in 1960s and 1970s revolutionary nationalist struggle”(1). They “revis[e] the history of the Movement itself” (70). Perkins focuses on how these writers use issues related to gender and sexuality to complicate the historical construction of the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement. She also contends that Brown’s narrative stands out from Davis’s and Shakur’s because hers is “an avowedly subjective account of the period” rather than one that minimizes the personal in an effort to create an objective rendering of the period as her contemporaries do (90). More specifically, in highlighting the psychosexual dynamics of the Black Panther Party, “Brown’s illustrations of the internecine violence that eventually destroyed the Party repeatedly point toward not only sexual but sadomasochistic underpinnings with important implications” (122). Perkins uses Lynn Chancer’s terms in Sadomasochism in Everyday Life to explicate the detrimental interplay of sex, power, and violence in the Black Panther Party and to demonstrate how it works to Brown’s advantage when she rises to lead the party.

Perkins’s analysis of Brown’s text is invaluable because it deconstructs the paramilitary dimensions of the party and highlights how the party only perpetuated patriarchal privilege to the detriment of those who did not fit within the parameters of hegemonic masculinity, but it hinges too heavily on Brown’s onetime experience as a duped dominatrix and fails to consider fully how race, class, and socioeconomic environment impact how masculinity is performed in the urban space, especially in Brown’s youth. With her descriptions of black male gangs in her adolescent years in poor, urban North Philadelphia, Brown presents a brand of black urban masculinity that parallels the performance of masculinity in the Black Panther Party. In her descriptions of Black Panther Party men, Brown demonstrates how many of the male members’ performances of hustler masculinity rendered black women in the party powerless, and how when women gained positions of power when Brown is made chairman, their positions in the organization and their political and communal gains are undermined because the male members, who were still performing hustler masculinity, felt that they were being emasculated.

Brown’s narrative, though about her journey to becoming chairman of the Black Panther Party, demonstrates how black men in the Party related to black women and how these relationships aided in their construction of black masculinity. Her autobiography provides an unvarnished, though possibly biased, view of the Black Panther Party, and complicates how the reader understands men in the organization. It shows that when hustler masculinity functions as the source of power and the ultimate definition of masculinity rather than as a critique of hegemonic masculinity, it maintains many of the oppressions associated with white male dominance because hustler masculinity hyperbolically emulates hegemonic masculinity in an expressed though often failed effort to reject it. It should also function as a tertiary option that counters the subservient forms of black masculinity that exist in the urban space and as a conduit to a progressive form of black masculinity that is self-affirming, community-oriented, and accepting of multiple black, gendered, and sexual identities. In A Taste of Power, Brown demonstrates how hustler masculinity in the Black Panther Party contradicts the theoretical foundation of the organization, [1] whose intent it is to rebuild and nurture the surrounding urban black community, because it is not a temporary performance that serves as a magnified critique but one in which the performers locate their power, and define themselves and the people around them.

Although Brown’s narrative traces her life from her childhood in Philadelphia to her adulthood in Oakland in the Black Panther Party, she begins her narrative not in her childhood but at the moment when she announces that she is the new chairman of the Black Panther Party in Huey P. Newton’s absence. By entering her narrative at this moment, Brown sets the tone of her narrative, frames her narrative around her acquisition of power to illustrate how she moves from powerlessness to attaining power temporarily, and illustrates how masculinity plays in the Black Panther Party and how it is defined. In the first chapter, Brown recounts standing before the party members and telling them she is assuming the role of “supreme” leader while Huey is in exile in Cuba (3). She explains, in reference to the Party, that she intends to “hold and resurrect life from what seemed nearly dead” (11). In describing her role as leader of the Party, Brown also reveals the complications and contradictions of her position and relationship with the party, which are most evident in flashback to an interaction with Huey a week earlier when he brutally beating another party member. She writes:

Huey stopped interrogating the thief to talk to me. Typically, he was wearing only a pair of pants, no shirt. His body glistened with the sweat of cocaine abuse. He had probably been up for the last forty-eight hours. His strength shone through, nevertheless, still stunning. Perhaps I loved him too much, I thought. (9)

Only moments later, “He raised his hand suddenly and smacked me across the face. Then clenching my jaw with one hand, he pulled me near him with his other, our noses almost touching” (Brown 9). Both the man and the violence Brown describes parallel overly simplified cinematic portrayals of pimps. Brown senses the imminent danger as she enters the apartment, but Huey’s naked torso distracts her as the sensuousness of the description implies. Although the assault comes as a shock to her, it reads as an act of intimacy, where the line between violence and sensuality is blurred. She seemingly writes about Huey from a position that aligns fear and awe with sex and violence. She oscillates between being awestruck by his presence and image and being struck by fear of the physical power he wields over her.

Although Brown focuses on Huey and his performance of masculinity early in the narrative, it is not exclusive to him because she later describes other men in the party in similar terms of awe and fear, and it is also indicative of how the posturing of men in the party is reflective of an effort to recover an empowered black masculinity through physical presentation. Black men in the urban environment are absented from America’s ascribed model of masculinity because race excludes them, and they often lack the opportunity to work successfully within the capitalist structure. [2] According to Tracye Matthews, “In many ways this posturing was an attempt to counter the racist and anti-working-class brutes, and irresponsible, incapable, and emasculated patriarchs” (278). The party’s imaging appealed to men as a response to the debilitating and pathologized descriptions of black masculinity and as a re-articulation or refashioning of those men in the poor urban environment who had attempted to attain masculinity as participants in illegal activities, a form of black masculinity that appeared to resist emasculation. The black pants, combat boots, powder blue shirts, leather jackets, and visible guns were stark symbols of a black masculinity. Their initial appearance at the California State Capitol to protest an anti-gun bill is indicative of this posturing, as Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar describes in Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. [3] According to Ogbar, “The Panthers’ style suggested an unraveling of traditional modes of ethnic pluralism and protest, while simultaneously evoking the most inveterate racist fears of black manhood and racial etiquette breaches” (87).

Brown is initially drawn to this performance of masculinity that Ogbar describesOgbar refer to this physical performance as style—their movements, apparel, speech, and ability to command attention. Ogbar refers to their style as “militant chic … [which] made one appear cool, brave, and strong” (108). Style is the first attribute Brown mentions upon meeting the men before she joins the party. Upon witnessing Black Panther Party member Earl Anthony interrupt a Black Congress Executive Committee meeting to announce that Huey had been arrested and to solicit support for the Huey P. Newton Defense Fund, she first mentions his dress and later states, “I was charmed by the Black Panther stuff; and Earl had style” (114). She later states that she becomes his “entourage of one” and eventually has sex with him upon his chiding and criticism (114). Style is a vital component of hustler masculinity because appearance is a signifier; it signifies the degree to which one has attained or aligned with the signifiers of middle-class masculinity.

Like the young black men drawn to this particular presentation of black masculinity because it represents a possibly livable option, this presentation of black masculinity also seduces Brown, and although she mentions Earl, her description of Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, only a few pages later, is more indicative of this seduction. Brown describes Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter in sensual terms when she initially meets him in late 1967 in Los Angeles at the apartment of two University of California Black Student Alliance members after an Alliance meeting. She writes:

His face was black alabaster; his eyes, black diamonds, set off by carved and distinct black eyelashes. His skin was as smooth as melted chocolate, unflawed, with reddish gloss. He was the vision of Revelations, a head of soft black wool refined to an African crown. He stroked his rich mustache as he spoke, head back, feet apart, an olive-green leather coat tossed over his strong shoulders. (118)

Brown’s description of Alprentice is that of a lover or a future lover. Unlike the other men she describes in similar terms, Brown does not mention having a sexual relationship with Alprentice although their relationship seems to be moving in that direction before he is killed.

In Alprentice, Brown recognizes something familiar, something from her past. He is like the boys that she knew when she was a poor adolescent in Philadelphia. Of Alprentice, she writes:

I knew this man “Bunchy.” He was the Crump brothers and all the other Brothers from the Avenue and Norris Street and Camac and Diamond, style transformed, rage directed, spirit defined by ghetto streets and raised to a revolutionary level. He was a conscious and articulate member of the black proletariat, up from the industrial ghetto. He was different from the patient, agrarian Negro of the South, different even from the new black militants and Black Power brokers. He was an angry black man who had survived with a conscious understanding of the ruthless Northern urban centers that had forgotten what to do with “niggers” after the Civil War was over. I knew this man, and I wanted to know him. (119)

Brown is drawn to what made him valuable in the black urban space as a gang leader in Los Angeles, which can be identified as hustler masculinity. Young black men have taken cues from the construction of white male domination in the United States to inform their own definition of black masculinity. They rely on similar markers of capitalist success in an almost exaggerated form to express their masculinity and also use media-defined definitions of masculinity as presented in Hollywood cinema to define their strength and sexuality. As an observer and a woman, Brown is participating in this process of self-definition that is taking place around her by admiring this rearticulated form of black masculinity in the form of Black Panther Party men.

The awe that these men elicit from Brown, though directly connected to their participation in the Black Panther Party, is not novel to her. The boys of Brown’s adolescent years garner similar descriptions from her. Brown parallels the masculine performance of the men in the Black Panther Party to those of the boys performing in North Philadelphia gangs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. To Brown, North Philadelphia is a poverty-ridden, garbage-strewn, and dangerous place, and as she more poetically states, “York Street became overwhelmed by the quiet, a silent voodoo drum, presaging nightly danger, a gang fight, a stabbing, a fire” (18-9). It is in this environment that these boys are socialized. In her rendering, Brown describes what Richard Majors and Janet Mancini term cool pose, “a ritualized form of masculinity that entails behaviors, scripts, physical posturing, impression management, and carefully crafted performances that deliver a single, critical message: pride, strength, and control” (4). It is essentially a performance or process through which poor young African American males learn to adapt to the harsh realities of their urban environments, the lack of opportunity, and the inaccessibility of hegemonic masculinity in an effort to present a veneer of control and authority. Brown describes the boys in North Philadelphia:

the members of the Avenue sauntered into my place wearing their “do-rags,” scarves wrapped about their heads to hold their processed hairdos in place. They concealed half-drunk bottles of white port wine and lemon juice concoction under their coats. Each fellow carried himself with one hand stuffed into his pant pocket, pulling his sharply pressed khaki pants above his ankles. His other hand remaining free to swing back and forth as he walked, leaning to one side. They all wore black nylon “pimp” socks and black leather, ankle-high shoes called “old men’s forts.” To me the fellows were, in a word, “cool.” (37)

These boys were all members of the Avenue gang, and Brown holds them in a kind of reverence. She seems prideful in her rendering of them, regardless of how complicated their relationship with her and the community may have been. The gangs treated girls in their neighborhoods or “turf” as property, and violation of their women was the same as violating the parameters they had marked as their territory. Brown provides a full illustration of this relationship:

It was a violation of gang territorial laws to have any dealings whatsoever with gang members from other territories … we were all Avenue girls. It was important to understand the nuances of north Philly gang life. It was critical to one’s survival—a concept that was my standing priority. First of all, gang members were boys. Although there were a few rough groups of girls who might claim to be a gang, girls were, at best, support groups for boys’ gangs or, at least, girlfriends of gang members. (40)

Due to her experience with black males in North Philadelphia, Brown is familiar with the expression of black masculinity that is present in the Black Panther party. She states numerous times that some of the male members of the party were from the streets. When she first introduces Alprentice, she writes: “He was a lion from the streets of L.A., the former head of the Slauson gang, five thousand strong, originator of its feared hardcore, the Slauson Renegades” (118). Later, Brown asserts: “Bunchy was, in fact, the model for most of the Brothers on the ghetto streets of Los Angeles. They knew his swagger, his speaking style, his poems. Virtually illiterate Brothers could recite the poems of Bunchy Carter” (139). This observation and the passages that follow suggest that a number of the Party’s members were similar to Alprentice Carter, not former gang leaders but young black men performing hustler masculinity.

Although men within the party sought to counter developed scripts of black masculinity, they relied on the same gender roles that inform hegemonic masculinity through their performance of hustler masculinity. Men in the party, much like the boys of Brown’s North Philadelphia youth, position women as property. The first duty of women in the party is to produce revolutionaries for the struggle. As an unwritten rule in the party, use of birth control was discouraged completely. In Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party (2007), Paul Alkebulan asserts: “Sexual relations and family life within the BPP [Black Panther Party] were complex matters. For instance, Lu Hudson recalled that ‘it was difficult to convince men to abstain or have protected sex to avoid spread venereal diseases or other infections among the women’” (111).  Alkebulan later states: “The issue was further complicated because at that time there was a widespread belief in the black community that birth control was a genocidal plot to limit population growth among people of color” (111).

The sexual policies and construction of heterosexual romantic or sexual relationships in the party suggest that men were privileged in both romantic and sexual relationships, though the policies claim to taut equality. In reference to romantic and sexual relationships in the party, Brown writes:

The party’s position about such relationships was being revolutionized. Indeed, it was promoting a line that the primary relationship between men and women in the party was as comrades. That included love and sex. To define another party member as one’s own—“my” man, “my” woman—was not merely taking a step backward, clinging to a bourgeois socialization. It was taking a step in the wrong direction, to support the most fundamental principle of capitalism, the private possession of property, chattel. That socialization had to be rooted out of us, as did all the other ways, if we were to follow a revolutionary road. (259)

Although this particular conception of heterosexual sexual relationships suggests that such partnerships are built upon equality, it also suggests that they were nonexistent in the party. Because these men only perpetuated the patriarchal ideals which they were claiming to resist, within such a conception of male/female relationships, women are at the complete disposal of their male comrades. As a consequence of these party policies, women members often found themselves taking care of children alone because the use of contraceptives was deemed counterrevolutionary, while their male partners maintained traditional romantic relationships with non-party women. In March of 1970, Brown gave birth to her daughter Ericka Brown, whom Masai Hewitt, minister of education, fathered. Masai is not present for most of the pregnancy because he marries another woman when Brown is four months pregnant and is not allowed at the birth because he and Brown are not married. Although Brown’s narrative almost exclusively focuses on her activities in relation to the party, there are a few moments in the text when she talks about her daughter, and there is no indication that any kind of relationship is established or maintained between her daughter and Masai. For example, when Brown goes overseas for three months with Eldridge Cleaver to do party work, she leaves her daughter with Gwen Fontaine, Huey Newton’s then girlfriend, instead of with Masai.

Although there were rules that defined the parameters of relationships between male and female members of the party and prohibited use of contraceptives, there were no rules regarding the abandonment of children by men in the party. Alkebulan contends that women such as Audrea Jones, a party leader from Boston, attempted to address the issue of child abandonment by proposing a policy in 1972 that would make the mother and father equally responsible for deciding on the pregnancy and a postnatal period; the policy “was never implemented” (111-12). The party held strictly to the idea that men and women could be no more than comrades. While the policy may have stated that marriage was prohibited or frowned upon, many of the men had wives, who had not been “stripped of the pretty things, the Bourgeois sweetness” as party women had (Brown 260).

Through this conception of sexual relationships, Brown and women like her had become participants in the maintenance of hustler masculinity in the party and its victims. Although guns and uniforms are physical expressions of their masculinity, it is partially through sexual contact with women that the male members define themselves as militant black men within the party. Young black women were sexually attracted to the image that these men created. As an adverse effect, the women became victims of hustler masculinity because, as Brown’s statement about meeting her first black man suggests, these men came to be perceived as saviors, as the kind of black men that these women had never known. After one of Brown’s first sexual encounters with a party member, she states, “He had actually told me that a true sister would be happy to sleep with a revolutionary Brother” (115). This statement suggests that men in the party relied on the compliance of the women, whom they persuaded by attacking them with revolutionary rhetoric that rendered non-compliant women as counterrevolutionary. Brown’s recollection of this particular encounter also reveals that she and possibly other women were very much aware of sexual politics of the Black Panther Party but that she ignores or complies with it in an effort to assist in forging change.

Brown further demonstrates her compliance with party sexual politics as they related to the maintenance of hustler masculinity when she first encounters Eldridge Cleaver and his thinking through his personal narrative, Soul on Ice, which she and a friend read after initially meeting Alprentice and just before meeting Eldridge Cleaver at a “Free Huey” rally in Los Angeles. They devoured the book. As Brown states,

We went through the entire book together the next night, each of us reading alternative chapters aloud, analyzing and praising each sentence and drinking two bottles of wine. It was an incisive autobiographical excursion into the mind of a black man driven by racism to rape … When we finished the book, we vowed we would meet him: the minister of information of the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver. … I stayed up to write a poem for him. My mother … thought I was insane. (121)

Brown’s praise of Cleaver’s Soul on Ice reveals how she participates in the re-articulation of black masculinity that occurs within the party. In her reading of Cleaver’s narrative, Brown understands that Cleaver blames the institution of slavery for creating the present-day degradation of black male identity. For instance, Cleaver writes: “The chip on the Supermasculine Menial’s shoulder is the fact that he has been robbed of his mind. The products of his mind, unless they are very closely associated with his social function on Brute Power, are resented and held in contempt by society as a whole” (216).  Cleaver argues that the institution of slavery confined black masculinity to the body because the master, his owner, relies on the male slave’s physical strength and stamina and his genitals for his economic advancement. Brown either fails to recognize where she as a black woman is positioned in Cleaver’s description of the struggle for black masculinity or is complicit in it. She also seems to ignore the fact that Cleaver justifies raping black women as practice to rape white women, “an insurrectionary act” against white men and law (Cleaver 33). Cleaver conceives black women as worthless. As Michelle Wallace states in Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), “Although Cleaver was able to stand back a little from the prevailing mythology and see how black women and men were manipulated against one another, some combination of male ego and disdain for the black woman superceded his reasoning abilities. She was only useful to him to the extent that she illustrated his own oppression” (118).

Although she presents herself as a willing participant who exercises her sexuality at her own will, Brown also presents the sexual relationships she has with men in the Black Panther Party as obligatory. The men in the party do not force her to have sex with them, but during each occurrence, Brown has sex with a party man out of a sense of obligation and dedication. She is one of the sources upon which they continue to build and express black masculinity. The men respond to these encounters as expected occurrences. Having sex with these men is the unexpressed duty of the women in the party. Within the party, this attitude towards sex and Brown’s acquiescence to the obligation are both a part of the expression of masculinity that is occurring. Although the men were not hustlers, they used sex as one of the sites to express their masculinity in the same manner that a hustler, specifically a pimp, would. In Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (2004), Patricia Hill Collins states, “Being tough and having street smarts is an important component of Black masculinity. When joined to understandings of booty as sexuality, especially raw, uncivilized sexuality, women’s sexuality becomes the actual spoils of war. In this context, sexual prowess grows in importance as a marker of Black masculinity” (151). Collins’s assessment is useful in reference to the Black Panther Party because as Collins states, black women become victims or objects when men express masculinity through limited constructions that rely on sexuality as a source of this expression. In the Black Panther Party, the men rely on sexual expression as a source of masculinity. Brown becomes a participant and victim because she allows herself to be objectified in an effort to assist in the validation of politically radical black masculinity.

Although Brown renders herself a participant in and victim of the party men, she does not submit herself to either position without questioning or resisting them. Resistance arrives in the form of what Brown refers to as “the clique” in 1969. “The clique” was a group of women in the party in Los Angeles who refused to quietly submit to the male chauvinism that characterized Black Nationalist organizations. Brown states:

Unlike the new feminists, we were not going to take a position against our men. Our men did not have to “change or die,” as the most radical of the feminists were saying. Black men were our Brothers in the struggle for black liberation. We had no intention, however, of allowing Panther men to assign us an inferior role in our revolution. Joan [Kelley] and Ericka [Huggins] and Evon Carter and Gwen Goodloe and I concluded that they better not try to fuck with us. We would not be rewarding any Brother with our bodies, in the bedroom or the kitchen [author’s emphasis].  (192)

This collective of Panther women comes together after Brown has had numerous sexual encounters with leaders in the party. Most men responded negatively to these women in “the clique.” According to Brown, the male response from chapters throughout the country was that “‘Smart Bitches’ like us, they were saying, needed to be silenced” (192).

Even though Brown’s membership in the collective gives her reprieve and alters her relationship as a woman in the party, Brown allows herself to be swept back into another complicated sexual relationship when she develops relationships with Masai Hewitt and Huey. Brown first meets Masai when he makes funeral arrangements for Bunchy after he is murdered at UCLA. According to Brown, Masai approaches her numerous times with sexual advances, but she says she ignored him because she was not thinking about sex at a time when Panthers all over the country were being arrested and assassinated. Of Masai, Brown writes:

What he offered was not love, he said eventually. We had, he said, faced marauding pigs and narrow nationalists together, written press statements together, treated the wounded and studied revolutionary philosophy together, all because we believed and loved people, black people. There was already love. It was part of each of us. “The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love,” we acknowledged, quoting Che Guevara. (195)

Masai articulates their equality as comrades, and as a result, he persuades Brown into believing that a sexual encounter between the two of them would be different from her previous interactions with men. Of their sexual encounter, Brown writes: “We needed each other. We would die soon. It was a forgone conclusion. He laughed. We made love, all night, into the morning. … It was a drink of water, a passionate moment of gratitude for a moment of living. He was the first man with whom I had made love since the assassination” (195). Their sexual encounter occurs as a response or reaction to the death and violence taking place around them. Brown writes, “‘It’s been six months, twelve shootings, and six funerals since we met, since January seventeenth,’ he [Masai] continued. ‘I’ve known you were the right woman since then’” (119). Brown views this sexual experience differently because she employs sensual language to describe the act with a party member and refers to it as lovemaking; in many of her previous sexual experiences, Brown recollects how unpleasant they were by focusing her descriptions on the uncleanliness of the room she was having sex in, by questioning why she even allowed the encounter to occur, or by describing the sex as forceful.

But similar to those previous sexual relationships, Masai dupes Brown into believing that they had acted out of love and from a space of equality as comrades. Masai complicates her feelings toward him. Masai marries another woman while Brown is four months pregnant. Brown says that she tells David Hilliard, chief of staff of the party in Oakland, how she plans to leave the party after Masai married another woman. According to Brown, David chastises her for her reaction to Masai’s marriage. Brown writes:

How could I seriously allow the “subjective” to supersede the “objective,” David had asked me angrily, when I told him over the telephone. That Masai had suddenly, without notice, married Shirley Neeley in Oakland when I was in my fourth month of pregnancy with his child should not turn me from the struggle. If I were a true revolutionary, David scolded me over the telephone, my commitment to the freedom of our people could not be swayed by “dick” and “pussy” problems [emphasis in original]. (199)

The male response to her anger with Masai’s actions is that she did not have a claim or rights to Masai and that such concerns were counterrevolutionary.

Huey also deceives Brown like Masai does regarding the nature of their romantic relationship; the relationship she develops with Huey, from 1970 to 1977, mimics the construction of male/female relationships in the context of pimping. Huey is the pimp, and Brown is his main prostitute. Brown and Huey’s relationship functions as such when he is present and when he escapes to Cuba in 1974 to avoid murder charges. It is the most defined relationship she has with any man in the Black Panther Party. Brown does not recognize the parameters of the relationship or the manifestation of hustler masculinity in Huey until it is too late to attempt to transform the relationship. When Brown first meets Huey in late summer to early fall of 1970 after returning from a political tour of North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, China, and Algeria with Eldridge, whom she had grown deathly afraid of, she describes Huey with a familiarity with which she does not describe any other man in the narrative. Brown writes:

He was certainly not the poster. He was certainly not the picture Eldridge had painted. His face gleamed with beauty and sensitivity, and his smile was familiar, in a haunting way.

His body was built up, apparently from prison exercise. Behind the rimless glasses he was wearing, I could see eyes that were large dark almonds. His face was angular, chiseled. He wore a fastidiously groomed Afro hairstyle, and had beautiful teeth and flawless skin, the color of honey.

He sort of bowed to me, and I felt a loss of energy, like finishing a foot race or reaching climax. (239)

She describes him in very sensual terms even when his actions do not call for such descriptions. Brown’s perception of Huey blinds her to the man that Huey is. Like many of the party members and her previous interactions with them, Brown designates Huey as a savior, but he was not. Huey, like a pimp, isolates himself and often exists in a drug-induced haze.

When Huey leaves the country in an attempt to escape murder charges that are brought against him, Brown takes over the party. She becomes leader per Huey’s request and acts completely on his behalf. She even travels to Cuba after losing her second run for city council in 1975 to visit with him and his wife Gwen Fontaine and to get further orders from Huey. Although she does act on Huey’s behalf in his absence, she refashions the organization and establishes beneficial relationships with local, state, and national government officials. Brown transforms the overall image of the party as a community organization and also makes it more conducive to and accepting of female participation and identities. She puts other women in leadership positions and focuses the party’s energy on the survival programs. Joan Kelley gathered funds for the organization. Phyllis Jackson oversaw political campaigns and various other projects. Norma Armour acted as treasurer or funds manager (411). Regina Davis ran the school; she “managed the teachers, cooks, maintenance people, and other personnel at the school. Regina planned the children’s daily activities, weekly field trips, health check ups…‘She is the fucking school’” (Brown 444). These programs transformed how masculinity functioned in the party because as Perkins suggests, these programs can be perceived as what has been traditionally viewed as women’s work. They fed and educated children, and provided clothing and the like for those who could not afford them.

Huey’s return to Oakland from Cuba, in July 1977, reverts any progress Brown had made. He concedes to the request of men, who believe that women having women in leadership positions emasculated them and diminished their identities as men in the organization. Brown recounts: “I looked at Bob and Larry, hearing echoes of the men’s accusations that Huey had let some bitch run their shit, intrude upon their world, where aggression and violence defined manhood” (440).  Brown also writes, “Nobody said it, but it was understood that the Panther was a man” (441). Huey’s return from Cuba marks a return to hustler masculinity, which is detrimental to Brown’s modification of the Black Panther Party’s public image. According to Brown, “He returned to the familiar ghetto instinct. I had watched him rely on that instinct more and more in the past several weeks. And I had begun to realize I was losing him to a world he himself knew was self destructive” (438).  Hustler masculinity also thrives off of the suppression of female identities because these identities are viewed as weak. As Brown contends,

They wanted so little from our revolution, they had lost sight of it. Too many of them seemed satisfied to appropriate for themselves the power the party was gaining, measured by the shiny illusion of cars and clothes and guns. They were even willing to cash in their revolutionary principles for a self-serving “Mafia.” If a mafia was what they wanted, I would not be a part of it. (444)

Brown’s narrative, which is one of the few autobiographies of the Black Power Movement written by a woman, reveals how sex and politics made the survival of the Black Panther Party impossible because the contributions and roles of women were undermined because men performed hustler masculinity as a natural way of existing rather than as a performance that critiques hegemonic masculinity and transforms the performer in the process. She states:

The women were feeling the change, I noted. The beating of Regina would be taken as a clear signal that the words “Panther” and “comrade” had taken on gender connotations, denoting and inferiority in the female half of us. Something awful was not only driving a dangerous wedge between Sisters and Brothers, it was attacking the very foundation of the party. (445)

Women were rendered as objects that black men in the party, especially those in leadership positions, use to express their masculinity, which rests on the man’s sexual virility. Hustler masculinity as it functioned in the party was an attempt to resist the popular culture presentations of urban black masculinity. Although this particular narrative is relevant to the sixties and seventies, it is useful because it provides a clearer understanding of black heterosexual romantic and sexual relationships and performances of black masculinity in the post-Civil Right era from a black woman’s point of view, and it demonstrates how hustler masculinity, even as it is being performed in a political organization, can destroy the performer and those around him if it is not used to critique white male domination and to function as a catalyst towards a male identity that champions community building and accepts various marginalized black identities.

 

Notes

  1. In the ten-point platform, “What We Want, What We Believe,” founding members, Newton and Seale, state: “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny [emphasis in original]” (Black Panther Speaks 3-4).
  2. In “Fear and Doubt: May 15, 1967,” Huey P. Newton writes: “As a child he had no permanent male figure with whom to identify; as a man, he sees nothing in society with which he can identify as an extension of himself. His life is built on mistrust, shame, doubt, guilt, inferiority, role confusion, isolation and despair. He feels that he is less that a man … In a society where a man is valued according to occupation and material possessions, he is without possessions … Often his wife (who is able to secure a job as a maid, cleaning for white people) is the breadwinner. He is, therefore, viewed as quite worthless by his wife and children. He is ineffectual both in and out of his home. He cannot provide for, or protect his family. He is invisible, a nonentity. Society will not acknowledge him as a man. He is a consumer and not a producer” (81).
  3. On May 2, 1967, thirty Panthers and sympathizers from the Afro-American Association left Oakland for Sacramento to protest the gun bill … The gun bill was intended to prohibit the armed Panther patrols of the police. The group was composed of six women and twenty-four men, twenty of whom were armed with shotguns, rifles, and hand guns (87).

 

 

Works Cited

Alkebulan, Paul. Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Brown, Elaine. A Taste of Power: a Black Woman’s Story. 1992. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1994.

Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. 1968. New York: Delta Trade, 1999.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Majors, Richard and Mancini Billson. Cool Pose: the Dilemma of Black Manhood in America.

New York: Touchstone-Simon, 1992. Print.

Matthews, Tracye. “‘No One Ever Asks, What a Man’s Role in the Revolution Is’: Gender and the Politics of the Black Panther Party, 1966-1971.” 267-304. The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered]. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998.

Newton, Huey P. “Fear and Doubt: May 15, 1967.” To Die for the People: the Writings of Huey Newton. Ed. Toni Morrison. 1972. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 79-81.

Newton, Huey P. and Bobby Seale. “What We Want/What We Believe.” The Black Panther Speaks. 1970. Ed. Philip S. Foner. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995. 3-4.

Ogbar, Jeffery O.G. Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Wallace, Michelle. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. New York: Dial Press, 1979.