The Birth of a Black Power Nation: Judas and the Black Messiah’s Overly Romantic View
Updated: Feb 23, 2021
… and now in the season of Radical Chic, The Black Panthers... The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone… These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big… What does one wear to these parties for the Panthers?...
Shoot-outs, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Vietcong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women... are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them.
Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic
Like so many things, the great American writer Tom Wolfe was spot on describing the appeal of the Black Panthers to the Manhattan cultural elite. Or as he liked to call them when he was being a little bit mean: The Charming Aristocracy. People like Leonard Bernstein, the late great maestro and host of the sumptuous affair that Wolfe writes of so deliciously, tended to judge them by their aesthetics. And honestly, if you judge the Black Panthers strictly by their aesthetics, they're awesome. They’re black and they're beautiful.
Even their name is cool. Just say it once and note how it rolls trippingly off the tongue: the Black Panthers.
There is one teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy problem with this approach: the Black Panthers were not an artistic movement. We’re not ruminating on the pros and cons of Cubism, Impressionism, or Surrealism. It’s not like judging Picasso’s Guernica by its beauty, and taking a blind eye to his monstrous treatment of innocent young nubiles (Of course, the violent and twisted abuse of innocent young women was something Picasso and the Panther leaders had in common). No, the Black Panthers were a political movement, and consequently we must judge them by their politics, their ideas, and ultimately by their actions. What was their real legacy? And what can we learn from this history today that is useful?
The Real Problem & Legacy of the Black Panthers
The real problem with the Black Panthers is that they misinterpreted the real but limited utility of the Civil Rights Acts for curing what ailed black America at that time, particularly in the Northern black ghettos. The Civil Rights Movement was focused on problems specific to the South, yet Martin Luther King’s powerful oratory had raised expectations across black America. One could almost get the impression from MLK’s speeches that all black Americans would be ‘free at last’, simply by President Johnson signing a few bills. Despite the impression left by MLK’s rhetoric, these laws were a necessary, but far from sufficient, condition for black people to ‘overcome’, so to speak.
Don’t get me wrong. The Civil Rights Acts were important and useful, but if one thought they would solve all the problems associated with black life in America, one would be sorely disappointed. And that’s what happened: black people were sorely disappointed, especially in the northern ghettos, where the impact of the Civil Rights legislation was far more limited. These black people were already capable of exercising their constitutional right to vote. The Civil Rights laws did not necessarily visibly improve their lives.
The Black Panthers thought that the problem was that the Civil Rights Movement was not radical enough to overthrow ‘white supremacy’. It did not get to the root of the problem. It was compromised by Bourgois politics. What was needed was a Marxist-Leninist Revolution, or at the very least, a wholesale remaking of America, which they viewed as rotten to the core, with American Negro Slavery & Jim Crow being the proof. This was (and is) a false narrative.
The Black Panthers misinterpreted the problem, and consequently advocated the wrong solutions, which is to say radical black politics. It wasn’t the so-called ‘white power structure’ that was rotten to the core. If that was true, why did the rest of the world try to emulate America? Why was America the most powerful, respected, successful, and admired country in the world at that time? Clearly, the so-called ‘white power structure’, while far from perfect, was doing some things right.
If anything was rotting to the core it was the culture of the ghetto. The ever troublesome ‘ghetto mentality’ (so frustrating). The increasing crime and violence of the 1960s. The breaking down of the black family; especially, the decline of proper male role models in the home for young black males. In the words of the great Denzel Washington:
It starts in the home. If the father’s not in the home, the boy will find a father in the streets. I saw it in my generation, and every generation before me, and every one since... It starts in the home. If the streets raise you, then the Judge becomes your mother, and prison becomes your home.
These problems were not primarily political in nature, and bringing radical politics into the ghetto simply destabilized an already relatively unstable environment. In some ways, the Black Panthers put these northern ghettos directly on the path to the Age of Crack. Having grown up in 1980s Philadelphia myself, that’s the legacy of the Black Panthers that I recognized as a child. It’s not a coincidence that Huey Newton, a seminal Panther leader, was murdered by a young black male in a crack-cocaine deal, and it speaks volumes about the real legacy of the Black Panthers. They made things worse in the ghettos, not better. This is the reality that films like Judas and the Black Messiah fail to capture.
MLK, the Black Panthers, and The Black Messiah
The Black Panthers really took off after MLK’s tragic assassination. They cleverly exploited the great alienation in black America at this time to promote their radical black politics of alienation. Like all such movements, to be successful the Black Panthers needed to promote black alienation in order to swell their ranks with alienated black people. Their Black Power rhetoric, with its quasi black secessionist affectation, in the spirit of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, really tapped into the dark side of black racial sentiments, black racial prejudices, and black racial hatred against whites. This was not a positive force for race relations in this country, but instead created a lot of understandable white backlash and racial conflict. This was not MLK’s “Dream” anymore. No more judging people by the ‘content of their character’. The Black Panthers were demanding that white and black people be judged strictly by their race.
At the same time, MLK was partly responsible for the rise of the Black Power movement. He was too soft on Stokely Carmichael and his crew at the ‘new and improved’ SNCC, whose leadership Carmichael had recently usurped from the late great Representative John Lewis. Carmichael founded the Black Panthers, despite what you might see in the latest Black Panther propaganda piece, Judas and the Black Messiah. MLK gave Carmichael an inch and he took a mile. MLK did not understand the mentality of young black men from the northern ghettos like Carmichael. He did not know how to effectively manage them. And don’t forget, most of the Black Panthers who were murdered, like Huey Newton, were killed by black men, just like in ‘real life’, unfortunately. The case of Fred Hampton represented in this movie, a tragic one, was the exception, not the rule. This film gives a false impression.
MLK also effectively bought into a similar misinterpretation of the limited impact of the Civil Rights Acts: white America’s soul needed saving because of the triple evils of war, poverty, and racism was King’s narrative, a false one. Moreover, the only way to solve the problem in MLK’s clouded view was through massive civil disobedience on a scale far beyond the Southern Civil Rights movement, while preaching the black Christian Gospel of ‘social justice’. MLK unintentionally put black America directly on the path to the Black Panthers, owing to the direction he chose after the Civil Rights Movement.
The Black Panthers did some good things, but these were primarily apolitical activities, like the children’s breakfast programs, which are demonstrated in Black Messiah. If they had focused on these apolitical self-help measures, they could have had a real positive impact.
One thing the Panthers did well was find hidden talent in the ghetto. Guys like Fred Hampton. The Panthers were a good vehicle for a guy like Hampton, whose talents may have gone unnoticed by the white or black establishment at that time. In this way, they were like Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammed found hidden talent in the deep recesses of the black ghettos and prisons where no one else was looking. Malcolm Little’s talent would likely have gone undiscovered without Elijah Muhammed. His gifts would have been wasted. Muhammed saw something special in Malcolm Little that no one else saw, and that’s important to remember. The Black Panthers should be similarly credited for finding talents like Fred Hampton.
But like the NOI, the Black Panthers were a misguided organization. Their philosophy and goals were misguided. Personally, I partially blame rabble rousers like Stokely Carmichael for putting young men like Fred Hampton on the wrong path, a violent path. Of course, Carmichael did not pull the trigger, but he did help to put Hampton on the road to his untimely demise.
Il Trovatore (Aristarchus Patrinos)
~1600 words ; February 15, 2021