The Black Panther Party Review

By | Monday, January 25, 2021 Leave a Comment
Black Panther Party
By the time I was born, the Black Panther Party was a mere shadow of its former self. Bobby Hutton was dead. John Huggins was dead. Fred Hampton was dead. Angela Davis was in prison. Eldridge Cleaver had gone underground, moving to Algeria and then France. Huey Newton had shut down all the regional chapters, leaving only the Oakland one remaining. Technically, the Black Panthers would remain active for another decade but they had nowhere near the presence they did in the late 1960s.

I am grateful for being born when I was. I was born late enough to have grown up with home computers and techniological advances along those lines, but early enough that I didn't get totally screwed by skyrocketing college costs and a completely shit job market. I'm one of the last groups to have been born with a better than average chance of being able to become better off than my parents. So I am very grateful for that. But one downside is that I got almost no education about what went on in the 1960s and early '70s. By the early 1980s, when I started getting social studies as a formal subject in school, we were well enough past that period that it wouldn't be covered under the umbrella of "current events" but it was still too recent to have really fallen into "history" yet. I don't think any of my social studies textbooks in school covered anything much past the end of World War II.

I suspect that was also a convenient excuse to not teach about the Civil Rights movement, although I couldn't tell you if that was more of a decision made by the textbook publishers, the school district ordering the textbooks, or the teachers themselves. Probably a bit of all three.

Now, that being said, I've done what I could to fill in all the gaps in my education there. (Well, I say "gaps" but they're more like gaping chasms.) So coming into David F. Walker's and Marcus Kwame Anderson's The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History I knew some of the basics. And I mean some of what actually happened, not the heavy-handed propaganda I've been fed informally over years. But I wanted to get this book to see how much I didn't know.

The book takes a pretty straight-foward, chronological approach, only backtracking on occasion to deal with simultaneous events. Walker and Anderson also smartly begin by addressing some of the myths surrounding the Panthers. "Here's what a lot of people think about them, and we're going to explain why that's not really accurate." Then they get into a brief history of Black oppression in the US, going from slavery to Jim Crow to Emmett Till to Malcolm X. The story then picks up in earnest when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale first meet in 1962.

I won't provide synopsis of the book here; it's the history of the Black Panther Party. As key players join the story, we're usually given a one- or two-page history of the individual before sliding into how they fit in with the Black Panthers, and why they're significant. That's handled well, I think, and keeps the number of active characters reasonably easy to follow without disrupting the overall narrative flow.

What I like, too, is that they provide context for all the various events. A prime example might be "The Sacramento Incident" where they "raided" the state Capitol. (I can't think why THAT might stand out as useful example here!) How/why that was originally told to the American public was horribly skewed to stoke deep racial fears in the population, and cynically used by politicians to pass much more restrictive gun laws. But here, we see what really happened and how what was intended as a simple protest turned into an 'invasion.' Not surprisingly, virtually every negative thing you may have heard about the Black Panthers is only a tiny, tiny fraction of the story and the ongoing and decidedly deliberate attempts by the FBI, coordinating with local law enforcement, to undermine the organization in every conceivable way is why it was in so much disarray by the time I was born.

Anderson's artwork is incredibly understated. While his figures often look very simplified -- almost cartoonish -- he still captures everyone's likeness very well. There's never any question about who you're looking at in any given panel, which is quite an accomplishment when the cast is so large and many of them all wear the same black, leather coat and a beret. Of the people who I was already familiar, I could recognize them in the book immediately. And the scenes that require a lot of tension -- often a silent stand-off with police -- Anderson was able to convey that in spades. Excellent work there!

Walker has clearly done his homework here. He includes lots of details and does a great job of weaving together all the threads... which is probably a bad metaphor for me to use considering half of the book is about how the FBI was working to unravel those threads! Walker writes up enough to give readers a good sense of what is happening, but doesn't bog things down with unnecessary trivia. I find that "I have to include everything I know" approach is a trap many writers can fall into when they're working on these types of things, and it's good to see Walker avoids it here. However, one trap he does seemingly fall into is not relying on the art to tell the story. The book is very text-heavy, and it looks more like illustrated prose than comics for a majority of the book. Which is a shame because the scenes that are very much in a comic format work well, and are generally the most powerful parts of the story. Turning a page to find you're facing a half-page wall of text, to me, is disappointing in a graphic novel. Particularly, as I said, when the 'true' comics portions work so well.

That said, I still very much enjoyed the book. It was an excellent read; very captivating and very enlightening. Also frequently very maddening to learn what really happened. I'm glad to have read it, and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the real Black Panthers. The book came out last week from Ten Speed Press and retails for $19.99 US.
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