Are African-American writers Americans first and blacks second? Is it time for black writers to, in the words of Henry Louis Gates Jr., "discard the anxieties of a bygone era" and put words to page with the confidence that their work will speak to the population at large? These are some of the questions that were addressed in a lively, and sometimes explosive, fashion at this year's National Black Writers Conference, which drew authors like Walter Mosley, Stanley Crouch, Ishmael Reed, Terry McMillan and Bebe Moore Campbell to Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, from March 21-24.
The following remarks by Wall Street Journal editorial page writer Hugh Pearson helped spark a spirited debate at a conference panel titled "Assuming the Universality of the Black Experience." Pearson is the author of "The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America," a book which called into question recent romantic reinterpretations of the Black Panther experience.
The key attribute of any healthy group of people is the element in their culture that tells them they are special in the eyes of the higher creator. However, as people of black African descent define that element which makes us special, our efforts are fraught with contradictions. The racism we face is based on the notion that we are inherently less intelligent than everyone else, that we are a less advanced form of human being. Too often, in our search for authenticity, we inadvertently reinforce that image.
We people of black African descent have been quite hard on ourselves. This tendency causes us to narrow our horizons and ostracize the dissenters among us who acknowledge their connection to the rest of mankind. In the process we unwittingly contribute to our oppression, feeding the notion that we are less intelligent than others. This narrow conception of who we are causes many blacks to question something that should be obvious: Is there a universal element connecting us with the rest of mankind?
Convinced that there is, I researched and wrote "The Shadow of the Panther." To observe the human connections in the Panther story, I attempted to assume the perspective of a visitor from another planet. This vantage allowed me to observe a number of parallels between the behavior of people in the party and the behavior of people in historical movements outside of the black Diaspora.
For example, in the 1930s, it was common for leftists to extol the virtues of the Soviet Union. Their sentimental attachment to communism grew out of the Great Depression, when capitalism was at its lowest repute. In the process, Russian leaders such as Joseph Stalin were extolled as great leaders. Years later, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published "The Gulag Archipelago," large numbers of leftists were forced to confront Stalin's atrocities. The lesson we should take from this is to never give carte blanche to any movement or ideology, no matter how righteous or romantic it paints itself to be.
The same lesson is to be learned from what happened to the Black Panther party. During the late '60s and early '70s plenty of black Americans were willing to ignore or excuse the party's problematic behavior. And today, since nostalgia creates a rosier picture of the past than was actually the case, there are many skewed romantic interpretations of the Black Panthers.
There were plenty of well-intentioned party members. But there were also plenty of bad apples who contributed to its demise. Party sympathizers told us, and still tell us today, that all of those bad apples were FBI informants. But that wasn't the case. Yes, some were saboteurs collaborating with the FBI, in many cases because the FBI blackmailed them into cooperation. But others who helped destroy the party had no connection with the FBI. Too often party members who witnessed their crimes or who were victims were forced into silence by the tenor of the times. Radical white leftists from the anti-Vietnam War movement aggrandized the party as the nation's revolutionary vanguard. A limousine-liberal media aided and abetted the process.
Thus, with a sympathetic media always ready to construe negative information about the party as a racist conspiracy, leaders like Huey Newton were granted carte blanche to engage in atrocities. They beat, tortured, raped and killed many fellow Black Panthers. They robbed from blacks in the Oakland community. They sold drugs and extorted money from drug dealers.
Like the romantic white leftists who chose not to believe what was reported about Stalin's Russia, plenty of black people chose not to believe these facts about the Black Panther Party. They prefer to grant party miscreants a bye, due to the existence of racism.
Was party co-founder Huey Newton an intelligent, insightful man? Yes. Did a racist society contribute to his disintegration? Yes. Was all of his destructive behavior attributable to racism? Even if we are to assume that ultimately racism was totally responsible, we must ask ourselves, At what point should a black person accept responsibility for her or his actions? Are we to blame racism, even when our behavior amounts to self-destruction? If that's the case then, again, we inadvertently reinforce the assumption of racists that we are so crippled mentally we can't be treated as full human beings. And I don't think anyone in this room believes that.
The lessons to be learned from the Black Panthers are but one example of a universal connection between black people and the rest of mankind. Another example is the Jewish experience in pre-World War II Germany after Hitler came to power. Nazis portrayed Jews as subhuman. They installed a system of Jim Crow laws excluding Jews from the most desirable areas and forms of enterprise. They ghettoized Jews. In fact, Nazi theory placed Jews at the lowest rung of the human totem poll. They preached that Jews were lower than blacks because they were lecherous, an attitude which ultimately led to the Holocaust, which of course also consumed other groups of people.
Despite these lessons teaching how we are mutually connected to other peoples, plenty of blacks insist on believing no other group of humans has suffered more than us. Yet what greater demonstration of hatred can there be than to engage in systemic extermination? The Holocaust teaches us historically that, like us, Jews have known what it is like to be treated like niggers, even though today many Jews treat us as inferior to them. We shouldn't allow such racism to cloud our thinking.
Do blacks face the greatest oppression of all God's children? Possibly. But if we deny the universal elements of our experience we permanently relegate ourselves to second-class status and collaborate in our own oppression.