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Preview — Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
When Revolutionary Suicide was first published in 1973, readers were offered a rare glimpse into the private life of the Party’s founder. Not that people hadn’t been reading and hearing all about Huey for years. He started making local headlines when he and Bobby Seale launched the Black Panther Party in Oakland. Their armed self-defense patrols of the police caused an immediate stir in the press; so much so that a conservative state assemblyman introduced legislation the following year that proposed outlawing the Party’s constitutional right to bear arms. One can imagine the alarm felt in ...more
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an end to the open display of firearms. Nevertheless, guns would continue to be closely associated with him—whether he chose them to be or not.
Revolutionary Suicide introduced readers to new and perhaps surprising elements of Huey’s past, including such little-known facts as his being raised in a devoutly religious household by a minister father; growing up illiterate until he taught himself to read in order to prove that he was not stupid, as his teachers claimed; and that the Black Panther Party founders were not street hoodlums but college classmates who turned to a revolutionary platform of armed self-defense after traditional forms of nonviolent protest proved ineffective and disappointing to them. But not everything Huey ...more
Revolutionary Suicide was also written during a period of important transition in the Party. Most notably Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information, “defected” from the Party in 1971. In spite of his influential leadership role, Eldridge and Huey had had uneasy relations from the start. The pair never agreed over what constituted serving the people. To Huey that meant meeting the needs of poor and working-class African Americans, while for Eldridge it was leading the masses in armed rebellion. Eldridge’s “revolution now” rhetoric frightened and alienated black communities, who were more ...more
After Revolutionary Suicide came out, the Party experienced a period of turmoil that lasted until its demise about seven years later. Intensified divisions within the organization were exacerbated by the infiltration of secret government agents who sought to bring down the Party from within. False reports of comrades turning traitors led Huey to distrust and expel key Party members, including Black Panther Chairman and cofounder Bobby Seale; his successor, Chairman Elaine Brown; and Chief of Staff and childhood friend David Hilliard. Compounding Huey’s government-inspired paranoia was his drug ...more
In many respects Huey came to feel that he had lived too long, that he had somehow outlived himself.
By having no family, I inherited the family of humanity. By having no possessions, I have possessed all. By rejecting the love of one, I received the love of all. By surrendering my life to the revolution, I found eternal life. Revolutionary Suicide. HUEY P. NEWTON
A section in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment provides a good analogy. One of the characters, Marmeladov, a very poor man, argues that poverty is not a vice. In poverty, he says, a man can attain the innate nobility of soul that is not possible in beggary; for while society may drive the poor man out with a stick, the beggar will be swept out with a broom. Why? Because the beggar is totally demeaned, his dignity lost. Finally, bereft of self-respect, immobilized by fear and despair, he sinks into self-murder. This is reactionary suicide. Connected to reactionary suicide, although even more ...more
I do not think that life will change for the better without an assault on the Establishment,1 which goes on exploiting the wretched of the earth. This belief lies at the heart of the concept of revolutionary suicide. Thus it is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them. Although I risk the likelihood of death, there is at least the possibility, if not the probability, of changing intolerable conditions. This possibility is important, because much in human existence is based upon hope without any real understanding of the odds. Indeed, we are all—Black ...more
Che Guevara said that to a revolutionary death is the reality and victory the dream. Because the revolutionary lives so dangerously, his survival is a miracle. Bakunin, who spoke for the most militant wing of the First International, made a similar statement in his Revolutionary Catechism. To him, the first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is ...
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During those long years in the Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience.
I have little knowledge of my grandparents or those who went before. Racism destroyed our family history. My father’s father was a white rapist.
My mother likes to say that she married young and finished growing up with her children, and this is true. Only seventeen years separate her from Lee Edward, the oldest child in the family. When my older brothers and sisters were growing up in Louisiana, Mother was one of their best playmates. She played ball, jackrocks, and hide-and-go-seek. Sometimes my father joined in, rolling tires and shooting marbles and keeping the rules straight. This sense of family fun and participation has helped to keep us close. My parents are more than the word usually implies; they are also our friends and ...more
My parents named me after Huey Pierce Long, the former Governor of Louisiana, assassinated seven years before I came along. Even though he could not vote, my father had a keen interest in politics and followed the campaigns carefully. Governor Long had impressed him by his ability to talk one philosophy while carrying out programs that moved Louisiana in exactly the opposite direction. My father says he was up front, “looking right into his mouth,” when Huey P. Long made a speech about how Black men in the hospitals, “out of their minds and half naked,” had to be cared for by white nurses. ...more
In 1945, we followed my father to Oakland when he came West to look for work in the wartime industries. I was three years old. The great exodus of poor people out of the South during World War II sprang from the hope for a better life in the big cities of the North and West. In search of freedom, they left behind centuries of southern cruelty and repression. The futility of that search is now history. The Black communities of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Newark, Brownsville, Watts, Detroit, and many others stand as testament that racism is as oppressive in the North as in the South. Oakland is no ...more
Oakland has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and for the Black population it is even higher. This was not always the case. After World War I, there was a hectic period of industrial expansion, and again during World War II, when government recruiters went into the South and encourages thousands of Blacks to come to Oakland to work in the shipyards and wartime industries. They came—and stayed after the war, although there were few jobs and they were no longer wanted. Because of the lack of employment opportunities in Oakland today, the number of families on welfare is the ...more
Oakland spreads from the northern border of Berkeley, dominated by the University of California with its liberal to radical life style, south to the Port of Oakland and Jack London Square, a complex of mediocre motels, novelty shops, and restaurants with second-rate food. To the west, eight miles across the bay, spanned by the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, is a metropolitan San Francisco; to the east is a lily-white bedroom city called San Leandro. There are two very distinct geographic Oaklands, the “flatlands” and the hills. In the hills, and the rich area known as Piedmont, the ...more
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nearly half the city’s population. There is a dreary, grey monotony about Oakland’s flatlands, broken only by a few large and impressive buildings in the downtown section, among them (significantly) the Alameda County Court House (which includes a jail) and the Oakland police headquarters building, a ten-story streamlined fortress for which no expense was spared in its construction. Oakland is a ghost town in the sense that many American cities are. Its white middle class has fled to the hills, and their indifference to the plight of the city’s poor is everywhere evident.
We were very poor, but I had no idea what that meant. They were happy times for me. Even though we were discriminated against and segregated into a poor community with substandard living conditions, I never felt deprived when I was small. I had a close, strong family and many playmates, including my brother Melvin, who was four years older than me; nothing else was needed. We just lived and played, enjoying everything to the fullest, particularly the glorious California weather, which is kind to the poor.
We rarely had store-bought toys. We improvised with the materials at hand. Rats were close at hand, and we hated rats because they infested our homes; one had almost bitten off my nephew’s toe. Partly because of the hate and partly for the game of it, we caught rats and put them in a large can and poured coal oil into the can, then lighted it. The whole can would go up in flames while we watched the rats scoot around inside, trying to escape the fire, their tails sticking straight up like smoking grey toothpicks. Usually they died from the smoke before the flames consumed them. We also ...more
In this way the days of our childhood slipped past. We shared the dreams of other American children. In our innocence we planned to be doctors, lawyers, pilots, boxers, and builders. How could we know then that we were not going anywhere? Nothing in our experience had shown us yet that the American dream was not for us. We, too, had great expectations. And then we went to school.
Little Black Sambo, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs told us what we were. I remember my reaction to Little Black Sambo. Sambo was, first of all, a coward. When confronted by the tigers, he gave up the presents from his father without a struggle—first the umbrella, then the beautiful crimson, felt-lined shoes, everything, until he had nothing left. And afterward, Sambo wanted only to eat pancakes. He was totally unlike the courageous white knight who rescued Sleeping Beauty. The knight was our symbol of purity, while Sambo stood for humiliation and gluttony. Time ...more
By the third or fourth grade, when we began to do simple mathematics, I had learned to maneuver my way around the teachers. It was a simple matter to put pressure on the white kids to do my arithmetic and spelling assignments.
During those long years in the Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience. Not one instructor even awoke in me a desire to learn more or question or explore the worlds of literature, science, and history. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process they nearly killed my urge to inquire.
All of us at that time, around 1950, thought Joe Louis was a saint; he and Jersey Joe, Kid Gavilan, and Sugar Ray were our pantheon. I wanted to be a fighter, too, which seemed possible because I had the fastest hands on the block. Other boys assumed nicknames—Winchester, Duke, Count—but Huey was name enough for me. I beat up all the kids on the block, not to be a bully, but to protect my dignity and to survive. Many of these fights stemmed from my middle initial. The way they used to say it, Huey P. Newton became Huey “Pee” Newton, and when a rhyme came at me like “Huey P. goes wee, wee, ...more
Fighting has always been a big part of my life, as it is in the lives of most poor people. Some find this hard to understand. I was too young to realize that we were really trying to affirm our masculinity and dignity, and using force in reaction to the social pressures exerted against us. For a proud and dignified people fighting was one way to resist dehumanization.
James and I stopped fighting each other in 1953, when we formed a gang called the Brotherhood, which eventually numbered thirty or forty regular members, all of them seventh- and eighth-grade Black boys. Another gang of ninth-graders were our allies. Crawford and I were the leaders. The Brotherhood (one of the few gangs in North Oakland) was a direct response to white aggression at school. At that time, Blacks were a small minority at Woodrow Wilson, and all the Blacks there viewed each other as blood relations. We called ourselves brothers or cousins and banded together to fight racist ...more
On the surface, my record was dismal. Yet those years were not significantly different from the adolescence of many Blacks. We went to school and got kicked out. We drifted into patterns of petty delinquency. We were not necessarily criminally inclined, but we were angry. We did not feel that stealing a bottle of wine or “cracking” parking meters was wrong. We were getting back at the people who made us feel small and insignificant at a time when we needed to feel important and hopeful. We struck out at those who trampled our dreams.
The glory of my boyhood years was my father . . . there was no hint of servility in my father’s make-up. Just as in youth he had refused to remain a slave, so in all the years of his manhood he disdained to be an Uncle Tom. From him we learned, and never doubted it, that the Negro was in every way equal to the white man. And we fiercely resolved to prove it. PAUL ROBESON, Here I Stand
One time in Louisiana he got into an argument with a young white man for whom he was working. The disagreement had to do with some detail about the job, and the white man became angry when my father stood his ground. He told my father that when a colored man disputed his word, he whipped him. My father replied just as firmly that no man whipped him unless he was a better man, and he doubted that the white man qualified. This shocked the white man, and confused him, so that he backed down by calling my father crazy. The story spread quickly around town; my father became known as a “crazy man” ...more
He never hesitated to make his view known to anyone who would listen. Once, when he felt cheated by a white man, he let all the town know what had happened. The man heard the stories and came to our house to see my father. This white man carried a gun in the glove compartment of his car. My father knew that, but he nevertheless went outside unarmed to talk. He maneuvered around to the right side of the car, and sat on the running board with the white man in front of him so that he could not get to the gun. Then he told the white man what he thought of him and said, “If you hit me a lick, the ...more
The fact that my father survived these encounters may go deeper than a simple white defense mechanism. His blood was, after all, half white, and that same blood flowed in the veins of other local people—in his father, his cousins, aunts, and uncles. While local whites were willing enough to shed the blood of Black people, it may be that they were afraid of being haunted by the murder of another “white.” Statistics bear this out. The history of lynching in the South shows that Blacks of mixed blood had a much higher chance of surviving racial oppression than their all-Black brothers.
“Adonais,” too, had a special impact on me. The poem tells the story of a man whose friend dies or is killed. One of the best things in the poem is the sense that with the passing of years the poet’s feelings alter and he begins to see things differently. He tells how he feels, how his attitude toward his friend changes as time goes on. This was an experience I began to have near the end of high school as my friends drifted into the service, or got married, or tried to become part of the very system that had humiliated us all the way through school. As time passed, I began to see the futility ...more
My father always paid his bills on time. He might complain about them, particularly about the interest, but he paid. As I grew older, I would sometimes examine the bills he received, and I saw that in most cases the greater portion of the money was going to pay interest. If we bought something like a refrigerator, we wound up paying double the original cost. Sometimes the bills exceeded his whole paycheck.
We were in an impoverished state, and I found it hard to understand how my father could work so hard yet have so little. He was a jack-of-all-trades—carpenter, brick mason, plumber—no job was beyond him. He worked at two and sometimes three jobs at once, and yet we never got ahead. After finishing one of his various jobs, he would hurry home and work around the house or in the garden, and then go off to another job. We could not understand how he did it—never a day to rest or relax—and never a complaint. I think the years of hard work are partially responsible for his poor health now. He was ...more
At an early age I made up my mind never to have bills when I grew up. I could not know then that this determination would extend eventually to the point of not being married or having a family of my own.
I had seen Blacks take the education road and get nowhere. Many of them returned to the block, scorning their years in school, and cursing the white man for holding them back. Other Blacks had apparently made it on the block but ended up broken men, in prison or dead. There was no clear pattern to follow; it was hard to know what to do. This dilemma faces almost all young Black men struggling to achieve a sense of identity in a society that denies them their basic rights. The Black teen-ager, in his most impressionable and vulnerable years, looks around and sees a contradiction between ...more
They beat me up pretty badly, but I refused to fall down. The girls were yelling at me to run, but I would not. No matter how many guys Merv had with him, I meant to stand my ground. As long as I could, I was going to look them in the eye and keep going forward. Somebody called the police, but by the time they arrived Carter and the others had gone, and I was there alone, bleeding, and missing several teeth. Although the police tried to find out who did it, I would not tell them anything. I did not want to be an informer because this was a problem between the brothers; the outside racist ...more
I had raided fruit trees, cracked parking meters, and helped myself to stuff in the neighborhood stores. I never looked upon that as stealing or doing anything illegal, however. To me, that was not taking things that did not belong to us but getting something really ours, something owed us. That “stealing” was merely retribution.
Philosophy was another favorite subject. I still remember some of the issues raised in logic class thirteen years ago. Such points as the difference between lexical and stipulative definitions I use in discussions today. Even now I find it difficult to enter into a dialogue on philosophy or Black Panther ideology until there is agreement on basic definitions. This presents problems when I speak on college campuses. I try to lead an audience into rational and logical discussions, but many students are looking for rhetoric and phrasemongering. They either do not want to learn or they do not ...more
While studying philosophy, I realized that I had been moving for some time toward existentialism. I read Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard and saw that their teachings were similar to lessons I had learned from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Actually the “Preacher” was the first existentialist: All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. This is an evil among ...more
What I learned from Sonny Man also helped me to acquire an education. I was free to pursue my education in my own style, because I could support myself with activities on the block. Most important, I did not have to work. I ran gambling sessions at my apartment, serving as the “houseman.” This meant that I set up the games—cards or craps—for everybody else to participate in, and then took a cut of the winnings.
As I saw so many of my friends on their way to becoming dropouts from the human family, I wanted to see something good happen to them. They were getting married and beginning to have babies. Ahead of them were the rounds of jobs and bills my father had gone through. It was almost like being on an urban plantation, a kind of modern-day sharecropping. You worked hard, brought in your crop, and you were always in debt to the landholder. The Oakland brothers worked hard and brought in a salary, but they were still in perpetual debt to the stores that provided them with the necessities of life.
As soon as I saw a dude rearing up, I struck him before he struck me, but only when there was going to be a fight anyway. I struck first, because a fight usually did not last very long, and nine times out of ten the winner was the one who got in the first lick.
I always did the unexpected, a valuable practice in keeping your adversary off balance. If I knew that some guys wanted to jump on me, I would go where they hung out—just show up by myself and challenge them right on the spot. Many times they were too shocked to do much about it.
I felt that white people were criminals because they plun dered the world. It was more, however, than a simple antiwhite feeling, because I never wanted to hurt poor whites, even though I had met some in school who called me “nigger” and other names. I fought them, but I never took their lunches or money because I knew that they had nothing to start with. With those who had money it was a different story. I still equated having money with whiteness, and to take what was mine and what the white criminals called theirs gave me a feeling of real freedom.
I did not deny that I stabbed Odell Lee—I admitted it—but the law says that when one sees or feels he is in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death, he may use whatever force necessary to defend himself. If he kills his assailant, the homicide is justified. This section of the California penal code is almost impossible for a man to defend himself under unless he is a part of the oppressor class. The oppressed have no chance, for people who sit on juries always think you could have picked another means of defense. They cannot see or understand the danger.
I was against my family hiring a lawyer because I felt it was useless. Nevertheless, they did, and he charged them $1,500 to go to court one time. When I arrived for sentencing, he was there, and he worked his “white magic”: the judge sentenced me to six months in the county jail. Even though I had been convicted of a felony, the time they gave me was for a misdemeanor. This was to become a critical issue in my later capital trial, because the law says you can reduce a felony to a misdemeanor by serving less time. The penalty for a felony is no less than a year in the state penitentiary and no ...more
As I grew older and saw my father struggling to take care of a wife and seven children, having to work at three jobs at once, I began to see that the bourgeois family can be an imprisoning, enslaving, and suffocating experience. Even though my mother and father loved each other deeply and were happy together, I felt that I could not survive this kind of binding commitment with all its worries and material insecurity. Among the poor, social conditions and economic hardship frequently change marriage into a troubled and fragile relationship. A strong love between husband and wife can survive ...more
My doubts about marriage were reinforced when I met Richard Thorne. His theory of nonpossessiveness in the love relationship was appealing to me. The idea that one person possesses the other, as in bourgeois marriage, where “she’s my woman and he’s my man,” was unacceptable. It was too restrictive, too binding, and ultimately destructive to the union itself. Often it absorbed all of a man’s energies and did not leave him free to develop potential talents, to be creative, or make a contribution in other areas of life.
For a time I tried the pimping life, but this caused altogether too much inner turmoil. Whenever I pimped a Black sister, my mind would be filled with flashes of the slave experience—the racist dogs raping Black women. I began to feel that if my conscience would not allow me to pimp Black women, perhaps I should pimp white women—the “enemy.” But when I “turned out” a white woman and found there was still a crisis of conscience, I realized that I could never pimp for a living. With Black women the feeling was shame, because I was selling my sister’s body. With white women the feeling was not ...more
I was in conflict, wanting to do the things that are expected of a man in our society, even trying a couple of times, without success. I worked on a construction job once and at a cannery for a couple of seasons, but I could not deal with work on a permanent basis. Often I considered marrying Dolores, but to do so meant accepting the conditions necessary to marriage in an oppressive situation. If two people are together as a unit, rather than in some haphazard way, a certain amount of security must exist. In the event of children they must sacrifice their time to have that security. I was ...more