In her most recent book, “Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era,” Ashley Farmer exposed the underside of the “chauvinistic” and “sexist” Black Panther Party by revealing stories of revolutionary black women activists who fought for a more inclusive understanding of black power and social justice.
Farmer, professor of history and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, took center stage in the McCarthy Forum April 18, discussing her book and shedding light on black women’s successes and failures in redefining black womanhood in the Black Power Era.
She said, “Most of the time when you see a social movement, it’s not popping up out of nowhere. You are seeing a tip of an iceberg and there’s a much larger one underneath. So, the book is a gesture – trying to acknowledge those women who are underneath.”
Freshman Selena Sheehy, a member of M.I.S.S (Motivation, Intersectionality, Solidarity and Sisterhood), historian of race in the United States, and organizer of racial and social justice, introduced Farmer.
Sheehy said, “It is important to have Doctor Farmer here to talk to us, not only to shine light on how black women reformed the Black Power Era, but to teach us in a time where racism is still a very prevalent issue, that we can all come together to fight for the inclusion we all deserve on this campus.”
Farmer recapped renowned activist Angela Davis’ 2013 speech in London, specifying that Davis warned her audience against American triumphalism and historical closures because they only justified America’s imperialistic interests.
Later in her speech, Davis questioned how one can counteract the representation of powerful male individuals as historical leaders and agents in order to reveal the role of black women.
“I saw her as urging us to move past a conventional understanding of civil rights and black power … challenging us to think beyond this history. … The idea that the Civil Rights Movement began in 1955 with Rosa Parks and ended with the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” said Farmer.
“I also see her statement as a call for us to move past the idea that black men are the brains of black power, and by that I mean they are the sole people who came up with the symbols, the organizations, the mantras, the strategies, the slogans that many of us know today,” she added.
In her book, Farmer reaffirms Davis’ observations by examining black women thinkers across organizations, regions, and political affiliations in the 1940s and 1950s and the groundwork they set forth – primarily women in the Black Panther Party, the Committee for Unified Newark, and the Third World Women’s Alliance.
At first, when the Black Panther Party began to form through armed police patrols and the Sacramento demonstration of 1967, the party was considered a “black nationalist organization” – an organization constructing its identity around armed self-defense, self-determination, and to a certain extent, black separatism, “embracing a masculine ethos bravado,” said Farmer.
Through rhetoric and imagery of strong black men holding guns, the party created this revolutionary male persona.
“If you look at the first images and articles in ‘Black Panther Newspaper,’ they say that the organization is a place designed for ‘the cream of black manhood,’” she added.
As women joined the party, they recognized they held a more submissive role, she said. They began challenging this approach working for the Black Panther Newspaper, writing articles and drawing visual illustrations of their ideology.
The first female artist for the “Black Panther Newspaper” was 16-year-old high school student Tarika Lewis, Farmer said. Lewis drew over 40 different images for the paper in a couple of years, some displaying women as armed and determined defenders of the community alongside men, showing that black women were also capable of embodying Panther values.
“Through her artwork, she amplified party members’ daily activities, such as their community protection through armed police patrols, but she also transformed this conversation by integrating women into representations of black militancy and black power,” said Farmer.
Women who later joined the party epitomized the women Lewis drew, she said. Kathleen Neal Cleaver, the first female member of the Panther’s Central Committee, began working on the Free Huey campaign, creating leaflets and reporting on court hearings and demonstrations after Black Panther founder Huey Newton was imprisoned for life and put on death row.
“Cleaver almost single-handedly revives the organization that was limping after its lack of leadership. … Images of Cleaver in real life are mimicking the images you see … in revolutionary artwork,” Farmer said.
Women soon began founding and heading party chapters, such as Audrea Jones in Boston and Ericka Huggins in New Haven, Connecticut.
Literature in the “Black Panther Newspaper” started to feature women like Cleaver, Jones, and Huggins, said Farmer.
Furthermore, women like Candi Robinson and Linda Greene challenged the image of placing revolutionary women into masculine constructs, encouraging women to remind the men in their lives of black women’s equality and to teach them to combat chauvinism.
Artist Gayle Dickson’s work represented a broader range of black women. Dickson added depth and complexity, depicting black women as caregivers and domestic workers, arguing that “everyday women became revolutionaries by being empowered leaders of their own communities and families,” Farmer said.
As female membership in the organization peaked between 1960 and 1970, the party altered their own gender politics and critiqued their “nationalist” ideology.
“Panther women’s rhetorical reformulation and real-life expressions of the revolutionary women, I argue, altered how black men in the party understood them,” she said.
Farmer considered Eldridge Cleaver to be a prime example of this shift – at first representing himself as the “poster child” of black power sexism, calling on his desire to sexually harass and assault both white and black women in his biography, “Soul on Ice,” before revising his statement in 1969.
Cleaver also wrote an article elevating Ericka Huggins as a symbol of black women’s endurance. Farmer quoted Cleaver: “We must purge our hearts and our minds of our understanding of male chauvinism, chauvinistic behavior, or disrespectful behavior of women.”
Reflecting on Davis’ speech and the importance of remembering the past, Farmer said, “Not only does this help us move past patriarchal and individualistic histories of black struggle … it also offers us an opportunity to reopen previously closed ideas about this era and the new world that everyday women tried to create and how we might use this to create our new world today.”
Sophomore Carlos Barbosa asked if she saw any parallels between the women in the Black Power Era and the women who started the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Farmer said, “People often think movements die out. Usually what happens is you see this kind of iceberg dip back down and come back out. … I think the women of the Black Lives Matter Movement have really studied and learned a lot from this previous movement. … I think they have done a much better job, although gender and sexuality are still problematic elements.”