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Black Against Black: The Agony of Panthermania

". . . The most uncomfortable spot in America, 1970, may be in the black middle, between the Toms and the guerrillas. Can these young blacks find an alternative to revolutionary suicide? . . ."


From the November 16, 1970 issue of New York Magazine.

In New Haven the fuse of Panthermania was lit by the funeral of John Huggins in January of 1969. Four months later the Black Panther Party burned out in Connecticut. Plagued by its own inexperience and internal paranoia, the party went through a now-familiar chain of events: (1) murder of a suspected informer (2) police raid (3) Panther trial. But the fires lit in the imagination of young black minds did not fizzle out. Ignited by clashes around the country, these small painful fires, concealed inside the brightest of adolescent minds, smouldered on until it became evident to the black community at large that some new and unquenchable brushfire was taking their young, pulling them together in a far left corner of the national forest which they itch to defend . . . and that New Haven is a false boundary.

The state of the Panther party in any town at any particular time does not really matter, because the fever has passed to the children. The revolutionary lifestyle requires passionate commitment, battlefront reflexes, gut responses. It sends shudders through the white man. J. Edgar Hoover may be the nation's greatest Panther recruiter. Who could have imagined that in 1969 he would label the Panthers—then a couple of dozen black men and women—as the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States? What a challenge to live up to! It can be strong enough even to pull a young dude back from the traditional comfort of dope. The pace is right. The demands of urban guerrilla life offer a substitute for the desperate habitual rhythm of hustling, which is the hardest thing for an addict to give up. In fact the demands on the guerrilla are greater.

Consider also the lure of mobility. Revolutionaries travel—planes, cabs, Chicago, Detroit, California, Cuba, Hanoi, Algiers, moving with the spontaneity of the jet set and the mystery of the Mafia, all financed by adoring white liberals and dignified by a noble cause. Imagine the prospect as seen by a boy raised before the bedroom TV, with a housekey around his neck, marking time among the shut-ins of the ghetto. Even his parents can see the pull. It extends past party lines and trial names. A certain psycho-political hold is on black children burning like a billion wooden matches struck in unison across the emotions, and certain primordial debts are about to be settled with white society at life-or-death stakes.

Outside New Haven the whole phenomenon goes by the name Bobby Seale, the Bobby Seale trial. Inside black New Haven, where doors are tight and the furies kept private and families think first of their own flesh and blood, it is known as Panthermania.

The strain of Panthermania is greatest on the black middle class. A break between the Toms and the young street guerrillas has been a long time coming. But the clash between middle-class values and radicalism—and even more internal and ferocious, the clash between Panthers and Black Nationalist groups—is tearing at the black community. It is killing more people than the shoot-outs between cops and militants. The most uncomfortable spot in America, 1970, may be in the black middle.

The new black pols, suburbanites, bus children and button-down, party-dip parents . . . the reviled black cops and hangover civil-rightsers caught in a tragic shift . . . the anti-poverty workers and college liaisons and community advocates belonging to a new professional class . . . the first-mortgage holders and franchise operators who cashed in on the fleeting opportunities of black capitalism . . . the ambivalent doctor, lawyer, college professor . . . and their black bourgeois wives, home, at last, with their Afros set in pink foam curlers—the whole spectrum of middle-class, upward-mobile black America is caught in a bind. With the middle beleaguered and fading, the choice is grim. Americans in the black middle stand between the Hoover-Agnew people, who threaten to take away freedoms so recently gained, and the Cleaver-Hoffman people, who giveth as the sane alternative "revolutionary suicide." Most are with the Panthers in spirit. But in practice, Panthermania brings tragedy.

In the last two years, according to the Justice Department, 469 black people assumed to be Panthers have been arrested and eleven shot dead. The tragic crossfire has also claimed the lives of nine policemen.

When white student radicals descended on Yale green last May in support of a Panther rally, where was the local black middle? Tom Hayden, revolutionary theorist, proclaimed Bobby Seale's trial "the most important trial of a black man in this century." Why then weren't the black people of New Haven out on that green in a chorus of Right On's? White Panther brigades, it was promised, would return for the summer. Thousands would settle New Haven as a liberated zone.


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