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Black Against Black: The Agony of Panthermania

Another side of working Connecticut life is giant defense contractors: Sikorsky, United Aircraft, General Dynamics and the Winchester gun factory in New Haven where the lights burn all night.

On Sundays in New Haven the black women of means go with their families to Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church. Propped on their knees, like tea napkins, are these white pocket-books that come out of The Valley.

Black New Haveners have traditionally taken their manners from the least mobile white population—that careful, myopic, mildly-spoken core of liner-uppers and Sunday-besters.

On the ride out Dixwell Avenue for our first visit to William's house, we made three stops which pretty well laid out where the lines are drawn in a northern black community.

In the American Oil Service Station we met a friendly young black mechanic. He explained his town in one memorable stroke of doublethink:

"In New Haven we're like peas in a pod. The Man does his things on his side of the track, we do ours on our side. But one thing we don't have in New Haven is segregation."

The hippest dudes and young sharpies hang out on the sidewalk where Liggett's wraps around a central corner on Dixwell. A tall handsome cat waved a Panther newspaper at us. He had on this terrific elephant-brimmed Al Capone hat, tilted at a rakish diagonal and wrapped with an orange bandana. He kept tapping that hat and smiling and jiving on the corner as if money were suddenly free. It was infectious. We smiled back. He bounded over to sell us a paper and gave us the black power fist. Then he tilted his hat still further and smiled. We asked him about the hat because it seemed to matter more to him than anything in the paper.

"Dig it," he said, "that's a New Yawk racketeer hat!"

". . . 'The party requires six months on probation. They investigate. You're either in good standing or you're not a Panther.' . . ."

Out past the Eli Clothing Store, on the other side of town from North Haven where the Polish Falcons gather in Nest 81 and the Broadway Service Station flies the sign USED BICYCLES - GUNS - MOWERS - BOUGHT AND SOLD, we began driving slowly to find William's house. We pulled alongside a group of black women in three-button Sunday spring coats. It was a broken-stoop neighborhood, a block from William's house. "Can you tell us where to turn for Munson Street?" David asked.

"Munson Street? Don't know it. Munson Street?" puzzled the women in bird-like voices, about a street that turned out to be a block away. "Jes' keep straight on is best."

"Jesus," said David Parks way down in his throat, as he waved thanks to the local black women. "These people live here, and they still don't know where they're at. We have so far to go."

When William's two children were born the family lived "on the limb" down in Congoland—that is to say, on Congress Avenue where the rats run all night inside the walls. His wife worked as a psychiatric nurse, trained at Bellevue. To get out of Congoland William worked four jobs at once. Before dawn he left to make seat covers for the Avco factory and at night he ran a dry cleaning business and on the side he sold baby furniture and on the weekends he buttoned up in the white mess jacket of a steward. Playing the distinguished but mute colored gentleman, William circulated past the elbows of Yale dons until his Uncle Remus beard turned silver. Until he had $1,000 for the down payment on this house. By the time he finally had it paid for, his wife was dead of cancer.

Today William's beard is clipped and juts forward, rather like a Pharaoh's. He is proud of his home in Hamden, a block or so over the New Haven city line, which qualifies as suburban. Things are moving that way now, out Dixwell Avenue from the Congoland into a black suburban settlement in Hamden. William put the red Volkswagen in the driveway and tulips beneath the Japanese maple and this year he put his fifteen-year-old son Junius in a fancy prep school. Above all he is proud, though uncertain,0020of his son.

Last winter Junius fled prep school in white Methodist Massachusetts and bused home to Hamden. He had decided to join the party. On a night cold enough to crack sidewalks, Junius announced he was going downtown to the Panther Defense Committee office to begin his apprenticeship. William said he could stay home and call himself a Panther.

"The party requires six months on probation," Junius corrected him. "They investigate. You're either a Panther in good standing or you're not a Panther. You can't just call yourself a Black Panther."


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