Black Berets, White Coats
: The Black Panther Party for Medical Self-Defense

copyright Stephen Shames

Black Berets, White Coats
:The Black Panther Party for Medical Self-Defense

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded 45 years ago this month by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, is generally remembered for its black berets, revolutionary rhetoric and shootouts with the police.

The Black Panthers’ health activism is less well known. This little recalled aspect of the Party’s work nevertheless remains one of its more durable legacies. This month’s anniversary occasions a reappraisal of the organization in light of its health politics.

Newton and Seale set out to champion and protect black communities. This ambition infamously took the form of armed neighborhood patrols intended to curb police brutality that too often devolved into violent confrontations.

The Black Panthers’ protective impulse was more productively channeled into campaigns of medical self-defense.

The Party fought to shield disenfranchised communities from exploitative medical research. Such was the case in the spring of 1973 when the University of California at Los Angeles announced plans to establish the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence. Praised by Governor Ronald Reagan as a cornerstone of his “law and order” administration, the center was to be dedicated to biomedical studies of violence. Among these planned studies were ones that disproportionately singled-out black and Latino prisoners and public school students as research subjects. Another project proposed controversial, invasive brain surgery to remedy aggression.

Through their attorney, the Black Panthers’ argued before the California legislature that the urban violence on the 1960s and 1970s was not attributable to the innate pathology of black and brown bodies but was, as H. Rap Brown had poetically put it a few years prior, a social and political phenomenon as “American as cherry pie.” The center would be successfully stalled owing in no small part to the Party’s intervention.

In addition to safeguarding the poor from bad medicine, the Party disseminated health education and dispensed medical care. For example, in their popular newspaper and on national television—including an appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” alongside John Lennon and Yoko Ono—they demanded attention for sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease that predominantly affects persons of African descent. The Panthers also provided free sickle cell anemia screening at venues ranging from private homes to public parks.

The activists also offered free medical services at its clinics. Impoverished blacks remained second-class citizens in the American health care system despite recent civil rights strides. They received pitiable care at over-crowded, understaffed and often faraway public hospitals. The Black Panthers’ clinics, by contrast, while modest, offered basic health care from trusted providers at neighborhood-based sites.

The legacy of the Party’s clinics persists today. The Carolyn Downs Medical Center in Seattle bears the name and extends the work of a Black Panther who played an integral role in establishing the group’s free health services in that community in 1968.

The Panther imprint is also present in post-Katrina New Orleans. The idea for the Common Ground Health Clinic, which arose fill the gap left by the collapse of the city’s medical infrastructure, was inspired by similar programs that co-founder Malik Rahim developed as a member of the New Orleans chapter of the Party. Now an established institution, this Black Panther-inspired clinic has served more than sixty thousand people since it was established in September 2005.

We tend to remember the Party through imagery such as the organization’s iconic cat symbol and the many photographs that captured the Panther posture—defiant faces, stiff spines, loaded guns, and leather jackets. Many continue to regard militancy and ephemera as the Party’s most significant bequest.

Lost in the hail of gunfire and the heat of the culture wars is the fact that the Panthers also wore the white coats of medicine. Peering through the lens of health activism, we gain new insights into what was most considerable and lasting about the Party.

The Black Panthers asserted health as a right. They demanded universal access to health care. Well before July 1972, when the Tuskegee syphilis study would become a national allegory of race and medical power, the Party shined a light on health inequities.

To reappraise the Black Panthers’ as health activists is not to canonize them, but to contemplate civil rights militancy through a more multifaceted prism.

Posted in Body and Soul, BPP | 1 Comment

Derrick Bell: Mourning and Missing a Mentor

Tricia Rose, Derrick Bell, Alondra Nelson, and Ed Guerrero at NYU in Spring 1998

I am deeply saddened by the passing of the committed scholar-activist Derrick Bell on October 5, 2011 at the age of 80.

Professor Bell was never my teacher in a formal sense. He nevertheless had a profound influence on me. I remain his grateful mentee.

I met Professor Bell in the late 1990s when I was a doctoral student at New York University. He was a towering figure on campus; yet he was eminently approachable.

I don’t recall the exact fortuitous moment at which I met Professor Bell. But I will never forget the many kindnesses he showed me over many years.

Whenever and wherever I encountered Professor Bell on campus, he would take a moment to ask how my research was developing and offer a nugget of advice or support. He enthusiastically encouraged me to pursue my then nascent interests in the Black Panther Party and on science fiction and technology in black culture. The latter project owed an immeasurable debt to the speculative turn he took in “Space Traders,” a chapter of his widely-read book Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.

By coincidence, Professor Bell was invited to be a distinguished lecturer at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, where I was a resident fellow working toward the completion of my dissertation. He generously offered to visit the class I was teaching on the black power and civil rights movements during his visit. I was an inexperienced teacher and that day, with Professor Bell in my classroom, I felt especially green. I soon found myself floundering in front of my students and in front of the mentor I so wanted to impress. Professor Bell gracefully took over the class for a few moments. Just as gracefully, he handed the class back over to me, after I had regained my composure.

We never spoke of that awkward moment—not on that day, not years later. But even without communication, important lessons were conveyed:

There is no embarrassment in making a mistake and beginning again.

A true teacher uplifts by example rather than humiliating with criticism.

Mentoring does not always require words.

After I assumed my first teaching position at an elite university, Professor Bell spoke frankly and urgently with me about how to navigate the life of the mind amidst the distinctive inequalities of the ivory tower. He told me that I did not have to compromise my scholarship or my principles or my politics. Never stated, but always understood, was the fact that Bell himself had helped to blaze the trail that I was on.

In subsequent years, I have tried to model with others the devoted mentoring that I received from Professor Bell at a critical point in my life. I turn again and again to his book Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth for words of wisdom for myself and my students.

The outpouring of admiration for Professor Bell in recent days has impressed upon me that my experiences with this brilliant and kind-hearted man–who was soft-spoken but held rock hard convictions—were repeated with countless scholars and colleagues over several decades. Professor Bell touched many, many lives. He is greatly missed.

UPDATE: Derrick Bell Memorial Website

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Afrofuturism: Archive

I’m looking forward to my Twitter confab on Afrofuturism with students from the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute. My friend and colleague Howard Rambsy, who is a professor of English and director of the Black studies program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is teaching a module on African American fiction and theory.

I will be speaking about Afrofuturism in September at Parsons: The New School for Design and will be delving into related themes in a lecture at Columbia in October. So, I took Howard’s invitation to tweet with the Institute’s students as an opportunity to reflect on the project that I started in 1998. This process has included digging out my files. (Not as fun as digging through crates or thrifting, but pleasurable still). Is an Afrofuturism archive inherently retro-futurist?

Afrofuturism started as a message board (remember those days!) with me as the list moderator. I invited rotating guest moderators. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid (aka Paul D. Miller) as the first guest moderator followed by Alexander Weheliye, Ron Eglash, Nalo Hopkinson and others. The list then migrated to a Yahoo group. In 2002 the project was converted into a special issue of the journal Social Text. UPDATE: Duke University Press has generously granted free access to the “Afrofuturism” issue through September.

This image is the 1998 postcard that I had created (designed by Chris Nojima) to announce the formation of the Afrofuturism online community.

I distributed these postcards at museums, universities, music venues and cyber-cafes (remember those spots!) in New York city. I carried these with me constantly, including when I traveled to conduct dissertation research in California, always leaving a few in my wake. I brought them when I traveled to Barcelona, London and Kingston in the late 1990s, among other places. My collaborators in the cultural collective Apogee, from which the Afrofuturism project originated, did the same.

The second set of images are pages from the program of Afro-Futurism Forum, a symposium I organized in 1999. This symposium was a featured program of the former Downtown Arts program and was funded with a small grant from The Peter Norton Family Foundation and LOTS of support from friends, teachers and fellow travelers (click below).

Posted in Events | Tagged | 2 Comments

Last Man Standing: Black Panther Geronimo ji-Jaga Dies at 63

Sad news arrived last night that Geronimo ji-Jaga (formerly Elmer ‘Geronimo’ Pratt) died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Tanzania, where he lived with his wife, Joju Cleaver ji-Jaga, the daughter of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. He was 63.

Joju ji-Jaga (aka Mama Kayode, right) pictured with Charlotte O'Neal (aka Mama C, former Kansas City Panther)

ji-Jaga was a leader of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party and was also deeply involved in the organization’s overall leadership.

In a short piece summarizing his life, the Los Angeles Times reports that “Pratt was convicted in 1972 and sentenced to life in prison for the 1968 fatal shooting of Caroline Olsen and the serious wounding of her husband, Kenneth, in a robbery that netted $18.” The article goes on to day that this “case became a cause celebre for elected officials, Amnesty International, clergy and celebrities who believed he was framed by the government.

More emphatic language should have been used to describe ji-Jaga’s life after it took a tragic turn at the hands of law enforcement in 1968. The cause of his freedom was no mere activist fad. His rights were violated by the police and prosecutors. He was convicted and imprisoned unjustly.

Pace cultural warrior Stanley Crouch, the use of the COINTELPRO program against the Party and other political radicals is now well established. Even the ideologically middling television show “60 Minutes” found it important in 1984–amidst the Reagan years–to shed light on the conspiracy surrounding ji-Jaga’s case.

A recent article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian highlighted the ji-Jaga conspiracy as a case that explained the law enforcement’s declining integrity in the eyes of the public, noting that “…the government had not disclosed that a key witness against Pratt, Julius Butler, was an informant for both the FBI and the LAPD.

In the same article, defense attorney Stuart Hanlon was more forthright in his assessment of ji-Jaga’s framing for murder: “We learned that law enforcement officers had hidden evidence, let people commit perjury, and destroyed evidence to convict someone who was innocent.” (Former TIME bureau chief, the late Jack Olsen delivered a definitive accounting of the injustices visited upon ji-Jaga; see his book, Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt).

In 1997, after 27 years imprisonment at San Quentin State Prison–8 of these spent in solitary confinement–ji-Jaga was vindicated and conviction overturned. He later received a $4.5 million settlement from the the city of Los Angeles and the US Department of Justice as compensation for his false imprisonment. However, justice and “the right to have rights” are priceless. And, Geronimo ji-Jaga’s life in freedom was much too short.

Posted in BPP, citizenship contradictions | Leave a comment

The social limits of liberty

Season II of “Wall and Bridges,” a series of conversations between French and US thinkers–organized by the Villa Gillet, one of France’s premier cultural institutions–was held in New York city in April.

Series participants included George Packer, Didier Fassin, Nina Berman, and Siva Vaidhyanathan. I had the good fortune to join a panel on “The Social Limits of Liberty” with Mitchell Cohen of CUNY and Dissent; Patrick Savidan, philosopher and director of Raison Publique; Romain Huret, a historian of the US and author of an important book about the social fissures brought into relief following Hurricane Katrina, and Fabienne Brugère, a feminist philosopher, who writes about “the ethics of care.”

The discussion provided an opportunity for me to speak about how the issue of African American citizenship and social liberty–and its many contradictions–was at stake in the Black Panther Party’s health politics. It was a free-ranging and energetic conversation about personal and collective goods; race, citizenship and the state; and the liberty versus freedom. Here is a video of the conversation and links to the short essays from which of all of the speakers’ comments were drawn. My text incorporates an excerpt from my forthcoming book Body and Soul.

I am looking forward to the start of Season III in Fall 2011!

Posted in Body and Soul, BPP, citizenship contradictions, Events, Villa Gillet | Leave a comment

RACE: Are We So Different?

I recently spoke with Meghna Chakrabarti of  WBUR’s Radio Boston about the Museum of Science exhibition, “RACE: Are We So Different?” and the issues it raises.

This interactive display is part of the traveling RACE exhibition.

(The exhibit was created by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and has been traveling the country for the last two years). I was joined by the eminent biological anthropologist and past AAA president, Alan Goodman. An archive of the discussion is available here : You Sound Different—The Science Behind Race. There is also a fantastic synopsis of the conversation posted on The 2011 Harriet-Elliott Lecture Series Blog.


Posted in interviews, Social Life of DNA | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Fellowship at the Max Planck Institute

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin)

In January, I was honored to be a Visiting Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, where I was in residence with the research group dedicated to “Producing Knowledge About Human Biological Diversity.” Veronika Lipphardt, Susanne Bauer, Sandra Widmer, John Carson, Skuli Sigurdsson and Chihyung Jeon were excellent hosts and most generous interlocutors!

While in Berlin, I gave two presentations: The first was a lecture drawn from my forthcoming book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination that will be published in early Fall by the University of Minnesota Press. The second talk drew from the first chapter of my book-in-progress, “Reconciliation Projects;” in this talk, I discussed the African Burial Ground project in lower Manhattan as an important origin for the subsequent popularity of genetic genealogy testing.

Posted in Body and Soul, BPP, Max Planck, Reconciliation Projects | Tagged , | Leave a comment