Walking around my grandmother’s neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey, I am struck by its absences in relation to its neighbors, the wealthier and whiter South Orange and Maplewood. There are, for example, fewer trees here. There is also less space. You notice, upon comparison, that the houses in East Orange seem jammed up against one another. The concrete in the sidewalks too seems to reflect this jamming: the slabs align at inconvenient angles, and the grass that grows underneath fights the concrete for light and air.
East Orange is 88 percent black. The spatial metaphor of “highness” and “lowness” we use to speak about class hierarchies in American society is inscribed in the topography of East Orange and its white, suburban counterparts. To travel from the tree-lined hills—the land of fresh air, vintage knickknack shops, luxury sports cars, the meticulous labors of the landscape architect—to the choked heat and dilapidation of East Orange, one has to descend. With this limited access to oxygen are the oft-rehearsed statistics of lack that are in danger of becoming run-of-the-mill in discourses on inequality in America: my grandmother’s neighborhood hosts underresourced public schools, crumbling amenities, low property values, and low-income households. My grandmother has lived here for 20 years, but in her remaining years, she says, she dreams of moving “to a better neighborhood.”
There are many such cities in America. And many similar microcosmic neighborhoods and communities. Such places—today’s Flint, today’s Ferguson—perhaps languish in their obscurity until moments of catastrophe and tragedy launch them into the national consciousness. I imagine that East Orange is what these places felt like prior to their immortalization. Often sleepy, often quiet, haunted by neglect.
Today we deploy the names of America’s black geographies in order to propel narratives that serve our political and historical imagination. These geographies become symbols, substitute names for the political theme to which they refer. “Ferguson,” for instance, has become shorthand for police shootings. Through repeated invocation in political discourse, the word has become full, pregnant, freighted. It has come to mean things that exceed its geographical specificity and the lives of the people who constitute it.
This process of symbolization and signification is powerful and important work. However, it arguably trucks in a kind of sensationalism that is attuned mainly to catastrophic extremes. The problem with such an approach is that it threatens our sensitivity to the daily realities of lack and neglect that characterize black space in America. These realities that precede crisis deserve as much attention as the crises themselves, for it is arguably the havoc of having less in these places that makes the tragedies that come to both define and obscure them possible. In overlooking the putatively banal and daily for the spectacular, we risk jeopardizing any attempt to understand crisis and to prevent it.
This tension between the sensational and the mundane in political thought and work was a preoccupation of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The Panthers are often remembered for their militant aesthetic and advocacy of revolutionary violence. However, a lesser-known aspect of their project was the restoration of the black community in the wake of the havoc of less. Addressing what the state had done (or, more accurately, not done) for black people through practical means was at the heart of their mission.
Huey P. Newton, leading theoretician of the Panthers, developed this perspective on struggle out of an at times close and at times tenuous relationship to Marxism-Leninism. In their writings, the Panthers link their own political and philosophical project to Mao, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh (whom Newton referred to as “Uncle Ho”), Fanon, and Che. Theirs was a lineage of adaptation and praxis. Newton, like his forebears, approached a Eurocentric Marxism with rigor and dedication, yet altered and qualified its theories to suit the conditions of his historically specific conjuncture. Newton used the prism of Marxism and Leninism to analyze the conditions of African-America. For him, the subject of revolutionary history was no longer Marx’s industrial working class but rather the lumpenproletariat, or what Marx had pejoratively termed the “dangerous class,” which is to say the outcasts, the ghettoized, the beggars, the gangsters, and the unemployable. Newton’s Marxism was a Marxism for the despised, a class-politics for the sub-classed and de-classed.
From this tradition Newton culled a kind of revolutionary pragmatism, deploying theoretical conclusions with less concern for dogmatic theoretical exactitude than for practical utility and political accuracy. In a 1967 essay entitled “In Defense of Self-Defense,” Newton described the “true definition of politics” as “the desire of individuals and groups to satisfy their basic needs first: food, shelter, and clothing, and security for themselves and their loved ones.” In 1966, the Oakland chapter of the Party had, under the aegis of Newton and Party chairman Bobby Seale, begun a series of “survival programs.” These programs took on a variety of forms—some very well-known today—including free medical clinics, free busing to prisons, free food programs, free clothing and shoes programs, free pest control, police-alert patrols, and others.
The most popular iteration of the survival programs was the breakfast program, in which the local Panther chapters served free food to their respective communities in collaboration with local churches. Breakfast programs were sustained by volunteer efforts, financial contributions from the community, and food donations from local businesses. Massive giveaways became public and media attractions, lodging images of the Panthers in the public consciousness. All were essentially designed to combat the practical and immediate difficulties of black, urban life. They were explicitly articulated as attempts to fill a void left by the failure of the federal government to provide resources as basic as food to black communities.
The programs’ immediate practical function and their ideological relationship to the project of the Panthers has some bearing on the question of the mundane versus the sensational in political imagination and work. In Huey P.’s theoretical writings, there is a persistent negotiation between revolutionary glamour and dogged practical effort. For the Panthers, the survival of the people was, on one hand, the truest form of politics: that is, black people’s right to live in human and decent ways. On the other hand, it was a temporary stage in the revolutionary process. In this vein, Newton wrote of the black community that “there must be a total transformation, but until that time that we can achieve total transformation, we must exist. In order to exist, we must survive, so, therefore, we need a survival kit.”
One sees in Newton’s writing an estimation of meeting these bare necessities as the only “true” political act. At the same time, revolutionary transformation lingers as a distant and desired horizon. For Newton the former—survival—took a kind of sequential precedence over the latter—revolution. Nevertheless the two coexist as dynamic and inseparable components of an encompassing revolutionary project. In a 1972 collection of his writings and speeches entitled To Die for the People (originally edited by Toni Morrison), Newton writes, “To go out, one must go deep. But to go deep, one must also go out.” Newton imagined the community as something like a base from which the broader project of world transformation could be built. The community was the depth and the soul of the revolution. The world was the “out,” the temple of its unfurling. Revolution would be not an event but a process.
Yet the tension between the daily, anonymous toil of “serving the people” and the spectacular rhetoric and aesthetics of the gun would persist into an ideological rift, which in 1971 tore the Party in two (helped along the way by the interferences of COINTELPRO). The tension was posed more explicitly as an argument concerning the correct timing of revolution. One faction, led by Eldridge Cleaver, maintained that revolution was imminent and moved to prepare the people for armed insurrection. The second faction, led by Newton, moved more toward community building and politics. Newton denounced Cleaver in a 1971 essay entitled “On the Defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party from the Black Community.” In it he accused Cleaver of a haste tantamount to counterrevolutionism. He suggested that Cleaver’s judgment of the political situation had been impeded by an “either/or,” sensationalist attitude that cut him off from the people’s reality. The veracity of these judgments was perhaps clouded by factionalism and the shrouded misdirections of the FBI. Nevertheless, the dichotomy was present and articulable enough to become the Party’s most severe internal ideological divide.
One of Newton’s major theoretical innovations was the idea of “intercommunalism.” He used this concept to characterize the ideological position of the Panthers in 1970. In brief, Newton claimed that due to the nature of imperialism, the nation had ceased to exist as the organizing principle of the world. Rather, power had been concentrated into the hands of a small ruling circle who then exerted a homogenizing influence around the world. In a speech delivered at Boston College in 1971, Newton defined the “community” as “a comprehensive collection of institutions which serve the people who live there.” The ruling circle of the world, he claimed, had expropriated many institutions from the communities of the world, such that they no longer worked in the interest of the people but rather worked for the rulers.
Newton’s theory of intercommunalism could be used to explain how, today, black communities suffer such neglect, even in immediate proximity to the immaculate neighborhoods of the wealthy and white. Intercommunalism articulates the process by which the institutions of a country serve and protect some and underserve or express hostility toward others. Police brutality and the shootings of black men are a poignant example of this. Hospitals, where black patients receive less medical care, pain medication, and psychiatric help than their white counterparts, offer another sterling American example. I remember my father confirming the truth of this once, after a story on National Public Radio prompted me to ask him about it. “It’s true,” he said of the doctors. “They just can’t empathize with you.”
Newton must have observed such contradictions, still with us today, while penning his theory. From his perspective in 1970, national and state institutions turning away from black people had happened in a similar way across the world. He wrote, therefore, that “we see very little difference in what happens to a community here in North America and what happens to a community in Vietnam. . . . We see very little difference in what happens to a Black community in Harlem and a Black community in South Africa, a Black community in Angola and Mozambique. We see very little difference.”
Newton observed that the ravages of imperialism had created this vast world of the underserved, which had in turn engendered unique opportunities for a kind of fluid solidarity beyond misleading and antique notions of national boundaries. Such insights seem perceptive, and even iconoclastic, in light of the dominance of internationalism in the radical political thought—particularly anti-imperialist and Marxist strains—of the ’60s and ’70s. The Panthers called themselves “revolutionary intercommunalists” in order to distance themselves from traditional socialist “internationalist” labels, which reaffirmed and legitimated the idea of the nation. Calling themselves “intercommunalists” allowed the Panthers to frame the importance of the community in relation to a revolutionary vision for the wider world. It allowed them to retain a grasp on the local when the rest of radical thought seemed to be moving global. Such insight pivoted upon Newton’s critical observation about the state’s neglect and abandonment of the black American community. From this, Newton was able to identify simultaneously what the imperialist project had wrought for the subjugated peoples of the world.
When I look at East Orange, nearly 50 years after Newton first introduced the idea of “intercommunalism,” I am struck by his prescience. That this side of Newton and the Panthers’ thinking risks being lost to history behind unidimensional depictions of them as bellicose militants is perhaps due to the same victory of the spectacular over the dogged, the sensational over the daily. The Panthers were militants who advocated the use of force if necessary against the belligerence of the state. However, to take up only this side of their work is to obliterate the nuanced theoretical and practical sensitivity with which they approached and understood the black community and its place in a wider world.
When we look at the Panthers in this way, we recognize the courage, humility, and love that went into their work. The power of this work is perhaps why the memory of the Panthers persists despite aggressive attempts by the state to repress and manipulate their legacy. A contemporary emulation of this humility could begin with increased attention to the life of the community, in local and careful ways. It is only through these small achievements that larger ones are possible.