By Candice Murdock, Staff Writer
Elaine Brown—activist, former Black Panther, and author of “A Taste of Power” and “The Condemnation of Little B”—spoke to a crowd of people on March 14 at 7 p.m. in the J.C. Penney Auditorium. The Associated Black Collegians, Educators for Social Justice, College of Education Dean’s Committee on Social Justice, Liberated Genius, and TEACH society co-sponsored the event, which was part of the Des Lee Professor Urban Education Speaker Series on Race, Class, and Community. The speech was called “Education for Liberation for All People.”
Before Brown graced the stage, there was a brief introduction given by Dr. Jerome E. Morris, E. Desmond Lee endowed professor of urban education, who gave a synopsis of Brown’s community activism. He cited her work as the first woman leader of the Black Panther Party, discussed her run for the Green Party in 2007, and noted that HBO is in the process of making a movie about her life.
After his introduction, a YouTube interlude was shown featuring singer and songwriter Alicia Keys, in which Keys mentioned how Brown was someone that she always wanted to meet, and that when Keys did meet her, with the poem “Black Mother” by Bunchy Carter, who was himself a slain Black Panther.
Immediately after the interlude, Brown came onto the stage and expressed how important it is for black people to be liberated. She explained, “[The] fundamental problem in the United States is the continued existence of black people as an oppressed group in the United States.”
Brown defined this as an “eternal dilemma” that has existed between black and white people. Even though she explained that there is a dilemma between black and white people, she emphasized that it is not a color question, but it is instead what she described as a “conditioned socio-political, economic condition that a group of people who had evolved, created, and invented itself out of a slave population continues to face.”
She began her speech by situating it in Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” In 1967, blacks in the United States had the right to vote, and the United States had passed the civil rights bill, but the questioned remained: Where should they go from there? She used the theme of King’s speech as a theme that could also be used to analyze the state of black people today. “Where do black people in 2017 go from here?” she asked.
She compared other ethnic and cultural groups with black people by examining their representational plight in the media, citing images of “dysfunctional black people” and stereotypes in the media.
Brown said that while she realized this about the media, she also came to several realizations about history as well. “In order for you to understand how something happens, you have to understand the origins of it,” she said. She also realized that in order to understand the state of black people in the United States today, one must understand what happened in the beginning to contribute to the historical trauma that affects the generations of today.
To this end, during the speech she spoke about the history of black people in relation to the United States of America, starting with slavery. She discussed that although we as a nation want to move on and turn the page of history, we cannot turn the page until there is acknowledgement. She gave a brief history discussion covering such historical events as the 13 colonies, the growth rate of U.S. exports, freeing the slaves in the southern states after the Civil War, Reconstruction, the idea of receiving “40 acres and a mule,” black codes and behaviors, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the doctrine of separate but equal. She also discussed the various ways black Americans such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B DuBois, and Marcus Garvey have tried to assimilate and survive in America by advocating for black economic independence.
She continued to speak about DuBois’ ideas about the NAACP, which Brown cited as, “[needing] to integrate being worthy … [and] to elevate the rest of us so that we can join with white people of America and participate.”
She continued integrating her speech with the history of blacks in the United States by citing Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, the Great Migration, World War II and the Tuskegee Airmen, Brown v. Board of Education and Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks and the year-end Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr.’s charismatic leadership, and the Freedom movement. She continued to cite the diverse history that brought about Malcolm X, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, C.O.R.E, and others. She also discussed the March on Washington in 1963, the Civil Rights Act, the March on Selma, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In 1966, when the Black Panther Party formed, Brown said that she and the party had a realization. “We recognized [at] that moment that black people were not free because we just had gotten the right to vote and really couldn’t exercise that right could translate in any case. So we advocated Black Liberation as part of that long freedom movement since 1607,” she said.
However, Brown stressed that black people could not be free if any other group was also oppressed. Brown asked, “How do we talk about the freedom of black people if the Native people are being treated as slaves on the reservations? We said [that] we couldn’t, so we helped to form the Coalition of American Indians. How do we talk about the freedom of black people if the Chicanos in California are picking cotton in the fields of California like slaves? We cannot be free unless the Latinos in America are free. So we formed the coalition of Brown Berets and Young Lords in Chicago. How do we talk about the freedom of black in the context of Asians? So we helped form the Red Guard. What about poor white people living in the Appalachians?”
Brown also noted the Black Panther’s party relations with groups such as the Young Patriots, a left wing organization formed in the 1960s. This group also had connections and affiliations with groups around the world in places like China, Vietnam, South Africa, Palestine, Cuba, and others. She said that the Black Panthers also identified with the Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation movements in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Other than the work of the Black Panther movement, during a question and answer session she also talked about how to reframe the way teachers teach. However, she recognizes that before kids can learn, there are other factors that must be addressed. She said, “There are kids that are raising themselves, and there’s nothing for them in the public school system. We fed children three meals a day. … We took care of their healthcare for all of their children.”
She continued to discuss overcrowded classrooms and the jobs of teachers in controlling the classroom in order to teach the children. She explained, “Those issues of actually getting to the point of actually learning something have to be dealt with.”
After the speech, it was apparent to everyone that there are a lot of changes that needed to be made within the education system, and many of these changes Brown asserted needed to begin in the home. Mary Brod, senior, anthropology and archeology, spoke about Brown’s insights. “Ms. Brown was correct when she said it wasn’t simply about changing the curriculum. It’s about how teachers communicate on a human level with students, and that can be difficult if the teacher happens to be white while the student happens to be black. There is a cultural disconnect there that nobody wants to discuss, but Elaine Brown hit that sweet spot with all of her strength and courage when she discussed the home sphere that many black children face and how that influences their education. Changing the curriculum in schools does nothing if a child does not have a safe and healthy environment conducive for studying at home, which is [not] the case for many in low-income neighborhoods and families. Gangs, drugs, police brutality or fear of it, loss of parents, homelessness, and starvation are all major issues many young black students face today.”
Beyond the education system, the speech also addressed some long-standing misconceptions about the Black Panther Party. Christopher Walter Jr., senior, business administration, said, “I took away that the work that she did in the community was very vital to how we think about the movement today. When we think about the Black Panther Party, we commonly think that it was violent and that it was very militant; it was arming. But it had a great breakfast program and had a school that taught individuals, particularly black people, about their history. I think that it’s very important.”
Walter also emphasized Brown’s message on creating change. “I took the idea that we all must seek fundamental change and be revolutionary in that revolution isn’t a bad thing. It’s something we must consider when we want to make a true, actual, long-standing difference in the country,” he said.