The Black Panther Paper @ 50

bpissue one cover

Fifty years ago today, on April 25, 1967, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense published the first issue of its paper. They published to publicize the case of Denzil Dowell, a black man killed by the police in North Richmond, CA. The BPP would publish the paper for several years. At peak circulation reached into the hundreds of thousands and found its way around the world. It provided important funds for the party, an important source of information, and required collective work that made community relationships. It wasn’t a perfect paper–it had didactic content, was sometimes used for personal attacks, etc.–but no paper is. Take the time to read some issues… whether you are enthusiastic or skeptical, you may be surprised by what you find. The Black Panther  stands as one of this country’s most significant communication efforts in the history of the long fight against racism and in the long quest for the liberation of black people, other oppressed people, and a just world. It lit the imagination for freedom. Happy 50th B-Day to The Black Panther!

You can download the issue here: BPINS_1967_4April

(There are a lot more resources on the history of the paper, and there are of course all of the issues of the paper, which have mostly been digitized. @ me if you have questions about where to go.)

Ode to Draymond

The King James Version
was completed in 1611
seven years after the King
commissioned a new English translation
for Church and King.
All splendor and allegiance to the King.
Words become law.
The flowery word of creation
actually the testimony of disciples
actually the translation of clergy
become the word and law of the King.

But underneath, what is there?
What do Kings speak?
What do clergy speak?
What do disciples speak?
The King’s law is no law. It is only words.
Never let them fool you.
Peel the layers and there is nothing but life.
Nothing but the life of the human being,
the one, and all.
Only life—the one, the all–is holy.
The lowest among us speak; it may be you,
on some days it is the 35th pick of the 2012 NBA draft;
who says, who has always said, who will always say,
until the end of time,
because we are alive,
Thou shalt not step over us.


to see the disappearance

who can say what might have been avoided

who can say what is unjust

they disappear, vanishing slowly from sight as they walk

down the street into the distance like a film’s slow fade out

and somewhere there is a record of life lived

which may be a child or a friend

or a backyard redwood fence built

or a child’s initials scratched into wet concrete 30 years ago

or a tree or bush planted

or a song once sung alive in the memory of another

or photo in a yearbook in a library

or in a drinking glass or necktie or LP that was donated to the goodwill, now in someone’s kitchen or closet or record collection

or a chair left on the street for someone to gather

or a burner—blues, reds, pinks—with crisp yellow outlines and 3D down and to the left

a graffiti piece that fades on a wall somewhere

or has been painted over

traintracks or rooftops or an alley

or under a freeway overpass




to find traces of


–an archaeologist

who is actually just a kid


to find a scratch into the earth of what the world once was

and if we are to survive

that kid will have to read that scratch

and make us know what it means

and make us know why it matters

and make us know that those scratch-makers

were the doers and builders and imaginers

we dream of

[for AJ, rest in piece, and for all the bay area graffiti writers who are or who once were–your presence is required and loved]

Writing Literature, Writing Race: Syllabus

Below is the description and course reading list for a writing class I designed and am teaching in Spring 2016 in the English Department at UC Davis.

English 003: Introduction to Literature: Black and White and Read All: Writing Literature, Writing Race

Race is read all over: thinking about race and, especially, thinking that is shaped by ideas about race, is global and constant, from college campuses in the United States, to Paris, Brazil, South Africa, just about everywhere. Though each location and social situation is unique in its thinking about race, race is something we think we “see”; it can shape what we think we know about particular human beings; it can shape our behavior and treatment of others; it can affect our life circumstances, opportunities, and hazards. But what is “race”? We often use the term “race” to refer to groupings of humans who share (or seem to share) distinct physical phenotypical traits. And in practice race is also often used to refer to cultural traits. But in both of these cases, after scratching the surface there are many complexities and contradictions that make simple categorizations quite problematic. Why? Race is a social construction, meaning simply that “race” is an idea created by humans to explain or understand the world. So some scholars argue that racism—as expressions of how people are thinking about race—is not only a useful way to understand “race” as a socially constructed idea but perhaps its defining characteristic: racism makes race. Race (and other social constructions) is a flexible concept that change over time and place, and can differ depending on the society in which they are used. As a social construction, we can look to an unlikely place to better understand race: literature and culture, expressions human experience and human thought. The creative expression of literature shows us what people see, think, and imagine about their world in particular places and times. Importantly, literature is not simply about recording knowledge; literature makes new knowledge that shapes society. So literature also creates understandings of race. Thus, to write literature is also to write race.

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Literature and Citizenship: Syllabus

[Image from Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660 (1946)]

Below is the description and course reading list from the syllabus for a writing class I designed and taught in Fall 2015 and Winter 2016 in the English Department at UC Davis.

English 003: Introduction to Literature: “Go Back to _____!”: Literature and Citizenship

In the summer of 2015, when Donald Trump told Univision reporter Jorge Ramos to “Go back to Univision” (i.e. “go back to Mexico or X-Latin-American country”) he used rhetoric and expressed ideas that are neither new nor uncommon. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. Even in the few months since then, debates about who belongs where, what they should look like, sound like, worship like, think like, etc.—who they should be—are everywhere in this country and world. In a globalized world, questions about citizenship and belonging are of the highest importance, not only in the technical sense of laws but also at a very deep philosophical level. Who are we? And how is this shaped by our relationships to other human beings? What are those relationships? How are they formed, perpetuated, dissolved, and transformed? In this class, we will examine how writers have used literature to represent and think the meaning of citizenship, belonging, nationhood, movement, migration, inclusion, and exclusion.

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Policing and Race in the Black Humanities: Syllabus

Below is the description and reading schedule from the syllabus for a class I designed and am teaching during Summer Session 2015 at UC Davis, through the Humanities Program.

Humanities 002B: American Humanities Forum: Justice or “Just Us”: Policing and Race in the Black Humanities, from Slavery to the Present

Course Description and Objectives:

Protests that began in the summer and fall of 2014 (and that continue) over the killing of black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner by white police officers in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY have made the intersecting issues of police conduct and race relations highly visible. But the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter does not announce a new problem or movement—indeed, it follows a much longer history of anti-black racial discrimination by law enforcement that ranges from disrespectful misunderstanding to brutality and homicide. And current activism follows a much longer history of protest and resistance to racially discriminatory law enforcement.

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Notes for Anthology (for Diana and Co.)

Preliminaries/notes from my notebooks (for collaboration–to be revised, added to, etc.–for work to be done–a start).

Gentrification in the Bay: “There’s Bluebird on My Shoulder–Can I Kill It?”

At this point statements that point out the fact of gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area seem obvious. They are repeated. Are we still listening? Whether we are or not, the process continues. We are living in the midst of historical change. This is always true, and yet the changes that the Bay are going through—have been going through for the past several years—seem especially noticable, especially rapid.

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Amiri Baraka’s “Communications Project”

Comments I delivered for a panel on Amiri Baraka’s essays at the 2015 MLA Annual Convention in Vancouver. The panel was organized by the Divisions on Non-Fiction Prose Studies and Black American Literature and Culture. Margo Natalie Crawford, Jeremy M. Glick, William J. Harris, and Aldon Lynn Nielsen also spoke on the panel, Brian J. Norman and Dana A. Williams presiding.


When we talk about the Black Arts Movement—or, for that matter, most movements—how can we do so? By that I mean, how can we address not only the flux of movement, but also the diversity of thought and action shaped by regional conditions and philosophical differences? How can we take stock of the activity of movement broadly but also specifically—what it looked like on the ground? And in the case of the Black Arts Movement’s most emblematic figure, Amiri Baraka, whom we honor here, how shall we assess the volume and diversity of his movement work and his contributions to the development of art, culture, politics, and consciousness?

Cover, Black Revolutionary Theater, Special issue of The Drama Review, Summer 1968
Cover, Black Revolutionary Theater, Special issue of The Drama Review, Summer 1968

In order to think about these questions, I want to turn to the spring of 1967 and to a unique document of that moment, Baraka’s “Communications Project”, published in 1968 in the “Black Revolutionary Theatre” special issue of The Drama Review.[1]  Ed Bullins served as guest editor; the issue contains primarily plays, by Bullins, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, Jimmy Garrett, Baraka and others. Of the few critical pieces, Larry Neal’s seminal essay “The Black Arts Movement” is probably the issue’s most widely circulated piece, and alongside other essays by Neal, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Baraka, among others, it is certainly one of the most emblematic pieces of Black Arts criticism.

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Art of Movement: UNIVERSES’s “Party People” and Campo Santo’s “Superheroes”

“In a nation that just can’t stand much more/ Like the forest buried beneath the highway/ Never had a chance to grow/ Never had a chance to grow/ And now it’s winter/ Winter in America/Yes, and all of the healers have been killed/ Or sent away, yeah/ But the people know, the people know/ It’s winter…/ Winter in America.”

-Gil Scott-Heron, “Winter in America” (174)

“There’s something goin on/ Something’s goin on [repeat]”

-The Roots, “Intro/There’s Something Goin’ On” from Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995)

In the last week of November 2014,  Party People, UNIVERSES’s play about the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords,  was finishing an extended run at the Berkeley Rep. At the same time, Campo Santo’s Superheroes, about the crack epidemic, had begun preview shows at the Cutting Ball Theater. During this one week overlap, the announcement came from Missouri that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Hardly a week later in New York, Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for the killing of Eric Garner.

Maybe this is coincidence–but something is happening now, here, in this place. The simmering a boil now.

Party People grapples with the history of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, black and Puerto Rican activists who confronted not only the very basic fact of racist police terror but discriminatory and exploitive governmental and corporate institutions.  In that fight against racism and oppression, they also imagined a new world, posing new possibilities: they created food, health, educational, and safety programs to communities neglected and exploited; they formed coalitions and relationships across lines of race, nation, and class; they imagined a humanity.

In the wake of the 1960s and 1970s, with many organizations and activists thoroughly abused, dismantled, or destroyed by government subversion, sabotage, intervention, and outright killing, drugs and the drug trade occupied communities of color, suffering not only the absence of those activists and radical energy but also the methodical dismantling of the postwar welfare state. If the scourge of heroin in the late 1970s provided sufficient damage on its own, the introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s was a neutron bomb. Superheroes looks back on that period by delving into the role the U.S. government played in bringing cocaine into this country and into poor communities of color in particular.

Both plays look back from the present. In Party People, two young men whose parents or relatives were activists organize an art show/performance that also acts as a  reunion for party members. In Superheroes, a journalist–loosely based on Gary Webb–tries to piece together the narrative of how the CIA and other government agencies facilitated the drug trade as part of support for the Contras in Central America.  Rather than presenting narrow stories, rigidly loyal to timelines and geographies, both plays draw broadly, providing us with the assemblage of scenes and memories that make history, and in particular that help the make the histories of movements and eras, which are messy, scattered, and diverse.

Party People and Superheroes take up post-Civil Rights black/American history (black history IS American history–in case that is a question for you), which holds them together, complements to each other. Too long the American mainstream has treated African American history as something that begins during slavery and ends in 1964 and 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Then, somehow, we skip to 2008 when Obama is elected, and the world is a different place, one in which laws, policies, language, and people are, somehow, color-blind. These plays follow recent historical scholarship that argues to the contrary. We live in a racialized, virulently racist, and highly unequal society. As Gil Scott-Heron told us 40 years ago in 1974, Winter had arrived in America. And it has been winter for a very long time, despite the passage of Civil Rights laws, the development of Ethnic Studies programs, the increased presence of people of color in our media. Party People and Superheroes are our Winter-in-America theater, remembering, reflecting, and trying to represent what has happened in America the last 40 years–and not just what has “happened” to black and brown people in American, but how it has happened, who has caused it, what the consequences have been, what legacies we live with–how race continues to shape the conditions and possibilities of our lives.

But Party People and Superheroes wrestle with history–they are not interested in theater as a series of dates and reenactments, and neither are they interested in narratives of pity and victimization, nor with blind exaltation. They struggle, fight, converse with that history. From the present moment they shake a fist at that history, yell at it, punch and kick it. From the present moment, they caress that history, offer healing touches and words. From the present moment, they raise these spirits and honor them in all their beautiful and ugly struggle. From the present moment they act as the sankofa, reaching, looking back while moving forward. They pull our past toward us, and us toward our past, not simply to see it but to feel, with body, heart, and mind, the pain, loss, hope, power.

Performing such work is not easy. It takes work. And perhaps one of the most defining aspects of both Party People and Superheroes is this work: movement, blood, sweat, and tears. All actors expend energy, but the amount of energy given in these two plays–to the other actors, to their subjects, to us, to the spirits they embodied–was extraordinary. There was movement in these plays. Dancing, running, stomping, yelling, singing. Sweat came, glistening, dripping.

But we should not be surprised. There’s movement in the air and on the streets in this country right now. And that movement takes work. Great theater or art or culture tells us where/when we are, and these plays show us and demand from us the sweat, the work that the movement in the air, in the streets, in the minds and hearts requires. They show us what #BlackLivesMatter means:  that a hashtag is great cultural communication but not shit without the sweat of movement to give it the depth of meaning and power. They also tell us what we see and know right now: that people are moving, that the beads of sweat are forming. That we are ready to exhaust ourselves and that exhaustion will not make us tired, will not cause us to fall. There’s something goin on right now. That should be clear. It’s in the streets but it will be the art–that movement art, the plays, poems, songs, films, posters–that will nourish brains and hearts, allow those forests Gil Scott sang about to grow. There’s something goin on. D’Angelo released Black Messiah this week, and the other night, Kendrick Lamar performed a new song, “Untitled” for the Colbert Report’s last show. And with that same intensity of movement he told us what Party People and Superheroes also have:

“Tell em we don’t die/ Tell em we don’t die/ Tell em we don’t die/ We multiply.”

-Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled” (2014)

Berkeley, California, USA