The Black Panther Party in Retrospective: History, Memory, and Representation

AHA Session 70
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Murray Hill East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Alondra Nelson, Columbia University and Social Science Research Council
The Audience

Session Abstract

The Black Panther Party has attracted a veritable cottage industry of scholars writing about its legacy and history. Recent contributions by scholars like Donna Murch, Alondra Nelson, Yohuru Williams, Joshua Bloom, and Waldo E. Martin and others have deepened our understanding of Black Panther activism and complicated the narrative of the Black Panther Party by looking at their survival program and evolution from black nationalism among other topics. Yet scholars of the Black Panther Party have yet to grapple fully with how we remember the Black Panther today. This need to study the changing public memories and legacies of the Black Panther Party is especially urgent given the current racial climate and the Black Lives Matter movement. This panel brings together scholars and activists to talk about how we remember the Black Panthers and how our memories and analyses have changed to fit different political contexts. This panel will examine the rehabilitation of the Black Panther Party’s image since the 1990s and what the Black Panther Party’s activism around the issue of police brutality and state oppression inform how we understand movements like Black Lives Matter.

Since the Black Panther Party burst onto the national spotlight in 1967 with their protest against the Mulford Bill at the state capital in Sacramento, California, the Black Panthers captured the imagination and fascination of a nation. To supporters of the Black Panthers, the Panthers represented the forefront of what Robin D. G. Kelley termed the “freedom dreams of the black radical imagination.” They dared imagine black freedom outside the constraints of American nationalism and capitalism. For their detractors, they were dangerous because their ideology threatened the very political foundations of the modern American state.

This panel explores the various ways the Black Panther Party engaged with media representation, celebrity, and martyrdom to highlight the many problems facing black communities in the late 1960s and 1970s--including poverty, urban renewal, and police brutality. It explores the various ways that the Panthers attempted to control their narrative and the important work that Panther veterans have done since the 1970s to influence the memory of the Panthers. With the release of documentaries like The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and The Black Power Mixtapes as well as books like Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers, the Panthers have enjoyed a media renaissance that coincided with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. This panel puts that renewed media interest into a historical perspective to shed light on how the issues that energized the Panthers in their era continue to be contentious today.

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