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Black Against Empire [Book Review]

Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr is the definitive history of The Black Panthers. The book not only charts the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party but also provides detailed backgrounds of its most prominent members. Learning about Huey P. Newton’s and Bobby Seale’s early family life set the stage for explaining their drive to defend the vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the Black community.

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Like many icons and organizations involved in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, there is much controversy surrounding the Black Panthers. The image of Black men and women dressed in all black, sporting afros, and carrying guns is a symbol of Black defense for some but a threat of Black anarchy and menace for others. Both sides tend to oversimplify the importance of the Black Panthers by overlooking the depth and facets of the organization’s mission.

The Panthers began as a community watch group consisting of armed citizens who essentially policed the police by surveilling officers and protesting police brutality in Oakland, CA. Over time, the organization grew via chapters that sprang up across the country. And social activism expanded to include a free breakfast program for children, community health clinics, and an independent newspaper.

On the flip-side, the organization’s beginnings as an all-male group attempting to reassert Black manhood meant that there would be some conflict with regards to gender roles. The acceptance of aggression, guns, and violence as potential tools of resistance stems from traditional concepts of masculinity. As a result, the initially expected role of women in the Black Panthers (if any) was traditional. Namely, providing support for the male Panthers while being subordinate in revolutionary activities.

Yet, within a few years, some of the Panther’s publications and chapter leaders began to advocate for men and women being treated as equals within the group and society at large. The party operated as relatively independent chapters so some were more progressive than others. With this change of ideology, the amount of female Black Panthers grew substantially, several chapters were led by women, and women held high positions of authority within the party. Eventually, several women rose to prominence within the Panthers and became icons of the Black Power Movement.

Black Against Empire does a great job of showing both the good and the bad of the Black Panther party. They had an incredibly admirable mission. But, unfortunately, it required people to get things done. And there was a good chance that would lead to problems.

The Black Panthers were a bundle of contradictions. A group that initially began with the goal of defending Black people from brutality went on to allegedly commit crimes against and murder Black people.

Yet, some of the crimes that the Panthers committed were instigated and encouraged by members of external forces. Trying to differentiate between the actual wrongdoings of the Black Panthers from propaganda promoted by external forces that saw the Panthers as a threat that needed to be neutralized is one of the most interesting facets of the book. Black Against Empire would be a great book to read if you like stories of spies and espionage.

Overall, I thought that Black Against Empire was an excellent book. It gives a fair and balanced account of both the good points and failings of the Black Panthers. Joshua Bloom was also the author of The Assassination of Fred Hampton but I disliked that he included a mini-biography of himself in that book. I appreciate that the authors didn’t put themselves in this book.

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