The Revolution Will Not Be Canonized
Imagine The Autobiography of Malcolm X moving backwards, its chapters read in reverse, enlightenment to ignorance. (And not the newly recovered Autobiography, either, with the original benevolence restored to temper its racism.) Imagine that, and you’re on your way toward understanding what it’s like to read Revolutionary Suicide.
Inclusion among the Penguin Classics, of course, doesn’t in itself constitute literary canonization, but it comes about as close as any other single cultural designation. However, in the case of Huey Newton’s autobiography, originally published in 1973, it’s going to take a whole lot more.
All the things that made the Black Panthers a good and necessary force in the 1960s are found here: the way they played bad cop to the SCLC and SNCC’s good cop, to help effect a change in civil-rights reform, and the way they did so by terrorizing the real cops, the worst among them, with their street-legal firearms and letter-of-the-law interpretation of all relevant statutes. Of course, when the law is insufficient for the task of repression, the Man need merely change the law, and that’s part of what happened here. The so-called Panther Bill was brought on the books to restrict one’s right to bear arms, a measure that had never been deemed necessary on account of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Black Panther Party’s across-the-board intolerance of illegal drugs–in every way a policy that has to be admired–looks merely sanctimonious in retrospect, when you consider the narcotics to which so many of them, Newton included, eventually succumbed. That’s the kind of ad hominem judgments history makes on all who become its actors. Events matter, and so does behavior–it’s behavior that causes events, of course, and in the context of what went wrong with the Party, so much of Newton’s prison-yard philosophizing looks like nothing more than merely that.
But some of it lasts, because some of it was actualized and then lived splendidly in its moment. In jail is where Newton first learned to master his thoughts: “I could start them and stop them; I could slow them down and speed them up. It was a very conscious exercise….I learned to control my food, my mind, and my body through a deliberate act of will.” You have no doubt that he did, and that those thoughts stayed mastered for a long time.
Where Newton ordinarily wears all his erudition as lightly as a wool shawl soaked in buttermilk, there are those certain other places where his big ideas tend to stay levitated. On living and dying: “[Y]ou can only die once, so do not die a thousand times worrying about it.” On marriage: “A strong love between husband and wife can survive outside pressures, but that is rare. Marriage becomes one more imprisoning experience within the general prison of society.” On religion: “Already a people in slavery, when Christianity was imposed upon them, the Blacks only assumed another burden, the tyranny of the future–the hope of heaven and the fear of hell.” On adjusting to life outside of prison: “All the sounds, movements, and colors coming on simultaneously–television, telephone, radio, people talking, coming and going, doorbells and phones, ringing–were dizzying at first. Ordinary life seemed hectic and chaotic, and quite overwhelming.” On visiting China, where he met Chou Enlai: “I went to learn and to criticize, since no society is perfect. There was little, however, to find fault with. The Chinese insist that you find something to criticize. They believe strongly in the most searching self-examination, of criticism of others and, in turn, of self.”
Newton got his title and his framework from Emile Durkheim, sociologist and author of the study On Suicide (1897; itself a Penguin Classic). Durkheim saw suicide as largely a reaction to one’s social conditions; this reactionary suicide finds its opposite force in what Newton here classifies as revolutionary suicide–a strictly corporeal rather than also a spiritual death, which occurs in the act of self-preservation rather than self-destruction. It’s in fleshing out this philosophy that Newton takes us through the most prominent episode in his public life: his trial, mistrial, retrial, and then the ultimate dismissal for what resulted from an incident during which he allegedly shot and killed a police officer, in ways not at all sanctioned by the law book Huey liked to have along the passenger-seat of his car. In better hands, this ordeal could have made for compelling narrative, but in the hands of the man who had the most to lose from it all, the whole thing eventually begins to read like tax law. There doesn’t seem to be a single nuance or development in the case that doesn’t get parsed down to a place beyond its essence.
This isn’t a story that ends well–because even though Huey was, of course, eventually freed, he lost entirely too much in the struggle, and so did the Panthers. Bobby Seale met a fate even worse than Newton’s (death by the gun of a drug-dealer, in 1989), and so did so many of the other, more minor figures from the Panthers. Eventually, the Panthers were left in the hands of Eldridge Cleaver, who seems to have found everything in prison except enlightenment. It was through the Party as presided over by Cleaver that Newton was able to see it reach his philosophy’s terminus. The Panthers’ problems were no longer merely external, and those problems ultimately threatened its very raison d’etre: “the Party was heading down the road to reactionary suicide. Under the influence of Eldridge Cleaver, it had lost sight of its initial purpose and become caught up in irrelevant causes. Estranged from Black people who could not relate to it, the Black Panther Party had defected from the community.”
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