Terrence Jennings


i remain: elaine brown now

August 30, 2019

On the Friday night of AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2019, Solution Sessions was held at Roulette, a performance space in Downtown Brooklyn. In a packed room, abuzz with energy and expectation, we sat ready to hear from activists, thinkers and change makers. Mostly, we waited to hear from Elaine Brown.

I don’t care about intergenerational. You are me and I am you. We have got to get away from not being together.

I hear music. Always. I assign it to each moment, music supervising and scoring my way through. Sitting in beneath the dimmed lights in Roulette, I began to hear this.

We all
A single voice calls out across distance.
Everyone of us
The caller sings the response with company now. The affirmative reply begins in unison before dividing into harmony, color.
Ha-aa-aa-aavve to come home again

The song, composed by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, is the title track of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s fourth album We All…Everyone of Us (1983). Listening to it later, I realized that the turntable of my memory is dragging and I’ve made a dirge of a march. This song is animated, it is a war cry. Come home!

My song choice was prescient because Elaine Brown is a homegirl. She calls the roll. It is a history lesson in lists as activist organizations with which the Panthers were aligned Young Lords, Young Patriots, Brown Berets. She named the international movements to which the Black Panther Party built a bridge including Zimbabwean independence movement, Cuba, the Irish Republican Army, the Shining Path of Peru. Most importantly she reminded us that the Black Panther Party was building on a struggle that began in the 17th century when the first enslaved Afrcians arrived in the colonized land that would become the United States.

In a 2010 interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Elaine Brown described through line running through her tenure as Chairman of the Black Panther Party and her current activism and advocacy work on behalf of prisoners.

“We…joined arms and forces with a variety of other groups and then we linked ourselves to the international struggle of people around the world…So, we became internationalists. And I remain that person.”

Elaine Brown, 76, cuts a machete’s swathe through a space. When she arrived and was led along a dark side aisle of the hall where we waited to hear from her, though she moved quietly and made no fuss, her presence was unmistakable. You could hear in her footsteps that Elaine Brown is a woman who has been some places and seen and done some things. She is not a person who will leave the world making her mark on it.

Sisters would look me in the face and say, “The Black Panther Party was nothing but a group of male chauvinist thug misogynist brothers. Now you’re looking me in the face like you didn’t notice that there were sisters in the Black Panther Party? Like you actually thought that we were not revolutionaries? You’re not gonna give us credit? We were just some kind of stupid hoes that followed them wherever they wanted us to go? What is wrong with our analysis?”

Founded in October of 1966 in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was built around a ten-point plan, the tenth point of which summed up the aims of the Party as follows, “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” To that end, the Black Panther Party created armed patrols that followed police through the Black community and built social supports such as after-school programs, youth centers and free breakfast programs for children. The free food programs available in public schools across the United States today had their genesis in the Panthers’ concern for the children of their community.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Elaine Brown began undergraduate studies at Temple University before leaving her hometown for California where she pursued a career in music, recording two albums. It was in Los Angeles where Brown attended her first meeting of the L.A. chapter of the Black Panther Party in the spring of 1968, a moment in time defined by the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“So we were sisters in the Black Panther Party. We were partisans in the struggle for Black liberation. Don’t diminish us by pretending that the Black Panther Party was a bunch of thugs, the way that J. Edgar Hoover characterized the Black Panther Party. We done bought into it and didn’t even notice.”

The Black Panther Party commanded a great deal of media attention in those years, as much for their positive impact on Black and poor communities through service and social programs as for the war being waged against them by the FBI, whose director, J. Edgar Hoover, declared in 1969 that “…the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” By 1970, the Black Panther Party had established more than 30 chapters across the nation. Elaine Brown would first become the editor of The Black Panther, the party paper, in 1971 and then the first woman elected to the Central Committee. Ultimately, Brown would serve as Chairman of the Black Panther Party from 1973 to 1976, in the wake of COINTELPRO, an elaborate F.B.I. program of party surveillance, infiltration and state sponsored slaughter that left many party leaders dead, imprisoned or in exile.

And the most important thing is, while we did attempt to create a revolutionary culture within the party, we knew where we all came from. We didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven. We didn’t come from revolutionary heaven! In the end of ’69 there was a raid by the first S.W.A.T. team in America, the LAPD, assaulted our office at 41st and Central. For five and a half hours — five and a half hours! — they had all kind of assault weapons, a tank, police helicopters, grenades, eleven people fought the the goddamned police for five and a half hours and didn’t die. Of those eleven people, nine were brothers, two were sisters… I am not going to allow you to talk about gender disparities in the Black Panther Party.

At age 76, Brown remains an activist, her current focus is the struggle to dismantle the prison industrial complex. As Brown told Amy Goodman in her 2010 interview, “it isn’t complicated to draw the line from that struggle to the struggle of the most oppressed group in America: the prisoner class.” Her son, she shares in the Solution Sessions talk, is doing time in Georgia. It is her years in the party, which she wrote about in her memoir A Taste of Power (1973) that developed the analysis from which she speaks today.

Elaine Brown is a creative, a poet and vocalist with two albums to her name, she points out in her talk. In a record store the day before I heard her speak, I came across her eponymous LP, issued on Motown. The titles of a few songs from that record, which she penned, form a poem.

No Time
Can’t Go Back
Until We’re Free
I Know Who You Are
And We Shall Meet Again

Brown recounted the way that the Panthers envisioned and then built a world on the scaffolding of “survival programs- our free food, our clinics, our newspaper, our school, our art.” We sat at rapt attention, as Brown schooled us on the Black Panther Party’s place in the history of the struggle for people’s rights, including those of queer folk, which, she pointed out were a unique feature of the Panther platform amongst Black organizations of the time, it was easy to see how she became Chairman. If Elaine Brown were to run for office today as she has before— twice for Los Angeles City Council and a bid for the Green Party nomination for the 2008 presidential race — I’d suggest the campaign slogan Been there, done that.

In her manner, you feel the deep love for her people that has animated her work for decades as she’s lost beloved comrades and watched many of the gains made by the Panthers systematically erased by the government, the passage of time, entropy and exhaustion. Though she has written her talk and reads it from the page, one gets the sense that if you showed up at her house and sat at the kitchen table she would be much the woman she is here. When asked her favorite emcee, she replies Li’l Kim. “She’s still Li’l Kim. And I like her,” says Elaine Brown. Mighty real. Each time she mentions a city — Detroit, Chicago, her own Philadelphia — and an audience member is moved to shout out their hometown, she pauses to ask what neighborhood. Real real. She is one of us.

Now just because you’ve got a little credit card, a leased car and your rent is paid for the next month and you hoping something ain’t gonna go wrong…We have to stand together because we have to learn to get back to loving each other.

Brown is living proof that sustained commitment to love and therefore to struggle is the way forward, that one’s very life is to be crafted by hand, a creative endeavor in and of itself. Elaine Brown is not able to finish her talk before the Solution Sessions audience has risen to its feet cheering. When hosts Bridgett Todd and Yves Jeffcoat return to the stage there is a moment outside of time, where they, too, are standing to the side applauding. With both hands, Brown beckons them to come forward, join her at center stage.

Denarii Grace, Elaine Brown and April Reign at AFROPUNK Solution Sessions in Brooklyn.