By Chandra Alford
During the turbulent years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed many organizations, including the U.S., were jockeying for a position to use members of the Black community as pawns for their political games. Alondra Nelson highlights the conundrum that the Black Panther Party (BPP) faced as they attempted to establish their place and legitimacy among their constituencies.
“Sickle cell anemia activism was one of the primary sites through which the Party established its legitimacy in black communities and among the broader public," wrote Nelson. "Unsurprisingly then, as the visibility of sickle cell anemia increased, Party leaders’ worries about losing their ability to shape the disease’s political significance also grew, as competing stakeholders with political agendas diametrically different from their own angled to influence the meaning of the disease" (120). The political agendas of the Party seemed to cause the members to put a spin on things in order to bring light back to their central causes, which were social and economic inequalities.
Instead of calling them “spin doctors,” a more fitting phrase might be “the doctors of rhetoric.” The level of advocacy executed by the Party, which was propelled by frequent solicitations and broadcasts on alternative channels, displayed the effective use of persuasion. The Party used words, language, and non-verbal and visual images in ways to cause action and rebellion against a system that was committing genocide against black communities.
The rhetorical devices employed by Party members deserve some further analysis, because their form of persuasion was not about convincing their audience to be submissive. But rather, the type of rhetoric the Party used worked to stimulate revolts or at least raise disdain.
The Party recognized using the term “black genocide” would resonate with black communities, because this would resurrect the memories of the Tuskegee Experiment. But surprisingly, when people reflect on African American struggles and progress, recognition is hardly given to the Black Panther Party. Why is this so? Was their rhetoric not as effective as those within the Black Church? The rhetoric of the Party was supported by scientific and medical evidence, but how was this rhetoric overshadowed?
Possibly, the influence of the propaganda used by critics of the Party caused the demise of this movement. The rhetoric of this Party could not outwit the appeals made by other foundations, black music radio stations, and the most powerful, U.S. government. If anything, the Party’s effective use of rhetoric turned into pathological, scathing appeals because their resources were being diminished by the outside sources.
Nelson acknowledges at the end of the chapter the impact of fleeting resources had on the Party’s health and political initiatives:
To be sure, the Party played an important role in bringing sickle anemia to the attention of African American communities and likely influenced the Nixon administration’s decision to allocate significant federal resources for research on the disease. But this allocation of state resources also served to neutralize the Party’s larger political critique. The campaign was thus an object lesson on the challenges faced by African American health activists in deploying a social health frame by yoking their cause to larger social issues (151).Also, this campaign should a lesson on how different forms of rhetoric can be used to destroy and deplete a radical, political organization.