Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Black Panther Party and Study Groups

As a teacher and director of black studies, who has organized reading groups for years now, I was really inspired reading the section in Alondra Nelson's book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination about how Huey Newton and Bobby Seale started off in a "political study group" at Merritt Junior College in the early 1960s (53).  Newton's and Seale's participation in those groups helped them form and sharpen the ideas that would lead them to found the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Nelson notes that Newton and Seale ultimately viewed some of the groups that they associated with "to be too beholden to political moderation" (54). Nonetheless, the groups did give them spaces and opportunities to read a range of materials and to share, discuss, and debate ideas  beyond typical classroom settings. They further honed their ideas while working together at an anti-poverty center.

The work with reading groups and then a poverty center gave the founding members an important basis for formulating approaches that merged abstract and concrete concerns. As Nelson notes, "Newton and Seale sought to construct an organization whose commitments were more evenly divided between theory and practice" (56).

Initially, I was drawn to the idea of study groups because it encouraged me concerning some of the approaches that our program takes. I thought longer on it, though, and realized how much I've benefited from informal and formal study groups beginning in high school through college and grad school. Interestingly, one of the early study groups that I belonged to was created by a guy whose mother was a former Black Panther.

I distinctly remember him regularly running down the history on the Panthers. He was unaware of the study group part, but still, his Party talk was important and foundational for me. My positive and consciousness building experiences in that early study group led me to search out and establish similar groups.  

Reading that section in Body and Soul was a reminder that quite a few big movements have roots in these lil study groups.

Related: URG: Notebook on Alondra Nelson's Body and Soul

[Thanks to a recent tweet from @alondra, I plan to check out Donna Murch's Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, which provides more extensive background on how the BPP emerged from a study group.]

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