On August 22, 1989, Huey P. Newton was shot killed on a street corner in Oakland, California. He was 47 years old. The charismatic Newton was the co-founder of the Black Panther Party with Bobby-Seale and became an icon for revolution. The image of the Newton sitting with a rifle in one hand and a spear in other while wearing the Panthers’ trademark leather jacket is one of the most recognized of the era. It is the cover of this book but only tells part of the story of the late icon’s life. David Hilliard served as chief of staff for the party and became well acquainted with Newton. This is a collection of his memories from his time with Huey, the Panthers and the movement watched by entire world. Newton himself wrote several book, as the best-selling Revolutionary Suicide, could be considered a semi-autobiography. However its main strength is also its main weakness for that Newton is the only one telling the story. Hilliard’s account proves itself valuable as another look at Newton and his significance to the party and the movement.
Complex is an adjective often used to describe some of history’s greatest figures. For Newton, this adjective is highly accurate. Here we are presented with the good, the bad and at times, the ugly. His studies of Marx, Engels, Mao and Fanon served as the basis for his belief for armed struggle and the willingness to use violence whenever necessary. For most of his life, he was a functional illiterate as he pointed out himself on multiple occasions. Fighting resulted in expulsion from several schools in the Oakland area. And as an adult, he went on trial several times for the charge of murder only to be acquitted in the end. His extreme rhetoric and descent into drug use cast him down a hill from which he never recovered. However, as Hilliard shows us, there was a good side to Newton and his commitment to the cause sprang from emotion and strong convictions. Newton himself once said that the first thing a revolutionary must understand is that he is doomed from the start. It is a tragic fate that those committed to social upheaval must be willing to accept as they put their lives on the line in the service to humanity.
The book features two guest writers, Gwen Fontaine and Fredrika Newton. Fontaine was Newton’s first wife and was married to him from 1974-1983. As a mother of two children, she invites Newton into her life and the lives of her children. Her memories of life with Newton highlight his erratic behavior at the time and the demons he began to face as his drug use escalated. And as he continued to spiral downward, a strain was placed upon the relationship fracturing it past the point of no return. In 1984, Newton married his second wife Fredrika who remained with him up until the time of his death. Her words serve as the last testament to Huey’s life and legacy.
Hilliard is currently a visiting professor for the University of New Mexico where he teaches courses on the history of the Black Panther Party. He and Fredrika founded the Huey P. Newton Foundation in 1993 with its base of operations in Vallejo, California. The Panthers are a shadow of what they once were during the turbulent 1960s. The United States has made much social progress over the past 50 years but the stains from the policies of Jim Crow and legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination haunt the nation as it confronts its past. But if we are to understand our past and how we can shape our future, we will do a service to ourselves to look to books such as this for a look into a time in American history where the nation almost became completely unhinged as a new brand of revolutionaries made their voices heard.
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