It was Tuesday evening, two days after Beyoncé's dramatic halftime Superbowl Sunday performance, when the Oakland community gathered at Grand Lake Theater to watch a screening of PBS's upcoming documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
There was a palpable electric buzz (and debate) about what Beyoncé did in front of nearly 112 million viewers: declaring her love of being a black woman while dancing with afro'ed backup dancers clad in Black Panther gear. Beyoncé had managed to create a perfect pop culture segue for the dialogue slated for this evening, asserting not only the historical relevance of Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, but also why the themes that drove the movement then are still so painfully relevant to our discussions of race relations and gender today.
The night opened with a powerful musical performance by Antique Naked Soul, and remarks from Susie Hernandez (KQED, Director of Programming), Noland Walker (ITVS, Senior Content Director), Maira Benjamin (Pandora, Director of Engineering) and Lynette Gibson McElhaney (Oakland City Councilwoman, District 3). Hernandez and Walker both touched on how public media provides both an opportunity and a platform for communities to tell and share their own stories in an authentic way. Benjamin reminded audiences that the theme of the evening was “revolution” and highlighted her role as a woman of color in technology. Her message, “Bring revolution to all the spaces you represent," was met with cheers and applause from the crowd. McElhaney was hopeful about how elections and civic engagement can trigger change and she encouraged people to stay informed and embrace the possibilities.
Next, eight young black women walked in a line to the front of the theater, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the words “The Black Woman is God.” Members of San Francisco-based Youth Speaks, the Black Sheroes delivered the most rousing performance of the night. The crowds whooped and hollered and shot their fists into the air. Older generations, including former Black Panther Party members, nodded and bobbed their heads as the women made it plain: our people are still in pain, and injustice is still alive. The performance, a mixture of spoken word and singing, started with a rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” and ended as the women roared out their love of being black women in the face of police brutality, intolerance and racism.
Just before the film screening, Ashara Ekundayo (Impact Hub, Chief Content Officer) moderated a dialogue with Ericka Huggins, a former political prisoner and Black Panther Party leader, and Cat Brooks, #BlackLivesMatter Bay Area member and founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project. Ekundayo opened with a brief moment of silence to honored activists who died after giving their lives to revolutionary causes.
Asked by Ekundayo to describe the Black Panther Party in three words, Huggins replied: “Commitment. Love. People.” She recalled being a young girl, attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, one of the largest political rallies in American history. It was a life-changing moment that defined her activism.
“A vow arose in my heart," Huggins recalled, “that I will serve people for the rest of my life.”
In describing her own personal commitment over the years, as a leader in the Party and an educator in Oakland, she gave a shout-out to a special audience member that she had met earlier that evening: 7-year-old Vivian, the precocious daughter of KQED’s Hernandez. “When I meet young girls like Vivian, I realize: I don’t have the right to be tired.”
Brooks chose her three words carefully: “Power. Passion. Beauty,” adding, “Black people are damaged, tired, and traumatized.” Her hope lies in the current wave of activism. For the first time, thanks largely to the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been “Lots of talk about self-care in activism.” There is a long journey ahead, Brooks asserted, and “We’re figuring it out as we stumble along,” adding that progress can be sustained if activists take time to take to practice self-care as they fight for their communities.
The unspoken theme of the night, judging by those who were doing the speaking, was the role of women in activism. Brooks proudly declared that there was a feminine current running through today’s movements in the black community. Huggins attributed this to the “legacy of feminine principles” in the Black Panther Party. As she spoke, Tarika Lewis, the first woman to join the Party, stood up in the crowd with her fist raised.
“The FBI destroyed the men in the Black Panther Party - Newton, Seale, and many others - but they forgot something: us women,” declared Huggins. She noted the bond shared by the women in the Party, who ran the revolution from beginning to end, saying, “We were connected by love and service.”
Before the lights dimmed and the screening of Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution began, the audience was left with some parting wisdom: Be with one another. Practice non-judging awareness. Work in coalition and communion. Think globally. For this community, the evening captured not only the Party’s legacy but also the demands for justice that are still painfully relevant today. From a small film screening to the largest stage in a football stadium, it is evident that 50 years later the revolutionary spirit of the Black Panther Party continues to live on in the impassioned communities and people they inspired.