Every year San Francisco chooses a book to read together, and this year the selection is Black Against Empire, an engrossing history about the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin.
This marks the first year the One City One Book pick is strongly academic, albeit one that Oakland's Alicia Garza felt changed by — a few months after reading, she created #BlackLivesMatter. Winner of the American Book Award in 2014, Black Against Empire is a fascinating, sweeping study of the leftist movement that boldly fought for equal rights, opportunity, and freedom — with free breakfasts, freedom schools, free ambulances, health clinics, but also with desperate or even violent methods.
Bloom and Martin are meticulous analysts of the hotbed of national issues that fomented the rise of the Black Panthers, and in Black Against Empire, their research throws the larger national context — and thus how it might apply to our present times — into high relief. For the month of October, the Library extends a deep mediation on the Panthers and the history of the black community struggling for the basic rights that any other American takes for granted with an exciting array of programming, including film screenings, panels, and bicycle history tours.
At the San Francisco Public Library, Naomi Jelks, who helped pick the book, tells me Black Against Empire is resonant, comprehensive, powerful — a book that made her think of Alphonse Karr’s adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” When I visit, it’s Saturday morning. There are no librarians around, but their individual stacks of books, left precariously balanced by desks and cabinets throughout the offices give the whole place the feel of suspended animation. The nooks and crannies above the cabinets are piled high with bright plastic top hats sporting queer book covers fastened to the sash (leftovers from a Pride event, I am told, and imagined by a staff member who worked in a circus.)
“The deciding factor in selecting this book really had to do with the times that we’re living in,” Jelks said. “Oakland was not only (in 1967) the birthplace of the Black Panthers, it was also the birthplace for the movement for Black Lives, or, #BlackLivesMatter. In the Bay Area, the struggle for black and brown communities is still in dealing with issues of police brutality, or struggles with creating respectful relationships with the police. We really wanted to have a space where we look at that history and how it applies in today’s world.”
The addition of Black Against Empire into the annals of the One City One Book program was a willful expansion of the San Franciscan Summer of Love (which just celebrated its 50th anniversary) to include what was going on with people of color in the country and the unfortunate prejudices they still face today.
Black Against Empire—in its study of the boiling-kettle politics involved in emergent revolution and state actions to quell and undermine such revolutions—is a look into how the Black Panther rose from a two-person idea in Oakland, to a nationwide organization capable of threatening the state. The conditions that gave rise to the Black Panthers included the containment of black people in poverty, under police brutality, segregation, and lack of equal opportunity. The very first Black Panther action followed the 1966 killing of sixteen-year-old Matthew Johnson in Hunter’s Point — he was shot in the back fleeing from police. After the incident, Black Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton found their calling: they would protect black lives by patrolling their neighborhoods.
Seale and Newton gathered two friends and began driving the streets. They openly carried legal firearms and confronted police officers (who had no short history of violence) with a newfound pride. Citing local ordinances and the constitution, the Panthers clung to their right to bear arms and did not submit to the police who tried to disarm them. Black Against Empire takes readers through this crucial moment in history, showing just how inconceivable and welcome was the image of a black person standing up against a police officer and coming out of it alive. The Panthers caught the nation’s political imagination.
Bay Area readers who dig into this rich, voluminous study will be rewarded with a better understanding of our present time. Kevin Hunsanger, who also sits in the One Book One City committee, said, “Black Against Empire not only offers a wonderfully readable history of the Black Panther movement, but is also a road map of sorts of successful protests, and something that is equally vital today — and quite possibly more vital tomorrow. Plus, the book has the notorious distinction of having won a National Book Critic's Circle award, while also being banned in California prison systems.”
Indeed. Make your way to some of the robust programming this Fall. Here are three not to miss:
Sunday, Oct. 29, at 1pm.
The Irrepressible Politics of the Black Panther Party (Main Library, Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin St.)
Join authors Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin in conversation with journalist and hip hop historian “Davey D” Cook to discuss Black Against Empire.
Saturday, Oct. 7, at 1pm.
Bicycle Tour with the bike collective Red Bike and Green (Meet at Defermery Park in Oakland)
Defemery Park, a.k.a. Little Bobby Hutton Park, is an important location for the Panthers. Billy Famer, archivist for the Black Panthers, will offer an introduction to set off the bike ride through historical sites involving the Black Panther Party.
Tuesdays, Oct. 10 and 24, at 6pm.
Hands on History (Main Library, SF History Center, 100 Larkin St., 6th floor)
Here is your opportunity to touch and feel the ephemera of Black Panthers and San Francisco legacy of resistance. Includes a close-up look at original manuscripts, newspapers, and photographs.
More events and information here.
Black Against Empire is available now at your local library and for sale wherever books are sold.
The Spine is a biweekly book column. Catch us back here in two weeks.