Sherri Rosen interviews Huey Newton’s former lover.
SR: How old were you when you joined the BPP (Black Panther Party)?
SB: I was 21 years old.
SR: What year was that?
SB: It was in 1968. But I became friends of the Party in ’67. I began teaching physical education classes for them then.
SR: How did you connect with them?
SB: I was working with Harkness Ballet Company. I was their receptionist, and one day Melvin Van Peebles and his entourage came into the office. Everyone was running for their offices, they stirred up a big commotion. I was also attracted to them; they looked like an array of Jimi Hendrix fans! At the time, Van Peebles was promoting his debut album, Brer Soul. He came into the office, for the celebrity dance class. He was carrying his new album with him and I couldn’t help but notice that on the back there was a postage-size picture of a man in a black beret with a white banner. It was marked, “Free Huey.” I asked him who Huey was and he gave me a few details about Huey Newton and The Black Panthers for Self-Defense.
Mr. Peebles came back the next day, with Eldridge Cleaver’s book, “Soul on Ice.” He bought me other books by revolutionary authors. Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of Earth” was one of them.
So then I went to 125th Street to buy a copy of the BPP paper. I read the rules and the platform of the BPP and I liked them. I went to the Harlem office the same day. Donald Cox, the Field Marshall of the party was sitting by the store window front. I couldn’t help but notice him. He noticed me passing as well. He gave me more details about the Party, and the recent arrest of the NY 21. I read books he suggested and started coming by the office a lot. I also began by selling papers downtown, 100 in the morning and then again in the evening. Then 200 and so fourth, the numbers kept growing.
SR: So you sold papers in the Village?
SB: Yes, and then I worked my way up to midtown. They were usually gone by the time I reached midtown. So I would help other Panthers sell theirs.
SR: What spoke to you about the Black Panthers?
SB: It began with the picture of Newton holding a gun. The fact that there were Blacks who weren’t afraid to pick up a gun fascinated me. I always had an issue with going down south, especially by bus. I supported Martin Luther King, but I couldn’t get on a bus, with the threat of possibly getting injured. It’s interesting because having grown up in a military family, I was never disenfranchised. But when I got into BPP, and began working in the Black community, I learned that many Blacks growing up in the US lacked a sense of belonging to the country. There were prevalent sentiments of feeling cut off or left out. You have to understand the Black community that I had encountered. There was such a lack of education at the time. I met many Blacks and Spanish Americans who couldn’t read. I mean I wasn’t completely disconnected with this low literacy level; I lived briefly next to Appalachian Whites and they were also illiterate and racist, that’s why my family moved. My mother couldn’t take the obvious animosity in our surroundings.
SR: So, your dad was a Tuskegee Airman?
SB: At the beginning he was just in the Army, and later he joined the Air Force. He started off as a pilot and retired as a captain.
SR: You didn’t grow up in the States?
SB: No, I was in and out. We traveled a lot. We didn’t really stay in one place for long. The longest we’d stayed in one place was living for 3 years in Germany. I’ve lived for months in some places and years in others. We moved to Ohio, Texas, Seattle, California, and Upstate New York. My father kept being stationed in different places. I grew up everywhere.
SR: Did you actually experience racism growing up where you traveled?
SB: I mostly experienced it in the US. When driving down south, I couldn’t stop in places to go to bathroom. My mother would prefer to go on the roadside. She would always stop for me. This one time we stopped to use the bathroom, and one side smelled better than the other. I just assumed that the restrooms were divided into women and men. And the side that smelled bad was the men’s section. I couldn’t read the bathroom signs. My sister ran to my parents and told them that I was in the wrong bathroom.
We sped down the highway, fleeing as quickly as possible. But my first face- to-face racist encounter was when we were visiting my maternal grandma, in New York. I went to all the tourist places, and I was in the Empire State Building. This young girl was glaring at me. I thought that she was staring at my doll. So I went over to present her my doll. Her mother stepped in and told me that her daughter just wasn’t used to niggers. I didn’t know what that meant. I told my mom, she freaked out. After that we moved to Germany and France. I loved to travel.
I came to the Party with that background. I taught people how to read, fill out forms (welfare, social security). I would help them write letters to their sons in Vietnam, and be able to read information concerning them. Then we started the breakfast program. It was Huey’s idea that we needed to do more things in the community. He thought that we were attracting fear to the community, because when we established offices and homes, police got alarmed and that started violence and raids.
SR: Was this in California?
SB: It was everywhere, but they bombed offices in California, New Orleans, New Jersey and Illinois.
SR: What was Huey’s position in the Party?
SB: He founded the Party. He believed it was necessary for Blacks to take care of Blacks. He saw White policemen taking care of White communities, and Hassidics taking care of their own. He started watching the police who were patrolling Black communities. He walked around with a shotgun when it was still legal to do so. This attracted a lot of media/press. Newsreels always covered this issue; they always came to film what was going on.
SR: Do you think Huey was a smart man?
SB: I didn’t know Huey before he went to jail. But I read his writing; his letters from jail were very insightful. I listened to him; he was an astute thinker, a humanitarian. He truly believed that all people were equal, and that everyone should get along. At the same time, he knew the reality of Black life in America. He lived it; he was as much a victim of violence as other Black people. He felt police brutality, unlike me. I was friends with the police. I never saw them as the enemy. We were well acquainted with an Eastern European policeman; we even had a nickname for him. We used to walk around the community with him.
My uncle was a policeman; my father was in the military police. The police I grew up with were not like those that I saw when I came to America in 1966. They were not the guys that I saw on TV, with hoses, billy clubs and attack dogs.
SR: How did your dad react when you told him that you were apart of the BPP?
SB: I didn’t tell him, he found out through the FBI! He was recruiting for military services on 125th Street near where I was working. An agent spotted me and asked whether I felt as though I was an embarrassment to my father. I replied by saying that I felt that there wasn’t an equality of law in this country and that it was my duty to do something about it.
You see, the people who were coming back from Vietnam were arming the Panthers. Many soldiers came to join our Party after the war and worked for us, like Geronimo Pratt. He served the country and coming home found that he had another war on his hands; there were many men like him. The Party had two main sections; there was the clandestine arm of the Party and the social activist arm. I worked under DC’s (Don Cox) influence, in the more clandestine area. I was also involved in communications. I spoke to Fred Hampton in Chicago, on a daily basis. He was another very intelligent man; he used to call every night to give a synopsis of the day, from his Chicago office. Having entered the Party through DC, I attended all protests, helped organize those in NYC and visited Panther homes.
My goal was to make them a safer environment, especially for kids. One of the Sisters came to the breakfast programs daily without her children. My input was to require all Panther children to come for breakfast. The police were raiding our homes, they couldn’t find us neglectful to our own environment and kids.
SR: Is it true that the BP started with an empowering attitude that later turned to violence?
SB: It’s the reverse. We faced violence at the beginning. Huey’s philosophy was that we should be armed to stop the police. Initially, that’s why the Party had so many joiners. Before this time, it was unheard of that Black men would stand up against the police. The police were an armed extension of the ruling class in every poor community. It was the first time since John Brown and his attempt to end slavery that there were Black men willing to confront the violence in our communities that weren’t Black on Black crime, but the ruling class’s continuous degradation of Black people.
Men who were returning from Vietnam were physically, spiritually and mentally broken. It was clear that a change in attitude was needed. It was just another war but with a different purpose. As the Party became more popular and homogenous, it became more oriented towards social activism rather than counter violence. It started with Huey, Bobby and the young men they pulled from the streets of LA and Berkeley. Then the intellectuals, the college graduates, the career men and women joined and influenced the practical philosophy of the Party.
It mellowed down from being an armed vanguard to being true revolutionary vanguard connected to the community. We focused more on how to answer the needs of the community, with free breakfasts, free clothing drives, and addressing our people’s needs. You start a revolution with the best hope that people will support you. In order to get support, you need to be aligned with the needs of your people. For example, Sickle Cell Anemia was common in the Black community but there was no research conducted on it before. So we opened clinics, began free healthcare, all of this started because of Huey.
Huey was fighting for this from the beginning and even after he came back from jail. He was brash, young, and hard-headed. He hadn’t matured when he came out, he felt as though he had this persona to live up to. When he came out of jail, he jumped onto a car and ripped his shirt off. Michael Jackson did the same in one of his videos, it personified Huey. MJ knew what it was about. It kind of changed my view of the singer. I began to appreciate his music a lot more. There were messages to his music. But at the time when Huey did it, it was seen as rock star behavior. It was not accepted politically, it was not specific to the Party, or to the rigid wall they wanted to build.
SR: When you joined the Party, did you walk away from friends? Did they join?
SB: No, they didn’t want to join. My friends were all into their careers or looking for husbands. I was always different from my friends. I don’t know whether it was because I never had solid roots because my family always moved around or because I was the middle child.
SR: How long were you actually a member of the BPP? Did you leave or did it fall apart?
SB: When the split began (after Huey got out of jail), he wanted to know about what the Party had been doing. I told him about what DC was doing, about the connection or lack of connection I had with my family. He told me to get back in touch with my family. He said it’s important to reconnect with them; they need to hear from me. He encouraged everyone to go to church, to make a donation every Sunday. He believed that there was a need for the Panthers to blend in more, with the rest of the community. One must be in Panther garb when aiding the community (breakfast programs, clothing drives, selling paper, attending funerals). But it was also necessary to be able to disappear in crowd, because some Panthers carried guns, all the time. There was a time for the Panther uniform and a time to be able to blend in with our surrounding communities.
We were always armed because we were always developing what DC called the “armed part” of the party. We learned guerilla tactics. When DC was arrested, I found guns in a duffle bag in our apartment. I thought that they were planted there, so I dropped them out a back window. We were told that there were guests in our apartment, so my suspicions weren’t completely unfounded. I got dressed in layers of clothes, I secured money on me and waited. When I saw the FBI coming down the hallway, I cocked my shot gun and they were all running back out the door. My upstairs neighbor later told me that he also came to the stairs with his gun. The FBI never came back. I’m sure they didn’t return because they figured that they couldn’t shoot at a girl with a clean record whose father had been in the Air Force.
A lot of the time the police were just as nervous as the Panthers. No one wanted to die. It was a war and it wasn’t one that the BPP started, because they were already waging war on Blacks. We tried to stop this war.
SR: Were you anxious during your membership in the Party?
SB: I wasn’t afraid since thinking that you are right erases your fear somehow. It doesn’t allow you to be threatened by what you’re up against. But I did have many frightening experiences (raids and such) that are deeply embedded in my psyche.
SR: What happened with you and Huey?
SB: We broke up shortly after the split in the Party. I loved Huey to death; he was one of the great loves in my life. But after he came out of jail, I saw him crumble and become a drug addict. It was an extremely painful experience. Maybe he became an addict because he had tremendous pressure on him to be this super icon. He realized he wasn’t this icon that people wanted him to be. He was very relatable, that is one of the reasons why people loved him. He was also dynamic, and charismatic. I guess he felt that he couldn’t live up to the superman image people made him to be.
SR: So what happened to him after you broke up?
SB: He was going to a conference in Philly, while I was in Oceanside, California. I talked to my guys and we decided that we could better serve the revolution if we isolated Huey. We needed to get him out of his familiar environment, where there was easy access to drugs. In ’71, Huey and Eldridge had a big fight. Huey wanted to bring back the East Coast Panthers to California and disband all branches. When Geronimo was ejected from the Party, as far as I was concerned I didn’t have any more ties to it. I mean, they killed his wife! The day that Rob Webb was killed, I went to the Panther office on 121st Street and sat through a planned meeting with nonsense talk. I got up and left and got into a cab; they shot Robert Bay that night. Those killings were Huey’s attempt to hurt DC, because DC wouldn’t side with him against Eldridge. DC was in the international party, Huey wanted to pull people out of that collective. If he could say DC was on his side, Huey could bring more Panthers back West.
SR: Where were these killings coming from? Were the cops involved in knocking people off?
SB: They engineered a lot via COINTELPRO (Hoover’s FBI group) to minimalize Panther activities. Hoover devised methods to break up the group, causing animosity between people that was unnecessary. When people are using drugs, they lose their minds. They cannot cope with difficulties of any sort. Huey was working with a default system. He was drawing conclusions that were off the wall. Hoover’s desire was to destroy the workings of the Panthers. Jailing and killing Panthers seemed like the only way to do this. When people use drugs and alcohol, they no longer think clearly and it was made clear that Panthers should not engage in these abuses. But members, like Huey, abused substances regardless. It then became part of Panther culture to engage in substance abuse, after Huey got out of jail. It worked easy for Hoover’s people. Some of these strongest members of the Party were killed, jailed or exiled. These included: Geronimo, Eldridge, DC and Elaine Brown, among others.
edited by Greg Eckard
Sherri Rosen has had her own publicity firm in NYC for over 12 years, giving a powerful voice to people who are doing wonderful things in the world. She also writes for Gatekeeper’s Post, The Good Men Project, Her own blog, Redhead’s Blog, Triiibes, along with the wonderful elephant journal. You can friend her on Facebook and Twitter.