Book Review: Black Power Afterlives: The Enduring Significance of the Black Panther Party

This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color 2021 challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.

“…Just as afterlife suggest a continued existence absent the original physical body, the BPP (Black Panther Party) remains very much alive, not in organizational form bu in the ongoing activism of former Panthers and in the party’s persistent influence on today’s struggles” (p. 10).

What is the enduring significance of the Black Panther Party? This central question drives the essays and interviews contained in Black Power Afterlives edited by Diane C. Fujino and Matef Harmachis.

Answers are mixed and varied, tracing alternately the through line between the Black Panther Party and the current Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), discussing the ongoing activism of incarcerated political prisoners such as Hank Jones, the fallout of exile from the United States experienced by Assata Shakur, the power of music and art in making (and remaking) revolution, and the legacy of the Black Panther Party in current student, ecological justice, prison abolition, and other movements.

The cover of Black Power Afterlives shows a black and white photo of a Black Panther demonstration. A black man wearing a black beret and a leather jacket with pins on it stands near the front. Around him are black women with afros and also wearing leather jackets chanting and clapping.

I was drawn to read this book because I, too, was curious about the enduring significance of the Black Panther Party. As a sociologist, I know that “new” social movements do not spring from the Earth fully formed, but rather are formed by and respond to earlier movements. Many of the contemporary organizers profiled in later chapters discussed learning directly from Black Panther Party members in the 1960s and 1970s.

The significance of the Black Panther Party is also represented in the response of the United States government to Party edicts and organizing. Many responses that are still used today to disrupt the organizing of Black Lives Matter movement(s) were first tested against Black Panther Party members: infiltration, counter-intelligence, propaganda, political incarceration, police raids and murder, and so on. I knew of the history of COINTELPRO but was still stunned to hear from those most directly impacted by the initiative as they described what it was like to lose close friends and family to government action.

What was most striking to me about this book was the several interviews with, and essays written by, former Black Panther Party members. Hearing about their experiences in their own words was powerful. Although I am informed about the history of the Black Panther Movement, it is generally through a dry, academic lens very far removed from what it felt like to be “on the ground” in the moment.

I would recommend this book to anyone hoping to learn more about how current social justice movements build upon the work of the Black Panther Party and its contemporaries. This probably isn’t a good book for a beginner just starting to learn about the movements of the 1960s and 70s, but if you have a bit of background information you’ll have a lot to gain from reading this edited volume.

What are you reading for May’s challenge to read about an historical event or social movement? Have you learned anything new, surprising, or inspiring? Let us know!

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