- The Power of the First-Person Narrative:Ericka Huggins and the Black Panther Party
In 1971 Black Panther Party (BPP) members Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale were tried for kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. In a fury, one juror picked up a chair in the deliberation room and threatened, “Let these defendants go. You know you don’t have any evidence. If you want to confine them to prison for the rest of their lives go on and try it, but I swear I will kill you to death.”1 In recalling this moment leading up to her release, Huggins described how this juror’s remarks had a “no-nonsense, don’t cross me” tone, making note of the female juror’s gender, her whiteness, and her occupation as a nurse. She learned about this critical information at the completion of the trial, admitting, “Thank God with everything in me because when it came to declaring a verdict, the women were the ones that said, ‘You know there’s no evidence. Why are we trying these people?’” Huggins’s account illustrates the key role she believes women played in granting her freedom. She also claimed that one white male juror held out to the very end. After two hung juries, she stated, “The judge said, ‘Let them go, we cost the taxpayers of Connecticut too much money. The defendants are free to go.’” Evoking her feelings of triumph, she continued, “So Bobby and I walked out that day” (Interview by the author, April 16, 2010). Her words “walked out,” represent a feeling of liberation from the bars of injustice. The silence that black women revolutionaries so often encounter became part of Huggins’s experience at the trial. Huggins’s account of her trial and imprisonment responds to her invisibility in the face of official record keeping, and it serves as an example of the marginalization many female activists experienced during the civil rights and black power eras of the 1960s and 1970s. Her first-person narratives depict the [End Page 33] direct impact of governmental repression similarly shared by Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Mabel Robinson Williams, and others, whose voices most often remained distorted and excluded from the official public record.
Reframing history through her personal experience, Huggins challenges hegemonic practices of power and knowledge. At the center of the historical record she serves as a critical player in the black radical protest movement. Her stories as a living Black Panther Party member recognize her agency and allow for a new kind of history that invokes passion and feelings. Interviews play a critical role in reconstructing black women’s lives and they capture the importance of affect in history making. They offer a way to unpack emotions and provide intimate views of the experiences of BPP members. Black women’s personal writing and reflections are important sources for helping us better understand the black power era and notions of gender, feminism, history, and motherhood. Huggins agreed to talk with me on the condition that I produce research “that goes beyond a scholarly approach” (Interview by the author, February 20, 2010). As a case study, Huggins’s personal account became critical in the political enfranchisement of women in the BPP. It is a radical intervention that captures an important subjective point of view and functions as a feminist methodological praxis that privileges personal experience. Her story provides an alternative political discourse for understanding the implications of history, allowing Huggins to move from the background to the foreground of the BPP.
The Black Panther Party, one of the most well-known organizations during the black power movement, functioned as a grassroots political coalition-building organization founded in Oakland, California, in 1966. The BPP practiced their cofounder Huey P. Newton’s theory of intercommunalism, which transformed over time to meet the changing needs of black and poor communities. Judson Jeffries explains, “Newton suggested that the stage of Intercommunalism will come about when the world’s non-ruling class seizes the means of production (presumably of the entire imperialist system) and distributes the wealth in an equitable fashion to the many communities of the world” (2002, 80). Intercommunalists believed in a world...