Bringing the Vanguard Home: Revisiting the Black Panther Party’s Sites of Class Struggle


By the sum­mer of 1968, less than two years after its incep­tion, Oak­land, California’s Black Pan­ther Party was run­ning out of space. Signs of the Black Power organization’s rapid growth were espe­cially evi­dent at its Grove Street office, which by this time, was “bust­ing out at the seams,” with “piles of newslet­ters, leaflets, but­tons, [and] flags” over­flow­ing into mem­bers’ homes.1 Not sur­pris­ingly, state agents were equally privy to the Party’s increas­ing pop­u­lar­ity among local res­i­dents; dur­ing the same year, increased rates of incar­cer­a­tion, police-led mur­ders, and the polit­i­cal exile of Pan­ther men resulted in a pre­dom­i­nantly female mem­ber­ship.2 In the midst of height­ened FBI and police repres­sion of the orga­ni­za­tion, David Hilliard, the Party’s then Chief of Staff, recalls in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy that by Sep­tem­ber, he no longer felt safe in his home or the Party office.3

Thus, the search was on for a new base of oper­a­tions. With the help of friends and the pool­ing of orga­ni­za­tional funds, Hilliard quickly located an ideal site on Shat­tuck Avenue, mid­way between Berke­ley and Oak­land. Aside from the buffer that the col­lege town’s busi­nesses would afford Hilliard’s fam­ily against “the mar­gin­ally more civ­i­lized Berke­ley police” at this par­tic­u­lar loca­tion, Hilliard envi­sioned addi­tional ben­e­fits to pur­chas­ing the prop­erty:

We could hold meet­ings, press con­fer­ences, and store the paper in the wide space on the ground floor. Upstairs in front we can put out the paper; in back are plenty of rooms, includ­ing the kitchen. From the base­ment we can build tun­nels to the back­yard of a friend of Eldridge’s who lives nearby, escape routes in case of attack.4

Fur­ther, aware of the house’s ample size, Hilliard pro­posed to his wife, Patri­cia, the idea of with­draw­ing their chil­dren from Oakland’s pub­lic schools and home­school­ing them at the new res­i­dence. His plans quickly mate­ri­al­ized. After out­fit­ting the bed­rooms with bunk beds and equip­ping every desk with a tele­phone, Hilliard and his com­rades cov­ered the win­dows with steel sheets and placed sand­bags along the walls.5 Soon “the chat­ter of peo­ple work­ing, the chaos of last-min­ute details, some non­sense about the kids upstairs, some mem­bers sacked out on the floor in sleep­ing bags,” filled the house with an atmos­phere that Hilliard recalls, felt “famil­iar, nat­u­ral, right.” He called the new domain, “home, head­quar­ters, embassy.”6

But what do we make of the tri­par­tite rela­tion­ship that Hilliard describes? Beyond what it sug­gests about the cen­tral role that the organization’s Chief of Staff played in the Black Pan­ther Party’s early years, the image he pro­vides is telling on at least one addi­tional level; it offers us a key win­dow through which we can more fully exam­ine the organization’s sites of class strug­gle. While Hilliard may have been the only Party mem­ber to actu­al­ize plans for build­ing an under­ground escape route in his back­yard (and he might have been suc­cess­ful, had the city’s under­ground sub­way sys­tem not backed up the water level, caus­ing the tun­nels to flood), the “home, head­quar­ters, embassy” he depicts was not unique. In fact, accounts of Pan­ther house­holds out­lined in mem­oirs and biogra­phies of for­mer mem­bers, orga­ni­za­tional doc­u­ments, and FBI files sug­gest that for numer­ous Black Pan­thers, the home existed as a lim­i­nal space, at the nexus of fam­ily, com­mu­nity, and work life. More specif­i­cally, for many Black Pan­thers, the house­hold func­tioned as a pri­mary site of con­tes­ta­tion between the Party and the state over the terms of social repro­duc­tion.

While much has been writ­ten about how the Black Pan­ther Party’s brand of black rad­i­cal­ism oper­ated as a spec­tac­u­lar pol­i­tics – in the streets, in front of gov­ern­ment build­ings, and in com­mu­nity cen­ters – few schol­ars have fully explored the more inti­mate ter­rains over which the BPP attempted to mul­ti­ply its rev­o­lu­tion­ary ranks. If the state actively hin­dered the abil­ity of black work­ing-class fam­i­lies to per­form the daily tasks of repro­duc­tive labor by rel­e­gat­ing them to ghet­tos rid­den with police vio­lence, by incul­cat­ing their chil­dren with a pub­lic school cur­ricu­lum void of black his­tory, or by offi­cially pathol­o­giz­ing black female-headed house­holds, Party mem­bers responded with col­lec­tive calls for self-deter­mi­na­tion.7

Yet, Black Power mil­i­tancy, and state responses to it, did not always occur in those spaces most vis­i­ble to the pub­lic. Rather, the home and fam­ily unit were just as likely tar­gets of gov­ern­ment sub­ver­sion as the more vis­i­ble urban ter­rains that have become the cen­tral back­drop of Black Pan­ther iconog­ra­phy. Equally impor­tant, the Pan­thers’ anti-colo­nial pol­i­tics were often trans­mit­ted across gen­er­a­tions not in Party offices or com­mu­nity cen­ters, but behind closed doors, in the inti­mate spaces of liv­ing rooms, kitchens, and back­yards.

Specif­i­cally, this essay inves­ti­gates the ways in which the home and fam­ily unit func­tioned as polit­i­cal and politi­ciz­ing spaces for Party mem­bers and their chil­dren. In the con­text of the organization’s pol­i­tics of self-deter­mi­na­tion, this essay seeks to under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of those moments when Black Pan­thers’ most per­sonal domains trans­formed into refuges from state vio­lence, venues for the polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion of chil­dren, and quar­ters that accom­mo­dated Party mem­bers’ exper­i­men­ta­tions with var­i­ous liv­ing arrange­ments. I ask: what sym­bolic or mate­rial sig­nif­i­cance, if any, did con­cep­tions of par­ent­hood, chil­drea­r­ing prac­tices, or the home, have for those inter­ested in the Party, and for those bent on its demise? Sim­i­larly, to what extent did these phe­nom­ena func­tion as mech­a­nisms of Black Pan­ther social­ism? Uti­liz­ing a range of pri­mary and sec­ondary sources includ­ing auto­bi­ogra­phies of for­mer Party mem­bers, news­pa­per arti­cles, and gen­eral stud­ies of the orga­ni­za­tion, I con­tend that these more domes­ti­cally-insu­lated inter­ac­tions were as cen­tral to the Party’s polit­i­cal prac­tices as mem­bers’ more overt orga­ni­za­tional labor.8


Like the Party’s gen­der the­o­ries, the ideas the BPP espoused about par­ent­hood and fam­ily were nei­ther mono­lithic nor sta­tic through­out its twelve-year lifes­pan from 1966 to 1982. And while Oakland’s Black Power group never released an offi­cial state­ment artic­u­lat­ing the role of fam­ily and chil­dren in the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion, ques­tions about father­hood, moth­er­hood, and fam­ily struc­ture fig­ured promi­nently in orga­ni­za­tional the­o­ries and prac­tices from the group’s early stages.9

In fact, on many lev­els, the Party’s estab­lish­ment by Huey New­ton and Bobby Seale served as a response to U.S. Sen­a­tor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s con­tro­ver­sial 1965 study, The Negro Fam­ily: The Case for National Action. Draw­ing on a com­pi­la­tion of soci­o­log­i­cal, eco­nomic, and his­tor­i­cal research, Moyni­han ulti­mately attrib­uted the high unem­ploy­ment and school attri­tion rates among blacks in low-income cities to the struc­ture of black fam­i­lies. Black moth­ers and matri­ar­chal house­holds were par­tic­u­larly trou­bling to Moyni­han, as his report would cast both as debil­i­tat­ing to the social and eco­nomic pro­gress of black men and male youth.10

Per­haps it is not sur­pris­ing, then, that tropes of the recla­ma­tion of black man­hood, which could be achieved through a man’s abil­ity to pro­tect his fam­ily, fill the pages of the BPP’s early lit­er­a­ture. In his early writ­ings, Newton’s response to the matri­ar­chal fam­ily form offers an ironic cor­rob­o­ra­tion of many of Moynihan’s asser­tions about the state of black father­hood. His 1967 essay, “Fear and Doubt,” for exam­ple, depicts the black hus­band and father as a dejected fig­ure, con­sumed with feel­ings of guilt over his inabil­ity to provide for his wife and chil­dren. Unable to finan­cially sup­port or pro­tect his fam­ily, he ulti­mately “with­draws into the world of invis­i­bil­ity.”11 Newton’s trope of invis­i­bil­ity is cou­pled with a rhetoric of pro­tec­tion and sur­vival that under­scores the para­dox­i­cal nature of the black father fig­ure; both a pro­duct of gov­ern­men­tal neglect and the tar­get of police-sanc­tioned vio­lence, he is at once invis­i­ble and hyper­vis­i­ble. Echo­ing Newton’s per­sonal writ­ings, the BPP’s agenda of com­bat­ing police bru­tal­ity inscribed a ver­sion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary black man­hood that was directly tied to the pro­tec­tion of the home and fam­ily. One of the organization’s ear­li­est doc­u­ments, Exec­u­tive Man­date Num­ber One, for instance, called on mem­bers to defend the homes and per­sons of the black ghetto from oppres­sive state forces.12

But schol­ars of the BPP’s gen­der pol­i­tics, includ­ing Tra­cye Matthews remind us that the Party main­tained fluid, and at times con­tra­dic­tory notions of famil­ial rela­tion­ships as the organization’s polit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy trans­formed over time, in con­stant dialec­tic with exter­nal con­tem­po­rary dis­courses.13 Even New­ton, while rein­scrib­ing Moynihan’s patri­ar­chal con­cep­tions of fam­ily and mar­riage, at other moments posited the “bour­geois fam­ily” as “impris­on­ing, enslav­ing, and suf­fo­cat­ing.”14 In line with cap­i­tal­is­tic forms of prop­erty own­er­ship and exploita­tion, the nuclear fam­ily sym­bol­ized a direct chal­lenge to social­ist modes of par­ent­hood and sib­ling­hood.

Moving Away From the “Bourgeois Family”

Cer­tainly, Huey Newton’s cri­tique of the nuclear fam­ily model did not fall on deaf ears. In fact, even before the pub­li­ca­tion of his “Fear and Doubt” essay, Black Pan­thers were already exper­i­ment­ing with com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments and sex­ual rela­tion­ships. The image of Pan­ther homes as at once serv­ing as sleep­ing quar­ters, all-night din­ers, and orga­ni­za­tional meet­ing cen­ters abound in Pan­ther mem­oirs.15 Look­ing at a hand­ful of Pan­ther fam­i­lies, in the fol­low­ing sec­tion I trace the ways in which home life man­i­fested itself for both those indi­vid­u­als who worked for the Party, and those whose lin­eage bound them to Black Pan­ther pol­i­tics. By map­ping the spa­tial lay­outs of Pan­ther house­holds, by trac­ing the nature of child­hood devel­op­ment includ­ing the edu­ca­tion and social­iza­tion of Pan­thers’ chil­dren, and by exam­in­ing Party mem­bers’ con­cep­tions of par­ent­hood, this sec­tion asks: how did mem­bers of the Black Pan­ther Party pre­pare their kin for a post-cap­i­tal­ist future?

Mary Williams offers a telling exam­ple of the com­mu­nal­ism that was char­ac­ter­is­tic of many Pan­ther house­holds. Born in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia in 1967, Williams was exposed to the Bay Area’s cul­ture of black rad­i­cal­ism from a young age. Dur­ing the BPP’s early years, her mother, Mary Williams, sold issues of The Black Pan­ther, the organization’s lit­er­ary mouth­piece, to local res­i­dents, and helped facil­i­tate the group’s com­mu­nity ser­vice pro­grams. Her father, Louis Ran­dolph, served on the Party’s com­mu­nity police patrols until his arrest and incar­cer­a­tion in Soledad Prison in 1970 on charges of the assault and intent to kill a police offi­cer.16 Her father’s polit­i­cal pris­oner sta­tus and her par­ents’ ulti­mate divorce meant that Williams and her sib­lings were exposed to dif­fer­ent types of fam­ily set­tings grow­ing up. From time to time, the Williams chil­dren stayed with their uncle, Lan­don Williams, who also worked for the Party. As a child, Mary rec­og­nized that her uncle’s deci­sion to live inde­pen­dently with his wife and child, out­side the con­fines of Pan­ther hous­ing, was some­what unique. Whereas her uncle resided in “his own tidy lit­tle apart­ment,” other mem­bers of the rank-and-file set­tled in Party hous­ing, “which meant bun­k­like [sp] quar­ters and often sleep­ing on pal­lets.”17 While Williams reminds us of the diver­sity of liv­ing styles among Party mem­bers, her account also echoes the theme of mobil­ity – evi­denced by the con­stant flow of com­rades – that is cen­tral to David Hilliard’s account of his Shat­tuck Avenue home. As the cases of Mary Williams and the Hilliards indi­cate, then, the con­stant move­ment of peo­ple within the house­hold serves as a telling sym­bol of the insep­a­ra­bil­ity of per­sonal and polit­i­cal spaces for Pan­ther fam­i­lies.

Move­ment between res­i­dences was also a com­mon expe­ri­ence among Pan­ther youth. Dorion Hilliard, son of David and Patri­cia, recalls spend­ing much of his child­hood mov­ing from state to state as a result of his par­ents’ deep involve­ment in the move­ment. Iron­i­cally, although his was a child­hood of con­stant relo­ca­tion, Dorion remained fully sur­rounded by Black Pan­ther cul­ture. Nearly twenty of his rel­a­tives belonged to the Party, adding a sense of nor­malcy to his engage­ment in learn­ing polit­i­cal songs and writ­ing to incar­cer­ated Pan­thers – activ­i­ties that might oth­er­wise have been con­sid­ered strange and “un-Amer­i­can” by his non-Pan­ther peers.18 At the same time, how­ever, his Black Pan­ther lin­eage was also evi­denced by what was delib­er­ately absent from his family’s home: TV, nurs­ery rhymes, and G.I. Joes.19 His par­ents’ deci­sions regard­ing what they would and would not expose their chil­dren to are reveal­ing on at least two lev­els; on the one hand, their ban­ning of tele­vi­sion view­ing sug­gests a level of reg­i­men­ta­tion and dis­ci­pline within the Hilliard house­hold. Sec­ondly, David’s and Patricia’s pro­hi­bi­tion of G.I. Joe toys may be under­stood as their unwill­ing­ness to accom­mo­date sym­bols of the state in their home, a pos­si­ble indi­ca­tion of the Party’s firm rejec­tion of the U.S.’s involve­ment in the Viet­nam War; a con­flict the Party under­stood as an exer­cise in U.S. impe­ri­al­ism.

For other chil­dren of Black Power fam­i­lies, the wed­ding of Party and fam­ily life at times posed chal­lenges for the exis­tence of more inti­mate par­ent-child rela­tion­ships. Ericka Abram, the daugh­ter of for­mer Party chair­man Elaine Brown, recalls how her mother’s com­mit­ment to the work­ing-class rev­o­lu­tion at times led to a degree of phys­i­cal and emo­tional dis­tance between the two. Brown’s lead­ing posi­tion often required her pres­ence abroad, meet­ing with lead­ers of social­ist and anti-colo­nial move­ments in places such as North Korea and China as part of the BPP’s efforts to build inter­na­tional coali­tions.20 Still, even when the two shared the same liv­ing space, the fre­quent pres­ence of Brown’s body­guard often pre­cluded Brown and her daugh­ter from spend­ing exclu­sive time with one another. For many years, theirs was more of a pro­fes­sional and polit­i­cally-ori­ented rela­tion­ship. After Brown’s depar­ture from the Party in 1977, she and Ericka moved in together, thrust into a new sit­u­a­tion in which they would both learn to exist as mother and daugh­ter. Years later, in an inter­view with jour­nal­ist, John Blake, Brown and Abram would remem­ber it as an awk­ward expe­ri­ence because for so long, they had lived more like com­rades.21

Ericka Abram was among many chil­dren of Black Power orga­niz­ers whose early years were embed­ded in expres­sions of van­guard activism. To be sure, the theme of duty to one’s com­mu­nity appears reg­u­larly in bio­graph­i­cal and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal sources. At a young age, Ericka worked alongside Party orga­niz­ers dis­trib­ut­ing food to local youth as part of the BPP’s Free Break­fast for School Chil­dren Pro­gram, one of the organization’s more than forty com­mu­nity ser­vice pro­grams.22 Reflect­ing on her early grass­roots work over thirty years later, Abram describes a dual­ity to this phase of her life. Being polit­i­cally aware as a child, she con­tends, was both pur­pose­ful and demand­ing. She notes, “Some­times I didn’t want the respon­si­bil­ity of being awake. I just wanted to be like other kids. I wanted to watch car­toons.”23 Here, Abram’s under­stand­ing of her past echoes what Dorion Hilliard described ear­lier as an insu­lated child­hood, one that was at once reward­ing in its com­mu­nal­ism, yet nec­es­sar­ily dis­tinct from the daily oper­a­tions of the more apo­lit­i­cal ado­les­cence.

For other mem­bers of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion, their place in the social­ist rev­o­lu­tion was delin­eated even before birth. In July 1969, nearly one year into his life as a polit­i­cal exile, BPP Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion, Eldridge Cleaver, was joined in Algiers by his wife and BPP Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Sec­re­tary, Kath­leen Cleaver, who at the time was seven months preg­nant with their first child.24The Cleavers named their son, Maceo, after the nine­teenth-cen­tury Cuban rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Anto­nio Maceo, and on the day of his birth in Pis­sem­silt Alge­ria, The Black Pan­ther announced that the Cleavers’ child would imple­ment the Party’s ide­als “until the pigs who enslave the world are wiped out from the face of the earth.”25 Wit­ness­ing his par­ents’ efforts in devel­op­ing an inter­na­tional net­work of anti-colo­nial sol­i­dar­ity undoubt­edly con­tributed to Maceo’s own bud­ding con­scious­ness of class dis­par­ity, and his role in the strug­gle against it. As an adult look­ing back on his early years, Maceo Cleaver asserts, “We knew we were free­dom fight­ers. We real­ized that there were a lot of injus­tices and that it was our respon­si­bil­ity to speak up and say some­thing about it.”26

The pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of the com­mu­nity over the indi­vid­ual that was cen­tral to Black Pan­ther pol­i­tics affected other realms of inter­per­sonal rela­tions as well. Beyond the ways in which com­mu­nal think­ing may have shaped children’s daily activ­i­ties and self-aware­ness, the organization’s van­guard sen­si­bil­i­ties also informed how indi­vid­ual mem­bers con­cep­tu­al­ized par­ent­hood. Again, the case of Elaine Brown and Ericka Abram serves as a use­ful exam­ple. Like many Black rev­o­lu­tion­ary Nation­al­ists, Brown posited the over­throw of the rul­ing class as inher­ent to one’s parental duty. But the rev­o­lu­tion never came. Abram con­tends that the dis­il­lu­sion­ment her mother felt upon leav­ing the BPP in 1977 stemmed both from an unre­al­ized polit­i­cal project, as well as Brown’s feel­ings of parental fail­ure. In an inter­view with John Blake, Abram says of her mother, “In her mind, she failed me because she didn’t change the world for me.”27 Brown adds, “We thought we were going to cre­ate some­thing new or die try­ing. We didn’t think we would leave our kids right back where we started.”28

For some, col­lec­tive par­ent­ing also involved col­lec­tive forms of dis­ci­pline. While Party mem­bers with chil­dren employed a range of dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tices, mem­oirs and bio­graph­i­cal sources sug­gest that it was not uncom­mon for Pan­ther par­ents to exper­i­ment with non-puni­tive mea­sures. Ericka Abram remem­bers instances in which she was asked to make amends with her peers after a dis­pute by writ­ing essays on lead­ing black fig­ures such as Jackie Robin­son.29 In this sense, some activists uti­lized dis­ci­pline as a mech­a­nism to expose the daugh­ters and sons of mem­bers to the organization’s polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion efforts. And, per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, par­ents them­selves were not exempt from receiv­ing such dis­ci­pli­nary actions. Dur­ing her mem­ber­ship in the BPP’s Brook­lyn branch, Safiya Bukhari often brought her daugh­ter, Wonda with her to the Party’s office dur­ing long work days. When her com­rades detected signs of parental neglect such as a dia­per that was over­due for chang­ing, Bukhari some­times faced reper­cus­sions in the form of vol­un­teer work assign­ments. On one occa­sion, her com­rades tasked with clean­ing a com­mu­nity mem­bers’ apart­ment. In another instance, after wit­ness­ing Safiya raise her voice in front of Wonda, Bukhari’s col­leagues assigned her the job of writ­ing an essay on Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.30

As the Party grew in mem­ber­ship by the end of the 1960s, con­ver­sa­tions about the rela­tion­ship between the Party, fam­ily, and par­ent­hood assumed new forms. The BPP’s Chicago branch offers a telling exam­ple of the ways in which the per­sonal was polit­i­cal for Black Power rad­i­cals. In 1972, the leader of the Chicago chap­ter, Audrea Jones, issued a posi­tion paper address­ing both the recent growth in Party mem­ber­ship and the ris­ing num­ber of chil­dren born to Pan­ther women. Reflect­ing her anx­i­eties about the increased strain on Party resources which had been used to sup­port mem­bers and their fam­i­lies, Jones advo­cated for a change in the organization’s pol­icy con­cern­ing birth con­trol and fam­ily plan­ning. Specif­i­cally, she pro­posed a four-step pro­gram that would require all Pan­ther cou­ples intend­ing to have chil­dren to com­mu­ni­cate with “respon­si­ble mem­bers” of the Party’s Review Com­mit­tee, which included the Finance Sec­re­tary, Per­son­nel, and Min­istry of Health. After assess­ing the “objec­tive con­di­tions” of a given cou­ple under review, the Com­mit­tee would present a rec­om­men­da­tion to the Party’s Cen­tral Com­mit­tee. Ulti­mately, the lat­ter group would have the final say regard­ing whether or not a cou­ple should pro­ceed with plans to start a fam­ily.31

While Jones’ pro­gram never became offi­cial pol­icy, only two years later Pan­ther lead­ers did issue a man­date requir­ing all mem­bers to use birth con­trol.32 Aside from what it reveals about the momen­tum gained in the Black Power Move­ment by the early 1970s, the pro­posed ini­tia­tive is reveal­ing on another level. At a time when the rhetoric of “geno­cide,” “ster­il­iza­tion,” and “anni­hi­la­tion of the black race” flooded the pages of The Black Pan­ther, the orga­ni­za­tion imple­mented its own mea­sures to cur­tail and reg­u­late the sex­ual activ­ity of its cadres. Iron­i­cally, the same peo­ple that the state actively sought to con­trol through sur­veil­lance, incar­cer­a­tion, dis­place­ment and mur­der, became key sites through which the Pan­thers’ black rev­o­lu­tion­ary nation­al­ism grew beyond its self-sus­tain­ing lim­its.

But while we may draw par­al­lels between the organization’s intro­duc­tion of a new pol­i­tics of sex­ual and famil­ial respon­si­bil­ity and con­cur­rent state attempts to pro­duce vul­ner­a­bil­ity among Black Pan­thers, there is a dan­ger in equat­ing these two phe­nom­e­non. While state agen­cies such as the FBI’s Coun­ter Intel­li­gence Pro­gram oper­ated with the intent to phys­i­cally erad­i­cate black mil­i­tants, BPP efforts to cur­tail the birth rates of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion reflect one of sev­eral orga­ni­za­tional strate­gies used to mit­i­gate resource scarcity in order to sus­tain the Party and its pro­grams. Rather than inter­pret­ing such fam­ily plan­ning ini­tia­tives as repro­duc­tions of state efforts to extin­guish Black Pan­ther rad­i­cal­ism and its legacy, then, we might bet­ter under­stand these poli­cies as exam­ples of mem­bers’ attempts to pre­serve their capac­ity to serve their com­mu­ni­ties and build a more egal­i­tar­ian world for future gen­er­a­tions.

The Home and the State

As noted above, the Black Pan­ther Party’s attempts to deter­mine the con­di­tions of the social repro­duc­tion of its cadres never occurred in iso­la­tion from sim­i­lar state projects. Just as the home and fam­ily unit acted as impor­tant domains in which Pan­thers cul­ti­vated a uni­fied black body politic bent on the over­throw of cap­i­tal­ism, so too did the state rec­og­nize these spaces as cru­cial to its own agenda of anni­hi­lat­ing the orga­ni­za­tion. Gov­ern­ment offi­cials’ fram­ing of the BPP as anti­thet­i­cal to a safe nation is per­haps best illus­trated by J. Edgar Hoover’s mul­ti­ple warn­ings to the Amer­i­can pub­lic that the Black Pan­ther Party – and its Free Break­fast for School Chil­dren Pro­gram in par­tic­u­lar – posed a pri­mary threat to national secu­rity.33

But what did the state’s attempts to inscribe its own national bor­ders mean for fam­i­lies of rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ism in the 1960s and 1970s? And in the con­text of social repro­duc­tion, in what ways did agen­cies like COINTELPRO and local police depart­ments enter the Party’s inti­mate spaces while car­ry­ing out the state’s mis­sion to elim­i­nate black rad­i­cal­ism? Cer­tainly, few sites of Pan­ther activ­ity were left untouched by the government’s repres­sive hand. Evi­dence of state pen­e­tra­tion of the Party’s inter­nal oper­a­tions abounds in Pan­ther mem­oirs, through sym­bols of wire­tapped phones, parked police cars sta­tioned out­side of mem­bers’ homes, and house­hold doors laden with police-fired bul­let holes.34 A fuller under­stand­ing of Party-state rela­tions, then, war­rants an exam­i­na­tion of those moments of gov­ern­ment intru­sion in the less pub­licly vis­i­ble realms of BPP activ­ity – par­tic­u­larly those spaces in which Party mem­bers fed, housed, edu­cated, and social­ized their kin.35

Cer­tainly, chil­dren were not exempt from the mon­i­tored sta­tus that char­ac­ter­ized so many BPP fam­i­lies. Tar­geted at home, at school, and in some cases, as mem­bers of exiled fam­i­lies, chil­dren became pri­mary avenues through which gov­ern­ment agents pro­duced vul­ner­a­bil­ity and dis­rup­tion within both the Party and its indi­vid­ual fam­ily units. David Hilliard offers one of the most insight­ful exam­ples of the extent to which Hoover’s agency would go to obtain infor­ma­tion about the Black Power orga­ni­za­tion. When the Hilliards’ six-year-old son, Dar­ryl, was sent home from school for start­ing a fire in his class­room, admin­is­tra­tive offi­cials alerted Darryl’s par­ents that the school might press charges. When the fam­ily received a knock on their door one week later, they were greeted by a man in a busi­ness suit, his FBI badge in hand. Hilliard recounts that when the agent informed David that his son was at risk of fac­ing seri­ous charges, the man used the inter­ro­ga­tion as an oppor­tu­nity to sur­vey the inside of their home. Angry and amused, Hilliard remem­bers think­ing to him­self, “In the face of the war­fare I’m brac­ing for, this fool­ish­ness strikes me as really con­temptible, pathetic.”36 After ask­ing the agent if his threat of tak­ing Dar­ryl to trial was seri­ous, Hilliard asked the man, “A six year-old boy? Is that how des­per­ate you are? Wor­ried about six-year-old rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies?” Although Hilliard read the sit­u­a­tion as a moment of embar­rass­ment for the FBI agent, his ques­tion was not unfounded. Years later Hilliard would aver that the FBI and local police would “use every weapon in their arse­nal to destroy the Party,” includ­ing chil­dren.37

At times, the state’s inva­sive mea­sures inten­si­fied to such a degree that some activists no longer felt that Oakland’s pub­lic schools pro­vided safe spaces for black youth. In fact, Hilliard and Seale were among the first Party mem­bers to with­draw their chil­dren from the Oak­land Pub­lic School Dis­trict after cases of their repeated harass­ment by teach­ers due to Seale’s and Hilliard’s polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions. Hilliard and Seale would also be the first Party mem­bers to enroll their chil­dren in the BPP’s newly estab­lished lib­er­a­tion schools.38 For the sake of brevity, I will not address the his­tory of the organization’s alter­na­tive schools here. How­ever, it is impor­tant to note that such polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion ini­tia­tives, on many lev­els, exem­plify the Party’s agency in deter­min­ing the nature of the edu­ca­tional and social devel­op­ment of Oakland’s black youth. The Oak­land Com­mu­nity School – the Party’s first and longest-run­ning lib­er­a­tion school – for exam­ple, served as both a safe haven for scores of local chil­dren, and as a direct cor­rec­tive to a white-washed pub­lic school cur­ricu­lum which many Pan­thers felt alien­ated non-white chil­dren.39

Not sur­pris­ingly, the state’s intru­sion into the per­sonal realms of Amer­i­can black rad­i­cal­ism tran­scended national bor­ders as well. Although most of his involve­ment with the BPP took place out­side of the U.S., as the head of the Party’s Inter­na­tional Chap­ter, Eldridge Cleaver was also fully aware of the pre­car­i­ous posi­tion of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Pan­thers. As polit­i­cal exiles, the Cleavers under­went con­stant relo­ca­tion, between and within nations, employ­ing a range of tac­tics to pro­tect the con­fi­den­tial­ity of their family’s where­abouts. In a 2006 pub­lished col­lec­tion of his writ­ings, Eldridge recounts, “We had to be very secre­tive about where we kept our chil­dren, often keep­ing them in hid­ing places sep­a­rate from where we were stay­ing.”40 He adds, dur­ing the family’s nearly seven-year period in exile, he and Kath­leen placed their son and daugh­ter in hid­ing for one year.41 When these mea­sures left Eldridge feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble still, he went as far as lying to his chil­dren about his own iden­tity. It was a failed attempt, how­ever. After their father repeat­edly stressed to Maceo and Joju that his was name Henry Jones, they refused to believe him.42

While the Cleavers’ case is by no means rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the numer­ous Pan­ther fam­i­lies that found polit­i­cal asy­lum abroad dur­ing the Party’s years of oper­a­tion – the archives have left us with few sources detail­ing the expe­ri­ences of such fam­i­lies – their tra­jec­tory offers a win­dow into the com­plex and diverse nature of how mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tury black rad­i­cals nego­ti­ated fam­ily respon­si­bil­i­ties and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the rev­o­lu­tion. Ana­lyz­ing the Cleavers’ expe­ri­ence in par­tic­u­lar may fur­ther help to expand our under­stand­ing of how repro­duc­tive labor oper­ated within Pan­ther fam­i­lies. That Eldridge Cleaver’s efforts to pro­tect his chil­dren from state repres­sion assumed the form of a false iden­tity sug­gests that for some, fam­ily devel­op­ment was a nec­es­sar­ily pre­car­i­ous and at times, alien­at­ing process.


While schol­ar­ship on the Black Pan­ther Party has only recently begun to explore the organization’s spa­tial pol­i­tics, few authors have sit­u­ated the home and fam­ily unit as key sites of Party mem­bers’ class strug­gle. Just as pub­lic parks, gov­ern­ment build­ings, and the streets became cen­tral domains of Black Power activism, Black Pan­thers also uti­lized less obvi­ous spaces to imple­ment their brand of rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ism. Signs of the organization’s rejec­tion of a cap­i­tal­is­tic state, and Pan­thers’ attempts to wrestle con­trol from the state in secur­ing a future for their kin, can be seen in mem­bers’ parental prac­tices, liv­ing arrange­ments, and in the social­iza­tion of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion. And as news­pa­per arti­cles, mem­oirs, and state sources reveal, the state was not hes­i­tant to infil­trate these spaces in its efforts to mon­i­tor Party oper­a­tions. For it was pre­cisely within these realms of social repro­duc­tion that the co-con­struc­tion of the Pan­ther van­guard and Hoover’s “Amer­i­can” nation mate­ri­al­ized.

  1. David Hilliard, This Side of Glory: The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of David Hilliard And The Story of the Black Pan­ther Party (Albu­querque: Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Press, 2008), 201. 

  2. Ericka Hug­gins and Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest, “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Women, Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Edu­ca­tion: The Black Pan­ther Party’s Oak­land Com­mu­nity School,” in Want to Start a Rev­o­lu­tion? Rad­i­cal Women in the Black Free­dom Strug­gle, eds. Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne  Theo­haris, and Komozi Woodard (New York: New York Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009), 165. 

  3. Hilliard, This Side of Glory, 208. Hilliard notes that he and fel­low Pan­thers felt increas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to police infil­tra­tion after Party co-founder and Min­is­ter of Defense, Huey New­ton, was found guilty of killing Oak­land police offi­cer, John Frey, and sen­tenced to two to fif­teen years in prison. Newton’s con­vic­tion took place on Sep­tem­ber 8, 1968. See Joshua Bloom and Waldo Mar­tin, Black Against Empire: The His­tory and Pol­i­tics of the Black Pan­ther Party (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2013), 199. 

  4. Hilliard, This Side of Glory. 208 Here, Hilliard refers to Eldridge Cleaver, who ini­tially served as the organization’s Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion and ulti­mately led the BPP’s inter­na­tional chap­ter until his depar­ture from the Party in 1971. Eldridge Cleaver, Tar­get Zero: A Life in Writ­ing, ed. Kath­leen Cleaver (New York: Pal­grave McMil­lan, 2006), Intro­duc­tion. 

  5. Hilliard, This Side of Glory, 208-209. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Here I refer to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s con­tro­ver­sial 1965 study, The Negro Fam­ily: The Case for National Action, in which Moyni­han attrib­utes high unem­ploy­ment rates among black men and youth in urban areas to the pre­dom­i­nance of female-headed fam­i­lies. In the fol­low­ing sec­tion I provide a fuller dis­cus­sion of the Moyni­han Report. Daniel Patrick Moyni­han, The Negro Fam­ily: The Case for National Action. U.S. (Wash­ing­ton: Depart­ment of Labor, Office of Pol­icy Plan­ning and Research, 1965). 

  8. It should be noted that the fol­low­ing is not an exhaus­tive overview, nor does it account for the nuances of indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences within and among Pan­ther fam­i­lies. Due to the skewed nature of source mate­rial – most mem­oirs and bio­graph­i­cal accounts reflect the per­spec­tive of mem­bers who held some kind of lead­er­ship posi­tion in the Party – and the spa­tial con­straints of this essay, I will focus on only a hand­ful of Pan­ther fam­i­lies. Fur­ther, because of spa­tial con­straints, this essay is less con­cerned with how the body, sex, mar­riage or gen­der fac­tored into the Party’s social­ist pol­i­tics. Finally, while I have not yet fully engaged with lit­er­a­ture that deals with the­o­ries of child agency, this essay will more so focus on how chil­dren raised by Party mem­bers (what I call “sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Pan­thers”) were social­ized within the Party’s inti­mate spaces, rather than provide an argu­ment about how mem­bers of this gen­er­a­tion defined their own polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties. 

  9. I have found no offi­cial Party-endorsed state­ment about the role of fam­ily and chil­dren in my research. All men­tions of fam­ily, chil­dren, and par­ent­hood I have come across in orga­ni­za­tional doc­u­ments and lit­er­a­ture on the Party reflect the views of indi­vid­ual mem­bers. 

  10. Moyni­han, The Negro Fam­ily. 

  11. Huey New­ton, To Die For the Peo­ple: The Writ­ings of Huey P. New­ton (New York: Ran­dom House, 1972), 80-81. 

  12. Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), 152; James Tyner, “Defend the Ghetto”: Space and the Urban Pol­i­tics of the Black Pan­ther Party,” Annals of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Geo­g­ra­phers 96, no. 1 (2006): 112. 

  13. In her study of the Party’s gen­der pol­i­tics, Tra­cye Matthews con­tends that the socio-polit­i­cal con­text in which the BPP devel­oped reflected an amal­ga­ma­tion of black cul­tural nation­al­ism, fem­i­nism, and Moyni­ha­nian ideas about men’s and women’s social roles. As such, Black Pan­thers’ indi­vid­ual gen­der con­scious­nesses were nec­es­sar­ily shaped by their nego­ti­a­tion of these par­tic­u­lar gen­der par­a­digms and the Party’s inter­nal dis­courses. Tra­cye Matthews, “‘No One Ever Asks, What A Man’s Role in the Rev­o­lu­tion Is’: Gen­der and the Pol­i­tics of the Black Pan­ther Party, 1966-1971,” in Jones, The Black Pan­ther Party Recon­sid­ered (Bal­ti­more: Black Clas­sic Press, 1998), 276. 

  14. Taken from Matthews, “‘No One Ever Asks,” 276. 

  15. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, David Hilliard explains that dur­ing the BPP’s early years (before his fam­ily relo­cated to the Shat­tuck Avenue res­i­dence in 1968), he and Party Chair­man, Bobby Seale, offered their homes to hold Party held meet­ings, man­age the organization’s finances, and engage in other orga­ni­za­tional labor. His liv­ing room, he notes, served as a count­ing office, and his kitchen remained open to mem­bers day and night. Hilliard, This Side of Glory, 164. 

  16. Mary Williams, The Lost Daugh­ter (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2013), 3-4, 6. 

  17. Ibid, 9, 26. 

  18. San­dra Davis, “Rebel Fruit: Chil­dren of Black Mil­i­tants,” YSB 3, no. 5 (1994), 76. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Bloom and Mar­tin, Black Against Empire, 318-322. 

  21. John Blake. Chil­dren of the Move­ment: The Sons and Daugh­ters of Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Mal­colm X, Eli­jah Muham­mad, George Wal­lace, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, James Chaney, Elaine Brown, and Oth­ers Reveal How the Civil Rights Move­ment Tested and Trans­formed Their Fam­i­lies (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Press, 2004), 166-167, 170, 174. 

  22. Begin­ning as early as 1966, the year of the Party’s for­ma­tion, Black Pan­ther com­mu­nity pro­grams pro­vided local res­i­dents with a vari­ety of ser­vices, from health care and edu­ca­tion to trans­porta­tion of the elderly. Such pro­grams served the dual pur­pose of offer­ing gov­ern­men­tally-neglected urban pop­u­la­tions basic human neces­si­ties, as well as serv­ing as mod­els of social activism for Oakland’s work­ing-class and unem­ployed sec­tors. The Dr. Huey P. New­ton Foun­da­tion, The Black Pan­ther Party: Ser­vice to the Peo­ple Pro­grams, ed. David Hilliard (Albu­querque: Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Press, 2008), 3. 

  23. Blake, Chil­dren of the Move­ment, 168. 

  24. Cleaver, Tar­get Zero, xx-xxi. On Christ­mas Day of 1968, in efforts to eschew his arrest result­ing from an armed alter­ca­tion with police in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, Eldridge dis­guised him­self as a Cuban sol­dier, embarked on a freighter, and dis­em­barked in Havana. This migra­tion would ini­ti­ate a seven-year period of refugee sta­tus for Cleaver, dur­ing which time he and his wife would raise two chil­dren before return­ing to the United States in 1975. Ibid. 

  25. Quoted in Davis, “Rebel Fruit,” 76. 

  26. Ibid. 

  27. Blake, Chil­dren of the Move­ment, 177. 

  28. Ibid, 177-178. 

  29. Ibid, 168. 

  30. Safiya Bukhari, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becom­ing a Black Pan­ther, Keep­ing The Faith In Prison And Fight­ing For Those Left Behind (New York City: Fem­i­nist Press at the City Uni­ver­sity of New York, 2010), 23. 

  31. Angela LeBlanc-Ernest, “‘The Most Qual­i­fied Per­son to Han­dle the Job’: Black Pan­ther Party Women, 1966-1982,” in The Black Pan­ther Party Recon­sid­ered, ed. Charles E. Jones (Bal­ti­more: Clas­sic Press, 1998), 319-320. 

  32. Ibid, 320. Accord­ing to for­mer Pan­thers JoN­ina Abron and Elaine Brown, not all women in the Party adhered to the direc­tive. 

  33. Taken from Brown, A Taste of Power, 156; Mar­tin and Bloom, Black Against Empire, 211. 

  34. Here, I refer to the case of Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark, both of whom were killed by Chicago police while sleep­ing in Hampton’s apart­ment on Decem­ber 4, 1969. State inves­ti­ga­tions of the mur­der would reveal that the FBI pro­vided the Chicago Police Depart­ment with a set of blue­prints map­ping Hampton’s apart­ment. Present dur­ing the killing, Hampton’s (at the time eight-month preg­nant) wife, Deb­o­rah John­son, sur­vived. Bloom and Mar­tin, Black Against Empire, 237-239, 245. 

  35. For many Pan­ther fam­i­lies, the home served as both a site of refuge and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. To a large degree, mem­bers of the Party were well aware of which house­holds existed more promi­nently on the government’s radar, so much so that mem­bers of the Oak­land chap­ter uti­lized the term “safe houses” to refer to those res­i­dences that were less reg­u­lated by local police and FBI agents. Brown, A Taste of Power, 8. 

  36. Hilliard, This Side of Glory, 200. 

  37. Ibid, 201. 

  38. Hug­gins and LeBlanc-Ernest, “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Women,” 168. 

  39. Hug­gins and LeBlanc-Ernest, “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Women.” 

  40. Cleaver, Tar­get Zero, 266. 

  41. Ibid. 

  42. Ibid. 

Author of the article

is a graduate student in the Department of History at UC Santa Cruz.