Sunday, February 25, 2007

Margaret MacMillan: Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World (Random House, 2007). Two men, one a ferocious anti-communist and icon of the American right, the other a vicious communist and icon of the international left, met and talked for an hour. Is it fair to say they changed the world for the better? According to this new full-length study of the event, the answer is clearly "maybe". The most disappointing aspect of this fascinating, easy to read, historical narrative, is this never answered question. For all the terrible things both men did in their lives, it would be satisfying to find one undeniably good thing they both did together, but history is seldom so simple and pat. Both men certainly have their champions. Despite his tyrannical 40 years at the top of the Chinese communist party, there are still many who consider Mao a hero of the international peasant masses. Despite his desire to dissect the U.S. Constitution, there are some on the left who credit Nixon for his relatively sane legislative efforts. Nixon and Mao is not particularly gentle on either of these political criminals, yet it is even-handed and smart, and, in fact, does not call them criminals. Zhou Enlai, Kissinger and the other secondary characters get their fair share of the story, but MacMillan never forgets who are the central figures in this complex tragic-comic tale. The reader comes away from Nixon and Mao better informed about this crucial event in the history of the United States and China. Yet that same reader will want to know more about our two anti-heroes, a near perfect ending to a work of popular history, regardless of that one unanswered question.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Black Panthers: Photographs by Stephen Shames (Aperture, 2007). The Black Panthers is a long awaited collection of the stunning black-and-white photographs by Stephen Shames: photos of the Party at the height of its influence and importance. Some readers might wonder why we need another book about the Black Panthers in 2007. Indeed, there are several excellent studies of the Panthers already published. I recommend two books in particular, The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered) (Black Classics, 1998), edited by Charles E. Jones, and Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party (Routledge, 2001), edited by Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas. These help restore truth and sanity to the historical analysis of the Party. The Black Panthers Speak, (Da Capo, 2002), edited by Philip S. Foner, is an excellent collection of essays by those who actually lived and worked within the Party, but none of these books is as moving as this new volume of photography. Stephen Shames captures the faces of brave young men and women at critical historical moments. The young Panthers come to life, in too many cases back to life, upon the page. These beautiful black revolutionaries look to the future with determination and passion. Better than thousands upon thousands of words, these extraordinary photographs take us back to the heart of their fight for freedom. We are there with them, discovering their grace, their humor, their faith in the truth of the revolutionary cause. Forty years on, ground has been gained. Unfortunately, much, if not most, of what the Panthers struggled toward, has yet to be achieved. The Panthers dignity, commitment and love, often wrongly defined as hate, should give hope to the activists of today and the revolutionaries of tomorrow.

There are plenty of photographs of the young Panthers, male and female, in their familiar berets and black leather, looking tough and stylish, with pseudo-military poses, no doubt scaring the shit out of Nixon’s frightened silent majority of white Amerikkka. Where this book excels is when it takes us into not so familiar terrain. Outside a liquor store boycott, surrounded by sign-carrying ordinary folks are three members of the Black Panther band, the Lumpen. Heretofore, I have never heard of this group. Certainly I have never heard their music, but looking at them caught in black and white, just two guys with congas and a third with no instrument but his moves, and I know they had to be great. And I love the name! Photos of the Panther’s free food and clothing stores show how the Party was about much more than standing up to the man, quoting from law books and flashing big guns. No words could ever capture the image of the children of party members at attention next to their desks at a Panthers elementary school classroom. These kids appear somehow simultaneously remarkable and just plain ordinary children.

We are also given a glimpse into the post-prison lifestyle of the Panther’s cult-of-personality leader, Huey P. Newton, doing an interview before a television camera crew in his luxurious penthouse apartment with a gray panorama city skyline backdrop. Contrast this nervous looking celebrity and his faux-Tonight Show set-piece with the photo of a grinning, proud young teen showing off his new duds at the Panther free clothing store, an enormous pile of earth in the background. The demise of the Panthers starts to make more sense. There is no doubt that the insidious government program COINTELPRO was what murdered the Black Panther Party. Likewise the FBI’s slow process of infiltration and corruption led to many if not most of the organizational flaws, but there seems to have been a sickness within the Party which may or may not have existed without Hoover’s cruel assistance.

In addition to Stephen Shames' brilliant photography, this new book includes essays by Black Panther co-founder, Bobby Seale and historian Charles E. Jones. The book also includes the original October 1966 Black Panther Party Platform and Program, an African-Americans Declaration of Independence of a sort. The ten points of this declaration show how far African-American people have to go to achieve the goals of the Black Panther Party and honor the lives and deaths of these fierce and compassionate activists. This new book helps puts the struggle toward freedom that defined the Black Panther Party into the here and now.