A more relevant read than ever, Elaine Brown’s 1992 memoir, A Taste of Power, covers her early life and all her years in the Black Panther Party. Growing up in Philadelphia before moving to Oakland, Brown was forced to bifurcate into two people: someone who could hang with the black girls after school and someone who could hang with the Jewish girls during school. Her ability to adapt her personality to different situations so seamlessly found her slowly realizing that, despite being a respected member of the Black Panther Party, she was ultimately forced to flee the violent misogyny within the organization, which her own successful leadership had only intensified, for men in positions of power tended to hate women (all the more) the better they performed.
Brown acted as chairwoman of the party, leading it through a flourishing and legitimizing period for more than two years after founder Huey P. Newton was forced into exile. Throughout the struggles and hardships detailed in the book, Brown displays her sense of humor, or perhaps it is doom who is clever, and she is well-versed in doom. She is not just a revolutionary automaton reciting the Black Panther Ten-Point Program, she is critical of all she has done and what everybody else did, too.
Most of the early chapters of the book are devoted to her childhood in the dilapidated radius of York Street, North Philadelphia. The conflict, as she saw it, of her daily condition was this: she lived at home as a poor black girl, but she was educated as a rich white one. She took the public bus each day, and in this shabby conduit on the way to school, as her burden and poverty grew more distant, she had hope and fostered happiness again. The opposite occurred on the way home, hope became a burden, and she knew a kind of desolate angst every night.
She took piano lessons and ballet; she could translate Virgil; but only away from her gang-, cockroach- and rat-infested ghetto. She recounts in these pages Latin verse that includes, “Arma virumque cano,/Troiae qui Primus ab oris/Italiam fato profugus/Laviniaque venit.” In other words, “I ain’t gon’ talk about your mama,/She’s a sweet soul./She’s got a ten-ton pussy/And a rubber asshole.” Hers was a life comprised of ten-ton pussy and epic prosody all at once. This leads to her nightly anguish, a kind of empty distress, the anxiety of not knowing herself. In her head–as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult–she knew she was not white, so she would identify as “not that kind of black.”
She came to study the materials usually only reserved for whites. She loved her education. She had no real interest in black people or their oppression until an older white lover of hers taught her only too well. It is one of the more beautiful parts of the book, her love affair with Jay Kennedy, Harry Belafonte’s manager, among other “trades.” Elaine had moved to Los Angeles, for it seemed the opposite of the oppressive industrial Northeast home that was no home at all. It was in L.A. that she met Jay. He gave her books on capitalism, socialism and social ills. She read his books on philosophy and economy, and remained reticent to see how white people had used and misused her people. Their love was deep when they convened in Beverly Hills dining rooms, in hotels, and the houses of celebrated friends. Their love was deep, but only when he was in Los Angeles, and only when he was away from his wife, without his kids.
As a result, their talk of eternal love began to seem ridiculous. It was just at this time Elaine’s neighbor, Beverlee Bruce, got Elaine to volunteer at a Los Angeles housing project, giving girls piano lessons. The project was, expectedly, a rundown place. Elaine saw that whether in L.A. or Philadelphia, black people had the same constraints. She felt ashamed, yet aware, and she had been denying it all these years. All Jay had taught her, she now understood to be true. She could no longer reason that their love would endure. She was black, and he was a white man… using her.
Jay had been writing a novel about a spy for the CIA. After their break-up, Jay added a chapter to his novel. The spy had had a girlfriend in L.A. He stops over to see his old lover. She was a black girl, who had recently become militant. He wrote, “In loving her so, for so long, he has taught her everything he knows about the world, the struggles of people, their social and political movements. He has, he realizes, created the very schism that is now between them, one that he knows he can never bridge. In loving him so, she listened too well. She learned too well. Now she must leave him, and his white and powerful world that oppresses her. Now she must leave him when he needs her more than she ever needed him.”
This is Brown’s gift as a writer: she sees not only specific plight and plight at large, but also dares to compare. It is not propagandism or party line rhetoric Elaine is engaging in. She has only love for her subjects, and she wields humor through the pain. No political rancor makes her condemn some and glorify others. To her, what is most important and beautiful is that there was a story, and everybody in it was trying. Sometimes things worked for a while, until they didn’t.
Brown fills the pages with her real life story using the best device of literature. Comparison, after all, is poetic. She compares Beverly Hills to Beverlee Bruce, her vagina to her people, Panthers to gangsters, Huey Newton to so many of her lovers. She also discusses her failings as a mother; she discusses violence and victories. She discusses her shame. She discusses her loneliness, which improved or worsened over the years, but never went away. The Panthers never quite gave her a full sense of self. As she leaves the Party at the end, she acknowledges her daughter couldn’t end up being anything but as untethered as her, which unfortunately she sees as a defeat more than an intellectual freedom. She wishes that Huey could be his own man in the face of a rising misogynistic gangsterism, but she doesn’t see how she can be happy without some race or community as an identity.
In Chapter 11, Brown discusses Black Panther funding. There’s a significant amount of money coming in from wealthy left-leaning whites. A notable contributor was the composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s association with the Panthers became controversial. It was the topic of Tom Wolfe’s essay, “The Radical Chic,” the term Wolfe coined to describe rich whites catching a thrill by vaguely associating with “lowly,” fringe characters and social causes.
Brown dismisses Wolfe and his condemnation of the Radical Chic, namely for the reason that all of the money funneled in did achieve some good. It fed children and bought much needed medical supplies for the Panther communities. But then Brown doubts her assessment. It is indeed these frequent expressed doubts that give her book a great deal of humanity. In her dealings with Hollywood actress Jean Seberg, whose contributions to the Panthers were consistent and generous, Brown is forced to ask herself if Wolfe might be right after all. It is refreshing to hear this revolutionary make an allowance. It is human to doubt, to change one’s mind.
Perhaps the money was useful and well-applied. But Tom Wolfe’s point in “The Radical Chic” is this: once Bernstein got a lot of bad press for hosting the Black Panther Party to speak in his own home, he repudiated the organization. In the face of public clamor, he no longer stood up for what he thought was right or what he believed in. But he had truly thought that the Panther cause was legitimate, as well as, conveniently, au courant. And if it is human to change one’s mind, so be it, but if it is due to a kind of public and publicized tactic–if the change is out of fear, not careful meditation–well, we should call that “alteration of opinion” a weakness. For Bernstein didn’t change his own mind, opinion turned on him and he was frightened.
In this way, both Wolfe and Brown touch upon a problem, which keeps Americans forever deprived of true freedom. One seems to prefer their station to their personality, their rules of conduct to any semblance of virtue. Brown shows the mentality of Newton. Wolfe shows how the rules of polite Park Avenue society reduced Bernstein to cowardice. These Americans feared themselves, they bent all too quickly to the pressure of public opinion. In this way, so many aren’t free–not just Americans.
Injustice and a lack of liberty in America is the stifling of individuals and individual beliefs not only by government censorship, but also by morality mob-shaming. The Black Panther Party overcame government tactics but fell by the mob mentality. The brilliant Newton, the very inventor of intercommunalism, found himself playing street tough for his own goons because they demanded it of him. So he did not defend the intelligent women of his party–the ones who had made it such a success–against dismissal and violence. This capitulation only led to decadence and decay. Brown thusly shows what a pernicious thing fear (and the according lack of freedom that goes with it) is. Ironically, she didn’t quite comprehend the extent to which she suffered from it herself.