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Listen, Whitey! Talking With Author Pat Thomas About the Black Panthers

The writer of a new book on Black Panther culture speaks on researching his project, Occupy, Huey Newton, and more

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Tedious because it was hard to track stuff down?

Tedious in a way that was both exciting and nerve wracking. Part of me was like, “I hope I don’t find another album,” and part of me was like, “I hope I find another album.” The book was turned in a year late, but that provided me with probably another 50 albums, so the book was that much better by being late.

You said you didn’t go into this research planning to write a book. What was point you decided you wanted to write one?

In 2008, I was in college, and I had the summer off, and I had time on my hands. I don’t feel like I wrote the book because I wanted to – I feel like I needed to. I just sat down and in a two-week period, for about 10 hours a day, I just wrote and wrote and wrote. By that point, I had done so much research, that except to refer to a book for a quick fact check or a quick date, it was kind of all in my brain. After two weeks, I had 30,000 to 40,000 words, and I was just exhausted, and I didn’t look at the manuscript for about six months after that because I was kind of drained.

What did you feel like you really wanted people to get from this book about the Black Power movement?

Well, for obvious reasons most of what has been written has been very political or analytical or academic. You know, almost any book about history is going to have the author’s particular bias. If you’re a military historian trying to write a book about World War II, that’s your bias. I was trying to write a book that was pro-Panthers, but not with an agenda as to what I wanted to say other than to sort of humanize these people. To me they were more than just statues frozen in time; they were people I was hanging out with in current day. I just wanted to capture their humanity in some way. Militancy or their strident side was just one part of it. I wanted to focus on how their legacy crossed paths with pop culture. You know, I talk about this wacky "Partridge Family" episode where they meet the Black Panthers. It’s not a dogmatic book. Most stores will file it under music – it could be filed under political culture. I didn’t want it to be filed under black history/sociology. It’s meant to be, for lack of a better word, fun.

You say you wanted to show the Panthers' warm fuzzy side.

At the time it was happening, it doesn’t make for controversial or exciting news for the front page of the New York Times or Time Magazine. In other words, if the Panthers are rolling down the street with rifles, that’s front-page news. If the Panthers are feeding schoolchildren a free breakfast, that’s on page 20. That’s still the way it is. Controversy is what sells papers. I follow the Occupy movement, and what tends to get attention? It’s when protestors burn down a Bank of America building. It’s never going to be protestors have been living peacefully in this camp for three weeks and everybody is loving it.

You make a point in the book about how young the Panthers are.

As a young person and a teenager I’d watch Woodstock and I’d think everybody playing Woodstock must have been about 35. No, everybody playing Woodstock was about 22. As I started doing the Panther research, I realized these were young people. They were in their early 20s, most of them self educated, maybe a couple of years of community college, obviously no Internet, and somehow they created a worldwide movement. Huey Newton went to Red China and met the Chinese government in 1971, a year before Richard Nixon made his famous trip which went around the world like, America finally breaks into Communist China and talks to them after 50 years or whatever it had been. Well, Jesus Christ, the Panthers did it the year before. I mean, that’s amazing. A couple of black kids from Oakland are in fucking China hanging out with the Chinese Premier. People forget this was such an amazing grassroots movement and quite successful for a bunch of young people who were not rich, did not have money, didn’t have masters degrees, they were just doing it.