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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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After moving to Oakland in 2000, Pat Thomas started reading about the Black Panther Party and hanging out with some of the Panthers still living in Oakland. such as David Hilliard, who had been their Chief of Staff and Elaine Brown, who was the first woman Chairman of the Party. A musician, music journalist and reissue producer, Thomas started to think about the impact of the Black Power movement on popular culture, and uncovered dozens of rare/out of print/forgotten Black Power recordings in jazz, soul, poetry, speeches, interviews, and pop music.

 

With the material he found, Thomas wrote Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975, a newly released coffee table book about the art and music of the Black Power Movement. It offers reproductions of flyers, album covers by artists such as Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, and advertisements and photographs from the black power era. The book also chronicles little known history such as the Black Forum label, a part of Motown that released politically charged albums by Langston Hughes, Ossie Davis, Bill Cosby and others, and an 1971 episode of the musical comedy show The Partridge Family, where the family and some members of the Panthers perform a song together in Detroit.

Light In The Attic Records is presenting the companion soundtrack to the book, with 16 tracks, including Stokely Carmichael’s “Free Huey” speech, a piece by comedian Dick Gregory, Elaine Brown’s “Until We’re Free,” Gil Scott Heron’s “Winter in America,” and Bob Dylan’s out of print single “George Jackson.”

Thomas talked with Alternet about writing a good chunk of the book in just two weeks after years of research, how Huey Newton went to China before Richard Nixon, and how the Panthers walking around with rifles will always get headlines over the Panthers feeding kids a free breakfast.

You grew up in upstate New York. Were you always interested in the Black Panthers or did that start when you lived in Oakland?

My interest in the Panthers did not come out or explode or start until I moved to Oakland in 2000. I have always been interested in counterculture and Oakland is the birthplace of the Panthers, so over a period of years, I started reading books and tracking some of them down, and the whole process was very organic, I wasn’t trying to do an academic project or write a book. I just wanted to hang out with them.

How receptive were they?

They were receptive because I was not interviewing them. I never stuck a microphone in anybody’s face. I never conducted formal interviews. I really got to know them as friends- we’d occasionally go out to dinner or have lunch. Obviously they knew I was curious about their history. I’d read books, and ask them about some incident and they’d tell me their version or what really happening or what have you. The best way I can describe it is let’s say, 20 years ago Norman Mailer moved next door to you. You’d say, “Well, I’m going to start bending Norman Mailer’s ear when I see him out watering his flowers.” I just saw an opportunity – I’ve always been enamored with the '60s, so rather than watch a documentary on TV, this way I got to hear it straight from the people who lived it. I was just enjoying it.

Because of your music background, was it the music that people were involved with that interested you initially?

It became a spin-off. Elaine Brown was the only Black Panther that made music and recorded albums. Eventually I got to know her and kind of picked her brain about her music activity. Music became a natural extension. Just like I was interested in the hippie culture, and from that I got into all kinds of psychedelic and classic rock. From the Black Panthers, I got interested in all kind of militant soul and jazz and stuff. With the music research I kind of went off on my own tangent and a lot of that was little scraps of information on someone’s blog or on the back of an album cover. That research became sort of intermittent and often tedious.