Flipping the Script -- Young African Americans Identify with Tupac Amaru's Revolutionary Acts
LOS ANGELES -- The scene: a dinner party at a heavily guarded ambassador's residence. Suddenly, the waiters reveal they are members of a feared revolutionary group. The question: guess who is REALLY coming to dinner?It's after midnight, but a friend has called from Sacramento to discuss the Tupac Amaru hostage seizure in Lima. We both wanted the situation resolved without harm to the hostages, but ran up his phone bill talking about what social conditions prompted such an act and the connection between the Peruvian rebels and the black revolutionaries in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.It's not much talked about, but I believe many African Americans like ourselves -- young writers, artists and activists -- had similar reactions. It's a troubling commentary on our relationship with the country whose name we bear.We can identify with the rebels because we understand that the hostage-taking is but one battle within a drawn-out war for valued resources. In Peru, an extremely small ruling class controls wealth and power while the vast majority of citizens struggle to feed their families. One guerrilla told Japan's NHK news that the action took place because "the administration is ignoring the plight of 30 million hungry Peruvians." It is safe to assume that Tupac Amaru soldiers know some of those hungry citizens by name, and some by blood relation. Their action must be viewed in this context.Day by day, it is the rich who keep the poor hostage, keep them from joining the party. Last week, the poor flipped the script, moved from captive to captor. This is war-like behavior, but this is a war -- even when the dominant group, for its own political reasons, refuses to define the confrontation in those terms.In the 17th, 18th and 19th century, Africans were captured and brought to the Americas -- as "slaves," not as "prisoners of war." Nevertheless, they and their descendants have been fighting sporadic, undeclared guerrilla wars ever since.It is in these terms that we see the Black Panther Party for Self Defense as a revolutionary organization that emerged to liberate black people who were hostages to poverty and powerlessness. In August of 1970, when Jonathan Jackson and three black prisoners took a California courtroom hostage in an attempt to free his brother George, they were flipping the script, moving from captive to captor.The Tupac are known for having a certain flair. One gunman dipped his handkerchief in water to soothe the eyes of Sally Bowen, a news correspondent held hostage, suffering from exposure to tear gas. (She and hundreds of women were soon released). Hours earlier, the rebels had lulled their future captives by dressing as waiters, banking on the cultural perception that in Peru servants are seen as docile nonentities.Sam Greenlee's classic novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door (and the film of the same name), chronicles the development of a shrewdly organized, Black Panther-like guerrilla movement in urban America. At one point, the organization's brilliant leader, Uncle Tom, explains to one of his soldiers why he is dressing up as a janitor. "A black man in a uniform with a broom can go anywhere in America," he says.The following scene -- where the revolutionary "janitor" removes top secret papers from the desk where the government official sits, completely oblivious -- is one of the most powerful moments in the film. The group's entire military strategy is shaped by knowledge of the white American psyche, which sees the black servant as passive to the point of invisibility.Ultimately, my affinity as an African American for Peruvian rebels arises from a common hunger for justice. "We Feel Ya," could be the new international revolutionary anthem.My friend and I end our conversation talking about the Black Panther Party baby, Tupac Amaru Shakur, whose mother named him after the Andean warrior who inspired the current revolutionary group. Had Tupac the rapper, with his bold revolutionary lineage, been born into a modern African American political movement to nurture his brilliance, today he would be getting his soldiers fitted in the latest servant's dress.