Listen, Whitey! Talking With Author Pat Thomas About the Black Panthers
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.
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.
You bring up things most people don’t know about like The Partridge Family episode and the Motown label, Black Forum. For you what was the most surprising thing you found doing research?
Their youth was one thing that hit me, but also the fact that most of them came through, at least through the '60s and '70s. I mean, a lot of people died along the way, Huey was killed in ’89, I guess it was, but, I remember talking to David Hilliard who was Chief of Staff of the Panthers, and I said to him, “Dude, by all accounts, you should have been dead by like 1970. Somebody would have shot you, a cop, or you did some prison time and somebody would have attacked you in prison. The fact that you’re still here is amazing.” I mean, their resilience – these people are survivors and they kept on going. It wasn’t part of my book to go through everyone who died and is still in prison. Just the fact that a good chunk of them came through the other side and continued to do interesting things.
Was having a soundtrack your idea or your publisher’s?
That was my idea. The thing about the soundtrack with the exception of just a couple of songs – I mean there’s a section on Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Hendrix, there is a chunk to acknowledge the popular artists, but it does tend to focus on the obscure. People are going to read this book and be like, “Damn, I need to hear some of this shit.” I just wanted a cross sampling. Obviously, there could have been three or four CDs, but I thought here’s one nice compact discs where there’s really a lot of different ideologies on that one disc, including some spoken word and some comedy. A good chunk of what’s on that album I discovered doing my book research.