A Taste of Power
Elaine Brown
Pantheon, $25.00

It is a sensuous thing to know that at one’s will an enemy can be struck down, a friend saved. The corruption in that affirmation coexists comfortably with the sensuousness and the seriousness in it. For a black woman in America to know that power is to experience being raised from the dead.

Elaine Brown

Discussions of black women and power are typically about victimization: about the ways that power is inflicted upon black women by white men and women and by black men. So the juxtaposition of “black woman” and “power” in the title of Elaine Brown’s fascinating autobiography is bound to unsettle conventional expectations. Brown’s “taste of power” suggests something positive, something “empowering,” a cause for celebration. It is not so simple. In fact, Brown’s depiction of her economically impoverished though “well-bred” Philadelphia childhood, her bohemian adolescence, her early days as a foot soldier in the Black Panther Party, and her rise through the ranks of that party to become its final national leader, forces us to face both the complexity and the corruption of this new-found relationship to power. What happens when black women possess the power they are commonly denied? Do they exercise it differently? Or are they, too, possessed — and corrupted — by it? These are some of the fundamental questions raised by this remarkable book.

Elaine Brown’s narrative claims authority by breaking the silences in black women’s autobiography about issues of mental illness, drug addiction, fear, violence, and sexuality. Here Brown follows Maya Angelou, whose pathbreaking autobiographies initiated this project of self-examination. But where Angelou’s reflections on the hardships of being black and a woman conclude with new possibilities, Brown’s narrative is less redemptive. We leave her story wondering about the prospects for black women in a world that continues to be dominated by men. We also leave it with a less romantic view of the exercise of power by black women in positions of leadership — especially in male-defined, undemocratic organizations.

In its resistance to romance, Brown’s text moves in directions cleared for her by such black women fiction writers as Toni Cade Bambara who have dared to say, “this life takes a toll in ways that often lead to anger, violence and madness.” Subjected to violence, anger, and fear — and subjecting others to it in turn — Brown suffers from two nervous breakdowns. She documents those breakdowns in detail, and — as is the case with too many black women — never fully recovers from them.

The old fears consumed me over the next week. The dissociation, the separation from everything, the feeling of being disembodied began to be part of my nights…. Day by day, I was finding it more and more difficult to function…. It was my monster, the thing I dreaded. I watched my fingers at the typewriter keyboard. I could not hear the sound, however, not any sound. My heart was beating, but I could not seem to draw a breath. My fingers, those fingers, continued to type. They were not my fingers or my hands. I tried to shake off the feeling that had made me call out for my mother in my childhood nights. It was full-blown now, though. I could not force myself back (146).

Each time, the diagnosis calls for her to be numbed by massive doses of addictive drugs. Each time the Party pulls her from drug-induced stupor, only to expose her once more to the forces that had provoked the breakdowns in the first place. The madness is inescapable. To be sure there are lengthy pauses, but the madness always returns — each time staying a little longer. In reading these pages one is reminded of Billie Holiday’s plaintive “Good Morning Heartache.” But unlike Billie Holiday, Brown knows instinctively that her psychic disorder is intimately related to the daily realities of her existence as an intelligent, creative, politically conscious black woman. She sees the connections between changes in her psyche, her commitment to revolutionary social change, and her face to face contact with the raw power of repressive attempts to maintain the status quo.

Before she is thirty, Brown experiences the deaths of numerous comrades and friends at the hands of racist white police officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.), and such rival black nationalist organizations as Ron Karenga’s US, both of which — Brown claims — are part of a larger J. Edgar Hoover-led F.B.I. conspiracy to destroy the Black Panther Party. She faces death from the barrels of guns pointed at her head by white police officers and from the punches and slaps of her black male “comrades.” She in turn inflicts violence on white women and orders the “disciplining” of other Panthers. Her life is marked by daily confrontation with violence and day to day negotiations of her own sanity. The documentation of the Panthers’ continued confrontations with the L.A.P.D., and of the deaths of Fred Hampton, Bobby Hutton, John Huggins and Bunchy Carter are among the most moving pages of this powerful narrative. For Elaine Brown there is no separation between the psychological and the political. Her willingness to share her own experiences with mental illness contributes to the honest depiction of black women’s lives.

Brown also shatters the remnants of silence that continue to surround black women’s sexuality in heterosexual relationships. She provides details about her numerous sexual liaisons, apologizing for none, and delineating many in all their sorrow and ecstasy. And she exposes her intimate relationships with white as well as black men. It is rare to find a black woman who is so open about her relationships to white men — her two high school lovers and her first adult love, the mysterious Jay Kennedy, a married intellectual and writer who supports his young black mistress financially and also exposes her to socialism and the black power movement. It is largely through her relationship to Kennedy that she grows enough politically and intellectually to join the Black Panther Party. After two years of waiting for him to live up to his promise to marry her, Brown decides to become active in the Panthers and ends their relationship:

I became cold to him and tried to tell myself I hated him, he who had been everything, who had saved me from everything…. He had been a tender daddy and a powerful protector. He had been a patient teacher and a gentle lover. It was now or never, I told him, all or nothing, simultaneously condemning myself and saving myself. I ignored his tears. I told him it did not matter anymore, because there was no place for me in his world and he did not belong in mine….Of course he knew. He had taught me (103).

Even after she ends the romantic component of the relationship, Kennedy continues to sustain her emotionally and financially. In fact, throughout her time with the Panthers he — along with another wealthy white lover — is a funding source for the Party.

The relationship with Kennedy and with the white men preceding him are emotional relationships. Her honesty about a less emotional interaction with Bert Schneider, a Hollywood producer and major contributor to the Black Panther Party, is at first discomforting. After an ongoing flirtation culminates in their sleeping together, Schneider makes a $12,000 contribution towards one year’s rent on Party Chairman Huey Newton’s penthouse apartment. As they leave the hotel room he teasingly says to her: “Don’t look so worried. If anybody sees us, you can say I’m a trick.” (Newton, her lover, later teases her about her “$12,000 pussy.”) It certainly does appear that she prostitutes herself for a “leader” and “lover” who emerges as a kind of ethereal pimp. Aiming to subvert this reading of the incident, Brown offers her own interpretation of it: “I felt relief rush over me, along with shame. It was not about comrades, certainly not about morality, not even about Huey. I worried that Bert would think I had used him. And perhaps I had. Perhaps not” (264). By suggesting that she is the subject and he the object of their interaction, she tries to upset the ways we have come to interpret casual sexual relationships between white men and black women. But because the $12,000 is used to pay the rent on Newton’s penthouse apartment — not for one of the Party’s free breakfast, clinic, or legal aid programs — her suggestion that she does not prostitute herself is unconvincing.

Her relationships with white men allow her to illustrate her own achievement of a degree of personal power. Her willingness to reveal the nature of these relationships illustrates her power over the narrative as well. By contrast, her relationships with black men illustrate her achievement of political power, while either denying her personal power or requiring that she fight for her life to maintain both.

Through a combination of hard work, commitment and intelligence, Brown rises in the ranks of the Panthers. Huey Newton becomes her lover and mentor. This relationship prepares her to take the mantle of leadership when he flees to Cuba. But the Party Brown inherits is in serious trouble: nearly destroyed by the F.B.I., engaged in a number of underground financial activities, fundamentally undemocratic, and structured around a gender hierarchy.

Even before she meets Newton, Brown is aware of the depth and danger of this hierarchy. On a visit from Los Angeles to the Oakland chapter Brown is introduced to a young woman: “Marsha was a child, maybe fifteen years old…nearly white,” whom Bobby Seale holds up as a model Panther woman, one of the few who is a member of the security squad. Seale commands Marsha to “Tell [Elaine] here what a Brother has to do to get some from you.” To which Marsha responds:

First of all, a Brother’s got to be righteous. He’s got to be a Panther. He’s got to be able to recite the ten-point platform and program, and be ready to off the pig and die for the People…. Can’t no motherfucker get no pussy from me unless he can get down with the party…. A sister has to learn to shoot as well as to cook, and be ready to back up the Brothers. A Sister’s got to know the ten-point platform and program by heart…. A Sister has to give up the pussy when the Brother is on his job and hold it back when he’s not. `Cause Sisters got pussy power (189).

Brown, then a member of the Los Angeles chapter, is outraged at the display. “I could not imagine Bunchy, and certainly not John, allowing, much less pushing any sister in L.A. to be so degraded as this pathetic child before me. If nothing else, there was too much work, too little time, too much danger. I was filled with fury. The word `Sister’ was sounding like `bitch’ to me.” Even when she juxtaposes her own Panther chapter as more progressive on gender issues, she continues to look to her male leaders to determine and define the way women will be treated. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Brown immediately begins her own campaign to challenge the expectations that party members, both male and female, had of women Panthers, demanding that both “sisters” and “brothers” do kitchen duty and the like. Along with other Panther women, she becomes committed to “revolutionizing” the ranks of the Black Panther Party. “We would have to fight for the right to fight for freedom….We would not be rewarding any Brother with our bodies, in the bedroom or in the kitchen” (191-92). But even with these growing sensibilities, Brown and her Panther sisters — like many black women of the time — have little use for the burgeoning feminist movement. Amongst women in the Party there is no emergent feminist theorizing or consciousness-raising in the way that there was around issues of class and race.

Because of this, Brown’s increasingly open criticisms of such blatant misogyny as she witnessed in Oakland is not matched by a recognition of the depth of the patriarchy in the party. She is incapable of seeing that the very style of leadership is undemocratic and patriarchal. If she comes to any feminist consciousness throughout the course of the narrative it is through her having experienced firsthand the sexism of her followers and her leader, Huey Newton. She initially uncritically accepts Eldridge Cleaver’s analysis of why he raped black and white women in his autobiography Soul on Ice. Only after falling prey to his terrorism and witnessing first hand his abuse of his wife, Kathleen, in Algiers is she able to say: “Eldridge was a man who was a rapist, a man who lashed out at women — in fear” (225).

Though Brown eventually becomes critical of the sexism of the Panthers, she appears to have remained uncritical of its undemocratic style of leadership. In fact, her own leadership is characterized by that same undemocratic tendency. When she becomes “Chairman” she quickly recognizes the difficulties of her position: the general difficulties faced by anyone who would succeed Newton and also the particular challenges that face her as a woman. She recognizes that the Party to which she has devoted her life does not value women:

A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. A woman attempting the role of leadership was, to my proud black Brothers, making an alliance with the “counter revolutionary, man hating, lesbian, feminist white bitches.” It was a violation of some Black Power principle that was left undefined. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race. She was an enemy of black people (357).

However, she also notes that “Sexism was a secondary problem. Capitalism and racism were primary. I had maintained that position even in the face of my exasperation with the chauvinism of Black Power men in general and Black Panther men in particular” (367). The consistent challenges to her authority both within and outside the party force her to come to terms with the destructive effects of sexism and the necessity of promoting gender equality. It is not until the concluding chapters of the narrative that she finally says:

The feminists were right. The value of my life had been obliterated as much by being female as by being black and poor. Racism and sexism in America were equal partners in my oppression…There would be no further impositions on me by men, including black men, including Black Panther men. I would support every assertion of human rights by women from the right to abortion to the right of equality with men as laborers and leaders. I would declare that the agenda of the Black Panther Party and our revolution to free black people from oppression specifically included black women (367).

Feminist readers may want her to come to this conclusion earlier in the narrative, to act on it, or at least to describe the past from her feminist present. She never does this. Instead we witness her growing awareness as it unfolds within the narrative itself. Brown’s unwillingness to divide the voices of author and actor is one of the greatest strengths of the book. Readers are invited to accept and judge the narrative on its own terms, and not from our critically comfortable present.

But this strength of the narrative is connected to a serious flaw. Stretches of Brown’s autobiography are utterly unreflective. Nowhere is this more evident than in Brown’s descriptions of her relationship with Huey Newton. Most readers — men and women — will want her to be more explicitly critical of Newton: to name his cocaine addiction, his cognac alcoholism, his madness, and his rage with a greater sense of anger and at times disdain. While she acknowledges Newton’s flaws, she always couches her critique in reverence — perhaps because she knows that she shared much of his personal corruption:

I had to admit that all of Huey’s subsequent heavy-handed acts had the same foundation. I had to reckon with my own role in all of it and wonder whether I could continue to have a role in any of it. I was not losing the thread as much as the faith. Faith was all there was. If I did not believe in the ultimate rightness of our goals and our party, then what we did, what Huey was doing, what he was, what I was, was horrible. If the party had no humane and lasting value, that would nullify the loss of so many precious lives…. It would mean a disastrous mistake had been made in a Faustian bargain (353).

Here, Brown tries to justify the corruption that comes with the possession of power. She knows she has inherited Newton’s Party and his way of leading it. Though she is a more strategic and public leader than he, she nonetheless does not challenge the machismo of his organization. In fact, she relies on it. Because of this we find ourselves asking the very same questions about Faustian bargains that Brown herself raises in the final pages of the narrative. There is a sense of indeterminacy, a refusal at closure that leaves us uncertain. We are once again forced to accept this narrative on its own terms, with all the discomfort that follows on that acceptance. There is no documentation of Huey Newton’s murder, no explanation of what happens to her life once she leaves the party, only a frightening openendedness where Brown, with her child, flees for her life from her male comrades.

It is ironic that the most riveting autobiography of an era and Party that is dominated in the popular memory by articulate, militant black men like Stokley Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, may in fact come from a woman that many of us have never identified with this period. Brown had less visibility than such well-known women of the time as Angela Davis, Ericka Huggins and Kathleen Cleaver. It is therefore not surprising that she is barely mentioned in the other most recent autobiography of another Black Panther leader, David Hillard’s This Side of Glory. Her ultimate assertion of her power is in the writing of this text which inserts her into the history in a way that popular recognition of her actions have not. Had she not written this autobiography, her legacy would likely have been lost.

Under her leadership, the Black Panther Party created and operated a model school for inner-city black children, built Survival Programs, like the free breakfast program and free clinics that have since been taken over by the government, and formed progressive alliances with labor to help elect Jerry Brown as Governor of California. Under her leadership the party began to re-align the gender hierarchy allowing women greater access to positions of leadership and power. Finally, the party gained a degree of financial stability and solvency it had never known. These were considerable achievements. But after reading Brown’s autobiography, it will be difficult to romanticize the inherently progressive characteristics of women’s leadership, difficult even to think about the exercise of that leadership apart from the relations of power surrounding it.

This is the kind of book you develop a relationship with — one of those tumultuous, passionate relationships commonly reserved for lovers. I drank my morning coffee with it, and arrived at work in anticipation of returning to it in the evening. As I read Brown’s story, it informed the way I saw my work, my writing, my teaching, and my activism. I was moved by the commitment, the idealism, the seriousness of a group of very young black people during a time that seems so psychically removed from the present. I cried over the loss it exposed to me, grew angry at Brown and her contemporaries for their acceptance of and complicity in the sexist oppression of black women in the name of black liberation, laughed at the fight between Elaine Brown and one of Ike and Tina Turner’s Ikettes. But in the end I found myself sad and wondering whether it was, after all, really worth it. 

Originally published in the March/April 1993 issue of Boston Review