Crazy Yellow Nigga! In honour of Huey Newton

Dr Huey P Newton

Amongst the pantheon of black American thinkers, that includes Frederik Douglas, Booker T Washington, W E B Dubois, Martin Luther King Jnr, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan; there is one revolutionary thinker who has still not got his due recognition despite being philosophically and intellectually leaps and bounds ahead of his fellow heroic thinkers of the black pantheon; Huey P Newton. Newton is often left out of discussions around black thought because he does not fit the Conservative narrative that has been handed down via the black American Church.

In the light of the Conservative black establishment steeped in Christianity, Newton is styled as a thug, a convict and a drug addict suffering from alcoholism who died whilst robbing drug dealers in his local Oakland area. All of which is the true and correct, however the issues of his personal life and struggle with drugs and alcohol do not take away from the brilliance of Newton’s mind when it was active. The fact that he was a Doctorate in Human Consciousness and one of the greatest black minds in American history is often overlooked as well as his writings and the depth and breadth of his reading. Many documentaries on the Black Panther Party seek to reduce the role of Newton as Co-founder, Chairman and leading theorist of the party.

In his recent BBC documentary, Adam Curtis, took considerable time to discuss the activities of the Black Panther Party. He spoke of Stokely Carmichael, the author of Black Power, he spoke of the mother of Tupac, Afeni Shakur and her poetry but like with many others who have decided to explore the thought of the Black Panthers, Curtis left out the most interesting aspect of the Black Panther Party, the theories and writings of its Chairman Huey P Newton.

If you do not know the writings and theories of Huey Newton and the history of his intellectual development you cannot properly contextualise the story of the Black Panther Party and the important intellectual contribution that the party has made to revolutionary thought.

79 years ago, the founder and leading theorist of the Black Panther Party and one of the greatest US philosophers, was born in Monroe, Louisiana. 25 years later, Newton would form one of the most revolutionary movements in US history before being imprisoned whilst awaiting trial after being accused of the shooting of a white Oakland police officer.

Whilst Newton was awaiting trial, his movement grew and the campaign to “Free Huey” brought international attention to the Black Panther Party and made the party into an international militant icon. The international media attention focused on the Black Panther Party sort to magnify the militant iconography of the party, whilst not giving the due attention to the theories and analysis that Newton contributed to revolutionary thought that gave the Black Panther Party an intellectual edge over other grassroots movements.

Yes, it is true that Newton was a gun-toting rebel with a criminal past but the brilliance of Newton does not reside in his militant posture of that promotional poster created by his later sworn enemy Eldridge Cleaver or in the fact that he was tried, facing the death penalty, for the shooting of a police officer. The brilliance of Newton does not lie in his short-lived rebellious, militant, bandelero posture that captured the attention of white and black radicals the world over but lasted no more than a year and was perfectly legal within the California state law. The brilliance of Huey Newton lies in his intellectual clarity and ability to expound on big philosophical and historically important ideas that have shaped the world; his courage and desire to bring the best of modern western philosophy out into the streets, up on the block and out in the black community has been matched by no other. Martin Luther King Jnr was a great orator but his simplistic Christian tropes on love do not have the intellectual depth of Newton. Dubois was an intellectual of his time but could not be considered as intellectually challenging as Newton; Malcom may have rejected Christianity but he only swapped it for another set of myths that are equally as limiting to those that seek change.

Huey Newton burst out of the seams of the straightjackets that many had found themselves in intellectually.

Huey Newton was not simply in revolt with white America but also Black America and its reliance on mythology and ideas of the superhuman. His desire to think beyond the constraints of the Conservative Black American elite, steeped in the Church and to embrace the great intellectuals of the western philosophical tradition make Newton the single most transformative black American thinker. In truth there has been no such thinker before or since Newton.

Newton left school without the ability to read; inspired by his Brother, Newton taught himself to read by reading Plato and others. As a youth he became a petty criminal engaged in robbery but by his mid-20’s he was reading and speaking, with clarity and authority on some of the most complex aspects of modern western philosophy. Newton was not only speaking with authority and clarity but he was using the ideas to explain the predicament of the black American. He was using the analytical tools that he discovered in modern western philosophy to further the collective understanding of the place that black America occupied in the world and to raise the consciousness out of the quagmire of religion and mythology towards a more developed quest for truth. In the context of Black America, Newton is as important as those that led the western world out of it’s dark ages of religion and mythology into the light of science and modern philosophy.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no references to Black Power in the writings of Huey Newton. Like many others, Carmichael, came to prominence whilst Newton was imprisoned. It was not the founder or Chairman of the party that endorsed certain ideas and even before Newton was released from jail there was a split in the party with many advocating more extreme measures and more racialised theories such as Black Power. When Newton came back from 22 months in prison, he centralised the party in Oakland and developed a series of what he termed “survival programmes” that served the community like a state. He gave authorisation to develop free breakfast programmes, a school, sickle cell clinics, free shoe programs and senior citizen safe bussing. Prior to Newton being released from prison, the party was decentralised which meant that there were competing views but Newton reformed the party and by 1970 when he was released from prison after being remanded for almost 2 years, he was not advocating bearing arms. He openly said that bearing arms was a tactic to garner attention rather than the declaration of armed struggle many traumatised people had thought. He emphasised that at the time it was not illegal to bear arms in public.

In 1971, a few months after being released, Newton spoke at a meeting at Yale university alongside the Jewish American psychology Professor and inventor of the term “Identity Crisis”, Erik Erikson. The conference was billed as a confrontation between the fire blazing revolutionary and the analytical psychoanalyst. It was expected that Newton would be aggressive, a caricature of the streets, whilst being ruthlessly psychoanalysed by the Professor. This was not the case. Huey Newton and the Professor found that they spoke the same language. That Newton, despite having a controversial past and his party being associated with theories such as Black Power and revolution was as intellectual as any of the other academics that he engaged with.

In the conversations that took place over 3 days and produced 9 hours of content, Newton is shown to be thoughtful, well read and not interested in the gimmicks of Carmichael or Cleaver. Newton shows that he had the adequate skills to analyse vast amounts of intellectual ideas and to make connections between these vastly different ideas in interesting and engaging ways. His ability may have been far greater than the academics that he engaged with. Newton was able to take ideas from Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Hegel and others and use them as tools to analyse the social conditions of black America but also to analyse the wider political world.

The Yale meeting, published in a book, “In Search of Common Ground” shone the light on the key reasons why the Black Panther Party existed and what they were hoping to achieve. In his opening remarks, Newton, outlines the major components of the Black Panther Party politics. He showed that his analysis of the economic, social and cultural conditions of the world did not allow for the concept of Black Power to flourish.

Newton argued that it was no longer possible for any nationalism, let alone Black Nationalism to flourish. He explained that he rejected black nationalism because the social conditions were not right for it to happen. As far as Newton was concerned, nations were becoming secondary to a global capitalist elite that knew no borders. He argued that the world was run by a single empire, the US. It was not like the colonial empires of the past where there were colonial outposts, the US empire was global in scope and did not require the direct governance of the US in territories overseas.

The economic analysis that Newton provided did not allow for nationalism only for communities. For Newton it was not possible to exist as a nation, the former nations of the world were now part of a global US empire without opposition and nations were in fact reduced to communities. Communities of the US empire.

Newton sought to respond to the shifts in production and the means of production and emphasised the identity of what he believed was a growing lumpen proletariat across the US and the world that went beyond simplistic racial analysis. He saw how many of his peers had been made unemployable through prison and outsourcing and their labour potential was significantly reduced by labour saving technologies and overseas production hubs.

Newton’s analysis sprang from a black mind but his thought was part of the western philosophical tradition and much more nuanced and complex than Black Power. Newton engaged with the western philosophical canon as part of the western world. He was not interested in Afrocentricity, his theories took into account the wider economic and social shifts that were taking place in a western driven world. Newton was not a Black Power advocate and there is no connection between the thinking of Newton and the 5 percenter’s or other esoteric black American organisations that arose. There is definitely no connection between the race theories of Marcus Garvey and Huey Newton. It is often considered that the Black Panther Party was a Garveyite organisation with heavy tinges of fascist iconography. Even Beyonce thinks that the organisation is similar to the Nation of Islam but it is not.

Huey Newton is way more smarter and universal. Huey Newton argued against the essentialism of Marcus Garvey and thought he was a fascist. He argued against the cultural nationalism of Afrocentricity, he argued against the mechanical black Marxism of groups like Uhuru and the militant posturing of people with mental health issues within his own party.

Contrary to popular belief the theories and ideas of the Black Panther Party have more in common with radical Europe than the Black American tradition. Newton is closer to a European theorist like Marx or Sartre or Nietzsche that is challenging his own racial establishment as well as the white American establishment. Newton was directly challenging all the other black thinkers with a new enlightenment, like the one that swept through Europe a few hundred years ago. He was not going along with mythology, he was not humouring the black population by speaking about the ancient past and using irrational arguments about an unbroken lineage between Egypt and formerly enslaved populations. He was not doing that type of racial essentialism. He was rejecting God and the whole Black American tradition. Not as a coconut or an Uncle Tom but as a revolutionary who did not accept having his intellect and ability to rationalise and analyse belittled by anyone, black or white.

Badman From Brixton