Aaron Dixon, co-founder and captain of the Seattle Black Panther Party, graduated from Garfield in ’68 and into a full-time job as a militant revolutionary. I picked up a copy of My People Are Rising at a packed reading by Dixon at Black Coffee Co-op on Capitol Hill last month.
Why You Need this on your Shelf
The book is a beautiful object. The cover art is striking, the matte finish pleasing to hold. Perhaps the most charming production element is the collection of portraits of family members, friends and heroes that seem to bring the late 60s to life. Dixon’s writing here is formal—almost like it was written by a grammarian high school English teacher. And yet, the tenor of the 70s comes on occasionally like a radio transmission intercepted from the past:
“All power to the people, Comrade,” he said. “Did Tommy and the brothers break down for you what the party is about?” Bobby asked. “There is a lot of s*** for you to learn, brother. We got a lot of work to do. We gotta keep these pigs from killing Brother Huey. I want you to go up to the jail and visit him before you leave. You dig?”
“Right on, Bobby,” I answered.
Contrasting these colorful portraits with dry, historical accounting creates a sense that every word in the book is true. It’s the completely, mind-blowingly unbelievable reality of what a sea change looks and feels like.
Revolutionary action is made quotidian and mundane, as Dixon documents what for the Panthers was routine: acquiring, cleaning and storing weapons; putting together an internationally circulated weekly; feeding children; intimidating cops and racist elites; hiding out, shooting up and bunkering down.
Most exciting, he provides an intimate view into the organization of the Black Panthers. He is unflinchingly honest about the party’s successes and failures. Dixon is humble and shares credit with a huge cast of minor revolutionaries, as well as the names we’ve been taught to admire and fear: Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Sex and scandal pepper the narrative without getting gossipy (if only!). The Central District figures in as playground and battleground, both. Dixon takes us on a tour of the Victorians and storefronts that seem to grow out of the wet, woodsy landscape we call our ‘hood.
Art, poetry, and pop music crest each wave of activism and each chapter of the book. Art is vital for Dixon and all of Black America to re-imagine, to step outside of a national caricature of what it means to be Black. “I remember how embarrassed I felt every time a history textbook opened up and there was a picture of a slave in tattered clothing, looking lost and disheveled, helpless and hopeless,” he writes. In addition to the bits of poetry and song he includes, Dixon spends much time describing the iconic uniform—the baby blue and black leather, the cocked beret—that defined the Panthers in the early days of recruitment.
If you’ve ever felt that the system is rigged against you, it will be easy to see yourself in this book. But problematically, the narrative never imagines what if feels like to be on the other side of that system. Cops are pigs, but never people who go home to their families, too, or who want to see change in the system they work within. A couple of politicians are glanced at as comrades in struggle, including Gov. Jerry Brown of California, and Seattle’s Mayor Uhlman. Similarly, there is no real critique of the brutality carried out in the name of Black liberation. Dixon recounts being beaten for disrespecting Elaine Brown, then leader of the party, without fully wondering if there were disciplinary alternatives the party could have used on members who stepped out of line. Remorse is unlikely for brutality inside or outside of the party—after all, this is war. The book is best when it reveals some of the conflict behind these convictions.
Required Reading for Young Activists
At the reading at Black Coffee Co-op, Dixon generously answered audience questions, many more than could fit in the time allotted. Yet of those questions, almost all of them were variations on a theme: How do I spark a revolution? How do we effect change in the present political climate? How do we stand up to the banks, the governments who kneel to them, and the machinery that strips ordinary people of services and safety on a daily basis?
Some answers are found in this book. Occupiers, third-partiers, feminists and queers can all look to the Panthers for examples of what does and doesn’t work in organizing a revolution. In Dixon’s account, a revolutionary’s basic needs are:
- Awareness: Revolution takes commitment. Dixon, on becoming captain, writes, “I felt…scared that bit by bit my young freedom was now being committed to the struggle.” There’s no having it both ways.
- Guns: The Panthers were armed to the teeth, most commonly for self-defense, patrolling, and intimidating, but also in guerilla-style actions.
- Mentors: Ancestors, community leaders and teachers add authority and nuance to your movement.
- Education: Pick up a book. Build your practice on critical theory. For the Panthers, this meant Mao, Fanon, Marx, and radical writers from just about every discipline.
- Leadership structure: The Panthers used hierarchic, military leadership structure. The most organized parties were often the most effective.
- Community engagement: Step in where the system fails your community. Create programs like free breakfasts for school children or healthcare for babies and mothers.
- Accept change: Be ready to adapt, rather than holding on to your original vision for how the revolution should go.
- Form coalitions: Unite with groups with similar goals, across party lines, colors and creeds.
This book is a primer for young radicals, but its also an in-depth history lesson of the Black Power movement and the anti-war, feminist, and queer movements that followed. This should be required reading for activists as well as anyone interested in how the racist status quo turned to turbulence from World War II to the 70s.