Dr. Mary Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Lehman College, CUNY. She is currently completing a scholarly biography of Black Panther Party organizer Ericka Huggins. Dr. Phillips is a co-creator of the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project (IPHP), and she is also a participant in the inaugural Center for Women’s History’s Early Career Workshop. For Women’s History Month, Dr. Phillips joins us with her Lehman College colleague, Dr. Robyn C. Spencer, author of The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party and co-creator of IPHP, to talk about their research and the broader project of writing and teaching the history of women in the Black Panther Party and Black Power from an intersectional perspective.
Dr. Phillips, in our Early Career Workshop, you’ve shared some of your research on the life and activism of Ericka Huggins. How did you come to be writing her biography?
This biography is an offshoot of my earlier work on women in the Black Panther Party (BPP). Ericka Huggins has lived a fascinating life as a political activist. A Spirit on a Sword: Ericka Huggins’ Life as a Panther, Educator, and Activist offers the first in-depth biography that documents the inner life and intellectual contributions of Ericka Huggins, a largely overlooked architect of the BPP. This biography is anchored in ten years’ worth of extensive interviews that I conducted with Huggins, community workers, and other Panther members on such matters as Huggins’ leadership, teaching, and collaborative work. This is intended to underscore how the rich contributions of Huggins and other black female activists profoundly shaped the Black Power movement. Moreover, this biography adds to Black Panther scholarship with its focus on the role of spiritualism in the social justice work of Huggins while also addressing the pivotal place of intersectionality in the struggles and daily realities of Panther women.
Ericka Huggins’ story demonstrates the presence and importance of women in the Black Panther Party, which is often remembered (or caricatured) as a male-dominated, hyper-masculine organization. How does writing her biography help us better understand the history of that organization, and of Black Power and black protest more broadly in the second half of the twentieth century?
The dominant male-centered narrative has placed women’s leadership in the BPP at the margins. Although richly developed and specialized, scholarship on the Black Power era tends to marginalize and trivialize the leadership of radical women. Indeed, there are few-book length manuscripts on Panther women. Despite Huggins’ accomplishments, she has been largely ignored by historians of the BPP and the Black Power era. My book disrupts the skewed public image of female revolutionaries as silenced helpmates and background characters, placing a necessary spotlight on Huggins transformative self-care practices, feminist theories, and educational activist work. It ultimately challenges the overwhelmingly masculinist orientations of the BPP with its black feminist methodological frame, and draws greater attention to the crucial role that Huggins — an exemplary activist, educator, and writer — played in the modern black freedom struggle.
Dr. Spencer, can you talk about how your book, The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party, (published by Duke University Press in 2016) approaches the history of black women in the Black Panther Party?
The Revolution Has Come centers women in the organizational evolution of the Black Panther Party in Oakland. It looks at women as leaders and as rank and file members. It considers how gender shaped experiences of political repression and argues that gender was pivotal to the Panthers’ internal politics.
As part of your work, you’ve joined with two other scholars — Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest and Tracye Matthews — to create the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project. Can you tell us a bit about this project came about, its goals, and its progress so far?
In 2016, The Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project (IPHP) was developed when Robyn C. Spencer and I, along with Angela D. LeBlanc-Ernest and Tracye A. Matthews, came together on the eve of the Panthers’ fiftieth anniversary for a series of phone conversations about the need for a deeper analysis of Panther women. Our commitment to the recovery and restoration of the BPP’s history and women’s critical roles in the organization led us to create this project as a means of #changingthenarrative. While our collective interest has been women in the BPP, the broader IPHP is designed to reach across disciplines to generate support for those currently working on all aspects of BPP history, to assist former Panthers in recovering their history, and to capture their stories as oral histories and on film. Thus far, we have authored over half a dozen blog posts aimed at millennials and others; created short videos that have been viewed hundreds of times; curated a list of teaching resources and lesson plans for K-16 teachers, the #IPHPTeachBPP Resource List; and published our roundtable, “Ode to our Feminist Foremothers: The Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project on Collaborative Praxis and Fifty Years of Panther History” in SOULS: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. We are currently working on plans for a document reader.
You both teach at Lehman College, a senior college of the City University of New York in the Bronx. How do you bring the work you are doing in the IPHP into your classrooms?
IPHP is about collaborative scholarly praxis that challenges the exclusivity of the Ivory Tower, reflects a commitment to historical methodologies derived from the study of the grassroots, and explicitly challenges male centered narratives about the Black freedom movement. We bring this ethos into the broad range of courses on Black history, culture and politics that we teach at Lehman College. In specialized coursework about the 1960s, we center the experiences of women in the civil rights and Black Power movement and analyze organizations like the BPP in intersectional ways.
What do undergraduate students at CUNY today know about the Black Panther Party and Black Power? How do they respond to the materials and histories you introduce to them?
They know very little about the BPP. Many students come to our classes with false perceptions on the BPP that are filtered by the media. They have very limited knowledge on women’s experiences in the BPP. Our classes are often their first point of entry to the history and praxis of the BPP. They respond very well to the material. Some are flabbergasted that they never learned much about the rich history of women in the BPP and the complicated nature of the organization.
How does teaching the BPP and Black Power from an intersectional perspective change the arc of the historical narratives that students might have learned in US history in high school? What kinds of ideas and inspiration can it offer to these students as they leave your classrooms?
Students better understand the ways race, class, and gender intersect in the experiences and work members of the BPP. They can see the connections more clearly as they tease out the nuances and gaps in the classroom. They are able to better understand the interior lives of Party members and the activists of the 60s which allows them to see themselves in the stories and histories. Teaching the BPP is very important in these fractured times and relevant to the work of current-day activists.
Top Photo Credits: Kathleen Cleaver (left) and Tarika Lewis (far right), De Fremery Park, Oakland, 1968. Featured on the cover of The Revolution Has Come by Robyn C. Spencer.