DeFacto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland views activism and feminism as it plays out in one writer’s political, artistic and spiritual life. A distinguished semifinalist for OSU’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize, De Facto… is biomythography, a cross between Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Jean Toomer’s Cane, blending essay, poems, graphics by the late Rini Templeton and literary criticism. It is an act of self-definition spanning four decades. The central person in DeFacto… is the writer herself, a feminist foot soldier. With the feel of memoir, these essays follow a long line of female thinkers, including Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Michelle Wallace, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Paula Giddings, Michelle Alexander, Roxane Gay, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. The central character in Juanita’s semi-autobiographical novel, Virgin Soul, calls herself a female foot soldier. The voice in these essays is a feminist foot soldier, processing major shifts in American society through the portal of her own artistic development.
Excerpt:Bobby Seale and Huey Newton came to SF State in the spring of ’67 to recruit at the same time Clorox, Kaiser and IBM came. The two men stood side by side, gave their spiel, their sign up sheets laid out in the back of the room. My roommates and I wore our hair natural and favored pea coats, hip ponchos and boots. But I hesitated when they signed to join the BPP, remembering my civil servant mother’s warning about signing my name to radical causes. While some came to call it the Summer of Love, for those of us in the belly of the beast-urban America, it was another long, hot summer. In August I joined. We five young women became the first wave of students from San Francisco State to join the Black Panther Party. We were referred to as sisters with skills. Evelyn handled finances, Janice became Bobby Seale’s scheduler, Betty managed the BPP office, and Jo Ann corralled the troops. I worked on the BPP Intercommunal Newspaper with Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.Some of the first issues of the paper were laid out at The Black House. It’s no coincidence that that stately Victorian on Broderick St. was a prime gathering spot for poetry readings, jazz sets and political talks; poets, dancers, musicians, students, party people and the lumpen mixed and mingled for a time at this home of Eldridge Cleaver and poet-playwright Marvin X. The Black House unity didn’t last; the cultural nationalists, who advocated a black-only cultural milieu, and the militant Panthers, who welcomed alliances with radical whites, split.The Panthers were creating a new language, what Jean-Paul Sartre calls superlanguage. Sartre calls it language distortion, a means by which the colonized deconstruct their oppression and reorder existence. Police became pigs; a deadly police raid became a reign of terror. We made the language, as Sartre identifies it, revolutionary and incantatory: Off the pigs. Power to the people. All power to the people. Free Huey.Our gang of five affected policy and high-level decisions by virtue of our intense participation, outspokenness, our spacious Potomac St. flat which became a safe house, our connections to our families and communities in Oakland, Hunters’ Point, the Sunset and Fillmore districts, and Iowa [shout out to Janice] where we grew up. Our parents and relatives provided money, housing, books, cars, meeting places, food and clothing to the party as documented by the FBI.We also formed liaisons and romantic relationships with brothers in the party. From the upper echelon to the lumpen proletariat, we lived, slept, ate and cooked with the BPP, running up and down the state and the country, all of which was a natural development that resulted in many discussions on Potomac St. about the differences [and similarities] between brothers from the street and brothers on campus. We were the initial link between the campus and the party. Three of us married “brothers in the struggle” who also happened to be educated brothers. This is significant because our connections and intimacy [which some labeled promiscuity] connected brothers from the party with brothers from SF State. The BSU brothers like to talk about supplying the BPP with guns and money, but this bridge called my back supplied the people’s army with equal and greater provision.When Huey was arrested and jailed in the shootout in November 1967, the paper overnight became an international organ, and the BPP an international sensation. To the world the party surfaced as the radical arm of the civil rights movement. At that point, my work stepped up with the paper. Donations poured into the office for the Free Huey movement. Police and FBI surveillance intensified. Six months later, the killing of Bobby Hutton and the shooting/jailing of Eldridge led to a meeting outside in Mosswood Park in Oakland, across the street from Kaiser Permanente Hospital. We met in the park because we didn’t want the FBI to hear the tape from Huey. On it, he reorganized the party, and to my surprise, appointed me editor-in-chief during Eldridge’s jail stay. This changed all the dynamics. School became irrelevant. SF State had been indifferent and even hostile to Negro students for so long that the strongest sense of belonging had come from black sororities and fraternities. However, after going down South and participating in the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1966, a multiracial contingent of students returned to radicalize the campus. Those students developed the Tutorial Program at SF State into a community-based web of free after school tutoring centers. This campus program was a first concrete radicalization for many. My roommates and I dropped out and worked in the BPP full time. We eventually returned to campus too, armed, not only with actual weapons, but with a new consciousness about education, service, the poor, the police and the military, oppression, and civil and human rights. Our experience in the party helped us envision a viability in revitalizing and connecting to our community versus fleeing into the mainstream, corporate America or the professions as a distanced, glancing downward teacher or social worker. No matter our background, and all five of us came from two-parent, middle-class families, we became aware of the class contradictions in the American dream.I saw Bobby Seale recently and had to remind him who I was by recalling the roommates. He said, quite sincerely, “Which one was my girlfriend?” I wasn’t insulted. After all, he was looking back 40 years, and we were far more than girlfriends.
”Judy Juanita’s debut novel, Virgin Soul, [Viking, 2013], features a young black woman who joins the Black Panther Party. Born in Berkeley and raised in Oakland, Juanita met fellow students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale when she was a 16 year old freshman in college. As a junior at San Francisco State, she joined the Black Panther Party (BPP). When Eldridge Cleaver was jailed after the 1968 shootout in West Oakland, Huey appointed her editor-in-chief of the BPP newspaper. Juanita became the youngest faculty member of the nation’s first black studies program at SF State in 1969. Her poetry and fiction have been published widely, and her plays produced in the Bay Area and NYC. Her collection of essays, De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland, [Equidistance 2016], explores key shifts and contradictions in black and female empowerment. She lives, writes and teaches in Oakland.
Get to know Judy:
How did you become involved in the Panthers?
I was a student at Oakland City College and used to go out and watch the radicals on the lawn. I didn’t know what they were talking about and thought they were kind of nutty. But I knew that they were extremely bright. I didn’t become a radical during my years at Oakland City College, but I was always an Oakland and Berkeley kid—which means that there were protests and marches, we caught the bus and went over to the Sheraton Hotel in San Francisco and watched the sit-ins. It was just a scene, it wasn’t as though I was doing something unusual. It wasn’t until I transferred to San Francisco State that I got involved in the Black Student Union, and then after Huey and Bobby came to the school recruiting, I got involved with the Panthers.
What made you decide to write this book of essays?
I joined the Black Panther Party and edited its newspaper when I was twenty. I knew then it was an exciting, historic moment. At 23 I became the youngest faculty member in the first Black Studies department at San Francisco State. About five years later, I started to make notes about the activities I’d participated in. I have evolved since as a writer and essayist, writing as a contributing editor at The Weekling. It felt like I had enough for a cohesive collection.
How do you mix standard English, ebonics and idiomatic language?
In my family we were taught to speak correct English. We couldn’t even say the word “pimp,” which my mother called an “underground, horrible word.” The language of the street, however, of the hipsters, of musicians, fascinated me. I’ve long held that black people are bilingual. Both our slang and English are part of our daily experience. It’s a high functioning mental trait to be able to switch intuitively. I heard that language and churchy language too. All these different languages were always there; however, when I was a teen, it was so important to be cool that I tried to speak that language. The language was freeing even if it was quickly archaic.
What advice can you give aspiring writers who are also women of color?
Support other writers. Read copiously. Try different genres. Fill up your toolbox. Robert Guillaume, who starred on the TV series Benson, was a trained opera singer. When asked why he had learned so many different skills, he said a black artist never knows where the breakthrough will come. I don’t regret my years in classes and workshops for poetry, fiction and drama. That time helped me polish my writing and develop valuable and very dear friendships.
In “The Gun as Ultimate Performance Poem,” an essay about your experience in the Black Panther Party, you said they were creating a new language, or as Sartre termed it, “superlanguage” or “language distortion.” You served as editor of the BPP Intercommunal Newspaper during this time. How did this understanding of language develop?
The use of language and ritual had awed me in childhood where I loved communal gatherings, gospel fests, familial and religious celebrations. I’d worked since high school as a journalist but became disgusted with the narrow scope of the field, its all-whiteness, sameness and predictability. When I started editing the BPP newspaper, I was embedded in the inner workings of the party, helping create the paper, typing, retyping, printing words and phrases like Off the pigs. Power to the people. All power to the people. Free Huey.
My own hands shocked me as they lettered and typed these words and the manifestos they formed. The BPP was appropriating the oppressor’s language and using it to shatter oppression. That new use of language, in the BPP and in the Black Arts Movement, was as powerful as any gun, even more powerful because it aroused feeling and changed the terms of discourse between friends, enemies, lovers, generations and cultures.
Being an agent of change meant I then aroused deep feeling, affected discourse, found the powerful voices that I had heard in childhood, in church, in soul music, in the pulpit—within my own voice. Thus empowered, I began writing poetry, essays, and eventually plays and fiction.
What was the Black House, and how did it involve you with radicals like Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael?
Eldridge and Marvin X were the residents of the house. They got together and pulled it off at the beginning, opened it up, and all kinds of black community groups and people were welcome and came for nearly nightly sessions of activities from cultural programs—the Organization of African Unity, OAU, was based there for a while—to poetry readings to political education classes. PE classes, as we called them. My roomies and I went to almost everything that was there because we lived four blocks from the Black House, and went over at night to see what was going on.
I first encountered some of the political understanding back at City College. Huey and Bobby organized the first black studies course there, so it was there that I first began to read about the history of oppression and understand it differently than from the other history classes and Western Civilization classes I had taken. That was pretty much my first encounter with Huey and Bobby in terms of politicizing things. They’d come in the classroom just like they do in the book, and they’d stand there to make sure the teacher was teaching the curriculum they had set up.
Then at the Black House, I began to be aware that there was a big disagreement between what are called cultural nationalists and the party.
What were these two groups and what eventually happened?
One group was the Black Panther Party of Northern California, and the other was the Black Party for Self-Defense, which became the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The first group, the black nationalist group, became the cultural nationalist group. And they had worked together for a while—the history is much more complex.. But I do deal with it in the novel [Virgin Soul], in the chapter on Betty Shabazz, because that was the demarcation point. She came for a celebration around Malcolm X’s birthday and when she came the Panthers—who were cultural nationalists—showed up at the airport with unloaded guns, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense showed up with loaded guns. Once that was clear, after she was escorted from the airport, there was a big fallout, and each group went their own way after that.
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