FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jane Rhodes and “Framing the Black Panthers”

Framing the Black Panthers

[Please welcome Jane Rhodes in the comments. As is our tradition during Book Salons, please stay on the topic of the book. Thanks, RBG]

The Black Power Movement transformed postwar America. However, this movement is usually viewed as the "evil twin" that abandoned the Civil Rights Movement’s philosophy of non-violence, triggered a white backlash against racial equality, sparked violent riots in urban cities, and lured the New Left down a slippery slope of self-destructive revolutionary violence. Common wisdom indicts the Black Power era for it galloping sexism, outrageous polemics, and vigorous advocacy of racial separatism.

A new historical subfield that I have called "Black Power studies" has begun the long overdue process of historicizing the era. New works have challenged the temporal and chronological frameworks that locate the movement as largely a phenomenon of the late 1960s, instead arguing that Black Power activism paralleled and intersected with civil rights struggles between the May 17, 1954 Brown Supreme Court decision and the August 6, 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Moreover, this new scholarship is meticulously documenting what I call Black Power’s classical period (1966-1974) and its impact at the local, regional, national, and global level.

The Black Panther Party (BPP) represents the most iconic group of the era. Since 1998 a series of anthologies, case studies, and historical overviews of the BPP have been written. Jane Rhodes’ Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon represents perhaps the most sophisticated scholarly treatment to date of this controversial group. Framing the Panthers provides the most in-depth scholarly analysis of the way in which various media outlets (mainstream, liberal, conservative, radical, and the black press) shaped the BPP’s image for popular consumption.

At the same time Rhodes documents the way in which the Panthers had a subtle and sophisticated appreciation for the role of mass media. Through their dense networks in the New Left, international contacts abroad, deft courtship of liberal, progressive and radical journalists, and, most important, the publication of the Black Panther newspaper, the BPP projected a Janus-faced image that was part urban warrior and part community organizer.

Framing the Panthers meticulously documents the way in which mainstream journalists characterized the group as violent and angry while simultaneously elevating the Panthers into a global public sphere that found them to be transcendent anti-heroes of a new age. By pouring through virtually everynewspaper article ever written about the BPP during its heyday, Rhodes sheds important new light on the Panthers’ alliances with white radicals, their pivotal role in San Francisco State College’s strike in the late 1960s, and their international prominence.

Like the larger Black Power era that they were part of, the Panthers have rarely received full intellectual consideration. One of the book’s many strengths is its rigorously historical and intellectually critical interrogation of the BPP’s political and intellectual legacy. Rhodes takes the Panthers’ words, actions, and organizing seriously and in doing so reveals the way in which the group attempted to craft a revolutionary culture that would be both organic and rely on aspects of stagecraft. The more reporters, journalists, and documentary filmmakers proclaimed the Panthers to be the vanguard of the revolution the more concrete and real these assertions became. This is not suggest that the BPP engaged in mere revolutionary theater (although the group did have a singular sense for dramatic timing as witnessed by the May 2, 1967 "invasion" of the California state capitol), but that Panther leaders understood that "survival programs" and community patrols and other organizing efforts needed to be amplified to larger audiences, both within and beyond the black community, to make the group a credible harbinger of a global revolution.

Rhodes also connects the BPP to contemporary black history and culture, particularly aspects of the hip hop generation. In doing so, Framing the Panthers serves as an important corrective to the notion that the Panthers have no legacy and that the Black Power era they were a part of faded after one spectacular streaking ascent in the late 1960s. The legacies of Black Power and the Black Panthers continue to reverberate throughout African American political, intellectual, popular, and religious culture.

Framing the Panthers is one of the most important books written to date about the BPP. Well researched, analytically rigorous, and engagingly written, Rhodes’ study constitutes a brilliantly original contribution to the history of the BPP, the Black Power era, and postwar American history. This is a book that deserves a wide audience both within and outside of the academy. Scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates will find it to be an indispensable tool to understanding the BPP?s dialectical relationship with diverse forms of media. General interest readers will enjoy the study’s accessibility and be transported back to one of the most significant periods in recent American history, an era that remains crucial to understanding contemporary race relations in the 21st century.

Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University.

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