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Friday, September 23, 2011

Former Black Panther Ericka Huggins Talks About Race Relations and The Black Power Mixtape

Posted By on Fri, Sep 23, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Ericka Huggins
  • Ericka Huggins

In 2007, Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson found film that had been shot for Swedish television chronicling the Black Power movement in the United States. The documentary he made from that, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (co-produced by San Francisco actor Danny Glover), takes footage, for example, of Angela Davis being interviewed in prison, and Stokely Carmichael asking his mother about the racism his father faced. He puts it together with commentary by contemporary people such as singers Eryka Badu and Harry Belafonte, and the founder of The Last Poets, Abiodun Oyewole.

The film opens today (Friday) at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Ericka Huggins, a professor of women's studies at California State University East Bay, joined the Black Panther Party when she was 18. She ran a school and was the first woman and first black person to serve on the Alameda County Board of Education. Huggins, living now in Oakland, talks about how refreshing it is to see the Black Power movement through foreign eyes, Huey Newton's support of women's rights, and how the March on Washington changed her.

What struck you about this movie?

The beauty of Black Power Mixtape is that it is directed and envisioned by a Swedish filmmaker. Therefore the American slant on history isn't there, and we're not required to watch the films or listen to the dialogue in the film as instructed. The footage is there for us and we can make a decision about what we're seeing.

How would a film made by American be different?

When the conversation is the history of race and class discrimination in the United States, there is an apology for it, there is denial about it, and there is a discomfort. Goran Olsson has no discomfort -- he's just letting the footage tell the story, and he's humble enough to know that he wasn't here during that time, and even if he was he wouldn't know the experience of the people on the screen. The people on the screen know their experience

because they lived it.

In America I could tell my story and have someone say, "Well, did it really happen like that?" And I'm not being facetious -- that has happened. That's because we've made a nonverbal agreement not to talk about race, and not to talk about how race, class and gender intersect. We're taught that, for instance, American slavery is old. "Oh, it happened so many hundreds of years ago, why talk about it?" Or class -- "Well, in America we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps." Or "Women have come a long way." That does not open the conversation or further it in any mindful way -- it stifles it.

In your classes, how do you open that conversation?

I bring my whole self to it. I don't pretend that nothing happened. This denial we live in is very unhealthy. We live in a country where the current president of the United States is the first president to talk about race, and it's 2011. That's bizarre. If we lived in a homogenous country like Korea perhaps, it would make sense. So I just allow for there to be all kinds of ideas. Even the idea there's nothing to talk about is OK because that's how we get into it. The only way we're going to shift this is if we're in a conversation and we're willing to stay in it. And there's something about Black Power Mixtape that opens conversation.

Was there anything in the movie that was new to you?

I might not have seen the footage before, but none of the topics were new. It was heartening to see that period of my life onscreen. It affirmed for me that what I remember and what I lived is not made up. It happened for real, and it's still happening. Especially the footage of the young men talking about what it was like to return from the Vietnam War and not have a respectful homecoming and re-entry into this country because of racism. If I remove the word Vietnam and put in the word Afghanistan, here we are.

You joined the Black Panther Party at 18. What drew you to it?

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I went to the March on Washington when I was 15. I already knew as a child that people were living in conditions of poverty that were so vastly different than the people living on Capitol Hill. It caused what I would call a self-reflection in me. I remember the housing projects across from where I lived. There's serious snow and cold there, and I asked my mother, "What do they do when they don't have enough money for their heat to be on?" We see that but we're socialized not to think about it; we're socialized to think about ourselves. When I went to the March on Washington in 1963, I made a vow to serve people for the rest of my life. I'd never seen that many people gathered for something that wasn't entertainment. These were people of color gathered from all over the country who got there by any means of transportation.

I decided I would become a teacher because of the separate but unequal resources in education, and I realized wherever I went the demographics were the same as in urban areas. I realized the systemic illnesses we were living with, so I wanted an organization I could join that would serve humanity. There were many possibilities, but then I heard about the Black Panther Party. It was named the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense at that time, and I totally understood what that meant. My sister and brother and I had grown up watching the police beat people to the ground for no reason. Then I would notice when I went to Northwest or Capitol Hill, the police weren't beating people.

When I learned more about the Black Panther Party I realized that the slogan "All Power to All the People" was true in the party's ideology.

How much power did women in the Black Panther Party have?

We had political education classes every week, and that didn't mean we were just reading philosophy. We talked about what was important, so we had various conversations about how important it is for there to be equality between men and women, and that the old paradigm should leave because we considered ourselves revolutionaries, and wouldn't that be one of the most revolutionary things to do? But practicing it in action is another story because these things are embedded, and not only do men hold these embedded notions, so do women.

In 1970, Huey Newton wrote a memo, which he first brought to political education class to all of us, and then I think it was printed in the Village Voice. It is an article that outlines the Black Panther Party's support for the gay liberation movement and the women's movement. In 1970!

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 screens at Embarcadero Center Cinema through Sept. 29. Admission is $8.25-$10.50.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Emily Wilson

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