Liberation and Justice for All
Black Panther William Lee Brent's Exile
Long Time Gone
by William Lee Brent
Random House, $25, hard
"My actions in San Francisco on November 19, 1968, were a direct result of my awareness that I was a Black soldier at war in a white-dominated society where, in most cases, my people and I were denied our basic civil and human rights."
-- William Lee Brent
I read the better part of William Lee Brent's Long Time Gone in a night. Granted, this was over the Memorial Day weekend when I didn't have a lot else to do; however, I can't think of a more appropriate holiday except maybe Independence Day to take up a narrative that strikes at the very core of American democracy and what it means to live in America today.
Admittedly, I find much fault with democracy as it's practiced in this country, but I must concede that we're pretty damn lucky to have a free press for two reasons: 1) History is written by the victors, and if all we had were the history books given us in school, we might just believe it's the absolute truth. But Long Time Gone tells "the rest of the story" about the Black Panther Party. Make no mistake, I'm not declaring Brent's version the definitive truth, but to paraphrase Donald Sutherland's character in the movie Disclosure, it's always somebody's version. 2) That said, being afforded the luxury of reading one man's account of the circumstances which eventually led him to skyjack a plane to Cuba where he currently lives in self-imposed exile is to bring the reader one step closer to comprehending the forces that create the history and shape the future of a nation. That is what makes this book riveting.
Born in 1930 to a black family in rural Louisiana, William Lee Brent traces the course of his life over a period of some 60+ years, which, in and of itself, is amazing: Metamorphosing from schoolyard bully magnet (he took vicious beatings during his childhood and young adolescence) to street hustler to convicted felon and finally to Black Panther Party member accused of shooting three San Francisco policemen in November of 1968, the very fact that Brent is still alive is something of a miracle.
Stepping back to take a panamoric view, the reader can see Brent's story unfolding against the backdrop of many of the defining moments of this century -- the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War -- which is also pretty mind-blowing when you consider that there are plenty of people walking around who don't yet qualify for Social Security but whose lives would comprise the better part of a 20th century American history book (that's right, kids, tell your history teacher you did your homework -- you talked to your grandma).
When I stopped to consider how one man's life can embody nearly a century of constant change, it occured to me that for such a young country (I once heard on NPR that there are bridges in England older than America), we've sure covered a lot of ground fast, thanks in large part to technology vís-a-vís the Industrial Revolution and now the Information Revolution. But faster doesn't necessarily mean better. Brent's story underscores the fact that this country has left too many of its citizens behind in its rush to reach the future.
The author came from a hardworking, poor family and throughout his life lived in communities composed of families not unlike his own, yet for most the American dream was as tantalizing and taunting as an oasis mirage in the middle of the Sahara: Says Brent after a stint in the custody of the California Youth Authority, "West Oakland hadn't changed at all during the eighteen months I'd been gone. The houses were run-down, the streets were dirty and in need of repair, and the people were still chasing after the pot of gold at the end of some fading rainbow."
Reproaching himself for being convicted of first-degree robbery, Brent asks why he'd committed such a foolish act but, "Each time I tried to answer it [the question of why he'd robbed a liquor store], the other questions cropped up. Why was I born into a dirt-poor and nearly illiterate family? What had caused my father to be so withdrawn and violent? Why had we moved from state to state [Louisiana to Texas to California] and always lived in the poorest neighborhoods? How come poor people worked themselves to death and never had anything to show for it [italics are mine]? Who could explain to me why the prisons and jails were always full of young Black men with the same background and problems I had? Why did I have to obey and respect laws that didn't respect me?"
I realize that today these kinds of explanations -- child abuse, poverty, racism -- for criminal behavior are perceived as excuses. However, on more than one occasion, I've heard echoes of the question, "How come poor people worked themselves to death and never had anything to show for it?" from my middle-class family and friends. We all complain about how little our dollars buy and how most of us are just a paycheck away from life on the streets.
Since most of us won't rob a liquor store to remedy our financial ills, then shouldn't Brent's rationalization be dismissed as a social malcontent's self-pity? Perhaps, but I think that on closer analysis there is a message in his reflection that we should have heeded at least 25 years ago:
Brent's words can be interpreted as the canary-in-the-cage experiment -- those in our society who are the most financially and politically vulnerable will exhibit the symptoms of living in a toxic environment, which, in this case, would be economic and social injustice, first, but it's only a matter of time before the rest of society begins to feel the same effects. What are the Freemen and other disenfranchised, white groups who want to secede from this country because they feel like they're getting a bum deal from the government? What about the acquittal of O.J. Simpson -- many whites felt jilted by a justice system that had long served their interests at the expense of minorities and the poor; it was a tainted system all along but only now is the majority beginning to feel the effects of such a system.
During his childhood in Beaumont, Texas, Brent remembers how "Everyone in the neighborhood had some kind of hustle, too [in addition to their legitimate jobs]. Some ran boardinghouses... Gambling, prostitution and selling home brew were common, especially on weekends." When I read that passage, I couldn't help but think of friends who hold down full-time, professional jobs and also have some kind of "hustle" on the side -- tending bar, waitressing, working at retail stores and doing freelance computer work -- often to make ends meet or just to maintain a modest quality of life by American standards of living.
Poor education and child abuse, two profound influences on the course of Brent's life, at the time were simply the by-products of being poor and black in America. Today, however, these are critical, national issues (witness the recent Children Standing demonstration in Washington) with all kinds of repercussions that threaten to destroy American society. The canary in the cage...
Perhaps, though, it is Brent's membership in the Black Panther Party that has the most meaningful implications for our society.
First of all, to read Brent's account of this moment in history is exhilirating. In his intensely personal prose, he brings the reader inside the black revolutionary movement and to the periphery of the blooming white liberal movement -- black people from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X and, of course, the Black Panthers were taking America to task for her flagrant hypocrisies, while young white kids were openly defying their parents, i.e., the Establishment, by protesting the Vietnam War. With the privileged perspective of an insider, Brent dispels much of the myth surrounding the Black Panther Party. They were more than just young black women and men with guns, which they were willing to use in defense of themselves and their communities in the face of police brutality.
They had vision:
In response to middle-class whites who wanted to know "What do you people want?" Brent says,"I always told them we wanted the same things they did, but without having to fuck over other people or ethnic groups to get them: the right to honorable, rewarding work; a decent place to live; adequate health care and education for all Black people; justice in the courts; nonbrutal police who didn't abuse their power; and a government respectful of the rights of all people regardless of race or creed..."
They had a plan:
Among other things, the Panthers conducted political education classes which focused on their 10-point platform and program, launched a Free Breakfast for Children program and protected the elderly from getting robbed after cashing their welfare checks.
And because they had the belief, commitment, and organization to bring their vision to fruition, the Panthers attracted many people like Brent who lacked direction and had long ago given up on themselves and their communities. A high school drop-out, Brent began reading several newspapers a day to keep up with current events and added Malcolm X, E. Franklin Frazier and Frantz Fanon to his reading list.
Writes Brent, "The audacity of these young Blacks so excited me and stirred emotions I thought had died years ago." For the first time in his life, Brent was harnessing the power of his natural talents and abilities to achieve a goal. For the first time in his life, Brent felt the passion of truly being alive.
And it was that passion that allowed the author to overlook his leaders' shortcomings. To improve their image with a government that wanted to wipe out their very existence, the Panthers disavowed Brent after the shootout with the San Francisco police. After hijacking the plane to Cuba in search of political asylum in 1969, Brent spent nearly two years in prison there and subsequently learned that Eldridge Cleaver, Panther minister of information (or misinformation as it were), had apparently disparaged him to the Cuban officials.
Even in the face of such betrayal, Brent never renounced the Panthers, and when asked to rejoin the party after all of this drama, which he is always very careful to portray as his own perspective on these events, he accepted.
I think Brent rejoined the party out of principle. He believed in their vision, which was the vision of black liberation. After 26 years in Cuba, the author writes, "In spite of my great disappointment at the course the Cuban revolution has taken over the many years I have lived on the island, I have not lost my resolve or my dedication to the struggle of my people and the cause of justice and equality for all."
That is loyalty you can't buy. Any organization that can so stir the soul and inspire such belief is not only serious but threatening to whatever power structure they're trying to topple. And therein lies the most foreboding message of Brent's story. The Sixties and Seventies may be a long time gone, but the political, economic, and social injustice, which spawned the radical upheaval of that period in history, is beginning to spill over into the broader society.
America has a group of disaffected young people who are now called Generation X and organizations we would prefer to label "fringe" like the Freemen or the Branch Davidians who are willing to challenge the government's authority. The gap between rich and poor is ever-widening. All of the components are there for another major social upheaval, but who will galvanize them and into what, is the question.
The lesson to be learned from Long Time Gone reminds me of one of James Baldwin's books: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!" n