By Christine Lively
Today we’re pleased to welcome Jetta Grace Martin to the WNDB blog to discuss Freedom! The Story of the Black Panther Party, out January 18, 2022 from Chronicle Books.
There is a saying: knowledge is power. The secret is this. Knowledge, applied at the right time and place, is more than power. It’s magic.
That’s what the Black Panther Party did. They called up this magic and launched a revolution.
In the beginning, it was a story like any other. It could have been yours and it could have been mine. But once it got going, it became more than any one person could have imagined.
This is the story of Huey and Bobby. Eldridge and Kathleen. Elaine and Fred and Ericka.
The committed party members. Their supporters and allies. The Free Breakfast Program and the Ten Point Program. It’s about Black nationalism, Black radicalism, about Black people in America.
From the authors of the acclaimed book, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, and introducing new talent Jetta Grace Martin, comes the story of the Panthers for younger readers—meticulously researched, thrillingly told, and filled with incredible photographs throughout. Freedom! The Story of the Black Panther Party.
How did you all come to collaborate on this project?
My co-authors Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. wrote a comprehensive history of the Black Panther Party entitled Black Against Empire. This over 500-page book was written for an adult audience and was built on years of scholarship and research. In order to write a book for younger readers, they knew they would need a different approach. They brought me in to help with this vision.
We decided to create a shorter, character-driven book that would appeal to young adults. My training as both a social scientist and writer (fiction and non-fiction) really helped with this. Also, if you are wondering, Waldo E. Martin Jr. is my father so the collaboration is a family affair!
The prologue states: “Knowledge, applied at the right time and place, has the potential to change history. Knowledge is more than power. It’s magic.”
Why is this the right time, place, and audience (young people) for this story to be told?
Starting in 1966, the Black Panther Party fought to end racism against Black people and to achieve Black liberation. The Black Panther Party also fought to secure liberation for all poor and oppressed people across the world. I believe that we too are living in a time that has the potential for great global change, if we are willing to take the steps to make it so.
The Panthers’ initial strategy was armed self-defense to end police brutality against Black people. While I was writing the section on Fred Hampton’s murder, both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered by the police. I knew that the story of the Panthers was relevant, but this particular resonance across time and place underscored it for me. The importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in our current times also encouraged me. The goal that the Panthers fought for has not been reached and will not be reached unless we learn from the history, from the stories of groups like the Black Panther Party.
In addition, many members of the Party were, in fact, young people themselves. In many ways, the Black Panther Party was a youth organization. So it makes perfect sense that a book about the Panthers could and should be written for young people. I like to think that the young readers of today will see themselves reflected in the young activists of the past.
There are wonderful photographs throughout the book which evoke the time and the people of the Party so immediately. How did you decide on which photos to include?
This was a fun process. We worked together as a team to pick photographs that would evoke time and place. I personally gravitated toward the pictures that really had an emotional depth to them and felt very human. We wanted to represent the diversity in the Party itself, so it was important to have pictures of men, women, and children from different branches throughout the Party’s lifespan. Also, the cover art and interior design by the artist Jon Key really elevates the book visually.
Why do young people need to learn the history and impact of the Black Panther Party?
The Black Panther Party was started by two people, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who saw the world as it was and refused to accept it. They dared to dream of something better and fought to make it so. The history of the Party is an important part of Black history in the US, of organizing and activism, especially amongst young Black people. The more research I did, I was surprised to learn just how many members under the age of twenty-one joined the Party. Since so many members were young adults themselves, this history is also an important piece of youth history in the US.
I also wanted to show that the members of the Party were human, flawed, and imperfect. That revolution is a process and that in order for change to occur, the activists of today have to continue the work that was started all those years ago. My hope is that the example of the Black Panther Party will inspire a new generation of activists to take up the causes that are important to them and let their voices be heard.
Including a broad group of people involved in the party, and especially more women, is important in this book. Why was that important to tell this version of the Black Panther story?
This is extremely important. As much as possible, I wanted to tell the story of the people of the Party, not just a few more well-known members. The more research I did, the more admiration I gained for so many people whose names I had not known before. By working as a part of the Party, all of these young Black people were working toward the goal of Black liberation. They were doing this not just for themselves but for Black people as a whole.
I wanted readers to hear about a diverse slice of the Party. I wanted them to know about all the different offices in areas across the US and the world. I wanted to introduce young readers to the Party’s self-defense politics, as well as the Black Panther newspaper and the community survival programs. At the Party’s height, over 60% of the members were women. As a Black woman, I wanted readers to know this. I sought to give space and to try and honor the diversity within the Party.
Your book relies on subjective personal experiences of the activists of the Party. What do you hope that today’s and future activists will learn from their stories?
I love this question. To paraphrase a part of the book, I would say that anyone can be a revolutionary or an activist. What makes a revolutionary is that they are engaged in the making of a revolution. An activist is someone engaged in activism. These people don’t have to look a certain way, behave a certain way, or come from a particular place or socio-economic background. They can speak any language, as long as it is the language of truth. Because that’s what an activist does. They speak truth to power.
The people in the Party were not what many would call ‘extraordinary.’ They were “brothers on the block,” daughters and mothers, uncles and brothers. They were people just like you and me. They were flawed, complicated, and imperfect. They were human. But they achieved extraordinary things.
That’s what I hope young activists will learn from this book. That what makes you an activist is your determination to organize, to agitate, and to fight for what is right and just. At the heart of this book is my hope that young people will pick up Freedom! and be inspired to make a positive difference in their lives. If even just one person feels empowered and so moved after reading this book, I will have done my job.
Jetta Grace Martin is a debut author from the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned her A.B. in Social Studies and African American Studies from Harvard University. Jetta is also a dancer, performer and choreographer who has performed nationally and internationally, and whose choreography has been presented by the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Black Choreographer’s Festival. Jetta is the recipient of the Cornel West Prize and the Kathryn Ann Huggins Prize, for her research on race, embodiment, and Katherine Dunham.
Joshua Bloom is Director of the Social Movements Lab and faculty in Sociology at University of Pittsburgh, where he studies the dynamics of insurgent practice and social transformation. He is the co-author of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, which won the American Book Award. Before earning a PhD, Bloom spent many years as an anti-racist organizer.
Waldo E. Martin Jr. is the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of American History and Citizenship at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of No Coward Soldiers: Black Cultural Politics in Postwar America (2005), as well as other books, and the co-author of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, which won the American Book Award. Aspects of the modern African American freedom struggle and the history of modern social movements unite his current research and writing interests.
Christine Lively is a librarian at Wakefield High School in Virginia. She writes a monthly column for the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog of the School Library Journal about teens who fight the system to change their world. Christine is a Certified Life Coach for Young People ages 14-24 at christinelively.com. Christ