The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hope and Hatred: Proposition 8 and the Historic Election

With all the debate on which way forward for the reshaped and vibrant LGBT movement, and the association in the media and by certain people of blacks and homophobia ("black voter turnout the cause of Prop 8 passing"), I find the words of Huey P. Newton to be an important counterweight to such propaganda. Two articles in particular may help lay the current political context for my piece, originally written right after the election of Barack Obama and passage of Prop 8:

Debating the Way Forward for Marriage Equality (Chuck Stemke, Ragina Johnson, Zakiya Khabir, Ashley Simmons and Cecile Veillard) August 12, 2009
Myth of the Black-Gay Divide (Sherry Wolf) November 11, 2008


Original Date: Friday, November 7, 2008

And so it comes to pass that in one night we witnessed both a historic election which thrust the first black man into the position of presidency and the simultaneous passage of a bigoted referendum in the form of Proposition 8, stripping away the hard-earned rights of gays and lesbians to marry in California. The racial barriers broken down through months of campaigning and grassroots organizing coupled with solidarity between black, white, latino, and voters of all colors who overwhelmingly defeated the reactionary John McCain were extremely inspiring. The hope, energy, and charisma displayed by the movement to elect Barack Obama, despite his shortcomings, was not only the first of it's kind that I have ever seen in my life time, but a vital step in dismantling the often high and seemingly insurmountable racial barriers between black and white workers built up over years of ruling class repression of social movements, artificially created racial animosity, and economic and social segregation. This is not to say that institutional racism, economic and social inequality, and other forms of discrimination and prejudice do not still strongly permeate our system; yet, this election and the organization and efforts of millions of people have provided the potential for a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class movement.

Leaving the University of Toledo's Rocky's Attic Tuesday night after the election results confirming Obama's landslide victory were official, I witnessed the enormous joy and hope which radiated through people at what they viewed as their own victory. I watched young people climb the tennis court fences at UT and tear down McCain posters victoriously. We heard the shouts of excitement at the news and the many cars honking their horns, playing music, and expressing in any way possible the prodigious hope they had after the disheartening eight long years of Republican rule. My brother, a white 10th grader, largely apolitical, has decked out his MySpace with pictures and songs in dedication to Obama and quotes concerning Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. I think what hit me more than anything was watching a video and reading an article posted by Brian Jones of the celebration in Harlem Tuesday night. I can't quite explain the feeling that lumped up in my chest as I read this line: "A young man hoped that now there wouldn't be so much money spent on jailing people, and that he could go out and just 'get good grades, go to school.' " I hate to recycle campaign rhetoric, but the hope for change is a welcome development in place of the disgruntled and beaten down attitude that has gripped many of us through recent years.

At the same time, about 2000 miles away, a hate-filled, disgusting display of bigotry stole the cheer and hope from thousands of people, stripped of their humanity by the passage of virulent legilsation. Millions of dollars were pumped into right-wing, anti-gay advertisements in order to sway voters in favor of Proposition 8, stealing away the hard-earned right of marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Despite Obama mentioning his disagreement with this proposition, he failed to seriously challenge the bigotry inside it and he and his running mate, Joe Biden, have repeatedly displayed their contempt with the idea of marriage for the GLBT community.

Much more depressing than a reactionary view of a politician, however, are the hard to swallow statistical realities. Quoting the Socialist Worker, "according to CNN exit polls, Black voters favored Prop 8 by a 70-30 margin. Latinos supported the measure by a slight margin, and whites were evenly split." Undoubtedly the right's multi-million dollar propaganda scheme, sending out mailers with pictures of Obama with a quote expressing he was not in favor of gay marriage and prominent black church leaders expressing their disdain with marriage rights for gays and lesbians, was an enormous influence in the black community. The burden of blame for the passage of Proposition 8, however, has less to do with the black community than with the shabby job No on 8 organizers did.

It shows, however, that no matter how far we may have come in terms of tearing down racial barriers, other forms of bigotry have been stirred up by the right. It is our job, as socialists, progressives, and people who simply care about other people, to condemn this bigotry and combat it. So, as I just finished a paper recently concerning blacks, gays, and women, I thought it may be, despite it's historic leaning, an interesting insight into how we can help fight the rise of anti-gay bigotry infecting it's way into our people's minds and creating divisions that we cannot have if we want to combat oppression in any unified form.

I would advise that we all listen to Huey P. Newton, one of the greatest black leaders of the 20th century. Read his honest and noteworthy thoughts, critically of course, on how to organize ourselves in order to rebuild a systematic offense against all forms of oppression.


Huey P. Newton on the Rights of Women and Gays

In the midst of the prodigious upsurges directed against the dominant, capitalist ideology and social hierarchy of the 1960’s, certain groups found themselves persecuted even within the rising tide of struggle against oppression. Both women and homosexuals who participated in democratic movements and supported civil rights and third world resistance against empire began to openly express their concerns regarding the way they were treated within these movements. As the late Tupac Shakur noted in an interview, based upon his mother Afeni’s experience in the Black Panther Party (BPP), sexism was prevalent among party leaders and the rank and file. Homophobia was an even larger issue within the organization. Within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) many women felt that the organization was dominated by males and the opinions of women were not taken seriously. These inequalities within the movement helped spark the gay and women’s liberation movements, much like the sexism displayed by prominent abolitionists helped spur the suffrage movement during the 19th century.

It is telling that in a time of such tremendous upheaval against established societal norms (segregation, war, racism, capitalism, etc.) that other forms of oppression, derived from the dominant culture, permeated the nascent struggles and values of the organizers. It was not until 1970 that Huey P. Newton, leader of the BPP, expressed his solidarity with the struggles of women and gays in his open letter entitled “A Letter from Huey Newton to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements.” This letter, written from his prison cell and triggered by dialogue between him and leaders of the radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) movement (named after the Vietnamese Liberation Front who fought against the occupation of the United States in Vietnam), was a progressive step forward for the New Left. Outlining his theory concerning the irrationality of homophobia and anti-women’s rights, Huey opens up for dialogue the possibility of women and gays being not only revolutionary fighters in the struggle for freedom, but he ponders whether “maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.” By doing this, Huey challenged the conventional prejudice towards women and gays and created the much needed opening for a serious discussion to occur within the militant, radical movement regarding the genuine oppression that plagued both groups.

Huey’s intention was, first and foremost, to act as a coalescing force which would bring people together as allies rather than as isolated and oppressed groups. Adhering to his method of analyzing society through dialectical materialism, Huey explicates that “[w]e must always handle social forces in the most appropriate manner.” Time and time again he makes the argument that “we should try to unite with them [women and gays] in a revolutionary fashion.” Huey pushes for the members of the BPP to “recognize the women’s right to be free.” It is intriguing to see the historical line drawn between Huey, pressing the black community to accept women’s liberation as a principle, and Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and abolitionist, who took part in the struggle for women’s voting rights. These challenges to male hegemony, coming from radical black leaders, were a vital step in the attempt to bring progressive movements together into a unified, cohesive unit that challenged all forms of oppression.

On the question of the gays, he notes that the BPP has not said much of them, yet makes the argument that “we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing.” He is quick to defend them against people who would claim they are not an oppressed group and proclaims “I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in the society.” This statement is extremely profound. Functioning within an organization that contained many members that were homophobic and would “attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people,” Huey was taking a massive step in combating this type of prejudice towards gays. He warns against using terms that would create division and strife among the people and proclaims that revolutionaries should not use the terms “faggot” or “punk.” He rejects the notion that homosexuality is a condition resulting from the “decadence of capitalism” and defends the right of humans to “have the freedom to use his body in whatever way he wants.”

He does, however, express some of his own insecurities and reservations throughout the letter. He cites some examples of the disgusting, reactionary ideas that ruminate in the minds of males, even revolutionary males; for instance, he explains that “sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. ” By doing this, opening up the document with such honest, if horrendous, truth and not shying away from the prejudice and hate that can be manifested within the minds of social organizers, Huey is trying to capture the attention of men who may have found themselves entertained by those horrid ideas. He is highlighting these disturbing prejudices in order to remove them from the minds of his male comrades, not to justify them. He goes on to theorize that “[w]e want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.” Of course, equating “nuts” with the traditional concepts of male courage, bravery, and heroism is, in itself, an implicit form of sexism. Despite this, his honest attempt at a critique of this phenomenon of prejudice is an essential starting point if progress was to be made between the movements.

Insecurity is a recurrent theme throughout the letter. He often describes how men must gain security in themselves to respect the rights and demands of all oppressed groups. He strongly objects to revolutionaries saying “offensive things towards homosexuals” or “make[ing] sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression.” Within the letter he struggles with his own insecurity and prejudice and when he mentions that perhaps a homosexual can be revolutionary, he quickly states “[a]nd maybe I'm now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that ‘even a homosexual can be a revolutionary.’” He says men should not fear rights for gays or women as a “threat to our manhood,” even though he could “understand this fear.” He targets society and capitalism as the root cause of the “long conditioning process which builds insecurity in the American male.” Utilizing dialectical materialism as a guiding principle of analysis, he outlines a comprehensive argument which implies that one’s environment, their material conditions, and the overarching hierarchy of society acts as the force which produces these prejudices and divides the oppressed which, in turn, keeps them weak and unable to overthrow the oppressors.

He stresses that women and gays are not above critique and that counterrevolutionary actions must be criticized if committed by the women and gay movements. Yet, if they are honest mistakes, stemming simply from a misinterpretation “of the revolutionary philosophy” or a failure to “understand the dialectics of the social forces in operation,” than the party should condemn those actions but not the movements and, instead, provide guidance through constructive criticism. Of course, Huey implicitly appoints the BPP to the role of vanguard of the revolution, regardless of what others think. Aside from this latent elitism, for the first time in the history of the party he notes that women and gays may be the “most revolutionary,” although possibly needing guidance and assistance to fulfill their revolutionary objectives.

Thus, Huey’s main argument throughout the letter is that all oppressed groups should unite to fight a common oppressor. His content is imbued with a spirit of universality and coalescence, urging comrades to open up their eyes and broaden their horizons, and not to pass up potential allies in the fight because of past prejudices which are only remnants of a decadent, capitalist society. Heavily saturated with anti-gay and gender role propaganda, revolutionaries should search within themselves for these reactionary ideas and destroy them. He argues for inclusiveness and makes note that when conferences or events are held by the BPP, women and gays should take full part in the discussions and activities. He demonstrates the need for a smashing of sexism and homophobia because “[w]e must not use the racist attitude that the White racists use against our people,” explaining that poor whites often harbor racism because they are oppressed, and that “[t]his kind of psychology is in operation when we view oppressed people and we are angry with them because of their particular kind of behavior, or… deviation from the established norm.” In conclusion, he argues that “we need as many allies as possible” and coalition movements should be formed between blacks, gays, and women whom are not, obviously, mutually exclusive groups.

It’s apparent that Huey’s intention was two-fold. One, he hoped to gain important allies in the struggle and two, challenge the stereotypes and prejudices within the movement. He addresses the letter to both “brothers and sisters,” yet it is obvious throughout the document that he is suggesting for the males within the movement to rethink their position on these topics. Thus, his audience is, first and foremost, the black militant male within the BPP. His critique extends to other revolutionary, albeit male-dominated, organizations as well, despite not mentioning any by name. For instance, his suggestions can be easily applied to SDS and other groups which walked the line on the question of liberation for women and gays or who had been accused of male chauvinism. It is important to remember, however, that his ultimate target, above and beyond his audience he is reaching out to through the letter, is the establishment itself. His goal is to overturn the system of capitalism, and in doing so stamp out oppression and exploitation. Huey sees this goal as the finality that can only be accomplished through a revolution of the people. It follows, therefore, that he sees the liberation of women and gays as an ancillary and subordinate to the greater cause, while at the same time viewing their movements as extremely vital vehicles to reaching the overarching goal of the elimination of oppression. He hints at the fact that the liberation for these groups cannot be achieved under a society which forces the American male into insecurity, and stresses the importance of building a broad coalition of allies which combat all forms of oppression.

The proposal to support both women and gays as revolutionary in and of themselves and to present them as active agents in their own liberation is not only justifiable, but essential. Had Huey, as a main ideologue and leader in the BPP, simply refused to speak on or worse, condemned the struggles, he would have cut off valuable allies and isolated the party from potential supporters. The position taken to motivate his comrades and the rank-and-file of the party to combat against homophobia and sexism within the movement is a powerful and important testament to Huey’s principle of fighting oppression in all forms. Some have critiqued him for his blunt language and citation of reactionary ideas in the beginning of the letter but fail to realize that he was presenting such language to not only open up dialogue and capture the attention of chauvinistic males, but to smash the validity of such horrendous prejudices. His irrational “hang-ups” he mentions with male homosexuality are concerning and obviously unjustifiable but his consistent attempt to identify the cause of them and dismantle them provides the framework for other members to do the same.

Sometimes it is essential to meet someone where they are at; had the GLF or other gay rights leaders simply ignored the BPP and not given the attempt to win them over, one could imagine the divisive and isolation the separate movements would have felt from one another. Huey was not perfect, but his drive to truly fight oppression on every front, and not just where he felt oppressed, makes this document an essential piece to understanding the cultural upheaval that occurred during the sixties. This is not to imply that Huey simply published this letter and all was better; on the contrary, sexism and homophobia remained active within the BPP until it was completely destroyed by FBI repression and internal factions. Yet without Huey’s attempt to formulate some common ground through which blacks, women, and gays could work cooperatively, the possibility for a united front would have diminished greatly. Capitalism and competition still remain the structural basis of society and thus, as Huey argued, homophobia, racism, and sexism remain strong currents through American culture. The lesson Huey outlined is imperative today; in a society where hatred is permeated so deeply that children utilize such offensive terms as “gay,” “faggot,” and “pussy” to identify with things they dislike, Huey’s message remains a brilliant insight to how to begin dismantling the prejudice and hate which runs rampant in our society. As he correctly argued, until the exploitation caused by a system based on profit is destroyed, society will never rid itself of oppression he spoke of nearly four decades ago.

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