Revolutionary Suicide

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Revolutionary Suicide
Revolutionary Suicide book cover.jpg
Book cover
AuthorHuey P. Newton
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
SubjectBlack Panther Party
GenreAutobiography
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
1973
ISBN0-86316-326-2

Revolutionary Suicide is an autobiography written by Huey P. Newton with assistance from J. Herman Blake originally published in 1973. Newton was a major figure in the American black liberation movement and in the wider 1960s counterculture. He was a co-founder and leader of what was then known as the Black Panther Party (BPP) for Self-Defence with Bobby Seale. The Chief ideologue and strategist of the BPP, Newton taught himself how to read during his last year of high school, which led to his enrollment in Merrit College in Oakland in 1966; the same year he formed the BPP. The Party urged members to challenge the status quo with armed patrols of the impoverished streets of Oakland, and to form coalitions with other oppressed groups. The party spread across America and internationally as well, forming coalitions with the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cubans.[1] This autobiography is an important work that combines political manifesto and political philosophy along with the life story of a young African American revolutionary. The book was not universally well received but has had a lasting influence on the black civil rights movement and resonates today in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Background[edit]

Huey P. Newton co-founded, with Bobby Seale, and was one of the leaders of, the Black Panther Party (BPP). The party was founded in Oakland California in October 1966 at a time of rising racial tension in the USA.[2] There had been serious race riots in the Harlem area of New York in 1964 and Watts area of Chicago in 1965.[3][4] Radical black leader Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 at a rally in Harlem.[5]

Newton was heavily influenced by Malcolm X and by other revolutionary movements of the period.[2] The BPP were seen as leaders of the Black Power movement as the Civil Rights movement waned and more radical groups came to the fore, however this view is disputed by some historians.[6] The party issued a ten point program, reiterated in Revolutionary Suicide, which focused on the black community having the freedom to determine their own destiny and advocated for black people to carry weapons and confront police.[7] This led to conflict with the police and Newton was jailed in September 1968 for the manslaughter of a police officer, John Frey.[2] In the book Newton describes a confrontation with police but other than being shot himself he says he has no memory of the events.

While he was in prison, he was visited regularly by J. Herman Blake, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz. During one visit the idea of writing a book was discussed. The initial idea was that Blake would write a biography of Newton. They began the process while Newton was still in prison. Blake would transcribe their conversations onto a tape recorder immediately after the visits.[8] Following a campaign by supporters, Newton was released in August 1970. Following his release Newton and Blake decided that the book would be an autobiography.[8] The book covered his life from his early days in Oakland up to his trip to China in 1971.

Synopsis[edit]

Huey P. Newton

Revolutionary Suicide was written when Newton was only 31 and he dedicated the book to his parents.[1] As well as being the story of his life up to that point it is also includes his manifesto and political philosophy. In the opening manifesto section Newton outlines his idea of ‘revolutionary suicide’ as opposed to what he describes as ‘reactionary suicide’. Reactionary suicide is a suicide brought about by despair with one's social conditions. On the other hand, Newton says a ‘revolutionary suicide’ is a death brought about by forcibly challenging the system and repressive agencies that can lead a person to commit reactionary suicide.[9] In other words, the revolutionary knows he or she will risk death but chooses to fight to improve the conditions for their community rather than submit to the existing state that have created these conditions.[9]

The book goes on to describe his time growing up tough on the streets of Oakland, how he taught himself to read by studying Plato's Republic, his political awakening and the formation of the BPP with Bobby Seale. The next chapters detail the shooting of officer Frey, his trial conviction and later release. The later chapters cover the period after his release and his attempts to rebuild the Party. The last chapters cover his visit to China and what he describes as the ‘defection’ of Eldredge Cleaver. While Revolutionary Suicide is written in the first person, in an interview in 2007 Blake claims to have done the actual writing.[8]

Commercial and critical reception[edit]

On its initial publication in 1973 the book was featured on the front page of the book sections of both the New York Times and the Washington Post. This prominence is an indication of the importance of the book at the time although it garnered mixed reviews. in the New York Times Review of Books, Murray Kempton, wrote a long feature article on the Revolutionary Suicide under the by-line ‘At one and the same time the goodest and the baddest’.[10] The essay focuses more on Newton himself than his book. Kempton, a broadcaster and critic, is both complementary and highly critical of Newton.[10] The Washington Post review by American author Lee Lockwood in its Bookworld section is positive.[11] In another New York Times review Christopher Lehmann-Haupt writes that, while the book was eagerly anticipated, it is ”boring” and argues that Newtons main aim in the work is to the change the image of the Panthers.[12]

Ernest M. Collins from the Department of Government at Ohio University wrote a review, which praised Newton's writing when it was “confined to institutions with which he is familiar” but described his views on the wider political world as ‘shallow’.[13]

A review in the Times in London by John Arderne Rex called it “perhaps the best written book by a black leader to come out of the United States”.[14] Rex was a Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick and an author. He praises the book for being a mature political philosophy and for Newtons interest in social justice.[14]

Analysis[edit]

Newton's writing and ideas met with a mixed reception. Political scientist John McCartney claimed he was the black power movements foremost political thinker.[15] In his book ‘Huey P. Newton, the Radical Theorist’ the scholar of African American politics Professor Judson L. Jefferies discussed how Newton's interest in philosophy and his wide reading influenced his thinking.[16] Jefferies said his writing did not compare favourably to Malcolm X or Martin Luther King but praised him as one of the most important black thinkers of the time.[16] Brian Sowers pointed out the influence of Plato's ‘Republic” on Revolutionary Suicide, particularly the second half of the book, and compares Newton to a modern-day Socrates.[17]

The academic Davi Johnson, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Southwestern University claimed that Newtons rhetoric sat in a tradition mould of conservative rhetoric and he and the Black Panther Party, were not the quite the outsider dangerous force portrayed in the media at the time.[18] Johnson pointed out how Newton used the rhetorical device of jeremiad, a list of complaints about the prevailing society, in a very traditional and conservative way and in that sense his rhetoric was not so revolutionary.[18]

Another academic, Joanna Freer, writing in the journal American Studies, claims that author Thomas Pynchon critiqued Newtons concept of revolutionary suicide in his popular novel "Gravity's Rainbow”. Freer says that Pynchon through his character Wimpe is critical of Newton's belief in Marxist dialectical materialism and in the idea that revolution was inevitable.[19]

Judson L Jefferies summarised the reviews of Revolutionary Suicide as “harsh”. He summarises a number of reviews but points out that in many cases the reviews are focused on Newton and the BPP rather than the book in question. He argues that the authors of these reviews seem to be intent on undermining Newton based on their own idea of who he is rather than giving the book a fair review.[20]

The term "revolutionary suicide" was appropriated by Jim Jones, leader of the new religious and socialist movement Peoples Temple. Jones ignored Newton's definition of the phrase, instead using the term to describe actual suicide as a form of revolutionary protest. The term was used by Jones to describe the mass murder/suicide that took place at Jonestown, Guyana on 18 November 1978. Jones' use of the phrase "revolutionary suicide," as recorded on an audio tape of the mass death, has been widely quoted and used in media coverage of the event.[21]

From 2013 the Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence in the US in response to the continuing police brutality against African Americans. Many writers and scholars noted the similarities in the grassroots nature of both the BLM and the BPP and in many of the programs they advocated.[22] Both organisations were formed in Oakland. However, writers also pointed to differences in approach and methods.[23] A key point was that in 2016, 50 years after Newton formed the BPP and forty-three years after the publication of Revolutionary Suicide African American communities were still facing similar issues to those outlined in the book by Newton.

The English musician and singer Julian Cope released an album in 2013 called Revolutionary Suicide. He acknowledged that he took the name from Newton's work and explained how he interpreted the term as being about “ultimate freedom” adding "surely we can also be our own hangman if it gets too much?”.[24]

Contents[edit]

Black Power Poster

Revolutionary Suicide begins with a manifesto in which Newton discusses his ideas of revolutionary and reactionary suicide. The book is divided into thirty-three chapters and six parts.[1] Part one is about Newtons early life growing up in a poor but loving family Oakland. He talks about the failure of the public-school system to educate him. Part two covers his troubled teenage years and time at Merritt College. In this section he describes how he taught himself to read by borrowing his older brother Melvin's copy of Plato's “Republic”. In the third part he describes his political awakening and the founding of the BPP with Bobby Seale. This part also includes a summary of the BPP's Ten-point program and a chapter on how Eldridge Cleaver joined the BPP. Part four revolves around the shooting of officer Frey and Newtons wounding and subsequent hospitalisation. In part five he describes the trial and time in prison. The final part details his release and subsequent attempts to maintain and restructure the BPP and his retrial. In the final chapters he talks about his controversial trip to China in September 1971. He contrasts the behaviour and role of police in China with the police force in the USA. On his trip he met the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai though not the head of state, Communist Party Leader Chairman Mao Zedong. Newton was impressed with China. He then has a final short chapter that deals with Cleaver's decision to leave the party and move to Algeria.

This is followed with an epilogue entitled ‘I Am We” which Newton says is based on an old African saying. In this he reiterates the difference between revolutionary and reactionary suicide and quotes both Mao's Little Red Book and the Gospel of St. Paul to illustrate his point.

The book's original cover photograph shows Newton sitting on a type of throne holding a rifle and a spear. The image was seen as controversial as it played into the violent imagery which had surrounded the BPP. Early photographs of party members in black shirts and berets carrying weapons shocked many. The photograph is regarded as an iconic image of the counterculture in USA.[25] The image had been produced as a publicity poster for the BPP. The original photographer is unknown. The photograph was described by Bobby Seale as a “centralized symbol of the leadership of black people in the community”.[25]

The original hardcover edition contained several pages of photographs. These include family photographs, photographs of other panther party leaders and one of Newton with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai taken on his visit to China in September 1971.

Publication history[edit]

The first edition was published in hardcover in 1973 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. New York. This edition did not have an introduction.[26]

In England the publisher was Wildwood House. The book was published in both hardback and paperback editions. ISBN 9780704500587. This edition was published with a different cover. It featured a side profile shot of Huey Newton replacing the more controversial enthroned photograph.

In 1995 Writers and Readers published a softcover edition with the original cover photograph. ISBN 9780863163265

In September 2009 Penguin books published a paperback edition as part of its Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition series. ISBN 9780143105329. The paperback had a deckle edge, a cover illustration by Ho Che Anderson and an introduction by Newton's widow Fredrika Newton.[1] An e-book version was released at the same time.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Revolutionary Suicide Huey P. Newton, with J. Herman Blake ; introduction by Fredrika Newton. Penguin classics deluxe edition Originally published: New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
  2. ^ a b c Alkebulan, Paul (2007). Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. pp. 8, 87.
  3. ^ Montgomery, Paul I. and Francis X. Clines (19 July 1964). "Thousands riot in Harlem area; scores are hurt: negroes loot stores, taunt whites -- police shoot in air to control crowd". New York Times.
  4. ^ Queally, James (July 29, 2015). "Watts Riots: Traffic stop was the spark that ignited days of destruction in L.A." LA Times. Retrieved October 1, 2020.
  5. ^ "Malcolm X Shot Dead At Harlem Rally". The Times. 22 February 1965.
  6. ^ Street, Joe (2010). "The Historiography of the Black Panther Party". Journal of American Studies. 44 (2): 352. doi:10.1017/S0021875809991320.
  7. ^ Seale, Bobby (1991). Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. Black Classic Press. pp. 59–62.
  8. ^ a b c Blake, J. Herman (31 January 2007). "J. Herman Blake recalls co-authoring 'Revolutionary Suicide'", Interview with The History Makers". The History Makers. Retrieved 28 October 2020.
  9. ^ a b Jeffries, Judson L. (2002). Huey P. Newton the Radical Theorist. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 43–44.
  10. ^ a b Kempton, Murray (20 May 1973). "At one and the same time the goodest and the badest". New York Times Review of Books.
  11. ^ Lockwood, Lee (23 April 1973). "Revolutionary Suicide Book review". The Washington Post.
  12. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (4 April 1973). "Altering the Panther Image". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 October 2020.
  13. ^ Collins, E.M. (1973). "HUEY P. NEWTON. Revolutionary Suicide. Review". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 409 (1): 211–212. doi:10.1177/000271627340900157. S2CID 143528245 – via JSTOR.
  14. ^ a b Rex, John Arderne (24 May 1974). "The Panthers' Program". The Times.
  15. ^ McCartney, John T. (1992). Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African American Thought, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. p. 133.
  16. ^ a b Jeffries, Judson L. (2002). Huey P. Newton the Radical Theorist. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. xxiii.
  17. ^ Sowers, Brian (March 2017). "The Socratic Black Panther: Reading Huey P. Newton Reading Plato. Journal of African American Studies 21, no. 1 (March 2017): 26–27". Journal of African American Studies. 21 (1): 26–27. doi:10.1007/s12111-017-9339-7. S2CID 151544461.
  18. ^ a b Johnson, Davi. "The Rhetoric of Huey P. Newton". The Southern Communication Journal. 70, No. 1 (N.d.): 15–30. 70 (1 (n.d.)): 15–30.
  19. ^ Freer, Joanna (February 1, 2013). "Thomas Pynchon and the Black Panther Party: Revolutionary Suicide in Gravity's Rainbow". Journal of American Studies. 47 (1): 171–188. doi:10.1017/S0021875812000758 – via Proquest.
  20. ^ Jeffries, Judson L. (2002). Huey P. Newton the Radical Theorist. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 137–146.
  21. ^ "The Many Meanings of "Revolutionary Suicide" – Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple".
  22. ^ Andrews, Kehinde (14 October 2016). "Fifty years since the Black Panthers formed, here's what Black Lives Matter can learn". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  23. ^ El'Zabar, Kai (February 2016). "From Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter". Chicago Defender. ProQuest 1774579277. Retrieved 1 November 2020.
  24. ^ Cavanagh, David (6 September 2013). "Julian Cope – Revolutionary Suicide, Uncut". Uncut.
  25. ^ a b Morgan, J-A (2014). "Huey P. Newton Enthroned-Iconic Image of Black Power". Journal of American Culture. 37 (2): 129–148. doi:10.1111/jacc.12158.
  26. ^ Newton, Huey P. (1973). Revolutionary Suicide. Ney York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0151770921.

Sources[edit]