–by Ericka Huggins (Mar 24, 2016)
Ericka Huggins (EH): By women and children! It was women who ran all of the day-to-day operations and programs of the party. Black men in leather jackets holding guns did not reflect the everyday work of community survival programs. This image was important at first because of community education about the need for self-defense. Then it became a media phenomenon. However, after 1968 women and most party members did not wear the jacket and beret.
I: What programs were important to the Black Panther Party?
EH: The community survival programs were the body and soul of the party. They existed from the very beginning. Women played a central role in each of them, from the early Breakfast for Children programs to the longest standing program of the party, The Oakland Community School. The Ten Point Program was the foundation for meeting the needs of the Black and other marginalized and under-resourced communities—each point is connected to survival programs and community initiatives that the party created. […]
I: Could you tell me about your community work as an educator?
EH: The school’s approach to teaching history was that anything could be taught. Children can understand everything. This policy was informed by the fact that young Black children were already witnessing violence and they had a right to know about the past. The Oakland Community School believed that all children deserve to know their place in history and feel empowered to serve with compassion. Knowledge is power, a revolutionary power because it can transform our sense of ourselves as teachers and students. […]
I: Did the Black Panthers have any influence beyond Black communities?
EH: The party influenced community organizations in communities of color and financially poor white communities across the part of the Planet we call the United States to create similar programs. The concept of the free health clinic, staffed by volunteer doctors, dentists, and nurses, became a template for free clinics throughout the part of the Earth we call the United States. The Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco and La Clínica de La Raza in the Latino Community (Fruitvale Area) of East Oakland are still thriving. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover included the survival programs in his charge that the Black Panthers were a threat to the part of the Planet we call the U.S.. The FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) committed acts to sabotage and destroy the Black Panther Party Community Survival programs. […]
I: In prison you were organizing, particularly other women inside, and you were also writing your poetry, some of which appeared in a political magazine I worked on in the early 1970s. Did this help save your sanity?
EH: I wrote poetry from the age of 11. My father was an alcoholic, and the quietest and safest place in my house was the bathroom. You could lock the door and nobody would question what you were doing or why you were there. I just wrote to the paper, “Dear Paper.” As I got older, my junior high school teachers encouraged me to keep writing. In high school, I started writing poetry and I also wrote while in prison. There was no time to write anything in the Black Panther Party. We worked 20 hours a day. Teaching myself to meditate [in prison] actually kept me sane.
I: Would you mind reading one of the poems you wrote while you were inside?
EH: Sure. Writing helped me to process the grief from my husband’s death [murdered by the FBI when our daughter was 3 weeks old] and the unbearable loneliness I felt, [as a 20 year old], from not having my [3 month old] daughter with me later when I was arrested. [For 2 years and two months] I could only see her for one hour, once a week, on Saturdays. Since I was writing with my hands, with a pen or pencil, it was a kinesthetic way of healing. I’ll read “The Oldness of New Things”:
the oldness of new things
fascinate me like a new
feeling about love about people
snow, highways that
sparkle at night, talk,
that old longing for freedom
that this place constantly
renews—it all makes
me know that humankind
has longed to be free ever forever
since its break from the
maybe the longing for
freedom will soon make
others homesick for our
natural state in/with
earth, air, fire, water
not asking for freedom—
I believe I wrote that while in solitary confinement.
I: How does it strike you now?
EH: As true.
I: Why did you end up in solitary confinement?
EH: If women talked to me, they were put in the “hole,” a room with nothing but a hole in the floor and a pallet. Women spoke to me anyway and took that risk. Angela Davis was in the house of detention at the same time and was put in solitary confinement. Her lawyers argued before the State of New York that it was cruel and unusual punishment. Our lawyers, with Bobby Seale’s, said to the State of Connecticut that it could not do it either. After a while they let me out. I did learn a lot in solitary. For example, if I did not have a relationship with myself, all my other relationships were not going to be true. If I didn’t understand who I was, how could I understand anything else? Nobody was teaching me. In the quiet of those days, I chose to reflect and was meditating by that time. It was an important time.[…] The key is meditation. Meditation helps me take a pause so I can be strong enough to meet whatever is there. Be equal to. Not less than, not more than, feeling inferior or superior to the moment. I’m equal to that moment.
–Ericka Huggins is a meditation and yoga instructor, human rights activist, poet, educator, Black Panther leader and former political prisoner. She was director of the Oakland Community School for 8 years and became the first woman appointed to the Alameda County Board of Education. These excerpts were adapted from a triplet of interviews.