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Listen, Whitey!: book probes sights, sounds that shocked America

Gregg Reese | 4/18/2012, 5 p.m.

"They weren't anti-white; they were just pro-black." --Author Pat Thomas' paraphrase of a quote by Black Panther Bobby Seale

The recently published "Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975" ($39.99, from Fantagraphics Books), goes against the grain on several levels. Weighting in at 2 1/2 pounds and 224 pages, which is modest by coffee table standards, it covers the pivotal decade during which the voice of Black militancy asserted itself in the national psyche. In addition to the provocative nature of its title and subject matter, the ethnicity of its author is a compelling point. Neophyte writer Pat Thomas is Caucasian.

A lifelong devotee of 1960s counterculture, Thomas moved to Oakland in 2000, and became acquainted with several of the principal figures at the center of this volatile era of American history, especially Black Panthers David Hilliard and Elaine Brown. For six years he meticulously researched the period, spending long nights on eBay bidding on out-of-print record albums and .45 rpm singles.

The treasures his search yielded eventually comprised a manuscript concentrating on the dissident recordings--music and spoken word--of the period, along with a cornucopia of flyers for rallies (promoting a "Revolutionary Intercommunal Day of Solidarity," with speeches by Kathleen Cleaver and Huey Newton, and music by The Grateful Dead), and magazine advertisements (including a pitch for Blacks and Whites, a $6.95 educational board game devised by UC Davis and Psychology Today magazine. It gave players a taste of police harassment, living on welfare and life in the ghetto). Also included are articles (the Playboy interview with Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton) and covers (Life magazine's iconic photo of Angela Davis).

These, along with concert posters and other paraphernalia remind us of how important graphics were to the collective mindset of that era.

"Had it been a book purely of text, it probably would never have gotten published, frankly," notes Thomas.

The book is jam-packed with the images of Thomas' obsession, so it is not meant to be a treatise on, say, Huey Newton's implementation of Marxist theory among the downtrodden of Oakland's ghetto.

Veteran civil rights activist and director of the Pan African Film Festival Ayuko Babu praised what he calls "the nimble way" the images are put together. He was particularly taken with the cover of the album "Burn Baby, Burn," featuring a radio transmission of the Watts Uprising, narrated by Afro-American Association founder Donald Warden (aka Dr. Khalid Al Mansour, a later sponsor of Columbia University student Barack Obama), an image he had not seen since the mid-1960s.
"It's an important piece of African American history, and well worth getting," he says.

Music is a focal point here, both because of Thomas' vocation as an A&R person in the Bay Area recording industry, and because of the overwhelming impact music had on that period's attitudes, culture, politics, and otherwise. With that in mind, a companion soundtrack with the same title has been released ($12 on the Light in the Attic label).

Among the selections on this CD are obscure songs by marquee recording artists, including Bob Dylan's "George Jackson" (a tribute to the martyred activist, prison inmate, and "Soledad Brother"), and "Angela" (an ode to Angela Davis) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as spoken word gems like The Watts Prophets' "Dem Niggers Ain't Playing," speeches (Stokely Carmichael's admonition to "Free Huey"), and Eldridge Cleaver's recorded explanation about why he placed LSD guru Timothy Leary under a "revolutionary arrest" because of the latter's promotion of drug usage while both refugees from American justice were ensconced in Algeria.

During a recent presentation at West Hollywood's Book Soup, Thomas made the point that, in spite of mainstream media's efforts to lump everyone engaged in this racial discourse as confrontationally militant, there were dramatic differences in the ideologies of the Black Panthers (who encouraged multi-ethnicity among its ranks), their rivals in the US Organization (who embraced the tenets of Black Nationalism), and Angela Davis (who was first and foremost a communist).

Among the feats the Panthers achieved was 29-year-old Newton's audience in China with Premier Chou En-lai, in Sept. 1971, trumping President Richard Nixon's well-publicized visit the following February.

Compiling the book was a learning experience for Thomas as well. "They (the Panthers) switched from a gun-toting paramilitary organization to a more community-based entity offering free food, clothing, and medical care," he says.

And, perhaps, this may be "Listen, Whitey!'s" biggest strength-and greatest contribution-to future discourse about this topic that has been so distorted and misrepresented in its presentation to the consciousness of mainstream America. Maybe now, 40 years after the histrionics and exaggeration, enough time has passed so the emergence of Black consciousness can be scrutinized with a measure of clarity.