Freedom Songs: Black Panther leader Ericka Huggins brings the history and legacy of the party to life in new book
By Lou Fancher
In a foreword to the new book, Comrade Sisters, Women of the Black Panther Party, activist and author Angela Davis defines freedom as “far more than a checklist of formal rights.”
Published by ACC Art Books, the book is conceived and written by Ericka Huggins, an activist, former political prisoner, and 14-year member and early leader of the Black Panther Party, with 106 photographs by photojournalist Stephen Shames. It includes introductory essays by the creative duo and an afterword by Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
Davis, in her preface, writes that freedom, in the years when initiatives and the work accomplished was performed largely by women in the Black Panther Party, involved creating and establishing its 60 Community Survival programs. Freedom therefore, was “free breakfast for children, free groceries, free education, free health care, free transportation to visit incarcerated loved ones.”
Notably—although not mentioned by Davis here, but highlighted in the book’s subsequent text—the Black Panther Party chapter in Winston-Salem, NC, caused freedom to stretch its wings enough to launch a free, around-the-clock, ambulance service. Other free programs provided critical access to medical testing and voter registration to Black communities.
In separate interviews held with Huggins and Shames, freedom therefore seemed like the perfect place to start our conversations. What for Huggins and Shames constitutes freedom?
“That is a wonderful question,” says Huggins. “Because it means different things to different people. Even to different groups of people. Or different parts of the world. But essentially, freedom is being able to exist and express oneself in words, in actions, in a way that brings no harm to anyone else and brings no harm to oneself. I think of children. They are free. And then they are taught you can’t do this, but you can do that. You can watch their freeness dissipate over time if that happens.
“Freedom is also permission to be exactly who a person is, regardless of the color of their skin or sexual orientation or the place on the gender spectrum they choose. It shouldn’t be about where they live, who their parents are or how many letters are behind their names. Just that they are human: They have a place to live and food to eat, and people who love them and the ability to love others.”
Likewise, Shames suggests freedom is being able to live your life the way you want to live it. To be able to be who you want to be. To not have to fit into a strict cultural stereotype. To be the gender you want to be, find employment, live where you want to live. “All the things that inhibit people, such as poverty and racism, take away from freedom,” he says.
“In the 1960s, I was 13 years old, so there were very defined gender roles. Women stayed home, nurtured kids and cooked. Nowadays, women can do anything. That’s freedom. Freedom is to define yourself and your community, not have someone else define who you are.”
With the release of Comrade Sisters, the women of the Black Panther Party—66% of the membership was female—receive deserved attention. In a vigorous parade of behind-the-scenes and public portrayals, the black-and-white photographs of Shames demonstrate remarkable access provided to the then-student at UC Berkeley who’d only recently picked up a camera when he began chronicling the Panthers.
“I wasn’t a professional journalist or photographer. It’s phenomenal, historically, and I realize now how important the Panther movement was. At the time, I didn’t think anything of that stuff. I just did it. Basically, I got involved through meeting Bobby Seale. I met everybody, and it was never an issue. The Panthers just trusted me. They knew I agreed with most of what they were doing.
“So many groups in the movement at that time had endless meetings and talked, talked, talked. The Panthers just did it. They just set up these programs. It was incredible how they were embedded in the community and made coalitions with different groups.”
I ask Shames if making photographs, as opposed to “taking” them, best describes his philosophies. “Yes, and making as opposed to taking, as you just talked about, is what the Panthers did. I learned from the Panthers that you embed yourself in the community, become one with it, listen. The pictures are being produced as much by them as by me.”
His favorite images are active and define people outside of visual stereotypes: a woman in Harlem embracing a boy, Kathleen Cleaver in DeFremery Park (cropped for the cover image and reproduced full-size in the interior). “And I love the picture of Ericka laughing. The joy…you know, the image of revolutionaries is of super serious people sitting around in meetings all the time doing boring stuff. It has nothing to do with love.
“But the revolution is about love, not hate, not about pulling someone else down. It’s about giving everybody a chance.” An image of Brenda Bay’s daughter (Simile Bay) astride a fence at the party’s community school upturns gender stereotypes. “She’s climbing a fence and she’s a girl? She should be playing with dolls. Girls are dainty. Well, some of them are, but boys are dainty too. Again, getting rid of stereotypes gets back to freedom. She could climb a fence and didn’t have to wear pink.”
Shames recommends for an awaking jolt looking at how mainstream media historically portrays Black men. “Do you see a Black man cuddling a child? Maybe now sometimes you do, but back then, you never saw the good stuff, it was just mugshots. With the Panthers, it was important to me to get Black women with children, Black men with children, comrades working together. These were things the Black community knew, but people in the white community didn’t get access to and weren’t seeing it.”
Huggins says the primary motivation for creating the book and the premise determining its structure was acknowledging the value of individual women. The stories told primarily by women members, women engaged with Black Panthers, Huggins or their families come from actual conversations and interviews. “These are the women’s lived experiences. Their own words, and not edited too much, as a matter of fact,” says Huggins.
A favorite story is contiguous and weaves its way through the book, arriving from three women from the Winston-Salem chapter. “They started the Free Ambulance program. That is just an amazement to me. It’s an example of how we worked. We didn’t tell people what they needed. We listened. That’s what Hazel Mack, Cynthia Norwood and another woman describe. The party was based in every community; it didn’t just visit, it was in it.
“They realized that when the ‘Black hospital’ got closed, services in the community to get them to the ‘regular hospital’ were few and far between. People were dying, left on their front porch steps if they didn’t have proof of insurance or cash money. They thought, this can’t be; we’ll see what we can do. Out of that came the People’s Free Ambulance Service. Then a philanthropic organization in New York, I don’t know how they even knew about it, sent enough money for the chapter to actually buy an ambulance.”
Huggins says the story’s most touching aspect is that it came from North Carolina. “I know it personally because that’s where my mother was raised. Seven members of that chapter, women and men, went to school in an almost all-white community college to become EMTs, so they could drive or ride in the ambulance. I thought, this is the ultimate story of serving the people, body and soul.
“That was our motto. Just giving and thinking through a need, and how do we meet the need without having millions of meetings and committees. Just keeping it moving forward. It speaks to the collective wisdom that was in each chapter. I always think of Cynthia, Hazel and the other women and men of that chapter as persons we would not know if this book did not exist.”
It is in some ways a tragedy that Huggins does not find it remarkable that people hold misconceptions or are outright racist or ignorant about the Black Panther Party and Black women members’ importance in particular.
“In this country, there has been a code of silence around race. When I think back to Barack Obama’s presidency, he was the first seated president to talk about race. That wasn’t 50 years ago. That wasn’t even 20 years ago. We, Americans, are frightened of the history of this country. And if frightened, why would we want to share it?
“Speaking for myself, I would want to tell the truth at all costs. I think that all children should know, but I work in universities and elementary and secondary schools, and I could tell you stories about graduate students who are just finding out about all of the movements, even the nuances of the civil rights movement. They aren’t aware that Martin Luther King began talking about Vietnam and redistribution of the wealth.
“We are given one Martin Luther King speech, so why on earth would that same old scaffolding give us more current history? We are teaching our children, generation after generation, that either speaking up isn’t ok if you are Black or Brown or Indigenous, or if you do, there’s a certain way to say it to placate the powers that be.”
There are young people who attend progressive schools like one Huggins mentions, where two male instructors wrote a curriculum on the Black Panther Party. This was so their 4th and 5th grade students could learn there were those in the Black Panther Party who were testing for sickle-cell anemia, visiting people’s homes to help them register to vote and feeding children in the Free Breakfast for Children program that became a national model for after-school programs.
“These were people who said no human being deserves to be treated poorly, and certainly not because of how their bodies are shaped or colored, or the texture of their hair or the shape of their eyes,” she says. “It’s fine to tell children all these things. But there are people who strongly believe this history frightens children. I know it doesn’t; it frightens adults.”
Perhaps frightening adults is a good idea. And if so, what wisdom might Huggins share with girls and young women in 2022? “I want them to know that I, that we, are here for them. That there isn’t a right or wrong way to do what they are doing. There’s no formula or to-do list. Taking care of themselves is very important. We didn’t know how to do that. Taking care is not a selfish thing.”
Importantly, Huggins says the onus for reform, reparation and restoration of social justice practices upheld by the Panthers must not fall entirely on Black people. “Some friends of mine are members of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), and they are white people who talk to white people about what it means to be white. We need more of that.
“And also, talk to your children. Tell them the truth. If I talked to my two sons when they were younger about how to treat women, I know it made a difference. If I talked to my daughter and her friends about how women should feel content in their bodies, not according to what society says, but according to just loving themselves. After a time, it sinks in. If I taught my children ‘all white people are…,’ it would be in there, and that information would rise up at some point and be unfortunate.
“Instead, I told them to note how people are, to get to know them to prevent the broad generalizations that have been done to us, not just as Black people, but as women. It was not easy, because I was countering what society was saying, but it bore fruit. My children are human like any of us and make mistakes, but they are loving of humanity. If I can do that, anyone can do that.”