Huey Newton’s primal scenes

October 17, 2014
October 17, 2014 John Drabinski

Huey Newton’s primal scenes

There are many ways to read Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide. It is, above all, a signature text of its moment: peaking Black radicalism, splinters in that radicalism (the critiques of Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael aren’t just polemical, they cut to the heart of the meanings of nationalism and revolutionary politics), and autobiography as a kind of revolutionary practice. It is also a programme for self-liberation that, in Newton’s telling, becomes the liberation of a people. Self-liberation is inseparable from the encounter with books and ideas – or, perhaps better, from the encounter with what makes books and ideas possible. This last bit is what interests me.

Re-reading Revolutionary Suicide for my course this semester, I’m also struck by the fragmented and quirky intellectual lineage Newton evokes, from Plato and Descartes to Mao and Fanon to Coleridge to Ho Chi Minh. There is a lot to tease out in those connections, and in general I think Newton needs to be read closely and appreciated as an intellectual in both the bookish sense and the organic, politically mobilizing sense of what Grant Farred calls “the vernacular intellectual” (see his What’s My Name?).

But Newton’s citational practice, if there is such a thing in Revolutionary Suicide, is more than titles and authors (though there are plenty of those). Newton’s text also stages and restages primal scenes of the African-American intellectual tradition, scenes in which autobiography becomes less a story about Huey P., more a refreshed version of Du Bois’ subtitling of Dusk of Dawn: an autobiography of the race. I call these Newton’s primal scenes because they demonstrate a sense of intertextuality that even if we cannot show the archival connection – a citation, a note in Newton’s papers, etc. – we can hear a resonance that works as part of the conscious, or even subconscious, life of the African-American tradition.

Two primal scenes stand out to me.

First, there is Newton’s revisit of one of the foundational scenes of Black liberation narratives: Frederick Douglass’ fight with Covey. Douglass’ fight alters the entirety of his person, leaving the form of slavery in place (one man’s fight does not liberate a nation), but the fact of slavery, the enslavement of his total person, is forever extinguished. Recall Douglass’ words:

It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

Newton rewrites this moment in the primal scene of his own father’s life, which, in turn, becomes Huey P.’s life. Newton writes of his father:

One time in Louisiana he got into an argument with a young white man for whom he was working. The disagreement had to do with some detail about the job, and the white man became angry when my father stood his ground. He told my father that when a colored man disputed his word, he whipped him. My father replied just as firmly that no man whipped him unless he was a better man, and he doubted that the white man qualified. This shocked the white man, and confused him, so that he backed down by calling my father crazy. The story spread quickly around town; my father became known as a “crazy man” because he would not give in to the harassment of whites.

From this, Newton draws a political lesson about liberation through violence, a lesson that echoes Fanon’s account of collectivity and consciousness through organized violence in The Wretched of the Earth, writing:

That is often the way of the oppressor. He cannot understand the simple fact that people want to be free. So, when a man resists oppression, they pass it off by calling him “crazy” or “instance.” My father was called “crazy” for his refusal to let a white man call him “nigger” or to play the Uncle Tom or allow whites to bother his family. “Crazy” to them, he was a hero to us.

Yet his father is not a militant or revolutionary, whatever the respect Newton expresses (put in largely patriarchal terms in Revolutionary Suicide – the paternal virtue lies in providing for the family, keeping his wife from having to work). And so Newton revisits this rewritten primal scene with his own moment of violence. This is necessary for a few reasons. First and foremost, it is a formative moment for Newton as a political creature; he fights his father in order to affirm his own political difference. Second, and as an extension of that, it stages the Black Panther Party’s distance from the Black church as a cornerstone political institution. For all the love of the energy of religious services, Newton is clear that the time has passed for church-based activism. New generation, new militancy, new ideological forms and understandings of liberation. Third, and this is how the intertextual moment of a primal scene is illuminating, it simultaneously allows Newton to affirm his own manhood and describe his parents’ home as capable, much later, of resurrection. He writes of his own violent separation from his father:

To my parents, a beard meant a bohemian, and my father insisted that I shave it off. I refused. Because he was accustomed to wielding total authority in our family, my refusal was a serious family violation. My father pressed me again to shave; I continued to resist. The climax came abruptly one night when he confronted me with an ultimatum to shave right then and there. I told him I would not do it. He struck me, and I ran to him, grabbing him with a bear hug to restrain his arms, and then pushing him away…My love for my father had clashed with a need for independence, symbolized by the beard. Knowing I could not return without shaving, I decided to move out…I packed my things and moved in with a friend, Richard Thorne. For years, a room was kept for me in my father’s house, and periodically I returned home for short periods of time. Our differences mellowed and eventually disappeared.

This separation is a first moment of alienation. That is, rather than, as in the case of his father in Louisiana, producing the heroism of resistance and refusal to submit, Newton’s fight with his father creates a crisis – ultimately a productive one – in a sense of belonging. Interestingly, this is where the second primal scene proves decisive. Belonging after the fight with his father is negotiated through the word: ideological words, yes, but also, firstly, discrete and particular words that alter the landscape of his world.

This second primal scene, then, is the encounter with the dictionary, and the meaning of reading. The ultimate significance of reading lies in the construction of new forms of kinship. First, there is the kinship of the family as revolutionary cell or vanguard. “In the Party,” Newton writes, “we have formed a family, a fighting family that is a vital unit in itself. We have no romantic and fictional notions about getting married and living happily ever after behind a white picket fence. We choose to live together for a common purpose, and together we fight for our existence and our goals.” Second, there is the kinship forged in and through the text itself. Reading revolutionary works remakes the world through the word, which in its advanced moment becomes the core texts of the vanguard – “we are more enlightened than the masses,” he says in a 1970 interview – but is at its foundation about the discreteness and patience of coming to that word.

And so all of this identity formation – personal and collective all at once – proceeds from the drama of the primal scene of the dictionary and the process of learning to read. Newton’s account of the dictionary as primal scene reads like a poetic rewrite of Malcolm X’s famous moral lesson derived from reading the dictionary. For both Newton and Malcolm X, revolution comes in part through meticulous study of the word itself. Malcolm X writes, remembering how the dictionary and discrete study of words transformed his sense of self and world:

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember…

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying.

Alongside this, reading in a backward glance, we can recall Washington’s account of learning to read in Up from Slavery, which is similarly pitched as revolutionary, except here, as with Douglass’ case even more, deeply embedded in slavery and emancipation. Washington’s first mention of reading in Up from Slavery recalls hearing a Union soldier reading what Washington believes was the “Emancipation Proclamation” to just-freed enslaved people, notifying them of their freedom. And for Washington it is also about the discreteness of the word, here in terms of the alphabet:

From the time that I can remember having any thoughts about anything, I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read. I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers. Soon after we got settled in some manner in our new cabin in West Virginia, I induced my mother to get hold of a book for me. How or where she got it I do not know, but in some way she procured an old copy of Webster’s “blue-back” spelling-book, which contained the alphabet, followed by such meaningless words as “ab,” “ba,” “ca,” “da.” I began at once to devour this book, and I think that it was the first one I ever had in my hands. I had learned from somebody that the way to begin to read was to learn the alphabet, so I tried in all the ways I could think of to learn it, – all of course without a teacher, for I could find no one to teach me. At that time there was not a single member of my race anywhere near us who could read, and I was too timid to approach any of the white people. In some way, within a few weeks, I mastered the greater portion of the alphabet. (my emphasis)

Newton’s account of reading follows a similar script, with the discreteness of word and meaning resonating with Washington’s dramatization and the copying, memorization, and sound recalling Malcolm X. The primal scene lies in this repetition of form and affect, as well as the solitude in which the transformative effect of the word takes hold. Newton writes:

I spent long hours every day at home going through the Republic and pronouncing the words I knew. If I did not know a word, I would look it up in the dictionary, learn how to sound it out if I could, and then learn the meaning. Proper names and Greek words were difficult, and I soon began to ignore them. Day after day, for eight or nine hours at a time, I worked on that book, going over it page by page, word by word. I had no help from anyone because I did not want it. Embarrassment overwhelmed me. My mother loved reading and devoured books. Here I was, an adult who could not read, as my father, my mother, and Melvin could. I felt so low I stayed in my room where nobody could see what I was doing, poring over the words, using the dictionary on every single line, and memorizing the sounds and the meanings.

In solitude, there is the word.

In the word, something like liberation, already.

Like his father’s fight and his fight with his father, Newton’s account of reading is sustained by, embedded in, and evocative of a past, a tradition, that stages liberation in the publicity of physical struggle and the privacy of self-created intellectual acquisition. Violence and contemplation. These are primal scenes, repeated, and speak to an intellectual past and its hand in Newton’s story.

Reading these moments (I’m barely sketching them here) in Revolutionary Suicide as primal scenes has a two-fold function. It establishes a sense of intertextuality in Newton’s memoir, which, in turn, folds his particular story into a longer African-American tradition of articulating liberation, one that intertwines, for all their ideological differences (which, I’d argue, are probably less than one would think), Douglass, Washington, Du Bois, Baldwin, Malcolm X, and many others. Why is this important? Perhaps it’s just a matter of emphasis or interest, but I would claim that it builds a foundation for addressing an important gap in thinking through the meaning of the Black Panther Party: Newton as intellectual, as an inheritor of a tradition, and so as someone who, like all encountering primal scenes and influences, transforms what is given in the interest of another kind of future. In that sense, I think a theorization of Newton’s primal scenes helps deepen a sense of what is revolutionary in his work beyond, but always alongside, the iconic and often (rightly) romantic memory of him as a public figure.

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