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The Historiography of the Black Panther Party

Abstract

This article examines forty years of historical writing on the Black Panther Party (BPP), arguing that this historiography has now reached maturity. It evaluates key publications on the BPP, splitting the historiography into three periods. The first phase, the article asserts, was dominated by accounts written by participants and observers of the BPP in action. These offered insight into the personalities of the BPP leadership but included relatively little on other BPP members. They were supplemented by a collection of friendly academic studies, a number of which emphasized the role of the FBI in precipitating the BPP's decline. The article identifies the 1994 publication of Hugh Pearson's biographical study of Huey P. Newton as the beginning of a second phase. Pearson's work, which built on a collection of accounts written by observers and right-wing writers during the first phase, precipitated an outpouring of new studies that opposed its conclusions. These works overwhelmingly focussed on individual BPP chapters and the experiences of the BPP rank and file; they were generally friendly towards the party and often appraised the BPP's actions through the 1970s. A second wave of participant accounts also emerged in this period which offered a more personal interpretation of the BPP's decline. A third period emerged in the early 2000s that abandoned the obsession with Pearson's study and focussed instead on the BPP's contribution to African American and American culture beyond its political program and violent image. The article reveals the paradox at the heart of the local approach, one which recent studies addressed in their focus on the BPP's Oakland chapter and their return to a tight chronological approach that focussed on the BPP's peak years. It concludes by noting the remaining omissions in the BPP's historical record and anticipating further studies.

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-american-studies
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