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The Panther as a Man of Ideas


San Francisco. -- Asked to summarize his impressions of the new film "Panther" in three words, a young African-American writer replied: "Important historical fiction."

His observation was exactly right. The film, although highly fictionalized, is far more than just entertainment. It strikes some deep collective sensitivities about being black in America -- as was attested by the enthusiasm and empathy of the largely African-American viewers I watched it with.

In his book "The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America," another African-American writer, Hugh Pearson, presents a much darker side of Huey's persona -- closer to that of a Mafia capo. But Mr. Pearson also notes Huey's intellectual gifts, his ability to dazzle intellectuals. I was one of those intellectuals.

I saw Huey fairly frequently during the early 1970s. I always looked forward to talking with him on the 25th floor of his austere but stylish penthouse apartment overlooking Oakland's Lake Merritt.

Huey not only listened carefully but came out with one creative idea after another. Several in particular I remember because they were ideas ahead of their time. Responding to my comments about high unemployment among blacks, for instance, Huey observed that what blacks faced was not unemployment but uselessness -- redundancy as it is now called.

He also had grand world views. At a time when the left saw a global struggle between a capitalist and a socialist camp, Huey believed there was only one great capitalist world. "Russia and China are but liberated areas within that world," he said. His vision was that by giving African-Americans political power in Oakland, the Panthers could make it too a liberated territory within the U.S.

Two decades later, the world witnesses the stunning impact of a global capitalist economy on Russia and China. That same impact is visible in Oakland's stylish downtown, while Oakland's poor have become even more marginalized and useless.

In his book "To Die for the People," for which I wrote an introduction, Huey imagined a new America as a set of racial, ethnic and cultural communities co-existing in a kind of proportional representation. "We are a collection of communities just as the Korean people, the Vietnamese people and the Chinese people are a collection of communities -- a dispersed collection because we have no superstructure of our own. The superstructure we have is the superstructure of Wall Street which all of our labor produced."

Huey's vision of communities, not individuals, as the building blocks of a new America -- and of a new world order -- was far-out for his time, as was his idea of China's 1.2 billion people being subject to Wall Street. Today, neither is unthinkable.

The film "Panther" counters the spate of books and articles that have highlighted the violent side of Huey Newton's character. What both portrayals overlook is the intellectual legacy of his ideas, some of which continue to have real relevance.

Franz Schurmann, professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of "American Soul" (Mercury House, 1995). He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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