Kenneth Wishnia's Blog

The Day the Black Panthers Came to Town (with Tupac Shakur’s Step-Uncle)

In March 1970, Jean Genet, the radical French author, lifelong rebel and supporter of deviant causes, began touring US college campuses known for their activism with members of the Black Panther Party, hoping to win support for the Black Panthers from left-leaning students and faculty. When Genet and two members of the Black Panther Party came to SUNY Stony Brook, the university refused to allow them on campus, so my parents (both professors) invited them to hold a fundraising event in OUR living room.

It was quite a gathering, with students, faculty and some media coverage . Besides Genet, the main speakers were Zayd Shakur (Tupac’s step-uncle, in photo at left with Genet), another member of the Black Panther Party whose name I don’t recall, and Professor Robert O. Paxton, a history professor best known for Vichy France, an exposé of official French complicity and collaboration with the Nazis during WWII, who translated for Mr. Genet.

I got caught up in the excitement and went around selling issues of The Black Panther, the Party newspaper, and soliciting donations at $1 a pop, which prompted Shakur to dub me a “cool revolutionary cat.” At one point I asked if I could take his picture with my Kodak Instamatic, and he said something like, “Sure, go ahead,” holding his arms slightly away from his body (this photo–see below–has never been published). He also taught me what “Right on!” meant. When I asked in that innocent way kids can get away with (I was 9 years old at the time), he said it means, “You’re doing something RIGHT and we want you to keep ON doing it.”

I also distributed free copies of the Black Panther Party Platform and Program (above). The event raised around $2,000 for the Panther 21 legal defense fund, a pretty decent amount in 1970.

Historical note: Zayd Shakur’s brother, Lumumba Shakur, was married to Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, but Lumumba is not Tupac’s father. Zayd Shakur was killed in a shootout with New Jersey State Troopers in 1973.

That’s the sad part.

That, and reading the Party platform, which includes statements like: #7: “We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.” Yeah, it can be pretty depressing to realize this issue is still with us, still unresolved, still an emotional flashpoint nearly 50 years later (check out all those people wearing “Blue Lives Matter” T-shirts in response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement). The Panthers also had the audacity to ask for decent education, housing, and full employment. Good thing we solved those problems! Oh, right…

But there are some funny parts, too.

First, I caused quite a stir in my 4th grade class the next day when I brought the Panther Party paper to Show and Tell, and stood there reading the headline about how “The fascists have already decided to murder Chairman Bobby Seale in the electric chair.” The teacher took me aside the next day and talked to me about how we have to “give people choices,” and not present “just one side,” or something like that, and even at age 9 I knew that the school must have gotten phone calls from irate parents, and that the unspoken meaning of my teacher’s comments was something along the lines of “Please don’t do that again or I’m going to get in big trouble.” I promised him I wouldn’t.

The other funny part is when Professor Paxton was driving Jean Genet back to the city. They talked the whole way, and at one point Genet says, There’s this word the Panthers keep using: “Qu’est-ce que c’est, ‘motherfucker’?” So Prof. Paxton explains the literal meaning, prompting Genet to ask, “La mère de qui?” (“Whose mother?”) Prof. Paxton explains that it’s a derisive term aimed at a certain class of white male who, due to his white supremacist/authoritarian views, actions, and tendencies, is labeled as being a direct descendant of the privileged white men who exploited enslaved African-American women’s bodies, using them as sexual slaves.*

Now I’m really oversimplifying things here, but let’s just say that Genet’s best known novels and plays depict all kinds of sexual “perversions” and other deviant acts as a symptom of, and a rejection of, capitalist decadence, hypocrisy and degradation.

So after he drops Genet off, Prof. Paxton has an epiphany: “Oh my God: I translated ‘motherfucker’ for Jean Genet!”

So remember people, don’t call racist pricks like Attorney General Jeff Sessions “cocksuckers.” (Some of my best friends are cocksuckers, after all.) But him and his kind are some real motherfuckers. Say it loud.

*(Note: crime novelist Chester Himes uses the term “mother raper” because most of his novels were published before you could legally say “fuck” in a commercially published novel.)

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