Once again, Jon Piccini (University of Queensland) has written a splendid piece on the recently shown documentary Black Panther Woman and I’m delighted that this blog is able to post it. Jon also wrote this piece on Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police a few months ago.
The airing of Blackfella Film’s Black Panther Woman on SBS is significant for a few reasons. It highlights sexual crimes and violence within what academics broadly call the ‘New Left’ – those social movements of the 1960s and 1970s which challenged the capitalist/racial/gender/sexual status quo. As the film’s protagonist, Marlene Cummins, notes: “the thing is that violence on women permeates the whole of society: white or black”, and sexist/patriarchal values infused these social movements as well.
Here, I want to look briefly at the construction of masculinity in these movements and how this provided the political foundations for such violence. Secondly, I want to draw out some of the interesting parallels between Cummins’ trip to New York in the film, and similar trips taken by radical aboriginal activists in the 1970s.
Masculinity was at the centre of the 1960s revolts. For the white student left, heroic, handsome figures like Cuban-Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara were the epitome of a rebellious masculinity, and groups such as Students for a Democratic Society in America (and of course similar groups in Australia) were overwhelmingly led by males who relegated women to menial secretarial or typing jobs – much as women were in the workforce and society at large. Sara Evans has described well how the second wave feminist movement emerged not only out of a rebellion against sexist society – but the continuation of these practices within the white left and indeed the black civil rights movement.
For the ‘coloured’ left, masculinity was equally vital, but for a whole range of other reasons. For black power radicals in the United States, black men had been robbed of their masculinity by the dehumanisation of slavery and their continued status as colonial subjects. If black men had been emasculated and feminised by colonial white society, then the enactment of a proud black masculinity was seen as vital to the reclaiming of this. Such an ideology left little space for women. Stokely Charmical famously commented that the place of black women in the movement was “prone” – women’s place was to ascribe to traditional feminine values and faithfully serve their men – including being effective sexual chattels – so as to not contribute to the colonist’s emasculation.
As Black Panther Woman highlights, this hideous gender politics travelled across the Pacific to Australia alongside the whole package of Black Panther Party iconography, lexicon and practice – fusing with a pre-existing sexism and unofficial code of silence. The place of women in the Black Panther and broader civil rights/black power movement has been reassessed in recent decades, with quite a bit of academic work now existing exploring the importance of both well-known women radicals like Kathleen Cleaver, and the lesser known activists whose day-to-day work was vital to the success of these movements. Marlene’s story of political dedication amidst such personal pain is sobering and heart wrenching, highlighting a gap in our understanding of the reality of sexual violence within New Left movements.
The documentary was also fascinating from another perspective – that of the global imagination of radicals during the period. Marlene’s obvious pleasure at being invited to New York to attend a gathering of Black Panther-inspired radicals from around the world is a fascinating mirroring of the experience of another indigenous woman travelling to America forty-five years earlier – Patsy Kruger. Kruger, 30 years old and president of the Victorian branch of the Aboriginals Advancement League, was invited along with four other Australians – Bruce McGuinness, Solomon Belear, Jack Davis and Bob Maza – to attend a the 1970 Congress of African People’s in Atlanta, Georgia. Thankfully for historians, the five recorded their thoughts on the trip in a now very-rare book on the trip.
Upon receiving the invitation to travel to the congress, Kruger recalled thinking “my feeling good could know no bounds”. Interviewed by The Age before her departure, Patsy explained a bit of why she felt such excitement: “Intelligent, vocal and articulate, [Kruger] is determined to learn all she can…about how best to start a revolution for Aboriginal rights in Australia.” This desire to learn from black activists in the USA was mirrored by other travellers, many of whom had already begun using the rhetoric of Black Power in the few years previously to express their frustration at the failure of the 1967 referendum to engender any real change. As Kruger put it, white Australians were
apathetic, selfish or self-centred… oh, they have a conscience about it. They proved that in the 1967 referendum. But they subdued it and didn’t really go to the basic problems of the Aboriginals.
Yet, the visit to the United States actually delivered only mixed results for the travellers. Kruger recalls the Congress of African People’s being a terrific experience, having “met, talked and lived with black brothers and sisters in the struggle, mostly from North America, but also from the United Caribbean, South America, Asia and Africa”. Cummins enjoys a similar euphoria in the documentary, being surrounded by activists from around the world united by a sense of (now somewhat nostalgic) attachment to ideals of Black Nationalism.
The significance of this level of contact for aboriginal activists in the 1970s cannot be overstated – for many activists of colour around the world seemed just as unaware of their existence as white Australians pretended to be. Aboriginal activist Bobbi Sykes remembers going to a famous black political bookstore in Harlem, New York, only to be told “that there weren’t any blacks in Australia. Hence no Black Australia section”. Kruger described leaving the conference as a “sister in the struggle for the liberation of black people wherever they are and whoever they are”.
Yet, these important contacts and lessons also highlighted for some the impracticability of global connections. Cummins’ narrative is one of holus bolus transition of Black Panther ideas from America to Australia – but the reality was much more complex. Bob Maza, for example, reflected in a later interview how:
The black situation in the USA made me realise that if our black movement here in Australia is going to be left in the hands of whatever ego-trippers there are around… then we are going to head the same way that the black Americans did.
Maza’s injunction was clear – ultra masculine and violent rhetoric would lead to splintering of the working (if tenuous and contested) coalition in Australia between black and white activists.
On a different note, Jack Davis argued that the experience of black Americans, victims of transportation and slavery yet now a significant part of American life, could not really relate to Australian Aborigines, who had been in Australia “since the creation” and had little purchase on public life. Bob Bellear struck a similar chord, noting how “the thing is that blacks in Australia… can’t equate the problems of this country, the problems of class struggle, the problems of racism in this country with problems in any other part of the world”. “[T]he problem…is getting blacks just to know about each other, in such a vast country as this”, Bellear suggested, and thus overseas experiences should only be of secondary concern.
While debated, the importance of overseas travel to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s cannot be contested, as Cummins’ final uniting with her co-thinkers across the world in Black Panther Woman so splendidly demonstrates. Equally, her gut-wrenching story of sexual abuse is a telling lesson and cautionary tale for those of us who want to make political use of the past.