A couple of years ago I picked up a book called Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (New York: Penguin, 1994), by Sanyika Shakur, also known as Monster Kody Scott. I bought it because I had been rereading Blood in My Eye, the last work of incarcerated Black Panther Party member George Jackson. The back cover blurb on Monster claimed that, like Jackson, Kody Scott had made a "complete political and personal transformation... from Monster to Sanyika Shakur, black nationalist, member of the New Afrikan Independence Movement and crusader against the causes of gangsterism."
In 1960 George Jackson had been convicted of stealing seventy dollars from a gas station and given a sentence of one year to life. In prison he "met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao" and began to study economics and military history. It was Jackson's goal "to transform the black criminal mentality into a black revolutionary mentality."1 Jackson didn't start off as a "political prisoner," but he slowly became one as he was radicalized first by his reading and then through his growing connections to revolutionary organizations outside the prison walls and his own attempts to organize inside prison. Jackson was shot and killed by guards inside San Quentin on August 21, 1971.
The literature of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was self-consciously ideological. Blood in My Eye begins with Jackson's description of the path of black radicalism, from "the confused flight to national revolutionary Africa, through the riot stage of revolutionary Black Amerika." Jackson wrote, "We have finally arrived at scientific revolutionary socialism with the rest of the colonial world." And he comments—with relief—to a fellow activist, "I was hoping that you wouldn't get trapped in the riot stage like a great many other very sincere brothers. I have to browbeat them every day down here. They think they don't need ideology, strategy or tactics. They think being a warrior is quite enough. And yet, without discipline or direction, they'll end up washing cars, or unclaimed bodies in the city-state's morgue." Jackson goes further and says, "The only independent African societies today are socialistic. Those which allowed capitalism to remain are still neo-colonies. Any black who would defend an African military dictatorship is as much a fascist as [J. Edgar] Hoover."2
Jackson carefully separated "rioting" from armed struggle, which he calls "the very heart of revolution." "I'm convinced," he said, "that any serious organizing of people must carry with it from the start a potential threat of revolutionary violence. Without [the threat of violence], the establishment forces will succeed in isolating the political organizer and closing down his project before the people can feel its benefits. Self-determination requires a small, hidden, highly trained army equipped with the very best and most destructive of military weapons, and a bodyguard of counter-terrorists."3
I spend a great deal of my time immersed in the Black Liberation rhetoric of the 1960s, reading Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Assata Shakur, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and other writers. Because of my work with the Sixties Project4, I often find myself paging through old issues of The Black Panther Paper and Fire, reading reports of neighborhood organizing, militant political actions, obituaries of young black activists killed by police or federal agents, and the seemingly endless lists of those persons deemed counter-revolutionary and expelled from the Party. It's easy for me to forget that most Americans—black or white—haven't heard this kind of clearly expressed radical political rage in almost a quarter of a century.
I am regularly reminded of this fact, however, each time I teach a course on the 1960s and my students—black and white—(almost all born after the fall of Saigon in 1975)—express astonishment when exposed to these materials. They are not astonished at the bold style of the Black Liberation movement, for many of them are well acquainted with the equally bold posturing of the gangsta rappers who inhabit the urban airwaves, and black men posing with guns are either thrilling or intimidating (depending upon their perspective) but certainly not new to them. What does surprise my students is the pervasiveness of political references in these texts—from Fanon, to Ché, to Memmi, to Marx, to Mao—and the authors' clear embrasure of socialism and communism; words which they themselves cannot, usually, even define.
In this essay I'd like to consider the erasure of explicit political ideology in much of mainstream contemporary black popular culture, and the ways in which mythic narratives and iconography have come to substitute for economic and social analysis. Monster is the text in my hand, but it is representative of a much larger trend in film, in music, and in television as well as in literature.
Political scientist Michael Dawson argues that a venue for black public discussion—what he calls a "counterpublic" because it provides a space for an alternative to the white public sphere—existed in the 1960s and early 1970s in the form of both church and secular organizations within the Black community where intense political debate and practice proliferated. Dawson claims: "Black workers caucuses..., community-based civil rights and Black power organizations all provided forums for debate over the direction of Black liberation, the relation of the Black political action to political activity occurring throughout the policy, and created an environment that closely linked political debate to political action. These overlapping sets of discourse communities provided the foundation for many of the social movements of Blacks and whites during the height of the activism a generation ago."5
But Dawson believes that this counterpublic sphere was undermined by a combination of "state repression and internal dissension." COINTELPRO activities instigated intergroup violence, legal fights drained organizational coffers, and a withdrawal into race-interest-specific cadres fragmented a unified movement of people of color. Economic factors also undermined the black counterpublic sphere as "A structural shift in the U.S. economy away from manufacturing and toward low-wage service industries eroded the institutional base of the black counterpublic, and, in particular its points of contact with other oppositional forces. Finally, the Reagan presidential administration launched a "massive ideological attack on the fruits of the Civil Rights movement," refusing to talk with the established leadership of the black community, and working to systematically overturn black victories in the areas of voting rights, anti-segregation legislation, education, and economic advancement." Dawson believes that it will be difficult to rebuild the institutional and political bases for a healthy Black counterpublic because "mainstream political parties are engaged in a racial politics of distancing themselves from and attacking Black aspirations and Black-identified public policies, traditional civil rights, progressive and nationalist organizations within the Black community are also in disarray. With these organizations collectively at their lowest ebb since the beginning of the century... no national and only weak local forces exist to provide the type of organization base necessary for a flourishing counterpublic or multiple counterpublics."6
What does the decline of the Black counterpublic have to do with Sanyika Shakur's Monster? First of all, it means that Monster is a text produced in isolation from other African American texts, or, rather, in relation only to an idiosyncratic and limited number of other texts which are not representative of anything which might have, in the 1960s and early 1970s, represented black counterpublic discourse. It means that Monster is also heavily influenced by the white popular culture texts to which Sanyika Shakur has been exposed, and which—without a tradition of black critical discourse —he is helpless to critique.
Where George Jackson uncovered a lost history of critical exchange between African American and Third World intellectuals which connected him to a political conversation dating back to the early 19th century, Sanyika Shakur's narrative is almost entirely personal. It isn't until page 348 out of 383 that he describes his "political education," in the shadow of George Jackson's mythical presence in San Quentin prison, and then it is only to reel off a list of books and authors he has allegedly read: "Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-Tung, Amilcar Cabral, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, and George Jackson." He says he considered himself a communist for a while, but changed his mind because communism is, in his words, a Eurocentric philosophy. He fell out with the political study group in San Quentin because he believed, "We were making the same mistakes that the Black Panthers had made. We were importing revolutionary ideals, trying to apply them to our setting. In this light, those who could quote Marx, Mao, or Comrade George the most were the sharpest. It began to irritate the hell out of me. Nothing was corresponding with concrete conditions, and we had no mass appeal. On top of this, our troops sent back out into Babylon were falling prey to parochialism and tribalism." Rather than blaming the failure of the Panthers on state repression, he blames it on their "imported revolutionary ideals," and chooses to return to a condition of alienation, embracing a kind of traditional American individualism which leads him, inevitably, into despair over his own powerlessness, and a personal belief that the only solution is separation of the races. Back in jail for attacking a local drug dealer and "confiscating" his vehicle, Sanyika Shakur is hopeless and defeated.
What struck me most forcefully in my reading of Monster was not any connections between Sanyika Shakur's text and the writings of African American revolutionaries who preceded him, but the similarities between Monster and popular culture narratives of the Viet Nam War, like Oliver Stone's Platoon. In fact, Monster concludes with a comparison between the Rodney King uprising and the Viet Nam war. Let me share it with you:
[The beating of Rodney King] brought the realization of my powerlessness crashing down upon me, and with it, my rage and appetite for destruction rose. It was while in this mind-set that I clearly overstood the agitated rage meted out during the 1992 rebellion in Los Angeles, which was truly surprising to me. I wasn't surprised that it occurred—that was inevitable. But I was surprised by the swiftness with which it unfolded. Some people say that the participants burned their own neighborhoods, which seems as crazy as saying that the Vietnamese destroyed their land to route out the Americans....7
Here Sanyika Shakur identifies with the Vietnamese, against the occupying army of Americans, but it's an interesting twist on the story of the American lieutenant explaining that "we had to destroy this village in order to save it...." since (in Shakur's version) it's the Vietnamese (and their African American counterparts) who are forced to destroy their own village in order to save it. And in Sanyika Shakur's version, the victory of the National Liberation Front is hardly assured, since he concludes that the U.S.'s 130-year-old experiment of multiculturalism has failed, that the U.S. is dividing like Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that separation is the only solution.
A depoliticized, mythologized "history" of the Vietnam war has replaced political ideology in Sanyika Shakur's narrative, and this fictive "history" underlies much of African American contemporary popular culture. The demise of the black counterpublic sphere has resulted in the substitution of a white-constructed, black-reconstructed popular culture iconography—an iconography in which the Viet Nam war is widely represented. Sanyika Shakur refers to his neighborhood as "in-country" and "the war zone." He speaks of his participation "in the war" and uses Vietnam-era words like "free fire zone" and "escalation" to describe it. Though he sometimes refers to his job responsibilities in the Crips in terms also used by the Black Panther Party ("minister of information," "minister of defense"), he is more likely to use military language. Young Crips are "recruited." He explains:
"Each set (small gang unit) actually functions like the different divisions of, say, the U.S. Army. For instance, one who is in the Army may belong to the First Infantry Division, 1965th Infantry Brigade, Second Battalion, Delta Company. A member of a gang might belong to the West Side Crips, Eight Tray Gangsters, North Side Eighty-Third Street, or West Side Harvard Park Brims, Sixty-second Street.... There is the Crip Army and the Blood Army...."8
He describes an attack on a rival gang as "our own little Tet offensive." Again making the parallel between African American communities and Vietnamese communities, he writes:
"In Vietnam when a soldier was wounded badly enough he was sent home. Home was a place where there was peace. No real danger of the 'Cong existed stateside. The war was ten thousand miles away. In contrast, our war is where we live. Where do we go when we've been wounded bad, or when our minds have been reduced to mincemeat by years, not months, of constant combat? If Vietnam vets suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, then I contend that gang members who are combat soldiers are subject to the same mind-bend as are veterans of foreign wars."9
But where Huey Newton took the next step and equated the African American struggle for freedom with the Vietnamese war for liberation (actually offering to send a unit of Panthers over to assist Ho Chi Minh in his struggle)10, Shakur simply moves on to another topic, steadfastly refusing to introduce ideological arguments into his text.
The Vietnam war certainly had an enormous effect on the Black Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Many members of black radical organizations were veterans of the Viet Nam war who put their military training to use in organizing black self-defense groups. But the connection that Black activists were making with the war in those days was explicitly and entirely political—the Viet Nam war was "a white man's war," an "imperialist war" waged by white capitalist America on a Third World nation whose people fought for political independence and self-determination. In Monster the war has lost its historicity and been turned into a landscape in which "free fire zones" exist without political meaning, where the underlying "story" of the conflict goes without saying. Caught in a war without meaning, stripped of ideological tools for analysis, Sanyika Shakur is doomed to impotence and failure, despite his struggle to change his life. Only ideology can provide the basis for structural change, and structural change is what it will take to end gang warfare.
In pop culture terms, the platform of the Black Panther party and the Black liberation movement have been reduced to the image of the black-leather jacketed, black-beret wearing black man with a gun, stripped of ideological arguments. And the image of the black Viet Nam veteran has become indistinguishable from the image of the Black liberation fighter. The key word here is image, which necessarily goes without saying. If ideology was the heart of the Black liberation movement, and image was used to underline ideology, then today's representations of that movement directly contradict its intent, entirely replacing ideology with image. As Angela Davis notes in Black Popular Culture many producers of black popular culture today "call upon a market-mediated historical memory of the black movement of the sixties and seventies. The image of an armed Black man is considered the 'essence of revolutionary commitment today...."11
When I lecture on this subject, I often play a clip from a documentary film made in 1968, titled No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.12 I queue it up to a segment of an interview with Akmed Lorence, a young black Viet Nam veteran explaining to his white interviewer why he is so angry about the political and racial situation in the U.S., and what he intends to do about it:
You know this revolution is filled with so many ironies, really. First you tell us that it is manly to keep your word. If you are a man, you keep your word. And now all that the black people in this country are demanding, and even that the black people in the whole world are demanding. is that you keep your word. And let us see the justice and equality for all. Or else admit to us that you're not a man, you're a worm, you're afraid of us, you're afraid to give us equal standing. You're afraid that if you give us equal ground, that we will match you and override you. And if that's what you're afraid of, then tell us that's what you're afraid of. But don't keep hiding it from us and holding [welfare] up to us, and every time we ask you for something you give us a little bit of something, and it's all tokenism. We don't want tokenism. Most black men in this world don't want charity. And yet, still, every time we ask you for something you give us a little piece, a little piece. You're playing games with us. We're not children; we're big men. I've seen my father have to put up with all kinds of stuff. He was a big man. He raised a family. He went down south and he had to go around to the back door with his wife. We're not asking for anything, we're not asking for any favors. All we're asking for is what's ours. Now, there are many black veterans who are coming back and they're mad, they're angry. Do you think that they're going to sit down through this? Our fathers didn't have the knowledge that we have. They sat through it. But there are other black youth that are not going to sit through it. We know about Ch . We. We know about Fanon. We've read the books of revolution. We've listened to Mao and his quotations. We know where we stand. And we're not gonna sit for it. We're asking, and if we ask and we don't get, we're prepared to take it. If I ask a man, I tell him I am hungry, I tell him I am cold, and I ask him to do something about my condition, and this man holds a loaf of bread right in front of me so I can see it, and I keep asking him, I'm begging him to please give me a slice of the loaf of bread, I am hungry, then it is known by every psychologist in the country that I am going to knock him upside the head and take the bread from him. I'm not going to starve to death.
All we're asking—no one wants to see blood, no one likes the smell of blood, no one wants war, anyone who has been in war doesn't want war. Every [vet] knows what it's like to see the inside of a man's gut hanging out, and see your friends die, see relatives die. No one wants to regress back to the state of mind where you think, "It's all for the cause, therefore my mother has to die, my wife has to die, my brothers and sisters have to die." No one wants that. But you're pushing us to it. You're leaving us no choice. We're asking. We're begging. The students up at Columbia, they asked. The brothers down south asked. The brothers in Latin America, the brothers in Africa, they're all asking. All they're doing is asking. Our fathers asked. Our grandfathers asked. And yet, still, they asked and asked and asked and you refused to give them anything. And we're just about out of patience. We're not gonna ask any more And we're not going to take it. We're not going to take sitting in rotten parks and in places that just aren't fit for living. We're not going to take it. There's a limit to a man's patience and everyone knows that what we're asking for is humanity. We're asking to be allowed to live like human beings. And, God., you tell us that this is too much to ask. You're sick! You're definitely sick! How can you tell me that it's too much to ask to be a human being?
This is a remarkably convincing and articulate man, and he has quite explicit politics. Throughout the film he connects his ability to formulate revolutionary ideas with his understanding of other Third World radical intellectuals. He identifies with the Vietnamese, and is ready to go to war with America. The other two veterans interviewed on the tape express similar sentiments. I'd like to note the difference between this fellow and all the black Viet Nam veterans and soldiers that have been portrayed on film, with the notable exception of Stan Shaw's powerful character in The Boys in Company C.13 This man has a program. He is, as they say in the military, a highly motivated individual with an agenda of his own, and a plan to help his people. I play this segment because of the notable absence of this character from the popular culture scene, black or white. The segment proves that such men existed. The question is why they have been erased from history, why they are absent from both white and black popular culture productions.
When I lecture I contrast Lorence's fiery speech with a clip from John Singleton's celebrated directorial debut, Boyz in the Hood (1991). Boyz features Laurence Fishburn as a Viet Nam veteran, an advocate of armed self-defense, and a black community activist. But Fishburn's character, tellingly named "Furious", is no revolutionary as you will see in this transcription of the speech hie gives when he takes his son Tre and a friend out to Compton and lectures them on the need for black economic solidarity. He drives them out there to show them a billboard for "Seoul to Seoul Real Estate: Cash for your homes." As he talks, local gang members (who make his son and friend nervous) and an old man gather around to listen.
Furious: It's the Nineties. We can't afford to be afraid of our own people anymore. I want y'all to take a look at that sign up there and see what it says. Cash for your home. Know what that is? What are y'all? Amos and Andy? You Steppin' and he's Fetchit? I'm talking about the message—what it stands for. It's called gentrification. It's what happens with the property value of a certain area is brought down. Huh, you listening? Bring the property value down, they can buy the land at a lower price. Then they move all the people out,. Raise the property value, and sell it at a profit. Now, what we need to do is keep everything in our neighborhood—everything—black. Black owned with black money, just like the Jews, the Italians, the Mexicans, and the Koreans do.
Old man: Ain't nobody from outside bringing down the property value. It's these folk [gestures at the gang members], shooting each other and selling that crack rock and shit.
Furious: How you think the crack rock gets into the country? We don't own any planes. We don't own no ships. We are not the people who are flying and floating that shit in here. I know every time you turn on the TV that's what you see—black people selling the rock, pushing the rock, pushing the rock. But that wasn't a problem as long as it was here. That wasn't a problem until it was in Iowa, and it showed up on Wall Street where there are hardly any black people. And if you wanna talk about guns, why is it that there's a gun shop in almost every block in this community? For the same reason that there's a liquor store in almost every corner of the black community. They want us to kill ourselves. You don't see that shit in Beverly Hills. But they want us to kill ourselves. Yeah, the best way you can kill a people is you take away their ability to reproduce themselves. Who is that dying out here in these streets every night? Young brothers like yourselves!
Gang member: What am I supposed to do? Fool roll up and try to smoke me, I'm gonna shoot the motherfucker, he don't kill me first.
Furious: You doing exactly what they want you to do! You have to think, young brother, about your future.14
Playing off the racist "Seoul to Seoul" billboard, Furious launches into an argument for a separate black economy, black capitalists reinvesting in their own communities, and black self-help programs, just like the "Jews and Orientals" have. Ideologically, Furious seems quite confused. On the one hand he supports capitalism. On the other hand, he has a shadowy paranoid vision of a nationwide anti-black conspiracy that encourages black drug use in the ghetto, presents media images of blacks as drug dealers, seeds black urban areas with liquor stores and gun shops, and prevents black people from reproducing themselves; hardly a situation that can be resolved by adopting a particular economic strategy. Furious' rhetoric pushes lots of sympathetic buttons in black and white-liberal audiences (including the button of anti-Asian racism, underlined by his status as a Viet Nam war veteran). But in his strangely incoherent vision, there is little mention of the state—it is neither repressive nor supportive; it is, in fact, barely there at all. Boyz pretty much treats the state like it doesn't exist; it appears mostly in the form of a self-hating black cop who calls other black people "nigger" and tells Furious he should have shot an intruder and kept more "garbage" off the streets.
It would be foolish to argue that Singleton's apparent political naiveté is a result of his youth since many dedicated Black Panther Party members his age or younger had well-formed political ideologies, or had already died for them. Rather, it seems more likely that Singleton ignores the state because his personal experience and the contemporary popular culture representations upon which he drew to write and direct Boyz simply didn't provide him with the tools for state-based political analysis. Instead, what was available to him were the usual pop culture representations of black communities, and the rhetoric of the Black Muslims—a well publicized nationalist group with a focus on economic independence.
As Angela Davis notes,
Today, of course, young people are explicitly inspired by what they know about Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party.... On the one hand it is inspiring to discover a measure of historical awareness that, in our youth, my generation often lacked. But it is also unsettling. Because I know that almost inevitably my image is associated with a certain representation of Black nationalism that privileges those particular nationalisms with which some of us were locked in constant battle. What I am trying to suggest is that contemporary representations of nationalism in African American and diasporic popular culture are far too frequently reifications of a very complex and contradictory project that had emancipatory moments leading beyond itself.15
Davis explains that her work as a "nationalist" also included building alliances with Chicano and progressive white students, and that Huey Newton's nationalist work expanded to urging an end to verbal gay bashing, urging an examination of Black male sexuality, and calling for an alliance with developing gay liberation movements. She continues:
Such moments as these have been all but eradicated in popular representations today of the Black movement of the late sixties and early seventies. And I resent that the legacy I consider my own—one I also helped to construct—has been rendered invisible.... The only existing mass Black organization that can claim the so-called authority of having been there during the formative period of contemporary Black nationalism, and therefore, of carrying forth Malcolm X's legacy is the National of Islam.... Impulses toward collective political practice are being absorbed, in this instance, by a movement that accords nationalism the status of a religion.16
The final clip I show my audience is from the Mario Van Peebles film, Posse (1993). Van Peebles also made the more recent film, Panther (1995), which depicts the early days of the Black Panther Party, focusing on Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and on a fictional Viet Nam veteran Party member named Judge. Posse, which clearly foreshadows Panther and shows where Van Peebles is coming from politically, is also remarkable, chiefly for its deliberate mix of 1970s and 1990s popular culture.
Posse features Western hero Woody Strode as the old man who narrates the story of Jessie Lee. Lee is a black sharpshooter who fights white villains to establish the independence of the aptly named Freemanville, a black town in an unnamed Western state. Strode's character gives the movie an authentic "Western" aura. Strode starred in such historical Westerns as Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), and The Professionals (1966), made almost a dozen spaghetti Westerns in Italy under various directors there, and played roles on TV Westerns including How the West Was Won, Daniel Boon, and Rawhide.17 His presence in the film lends it both irony and authority—the sort of authority which can be conferred by an actor who has grown old gracefully in character. The presence of Seventies black film stars (Isaac Hayes18, Pam Grier19, Melvin Van Peebles20) usually associated with the blaxploitation genre give the film a gritty "street" credibility augmented by the contributions of Nineties rappers Tone Loc and Big Daddy Kane.
Posse both revises and reprises both traditional Westerns and contemporary Viet Nam war films. The movie's heroes are Viet Nam veterans. Well, not really. But they are Spanish American war veterans. Jessie Lee's father was a Martin Luther King, Jr.-style minister whose pacifist ways couldn't protect him from a lynching, and Jessie is the Next Generation Panther stand-in, an advocate and practitioner of armed self-defense. Deserters from the war, the protagonists flee a maniacal (and mercenary) Southern white commanding officer (Colonel Graham), played by Billy Zane. Jessie Lee manages, through a combination of strength and brains, to steal his evil officer's gold and bring his band back to his home town where the black settlers have long been fighting off the efforts of white cattlemen and railroaders to take their land. Jessie and his friends appear as the situation reaches crisis proportions and the townspeople's plight is worsened by the fact that Jessie's old commanding officer, Colonel Graham, joins forces with the white businessmen and thugs who wish to strip black people of their homes and possessions.
The scene I most often choose to screen is the showdown, where black townsfolk face off against evil white capitalists. Billy Zane (who must be the whitest white guy on the planet) is the arch-villain here, his unearthly beauty scarred by a black patch over one eye, where he was injured by Jessie Lee. It's worth going over the events and imagery in some detail, in order to point out how Viet Nam war imagery permeates the film, and how the pop culture history of that war displaces the ideology of black liberation, and allows Van Peebles to substitute iconography for intellectual analysis. Like the Viet Nam veteran Black Panther liberation fighters whom Van Peebles will later depict in Panther, Jessie Lee comes home from a racist war abroad to Freemanville and finds his people still oppressed by the white power structures. He and his band of brothers attempt to convince the townsfolk that they must stand up to force with force, but it is only after a predictable series of affronts and physical threats that they volunteer to be trained. This is right in line with the tradition of Hollywood Westerns, a Magnificent Seven arm-the-townsfolk-and-ambush-the-bad-guys strategy.
The bond between blacks and Indians is underlined by Jessie Lee's relationship with beautiful Claudia Cardinale look-alike Salli Richardson, who plays the part of Lana, the daughter of Jessie's mentor, a wise old Indian (of unspecified tribe). The alliance of veteran and Indian is interesting as a revision of most Viet Nam war films—the Viet Cong ("Indians," which they were, in fact, called by US soldiers during the war) and black warriors join forces against colonialist, imperialist and capitalist ventures, fighting off the Euro-American forces together (an alliance which underlines—if it does not directly refer to—Huey Newton's offer to send squads of Black Panthers to support Ho Chi Minh's troops in Viet Nam).
The scene begins with standard Western shots of the bad-guy gang riding into an apparently deserted town where they are met by apparently lone gunman Jessie Lee. It's a classic series of shots, trading back and forth between the faces fo tense white bad guys and the calm and very beautiful visage of the good guy hero. Lee is even wearing a recognizably Clint Eastwood-style hat. When Jessie confronts his enemy, he gives the standard Western hero pitch to their leader: "Just you and me," he says, indicating that they could settle it between themselves, like men, without involving civilians in bloodshed. But when the bad guys refuse to fight fair, Jessie changes the rules and demonstrates that though the white gang has come to destroy the black town, they have really secured the destruction of their own homes. Using pre-rigged dynamite, he blows up several buildings in their distant town, effectively bringing the war home and demonstrating the effectiveness of guerrilla tactics. Battle is soon joined in the streets of the black town, and the scene developes predictably, with the black townspeople routing the white invaders, though the careful placement of blaxploitation starts Hayes, Grier, and Van Peebles ensure that the audience understands that there's something going on here beyond the bounds of a traditional Western.
Just when it looks like Jessie's posse has won the day, Colonel Graham's forces ride into town with a Gatling gun, changing the odds with the introduction of a new and lethal weapon from the military-industrial alliance, turning a "fair fight" in the old Western tradition into a My Lai style slaughter. It is at this point that an old man (lost in the action, noise, and smoke) can be heard to whine softly, "Can't we all get along" in a voice styled after Rodney King's. Moments like this, and the one where a timid and stereotypically gay black bartender stands up to the white man ruining his bar by assaulting him and exclaiming, "You bitch!" make it clear that Van Peebles is engaged in actively creating a mythic past for contemporary urban black struggle. Likewise, the attempt by a black townsman to sell out his fellows by stealing the land deeds and making deals with the white men results in the traitor's death—he is shot in the back by his white "partner" during he action. Like Boyz in the Hood, Posse underlines the importance of black economic self-sufficiency.
Like many Westerns, this one culminates in the one-on-one battle between good and evil, between Jessie Lee and Colonel Graham. Predictably, Graham's forces capture Lee's lover and hold her hostage for the gold Lee stole from Graham at the beginning of the film. When Lee hands over the gold, Graham refuses to honor his side of the bargain and instead plays Russian Roulette with Lana (evoking, inevitably, the Russian Roulette imagery from The Deerhunter). Lee distracts Graham from his game by questioning his manhood and ability to command and taunting him about the scars he bears. The final hand-to-hand fight takes place in a burning saloon, intermixed with flashbacks of the murder of Jessie's father in a similarly burning building. Graham is, finally, defeated with his own sword: when he attempts to pick it up out of the fire it burns his hand; and when Jessie gets the upper hand he impales Graham on his own blade. One gets the idea that, having "polluted" himself by bringing in the Gatling gun, Graham gives up his right to the sword, which is a weapon of honor, and it turns on him. Down but not out (as no villain is out even when seemingly dead in these post-Terminator days), Zane comes bursting out of the burning saloon to take one last shot at Jessie and his friends before being gunned down in the street like a dog.
The final scene is a paen to black self help Lee says, "With all the gold we got, we could rebuild Freemanville better than ever. And that's what we gonna do." A little boy reads stumbling words out loud, the Indian woman smiles, the church bell tolls, a bucket brigade puts out the fires and the music swells. In an ironic reversal, though, an epigraph at the end of the film explains that the majority of black towns in the US actually were destroyed, so the film is carefully established as a fantasy. The epigraph also mentions that there were 8,000 black cowboys, and claims that Hollywood ignores black history. Then it cuts to the credits and a contemporary rap music score.
The state is nowhere to be seen—in fact, the Western setting of the film puts it outside the boundaries of any state, and thus Van Peebles is able to sidestep larger ideological questions. Instead, we're shown an anarchic frontier society where white lawlessness is replaced by black self-government, achieved through violent confrontation with white attackers. The transposition of the Black Power struggle to the Wild West removes the need for a coherent ideology, and instead allows us to relax within genre conventions. Still, the underlying rationale for separatism and black economic self-determination and self-help is quite obviously present. The Rodney King quote—clearly, we can not all get along—points out the failure of trying to "get along" with exploitive white people, but the film offers no solution for the racist state other than the genre convention of lighting out for the territories.
Though this is not an article about rap, per se, I'd like to move briefly to the rap genre and explore a couple of places where Panther/Viet Nam war crossovers are made in this medium as well. Posse used rappers as actors, and rap soundtracks are ubiquitous in black film. Mario Van Peeble's Panther, in fact, inspired an entire rap collection titled Pump Ya Fist.21 I've listened to it carefully and find the same elision of political ideology as I do in Sanyika Shakur's Monster. The "inspiration" appears to be chiefly related to black men carrying guns (no longer usually even connected with armed self-defense in the lyrics, serving instead as a sort of posture rather than a program) and in the recognition of universal black oppression. Similarly the CD State of Emergency: Society in Crisis v. 1 features a short cut titled "Geronimo Pratt," which is written by Pratt and was distributed by the International Campaign to Free Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt. Pratt is a Black Panther activist recently released after spending more than 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit; a frame-up conceived and carried out as part of the FBI's COINTELPRO program.22 He's yet another Viet Nam veteran who was a Panther leader in Los Angeles and was a victim of the FBI escalation of conflict between the Panthers and Karenga's US black nationalist organization. In the cut, his voice is used to create a parallel between oppression of the Vietnamese and oppression of black Americans. The 37-second clip contains the only cogent political analysis on the album, comparing US occupation of Viet Nam with white police occupation of black urban areas in the US:
The parallels, I go through Watts, I go through Chicago, I go through Harlem, and I see that the people in what's called the ghetto, the black community, the colonies or whatever you want to call them, were treated almost exactly the way we just got through treating Viet Cong or Vietnamese people in Vietnam. So I began to draw parallels that the police departments in these various situations, in these cities, were actually the same thing we were in Viet Nam—occupying forces.23
But Pratt's argument is not used to establish solidarity with Third World liberation movements. Rather, the cut segues into a voice-over lead-in to a "I Ain't Checkin' for the Curb," a rap tune by Bobcat that appropriates Pratt's clip and uses it as support for the claim that rappers will be oppressed and imprisoned until they stop making music.24 Pratt's statement is thus absorbed into the imagery of resistance in contemporary black popular culture and stripped of ideological weight and historical context.
Many rappers and gang bangers appear to identify with imagery of the Sixties. For example, most of the bangers in the book of oral histories, Uprising, about the L.A. Crips and Bloods truce appear to have seen the video The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973)25, though none of them seem to be aware that the film was based on the novel by Sam Greenlee. Their understanding of the film apparently operates on an individual rather than an organizational level—they think what the Spook was doing was cool, but they don't think about the revolution. There is even a rap tune, "Da Spook Dat Sat By Da Door,"26 about a banger who infiltrates the LAPD, but his revenge is always personal, and visited on individual cops. The tune was recorded by the group Ukfe Uye—the Pig Latin translation is obvious and can be taken at a number of levels.
Some rappers are descendants of the Panthers, like the late Tupac Shakur, whose mother Afeni was one of the Panther 21 arrested in New York, again as part of the COINTELPRO program of harassment of black activists.27 Tupac's politics seem as undefined as other rappers', despite his nods in the direction of his mother and the Panthers. In an interview in VIBE he said:
I know how to bow down to authority if it's authority that I respect. If Colin Powell was president, I'd follow him. I wanna get into politics. That's the way for us to overcome a lot of our obstacles. Nothing can stop power or recognize power but power... My mom and them envisioned this world for us to live in, and strove to make that world. So I was raised off those ideals, to want those. But in my own life, I saw that that world was impossible to have. It's a world in our head..."28
His rhetoric didn't get any more exact or explicit than this, and his nod to Colin Powell must make black and white progressives cock an eyebrow. It seems that little of the Panther could be found in Tupac except the promo pictures of him holding a gun.
Angela Davis warns us that "Where cultural representations do not reach out beyond themselves, there is the danger that they will function as surrogates for activism, that they will constitute both the beginning and end of political practice."29 Gangsta rap seems to embody this dilemma perfectly—adopting the posture of the black man with the gun without the ideologies which motivated the black liberationists. Furthermore, as Hazel Carby notes, "Black cultural texts have become fictional substitutes for the lack of any sustained social or political relationships with black people in a society that has retained many of its historical practices of apartheid in housing and schooling,"30 so black gangsta rap may be largely perceived throughout the culture as the extent of and reflection of black activism, particularly since the limitations which Dawson described have circumscribed the realm of the black counterpublic.