Elaine Brown

A Taste of Power

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A Taste of Power Summary

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American author and activist Elaine Brown’s memoir, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (1992), details Brown’s childhood in North Philadelphia and the years she spent as chairwoman of the Black Panther Party. Brown was the first and only woman to serve as a leader of the Black Panthers.

Born in 1943 in North Philadelphia, Brown grew up surrounded by abject poverty. Despite this and the absence of a father in the family, Brown’s mother, Dorothy, did all she could to insulate her daughter from the ill-effects of inner-city poverty. Dorothy worked constantly to ensure Brown could attend private schools and receive piano lessons. She managed to enroll her daughter in an experimental elementary school in an upper-class neighborhood where almost of her classmates were white. There, Brown learned ballet and classical piano. As a result of having a predominantly white peer group at school, Brown rarely associated with people of color throughout her childhood and into young adulthood. In her teenage years, Brown attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls. Though a public institution, it was a preparatory school designed for gifted students.

Upon graduating, Brown enrolled at Philadelphia’s Temple University but left before the first semester ended. At the age of nineteen, she moved to Los Angeles to chase her dream of becoming a professional songwriter. At this time, most of her friends were still white. Struggling to gain a foothold in the music industry, Brown worked as a cocktail waitress at a strip club known as the Pink Pussycat. Around this time, Brown began an affair with a married white man, Jay Kennedy. Kennedy was a fixture in the Los Angeles music industry, having worked for Frank Sinatra and serving as Harry Belafonte’s business manager.

Perhaps ironically, the white Kennedy introduced Brown to many of the political notions undergirding the Civil Rights Movement. He also introduced her to what she considered at the time to be fairly radical ideas regarding communism and workers’ rights. While her affair with Kennedy eventually ended, his political influence stayed with her. She began participating in events associated with black liberation and worked as a reporter for Harambee, a newspaper published by the Los Angeles Black Congress. Eager to expand her education, Brown enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles in 1968 where she became the first person to represent the Black Student Alliance in California’s Black Congress.

That same year, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This was in many ways a flashpoint in Brown’s political evolution. The tragedy led her to attend her first Black Panther meeting, held by the Los Angeles chapter. Founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, the Black Panther Party was originally started as an armed watchdog group that would monitor and protect black citizens from the Oakland Police Department, which they accused of routine acts of police brutality against the black community. Within two years, the group had evolved into an organization aimed at direct political action associated with the advancement and liberation of black Americans all over the country. By the end of 1968, the Black Panther Party had established chapters in dozens of major cities including New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Atlanta.

Entering the organization as a rank-and-file member, Brown’s initial tasks included selling newspapers and cleaning guns. Before long, however, she became an instrumental member of the group, expanding the organization’s highly successful Free Breakfast for Children program to Los Angeles. She also helped establish the organization’s first Free Busing to Prisons program. Before the year was out, Black Panther chief of staff David Hilliard approached Brown to record and release an album of politically charged songs she had written called Seize the Time.

Three years later in 1971, Brown had ascended to become a part of the organization’s Central Committee, replacing Eldridge Cleaver as Minister of Information. Around this time, Brown and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton became lovers. In 1974, a pivotal year for Brown, Newton had been arrested in the murder of Kathleen Smith, a seventeen-year-old sex worker who, according to authorities, was shot and killed by Newton after she called him, “Baby,” a nickname Newton had detested ever since he was a child. After posting an $80,000 bond, Newton fled to Cuba, installing Brown as the new leader of the party. While Brown had long embraced the black revolution, it was around this time that she also began to embrace the feminist revolution, largely in response to the patriarchal structures she observed as head of the party.

Brown served as leader of the party until 1977. During that time, she founded the Panther Liberation School and served as manager for the successful mayoral campaign of Lionel Wilson, Oakland’s first-ever black mayor. When Newton returned to the United States that year, Brown didn’t step down immediately. However, it wasn’t long before Newton’s sexism and brutality led her to question her allegiance to the party. The final straw occurred when Newton authorized the vicious beating of Regina Davis just because she reprimanded a male coworker at the Panther Liberation School. To escape the Panthers, Brown relocated to Los Angeles and later to France, where she lived when she published A Taste of Power.

A Taste of Power is a fascinating memoir that explores issues of race and gender while providing a history of the Black Panther Party as told by one of its most important members.