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Incidences de l'événement

 | 
Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry
, 
Claudine Raynaud

II. Les temps de l'histoire/the times of history

Writing History: Time and Event in Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time

Hélène Christol

Résumé

La réédition en 1991 de l’autobiographie de Bobby Seale (1ère édition : 1970) a remis en lumière certaines des questions qu’ont examinées les historiens des années soixante-dix et quatre-vingt-dix sur l’écriture de l’histoire, et en particulier sur la nature de ce que Ton nomme « événement » en histoire. Confrontant les définitions offertes par Pierre Nora dans son article intitulé « L’Événement monstre », repris plus tard sous le titre « Le Retour de l’événement », et les mises en scène des temps, tempos et mises en intrigue du texte de Seale, cet essai analyse la façon dont Seale et le Black Panther Party réinventent les critères qui « font » l’événement, —immédiateté, visibilité, publicité, spectacle. Nouveau médium qui transforme l’action militante en moments épiphaniques où les hommes deviennent icônes et le langage instrument de lutte, l’événement se reconstruit comme « le merveilleux des sociétés démocratiques », point de départ d’une nouvelle histoire américaine des résistances.

The 1991 edition of Bobby Seale’s autobiography (first published in 1970) shed light on some of the issues that historians examined in the 1970s and 1990s concerning the writing of history and, in particular, the nature of what is called an “event” in history. Confronting the definitions given by Pierre Nora in his article entitled “L’Evénement monstre”, later published as “Le Retour de l’événement”, with the staging of time and tempos, and the methods of emplotment used in Seale’s text, the author of this essay analyses the way in which Seale and the Black Panther Party reinvented the criteria that “define” an event: immediacy, visibility, publicity, and performance. As a new medium, which transforms militant action into epiphanic moments, when men become icons and language an instrument of struggle, the event is reconstructed as the “re mirabilis of democratic societies”, the starting point of a new American history of resistance.

Texte intégral

L’histoire […] n’existe pas: il n’existe que des « histoires de… » Un événement n’a de sens que dans une série, le nombre de séries est indéfini, elles ne se commandent pas hiérarchiquement et on verra qu’elles ne convergent pas non plus vers le géométral de toutes les perspectives.
Comment on écrit l’histoire, Veyne, 1971, 29.

1In his preface to the second edition of The Shaping of Black America (1993), Lerone Bennett defined his book as “an essay in historical reconstruction” and stressed that when writing it, he had aimed at creating some kind of “developmental history” rather than reproducing a classical chronological history of African Americans in the United States. “I have been interested in the forces and events that made black America what it is today,” he wrote…. “It should be clear by now […] that understanding the black experience requires new concepts and a radically different perspective” (Bennett, 1993, II). For Bennett, blacks had lived a different time and a different reality, and any historian dealing with their history had to take it into account. Thus the necessity to reshuffle time sequences or to recover silenced events, thereby deconstructing official histories, while at the same time reexamining our assumptions about the nature and quality of what is usually defined as an historical event.

  • 1 Hereafter all references are to Seale’s 1991 edition of Seize the Time abbreviated as ST.

2To explore such questions and themes, this essay will use two texts that deal theoretically and literally with the problem of the construction of the event and its impact on the writing of history, and more particularly, of black history: one is Pierre Nora s article first published in Communications in 1972 entitled “L’Evénement monstre”, reedited in Faire de l’histoire: Nouveaux problèmes with the new title “Le retour de l’événement” (The Return of the Event). The other one is Seize the Time, Bobby Seale’s 1970 book, reedited in 1991, whose aim was, as the subtitle noted, to write the story of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and of Huey Newton.1 Both posed the problem of the context in which the texts of contemporary histories were written (Seale first recording and then writing the story of the Black Panther Party), and of the way in which the contemporary historian could confront new documents not yet tested by time and distance. Nora’s central contention is that no other period in time has ever lived its present time (or rather its life and history in the present tense) more than our own time. World wars, revolutions, wars of liberation, new systems of communication, whatever is now called “globalization” has led to the mobilization of the masses who had previously formed for historians the indistinct conglomerate of civilians, far removed from the front line of so-called historical events, while colonization and decolonization movements have caused the integration into western historicity of whole societies whose people had been considered as having no history of their own or had been silenced by various types of oppression. Such vast democratization of history has its own logic, its own laws and has provoked new definitions and a new status of the event. In the cycle of its production and reception, the new event is characterized by its immediacy and its link with the rise of the media and communication networks that give it visibility and publicity. Relayed by messages, voices, images and staged representations, the event has become indissolubly linked with an act of performance, a monster without disguise.

3Moreover, selecting the series of events that compose history has always been the privilege of the historian who could define them at a distance, in the past, from the critical perspective of a work based on duration, comparisons, and hierarchical systems of different series. Seale’s point and method when writing the history of the BPP were obviously different: he no longer carefully constructed the sequence of past series but “seized the time”, and considered “life as lived in the present” as history. Such promotion of the immediate to the historical, of “life as lived now” to the legendary which transforms simple facts into events, also corresponded to Nora’s analysis of the new modes in which some contemporary history treats events.

4Seale’s narration of the birth and workings of the BPP is a useful document for what it tells the reader about its subject, the creation and development of the party, but also because of the way in which its narrative strategies allow the reader to guess its ideological construct—what we might call its ideological time. The title itself is ambiguous: “seize the time” might be interpreted as understanding the times, thus as introducing a book whose essential aim was to tell how the party was created, to write the true narrative of the story of the BPP, restoring the truth that was manipulated and distorted by FBI reports, sensational articles, or white and black enemies of the party. In the Foreword, Seale asserts:

There are a lot of misconceptions about the BPP. I wanted to write this book so people could have a better insight into the workings of the Party, so that people would have a more true understanding of the BPP—what it really does, the kind of people who are in it, their everyday lives, the things that have happened to the Party. (ST, ix)

5Seale’s goal was to write the true history of the group and restore some kind of historical perspective, “righting”, putting straight the facts and events which marked the growth of the BPP, and also the true history of the black nation, a nation without a voice or historical markers that “no news report, TV documentary, book or magazine ha(d) yet expressed” (ST, x). Discovering, restoring that history permitted the emergence of another history, which had never been told or at least in the words of the official canons. After all, as Brantlinger noted in his 1990 book, Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America, “historical consciousness is itself the product of ideological struggle in which the powerful seek to tell their singular, self-congratulatory story and to repress other stories” (Brantlinger, 1990, 150). Recapturing the other stories is one way of discarding discursive practices that were historically dominant ways of controlling and preserving social relations of exploitation (as shown in Foucault s analysis of the relations between knowledge and power). In that sense, knowing your history is crucial to the growth of the community. Huey Newton organized Black history classes at the service center when he was a community organizer, and Seale decided to learn and then write the true history of black people after attending classes on Negro History at Merritt College in which “the cat that was teaching it didn’t know what he was doing. He really wasn t teaching Black history, he was teaching American History and reiterating slavery and the period of slavery and the old traditional way they relate to black people in slavery” (Seale, 1991, 20). The mere writing, learning or teaching of the true history of the group “with a proper perspective” is in itself a political act. Indeed Seize the Time also reads like a slogan, an exhortation to grasp the opportunity to fight against oppression, as clearly stated in the conclusion to the text:

We know that as a people, we must seize our time… Huey P. Newton seized the time when he moved and put the BPP into motion… The time is now to wage relentless revolutionary struggle against the fascist, avaricious, demagogic ruling class and their lowlife, sadistic pigs. Power to the People! Seize the Time! (ST, 429)

6The use of italics, of implicit capital letters in the final inscription SEIZE THE TIME underlines the militant committed tone and the use of the text itself as a political pamphlet to educate and organize the people. Between the two quotations given above, one opening Seale’s text, the other closing it, the book develops these two dimensions of time as exemplified in the expression “Right on”, which in fact was first used by black people as “right on time,” an expression defined by Seale as “a shortened form of identifying something that’s said or done as really true and really right” (ST, 411). True and right, the two perspectives of the text which carefully constructs its emplotment around the staging of particular time sequences and tempos, as well as the careful construction of events lined up in meaningful series in the narrative, the events working only as one of the variables of the plot, as carefully constructed as they were devised by the BPP itself in the streets of Oakland: the narration on the page and the action in the street share in fact the same characteristics to create the time of action and organize the event.

7Interestingly, Seize the Time is not essentially an autobiography, even though it was written in the first person. Some autobiographical details are mentioned occasionally—Seale’s birth date, birth place, wife and children, jobs, prison, Chicago trial; yet the time of the text is not the personal time of Seale as an individual with his own story, contrary to other black autobiographies such as that of Assata Shakur or Malcolm X. In fact, even if the goal in such militant autobiographies was also to revise the history of “Amerika” and to encourage the reader to action, it did so by using the personal experience of their narrators as paradigmatic lives, by transforming their own private confessions into the song of all oppressed black people. The personal narrative changed the main actor into a character who could work as a model for the group’s liberation. As witness history, it rewrote the history of the people. In Seale’s book, the focus shifts from the narrator to other heroes and role models, and especially to Huey Newton. Instead of following the chronology of the author’s life, the time sequence is based on the different stages that marked the development of the group and it isolates the main events, the epiphanies that founded the growth of the BPP: growing up, getting the party going, picking up the gun, freeing Huey, the Chicago trial, all incidents that serve as time markers in the structure of the text. The rare personal events reported—the birth of Seale’s first son for instance—are in fact inserted in this history of the black community:

When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said: “the nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.” “I don’t want him named that,” Artie said… “Why Stagolee?” “Because Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. All we have to do is organize a state like Nkrumah attempted to do.” (ST, 4)

8In the space of one paragraph, three characters are named who define an autonomous periodization for the history of black people, a line moving from Panafricanism to black nationalism and socialism: Nkrumah, Malcolm X and the “unorganized nigger off the block”, a member of the Lumpenproletariat turned into cultural folk hero, Stagolee, the main actor in the liberation of oppressed nations as defined by the BPP.

9Indeed the autobiography inscribes itself immediately in the larger history of oppressed and black people; in fact it defines itself as “the biography of oppressed America, black and white” (ST, x) and writes its history in aggressive popular terms, echoing Michelet’s words that History is a novel written by the people. Its episodes are selected to eventually send their ultimate political message and the tempo of the text rests on the timing of carefully selected events: chronology is less important than the staging of events, which become the essential reference points in what we might call a new series of ideologically meaningful moments.

10The BPP as shown by Seale seems to have been a master in producing events along Nora’s essential criteria of immediacy (happenings, now), visibility/publicity (as something which must be known) and performance (something offered as a spectacle). It kept emphasizing the role of performance in public discourse and political action—be it in the name of self-celebration or in the service of collective identity formation. Most of its demonstrations, its use of uniforms, its interventions in the streets and in the California legislature, can be seen as texts, performative spaces and events in which collective identity was both really and symbolically deconstructed and reconstructed. The event is not what happens, but what you make happen. Such activist staging of action was to be found in all the activities of the BPP: free breakfasts for children, health clinics, black history community sessions, Junior Panther groups in uniforms, “neighborhood organizing”, etc. The perfect stage was the street just off the block, which ensured maximum visibility to the members just in front of the eyes of their targeted audience. The demonstrations were to a certain extent theatrical performances that represented social interactions leading to the organizing and liberation of the black community. “The brothers observing,” writes Seale, “would see that those pigs were scared of that big gun that a bad black but beautiful nigger had in hand” (ST, 92). One example of such staging and dramatizing of conflict, which ensured the publicity of the action, was for instance the demonstration organized to protest against the shooting of Denzil Dowell: “Imagine an intersection,” wrote Seale. “The whole intersection was lined up with Panthers, all up and down the corners, going north, east, south and west on both sides of the streets. And we had our guns, shotguns, pistols and everything” (ST, 137). Blocking the traffic, confronting policemen, organizing communal response helped to publicize the issue of the murder of blacks by the police, turned into a revealed fact of American history and also inscribed the name of Denzil Dowell in the American History textbooks, in the book of the Dead. The same effect was achieved with the invasion of the Capitol in Sacramento in 1967, described twice by Seale as “a colossal event” (ST, 154,162), colossal less because of its immediate results—which sent Seale and his companions to jail—than by the historical symbolical impact of armed blacks, “niggers with guns,” invading the Assembly. The ¡ conization of the instant, as in this image of niggers with guns, or in the photographs of black Panther party members massed in front of the Alameda County Courthouse in 1968, or marching with flags and black berets in Defermery Park in Oakland, transformed an isolated moment into an event, creating a working image which Seale uses as a frame and founding stone to structure his text.

11On the other hand, the iconization of leaders as heroes fulfills the same function, transforming obscure individuals into historical and cultural models, as makers of history. Seize the Time also reads as a truly hagiographic biography of Huey Newton, which replaces to a certain extent what could have been Seale’s autobiography: “Huey,” writes Seale, “was something else. Huey was out of sight. He knew how to do it. Huey was ten motherfuckers” (ST, 83). His portrait also serves as an epigraph to the whole book:

Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense, the baddest motherfucker ever to set foot in history… the brother, black man, a nigger, the descendant of slaves, who stood up in the heart of the ghetto at night, in alleys, confronted by racist pigs with guns and said: “My name is Huey Newton… I’m standing on my constitutional rights, I am not going to allow you to brutalize me. I am going to stop you from brutalizing my people. You got your gun, pig, I got mine. If you shoot at me, I’m shooting back.” (ST, xii)

12Huey as patron and saint, the first in Seale’s pantheon of great men. Other figures in the text join him as heroes, Cleaver, Charles Garry, the white lawyer of the BPP, described as “the Lenin of the courtroom.” (ST, 274). Nora wrote that “l’événement, c’est le merveilleux des société démocratiques” (Nora, 1974, 294): in a way, this iconization of “great men” born in the space of ghettoes and poor communities could play such a role in giving its epiphanic dimension to moments in their lives and the lives of the community.

13Finally, such iconic transformation also affects the language of the narration. The rhetoric of the revolution creates another performance in the text. In a significant way, the book contains a glossary, like some kind of scientific apparatus or footnotes that underlines the keywords of the book: the entries “off the pigs,” “bull,” “field nigger,” “motherfucker” partake of the violence and the construction of the event, indicating that it is always a moment of rupture or crisis, since even the vocabulary to describe it has to be explained and commented on, and that the historian who tells the story remains the master not only of the selection and ordering of events, of the narration, but also of the words to write it. In the entry “motherfucker” for instance, Seale shows how the word changes meaning when it is used by the master or by the black boys of the ghettos. “With the rising consciousness of black people learning about Black History in general,” (ST, 408) the word acquires a positive connotation as a “real complimentary statement to a brother or even a sister” (ST, 408) and Seale uses it several times in his book with its multiple meanings.

14Visibility, performance, crisis, history of the present, ideology, these are some of Nora’s terms which can be used to try and define the event in Seize the Time, a concept closely linked to that of time in the construction of the text. Most of the book was in fact tape recorded in 1969 and 1970 when Seale was in jail and was threatened by two major political trials. The narration concerned Seale’s present life at the time when he was recording it and the way in which it was elaborated emphasized the immediacy and the performance of the instant when the recording took place. When Seize the Time was republished in 1991, it had become a thing of the past, tragically illumined by subsequent events, the discovery of the COINTELPRO attacks against the BPP, the harassing of the members leading to the death and imprisonment of numerous Panthers, and especially the death of Newton, provoked by drugs and a young drug dealer in 1989, a victim of what Seale called the “vicious cycle of Black community self-destruction” (ST, iii). A retrospective reading of the text leads to a slightly different apprehension of its time structure and burning present. Yet the BPP and Seale’s book certainly participated in the “return of the event,” while defining new variables for its staging and historical role. To quote one journalist, the Panthers were “guerrilla theater masterfully done,” “Media Age revolutionaries, gifted with words, good at sloganeering, irresistibly photogenic, scary on television. They were the Bad Niggers of white America’s nightmares come chillingly to life” (Newsweek, 1970, 26). Seize the Time redefined time in a militant way as the ideological intersection of the past, present and future, the necessary factor which would determine the destiny of black Americans; it was also an appeal to American historians to reconsider their historical “series of events” and start writing the American history of resistance.

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Ankersmit, F. R., Ed. 1986. Knowing and Telling History: the Anglo-Saxon Debate. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press.

Ariès, Philippe. 1986. Le Temps de l’histoire. Paris: Seuil.

Bennett, Lerone. 1993 [1975]. The Shaping of Black America. New York: Penguin Books.

Brantlinger, Patrick. 1990. Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America. New York: Routledge.

Cleaver, Kathleen and George Katsiaficas Eds. 2001. Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party. New York: Routledge.

De Certeau, Michel. 1988 [1975], L’Ecriture de l’histoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, Michel. 1969. L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard.

Marine, Gene. 1969. The Black Panthers. New York: Rampart Books.

Nora, Pierre. 1974. “Le Retour de l’événement.” In Faire de l’histoire, Nouveaux problèmes, Vol. l. Ed. Jacques Le Goff et Pierre Nora. Paris: Gallimard,

Seale, Bobby. 1991 [1970]. Seize the Time: the Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton. Baltimore: Black Classic Press. (First edition: Random House).

Veyne, Paul. 1971. Comment on écrit l’histoire. Paris: Seuil.

Article

1970. “The Panthers and the Law,” Newsweek, February 23, 26-30.

Notes

1 Hereafter all references are to Seale’s 1991 edition of Seize the Time abbreviated as ST.

Auteur

Professeur de littérature et civilisation américaines (Etats-Unis) à l’Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille 1. Auteur d’une thèse de doctorat d’état sur l’affaire Sacco-Vanzetti et les écrivains américains, elle a publié de nombreux ouvrages et articles sur la pensée radicale américaine et ses écritures (contestations ouvrières, féministes et ethniques) ainsi que sur les cultures africaines américaines.
Professor of Literature and American Studies at the University of Provence at Aix-Marseille 1. After having conducted research for her doctoral dissertation on the Sacco-Vanzetti case and American writers, she published numerous books and articles on American radical thought and related writings (working-class, feminist and ethnic protest) as well as on African-American culture.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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