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An Audience with Kathleen Cleaver (or the Spectacle of Mr Next Question & Mrs No It Doesn’t Exist)

by | Mar 18, 2018 | Opinions, Views & Contexts

Last week, Tribe attended a conference event featuring eminent former Black Panther member, Kathleen Cleaver, organised by the Black Studies department of Birmingham City University.

Right from the outset, I can tell you these events are severely few and far between in the UK, and I was excited about how it would all go; the opportunity to actually be in the presence of someone who played such a key role in a game-changing organisation like the Black Panther Party, is a rare and sought-after experience by anyone interested in black, revolutionary or freedom-fighter history.

The weather was forecast to be particularly bad that day, but this didn’t stop us trekking down with our comrade-in-arms: the effervescent local celebrity, poet extraordinaire and founder of Leeds Young Authors, Khadijah Ibrahim (herself a Tribe supporter). Our discussions started early in the car, and before we knew it, we were in Birmingham.

Set the stage for her entry: Kathleen walks in to tumultuous applause, to which she greets the audience with the now symbolic and legendary fist of “Black Power”. She is radiant, energetic and clearly full of stories to tell.

She talked about her most vivid memories of meeting her ex-husband and the then minister of information for the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver, of whom she still recalled in a romantic and affectionate way; she reminisced about Oakland and California and her exiled time in France and Algeria, and spoke candidly about her children, Trump and her eventual settled life in Atlanta, serving as a senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law.

After her talk, the audience were invited to ask questions, and my Tribe instinct told me I had to get her take on something. A lot of people asked a variety of questions, ranging from black internationalism, black feminism and beyond; but one thing stood out for me from her talk more than anything else: the concept of unity.

Kathleen repeated the word unity and talked about the need of internal organisation to fight the racism that still permeates our dominant power structures today, but I wanted to know something else, and so I asked (in not the most articulate of ways – afterall, I was asking a Black Panther!): “As an Asian man, I’m very inspired by stories such as yours that motivate, inspire and empower, to constantly fight for change, rights and liberty, but how far do you think the call for unity should be extended? I describe myself as politically black…” – Birmingham wouldn’t have any of it.

The boos and heckling started, Kathleen looked confused (“I think that’s a controversial statement – apparently”), one man shouted saying, “that doesn’t exist”, and I heard someone else bellow “next question”. But Kathleen held up her hand and wanted me to finish the question.

And so did I, thank you very much.

I was quite taken aback by the reaction; I couldn’t understand what I had said that warranted such an outcry. After all, I was black – or, at the very least, I would’ve once been called black by the white gaze, and therefore I felt it gave me the authority to ask a question within a powerful black setting such as this.

But I later found out that it was because of this powerful black setting that the boos came: some sections of the audience presumed I was an Asian man trying to steal the limelight with Asian issues that should be first and foremost for black people; or that I was an Asian man trying to jump on the black bandwagon (now that the going was better) to further my own peoples’ ‘nefarious’ agenda against them. Of course, this wasn’t what I was doing.

If the man who had yelled “next question” actually heard my question in full, he would’ve probably walked out of the auditorium himself pretending to have received a call.

What I was alluding to in my question (and perhaps it could’ve been phrased better), was my staunch belief about the unity of all People of Colour and especially the unity of black & Asian people in Britain: the fact that all our experiences, however different, are also similar and originate (and have originated) from the same source, is both special and unique. So it would follow then that the way to combat it would be to come together.

Kathleen thought so too. She answered my question by referencing the Rainbow Coalition, which was a coalition movement that incorporated disparate voices of other People of Colour in America (Latino, Chinese, Hispanic etc.), to come together and become a political ‘power-punch’ against the ruling bodies; but (and this is the important bit) to understand that whilst they were all politically black (black here referring to “the other” of white homogenised society), they weren’t black by ethnicity and therefore should represent their own struggles, approaches and attitudes, but do so in a collaborative, connected and organised way. I wholeheartedly agree.

Kathleen continued to answer a few other questions after mine and the event came to a speedy end. But at the end, many people came up to me and told me that they got what I was trying to say, that the heckling was out of order and that I shouldn’t’ve been shut down like that. Another girl ran up to me and told me she didn’t want me to leave feeling defeated or negative after that experience and we struck up a friendship just on that point alone.

To me, this proved there already was solidarity in the room (and a difference of opinion, it would seem). But education on both sides of the fence – Asian and black communities who both harbour anti sentiments of the other – is needed to rectify the internal problem of discrimination and prejudice we have, before we can collectively tackle the bigger problems of our time:  structural racism, representation and reframing history so that it includes the global majority of politically black people around the world.

So yes, Mr Next Question and Mrs No It Doesn’t Exist – it does exist – the lady behind me also told me so (“But you are black!”). And it should be advocated for and implemented, because if we have ever needed to come together in modern times, its now. Really, now.

  • Tajpal Rathore