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Ericka Huggins and "Black Power Mixtape"


Ericka Huggins grew up in Washington, D. C. And at age 15, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” march changed her life.

“When I went to the March on Washington in 1963, I made a vow to serve people for the rest of my life,” she said. “I’d never seen that many people gathered for something that wasn’t entertainment. These were people of color gathered from all over the country who got there by any means.”

To make good on her promise of service, Huggins started looking for an organization that fit with her values. She decided on the Black Panther Party, which was then called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

“I totally understood what that meant,” she said. “My sister and brother and I had grown up watching the police beat people to the ground for no reason. Then I would notice when I went to Northwest or Capitol Hill, the police weren’t beating people.”

A new documentary, “Black Power Mixtape, portrays that period of Huggins’ life in the Black Panther Party, which she joined when she was 18. Göran Hugo Olsson, a Swedish filmmaker, made the movie using footage filmed in America for Swedish TV during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Actor Danny Glover was a producer and there is commentary from contemporary artists and activists such as singer Erykah Badu, poet Sonia Sanchez, and founding member of The Last Poets, Abiodun Oyewole.

Huggins thinks the documentary, which shows her fellow Black Panther Party members, including Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, offers a fresh perspective since it’s made by someone not from the United States. An American filmmaker, Huggins said, would try and tell the audience how to think about the footage on the screen.

“When the conversation is the history of race and class discrimination in the United States, there is an apology for it, there is denial about it and there is a discomfort,” she said. “Göran Olsson has no discomfort—he’s just letting the footage tell the story, and he’s humble enough to know that he wasn’t here during that time and even if he was he wouldn’t know the experience of the people on the screen.” As a young woman, Huggins became a leader in the Black Panthers. She participated in weekly political education classes and says she found the party’s slogan, “All power to all the people,” true.

“We had various conversations about how important it is for there to be equality between men and women,” she said. “We considered ourselves revolutionaries, and wouldn’t that be one of the most revolutionary things to do? But practicing it in action is another story because these things are embedded, and not only do men hold these embedded notions, so do women.”

Huggins said she and some others told Huey Newton, one of the founders of the party, that they wanted some women on the party’s Central Committee. Huggins was one of those six women. Newton also wrote a memo in 1970, Huggins said, supporting the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement.

Talking about issues of race and class and gender is the only way things will get better, Huggins said. But she thinks Americans don’t want to have those conversations.

“We’re taught that, for instance, American slavery is old,” she said. “‘Oh, it happened so many hundreds of years ago, why talk about it?’ Or class – ‘Well, in America we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.’ Or ‘Women have come a long way.’ That does not open the conversation or further it in any mindful way—it stifles it.”

Because of the inequality she saw in schools, Huggins decided to become a teacher. While in the Black Panther Party, she directed one of its best-known programs, the Oakland Community School. She also became the first woman and the first black person elected to the Alameda County Board of Education. Huggins, who now teaches women’s studies and sociology at San Francisco State University and California State University East Bay, as well as classes in prisons, says she encourages students to talk about race and gender.

“I just allow for there to be all kinds of ideas. Even the idea there’s nothing to talk about is OK because that’s how we get into it,” she said. “The only way we’re going to shift this is if we’re in a conversation and we’re willing to stay in it. And there’s something about ‘Black Power Mixtape’ that opens conversation.”

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