Angela Davis, "Tactfulness of the Heart: Jean Genet and The Black Panthers"

"Tactfulness of the Heart: Jean Genet and The Black Panthers"
Angela Davis

[Excerpts from an unpublished speech at the Odeon seminar in Paris, organized by Albert Dichy for IMEC, May 25th, 26th and 27th, 1991.]

When Jean Genet came to the USA in spring 1970, although it was our
first meeting with him, there were many of us Black Americans who
already considered him an ally because of his play The Blacks that had
showed in New York a few years before. The Black Panther Party invited
Genet so he could help them, holding conferences in different
universities over the USA. It was a major critical stage of the black
of struggle in the USA. I was in charge of translating his speeches,
for instance at UCLA where I was teaching philosophy. A party was
arranged for him in the house of filmmaker Dalton Trumbo in Hollywood:
many stars showed up and it helped raise funds to pay the imprisoned
Panthers' lawyers. David Hilliard, a member of the Black Panther
Party, largely mentioned in Prisoner of Love, told me Genet had
arrived with worn out clothes and was asked to get a bit dressed up.
He was taken to a San Francisco shop run by a Black man so moved that
Genet came to the USA to help the Panthers, he offered him a jacket, a
pair of trousers and a shirt. I remember him, so happy to wear these
gifts, and me, so excited to meet him. I knew his writings, he was a
mythical character to me but, face to face with him, I had an almost
motherly feeling. He was like a little boy, very kind and laughing a
lot . . .

At the time he gave his speeches, the situation was quite complicated:
there were not many White folks willing to support an organization
very wrongly described as a "terrorist" one, made up of people willing
to kill policemen, etc. At the time, I was a member of this movement
and had lost my job as a teacher in UCLA but I quashed the decision on
appeal and was reintegrated. It was very difficult to succeed in
spreading out the movement and find support for Black political
prisoners. On the campus, teachers and students alike would often
demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. For instance, there had been
a demonstration against Nixon's policy in Vietnam with ten to fifteen
thousand persons; nevertheless, two weeks later, when we tried to
arrange another demonstration to obtain the release of Bobby Seale,
Erika Huggins and the "Soledad Brothers" ( George Jackson, John
Clutchette, Fleeta Drumgo) who were in jail, we only managed to gather
two hundred persons, most of them Blacks. We just didn't succeed in
raising a great multiracial movement and thought Genet, thanks to his
fame, could help us reach White progressives.

When we advertised for his conference, the posters did not mention
that Genet would talk about the Black Panthers. We just said he would
speak and a huge crowd came to hear him because he was Jean Genet, the
great writer. He started saying he would talk about the Black Panthers
and made a very moving appeal - a very theoretically advanced one, I'd
say - about how to fight racism. Genet had made some proposals twenty
years before that we just started to develop; for instance the White
participation in the struggle against racism. After a quarter of an
hour, many members of the audience started to get upset and to whisper
and, suddenly, someone even interrupted Genet asking him to speak, at
last, of himself and his work! Genet answered: "No, I'm not here to
talk about literature or my books. I came to defend the Black Panther

Then, something deeply shocking to me occurred: half of the audience
progressively left the place. They didn't want to hear about the BPP.
For us, it was a real lesson. We could judge how much work had to be
done to generate a real movement against racism. Many teachers I was
familiar with were unable to attend such debates because, in a way,
they felt Genet was accusing them of collusion. However, those who did
stay were giving us something invaluable. Genet knew how to speak his
heart without pity or condescension. Now, we have learned how not to
mistake solidarity feelings for feelings of pity among the
representatives of the ruling culture. Genet, he already knew how to
distinguish them. In his Yale speech, on the Mayday Speech day, he
even goes so far as to advocate the development of a "tactfulness of
the heart" when dealing with Black folks. He also says that Blacks had
silently been observing Whites for centuries and had learned a lot
about them and their cultural background. And Whites did not even
realize they were being observed. What we develop nowadays in our
lectures means the same: White folks have got to go to Black school;
they have to learn something from them. From Black folks but also
Indians, Chicanos and the whole multicultural U.S. population.

One last important point: it was Genet who heightened the Black
Panther Party awareness to the Homosexual Rights issue. David Hilliard
told me that when they were traveling together from state to state,
from one university to another, some members of the Party were using
very rude and homophobic words to insult Nixon or Mitchell. Genet was
hurt by these words and told them they should not use such vocabulary.
One night, he even showed up at the hotel - there used to be four or
five men per room during these trips - dressed in a sort of pink
negligee, and a cigar in his mouth. Well, they all thought Genet was
going crazy! He had just wanted to bring about a discussion on the
similarities between the struggle against racism and the struggle
against homophobia. After these trips in 1970, David Hilliard and his
mates largely spoke of the matter with Huey Newton (the BPP's
president, in jail at the time) and later published soon after an
important article in the BPP's newspaper saying:

"Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about
homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals
and women (Genet also had spoke about women's liberation during his
stay - Angela's note), we should try to unite with them in a
revolutionary fashion. I say: 'whatever your insecurities are' because
as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a
homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit
a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be
homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are
afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not
have to start with. [ . . . ] Remember, we have not established a
revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing
it. I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a
revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a
revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their
particular kind of oppression. [ . . . ] And I know through reading,
and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are
not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be
the most oppressed people in the society. [ . . . ]"