By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
They rocked naturals and a confidence born of knowledge of self. They were Black power personified.
The women of the Black Panther Party are being celebrated in the pages of a new book by Stephen Shames and Ericka Huggins. “Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party” commands attention, just as the members of the organization did decades ago in agitating, protesting and organizing in pursuit of social justice, fair housing and education and better health care for their people.
“Comrade Sisters” features more than 100 black and white photos by Shames that take you back in time. Many haven’t been published before. The photos capture the women in the moments that made the movement.
The Black Panther Party For Self Defense was founded in Oakland on Oct. 15, 1966. Shames was a 19-year-old UC Berkeley student when he first met members of the Panthers that year. He was given unprecedented access and shot priceless images.
“I witnessed, and my camera documented, the positive power of the women of the Black Panther Party as they served the people, body and soul: feeding and teaching children; providing medical care, clothing and hope,” Shames writes in his foreword.
In her foreword, Huggins, an early member and leader, talks about what drew so many women to the Black Panthers.
“By 1969, women accounted for more than half of the party membership. Women from every state in the U.S. and internationally, across the world, were drawn to the possibility of a transformative movement for freedom,” she writes.
Accompanying the awe-inspiring photos are the words of more than 50 women and their families who share their stories and experiences of time spent with the Black Panthers. Among those women are Gloria Abernathy, who was active in Sacramento-area community organizations for many years. In the 1970s she was a member of the Panthers’ Berkeley/Richmond/Oakland chapter. Abernathy writes of camaraderie and family.
“Despite all we were going through, I felt loved and safe,” she writes. “Walking through the projects on my way to the laundromat (we had a free clothing program), I could hear people yell out from their windows and doors, ‘Hey, Panther girl, hey, Panther girl.’ I couldn’t see them, but they were watching out for us.”
The new book also features reflections from former Black Panther leader, activist and educator Angela Davis. Images of Davis rocking an Afro, speaking her mind and challenging racism remain a sense of pride in the Black community.
“It is essential to recognize women of the Black Panther Party for their invaluable leadership,” Davis writes. “Their roles in this organization persuaded people all over the world from Brazil and Palestine to New Zealand and South Africa – that radical change was both necessary and possible.”
Davis joins the authors for several book-related discussions this month. A nine-city book tour began Oct. 9 in Oakland. Other tour stops include San Francisco, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Portland, and New York.
Davis joins Shames and Huggins at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism-Sibley Auditorium, 5-9:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20. The Oakland Museum of California hosts a discussion from 7-8:30 p.m. Oct. 21.
To purchase, check your local Black bookstore or visit Amazon.com.