The former Black Panther on coming of age in the party, ongoing police brutality, and her recent memoir turned novel, Virgin Soul.
Image courtesy Caren Parmelee
Judy Juanita first “ran into the radicals” as a student at City College in Oakland. “I used to watch them on the lawn,” she says in the following conversation. “I thought they were kind of nutty.” It wasn’t until she transferred to San Francisco State, where Huey Newton and Bobby Seale came recruiting, that she got involved with the Black Panthers. Living as a “foot soldier” in one of the group’s safe houses on Potrero Hill, in the midst of a veritable armory, Juanita and her roommates used to wave at the FBI surveillance units parked outside.
The Oakland-based poet, playwright and academic revisits this period through fiction. In her recently released novel Virgin Soul, Juanita explores coming of age in the midst of a cultural revolution, which, as she describes, removed the shame associated with black identity and transformed it to a state of beauty and empowerment. “Part of the ethos of the time that black is beautiful was a repudiation of skin prejudice. It was a repudiation of the white standard that black wasn’t beautiful, or that blacks were ugly, or that being African was a negative.”
In this interview with radio host Richard Wolinsky, Juanita addresses living with the Panthers at the convergence of Black Power and the women’s rights movements. The conversation moves from identity as a black woman just after the pill came out, to Occupy and Trayvon Martin and the oppression still endured by black Americans. Though she is no longer affiliated with the Party, and has long since ceased owning guns, Juanita maintains there is still a place for militancy as a way to safeguard civil rights.
—–Interview published courtesy of Richard Wolinksy
Guernica: You were a foot soldier in the Party in a way that no one else has written about. And yet, you still decided to make Virgin Soul a novel.
Judy Juanita: I think the best answer for that is that I like to play with the facts. I love the facts of what happened, but I thought there were some deeper truths I wanted to get at. For one thing, I made my main character, Geniece, dark-skinned. I’m not dark-skinned, and the reason I did that was because I wanted to explore what it felt like to be on one end of the spectrum before the movement started—dark skin was a negative—and then to be on the other end after the movement had begun: black is beautiful.
Part of the ethos of the time that black is beautiful was a repudiation of skin prejudice.
Guernica: The difference between “dark” and “high yellow” changed people in terms of their politics. Can you talk about that?
Judy Juanita: Part of the ethos of the time that black is beautiful was a repudiation of skin prejudice. It was a repudiation of the white standard that black wasn’t beautiful, or that being African was a negative. So, for a time then—and I tried to show that in the book—if a woman was dark-skinned she was considered a queen, was considered beautiful, an object of desire, as opposed to an object of revulsion. I felt very special and very pretty—very singled out for the first time. All of a sudden I come into a new world where being brown-skinned and having full lips was considered beautiful. That was very different from the way I perceived it growing up. It was political. I think it gave such an inner sense of worth in a society that had been hostile to black worth. It just was immeasurable how it made people feel for a time. And because of that feeling, people were able to explore other things like history; they were able to confront oppression.
Guernica: I don’t want to use the word recruitment, but how did you get to the Party? Did you become involved in the Panthers the same way that Geniece, in your novel, did?
Judy Juanita: Almost exactly the same way. I was a student at Oakland City College, and I ran into the radicals. I used to go out and watch them on the lawn. I didn’t know what they were talking about and thought they were kind of nutty. But I knew that they were extremely bright. I didn’t become a radical during my years at Oakland City College, but I was always an Oakland and Berkeley kid—which means that there were protests and marches, we caught the bus and went over to the Sheraton Hotel in San Francisco and watched the sit-ins. It was just a scene, it wasn’t as though I was doing something unusual. It wasn’t until I transferred to San Francisco State that I got involved in the Black Student Union, and then after Huey and Bobby came to the school recruiting, I got involved with the Panthers.
Guernica: At that point, it was the cusp of three different movements. There was the hippie movement and counterculture, there was the awakening of Black Power, and we were also in the early stages of what they call second-wave feminism. How conscious were you of that?
Judy Juanita: At that time I didn’t know it was historic, but I lived in the Alamo Square neighborhood. We went out late at night to a nightclub called the Haight Levels. We participated in the action, so to speak. We hung out at Golden Gate park, went to the music festivals, went to Fillmore West. We did those kinds of things. However, there was a beautiful scene going on at a place called the Black House, and that’s where I think the real education started.
Guernica: What was the Black House, and how did being there involve you more with the people in your book who were real, including Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael?
Judy Juanita: Well, Eldridge and Marvin X were the residents of the house. They got together and pulled it off at the beginning, opened it up, and all kinds of black community groups and people were welcome and came for nearly nightly sessions of activities from cultural programs—the Organization of African Unity, OAU, was based there for a while—to poetry readings to political education classes. PE classes, as we called them. I went to almost everything that was there. I lived four blocks from the Black House, and went over at night to see what was going on.
Guernica: During that period, were you learning more about the political nature of the Panthers, what they intended to do and what they were saying about white America?
Judy Juanita: Yes and no. I first encountered some of the political understanding back at City College. Huey and Bobby organized the first black studies course there, so it was there that I first began to read about the history of oppression and understand it differently than from the other history classes and Western Civilization classes I had taken. That was pretty much my first encounter with Huey and Bobby in terms of politicizing things. They’d come in the classroom just like they do in the book, and they’d stand there to make sure the teacher was teaching the curriculum they had set up.
Then at the Black House, I began to be aware that there was a big disagreement between what are called cultural nationalists and the party.
Guernica: What were these two groups and what eventually happened?
Judy Juanita: One group was the Black Panther Party of Northern California, I believe, and then the other was the Black Party for Self-Defense, which became the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The first group, the black nationalist group, became the cultural nationalist group. And they had worked together for a while—the history is much more complex than anything I can do here. But I do deal with it in the book, in the chapter on Betty Shabazz, because that was the demarcation point. She came for a celebration around Malcolm X’s birthday and when she came the Panthers—who were cultural nationalists—showed up at the airport with unloaded guns, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense showed up with loaded guns. Once that was clear, after she was escorted from the airport, there was a big fallout at the headquarters of Ramparts magazine, and each group went their own way after that.
Guernica: The Black Panther party we know of is the group with the guns.
Judy Juanita: Right, and they call the other group Paper Panthers.
I wasn’t into wearing the African wraps, cooking the meals, and following five steps behind. That wasn’t me at all.
Guernica: For you, going to the Black House and watching this—did you take sides?
Judy Juanita: I did make a conscious decision not to follow the cultural nationalists. First of all—I hate to say it, but it kind of boils down to appearance—I wasn’t into wearing the African wraps, cooking the meals, and following five steps behind. That wasn’t me at all.
Guernica: So cultural nationalists were…
Judy Juanita: They were chauvinistic. I wasn’t going that way. I had just left home, which was a very strict home environment. I did not leave home and move to San Francisco to go back in a set of chains. No, no, no, no, no. I was out to have a good time and to explore the world.
Guernica: This is all at the birth of the women’s movement, as well. A lot of these guys from Virgin Soul treated women like second-class citizens, and it sounds like a great deal of the time you had to fight for your place.
Judy Juanita: Yes they did, but it was under a banner of protection. It was, “We’re protecting our queens,” and some women went for that. And I’m not saying it was a totally bad thing—I thought for a long time that certain things were very respectful. Opening doors, and letting the women be at home, which is a reversal for black women who always had to get out and work. There are certain aspects of it that I think many of us liked: the idea of a black man standing strong and proud. However, many of us didn’t like the restrictions, and you have to understand the pill had just come out. We were free. Women had sexual freedom for once.
Guernica: The sexual element does play a role in Virgin Soul, and you make it pretty unappealing in that the women there were also there to be courtesans to the men.
Judy Juanita: Yes, that was a part of it. But remember that most of us were in our early twenties, and we had sexual freedom because we had contraception. So it wasn’t like we were being tied down and forced. It was a sexual exploration on the parts of many people. And many people actually hooked up—meaning made long term relationships, and I did too—out of that milieu.
Guernica: How much respect did the men pay the women?
Judy Juanita: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think that there was a great deal of respect for women, if they fought for it. They had to be feisty. If you look at the top women—I’ve always thought of Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver as being extraordinarily feisty and very intelligent. If you were someone else, you had to fight. I think it was a challenge, always, and I certainly had a big mouth and got into a lot of back and forth with people, and so did my roommates—all of whom joined the party around the same time. We all had very big mouths, and could be considered difficult. But we held our own.
Guernica: Your own consciousness—feminist consciousness—did that fully take root during that period, or do you think it took root afterward?
Judy Juanita: If you ask my ex-husband, he’d say I was a feminist from the word go, from jump street. I’ve maintained, and many black women maintain, that we had had kind of a de facto feminism. It was there, we had to go out and work, we had to fend for ourselves, we often didn’t have mates, or didn’t have them for a permanent, long-time situation, so we learned how to bond with each other, how to help each other out, and how to get along in life whether or not you had a man.
Guernica: In Virgin Soul, Geniece and her friends wind up on Potrero Hill. Was this a real apartment?
Judy Juanita: Yes, it was a huge, nine-room flat. It cost us 197 dollars a month, which we thought was a huge amount at that time, and it was beautiful, gorgeous. We had plenty of room, so we opened up the house to members who were in flight. It didn’t happen so smoothly with me at first, it happened as it did in the book. They just ended up there and I said, “How the hell did this happen? We didn’t have a house meeting for this!” My bourgeois tendencies came out, but I fell in with the group.
Guernica: There’s one sequence where a nonpolitical friend of Geniece’s says, “Are you aware there are FBI surveillance people across the street?” And Geniece replies, “Well, sure. Of course.”
Judy Juanita: They were very prominent and we saw them all the time. We’d wave at them.
The point was that there was an occupying army in the black community that was judge and executioner.
Guernica: Towards the end of the novel, Geniece decides, “OK, enough. I’m going to move on.” She cleans out the apartment, and finds an armory of guns everywhere. Was that fiction?
Judy Juanita: That was not fiction. Guns played an important role. Of course, it was called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. And we did learn how to use guns. But the point was not to run out and kill people. The point was that there was an occupying army in the black community that was judge and executioner, and that still happens today, and black people had to take a stand at some point and say: enough. You cannot just come in and slaughter us like this. If you do, we’re going to stand up and defend ourselves. There’s a point of liberation for all people, all oppressed people. Whatever they use—now we’re at a point where people have different kinds of weapons—you can’t keep coming in and treating us like we’re animals and slaughter us.
Guernica: In a sense what you’re saying is that the existence of those guns sent the authorities notice, sent everyone notice, that things were going to change and we now have some power in our own hands.
Judy Juanita: Yes. So that the guns were literal—they were guns, they were purchased, loaded, cleaned, maintained. Often, they were registered, sometimes not. Also, the guns were symbolic.
Guernica: Moving to the present: Fred Hampton Jr. still says that all black prisoners are political prisoners in the United States. So some things have changed, others have not. From the perspective of Geniece and the people from Virgin Soul, when they’re looking at white society, they are looking at themselves as apart, and you had to be in it in order to survive. Do you think that’s changed?
Judy Juanita: Judging by the responses to the Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant cases, no, I don’t think it’s changed. We’re still in a very deep quandary about the excessive use of police force and that hasn’t been resolved, but is getting worse. Videotapes of these injustices highlights that.
I would like a society where the police don’t have guns and the people don’t have guns. If you want to hunt, then there’s some hunting preserve that you can go to.
Guernica: As you were writing the book, what conclusions did you draw? What did you learn through research and sifting through memories that still applies today?
Judy Juanita: The very thing we’re talking about: the excessive use of police authority is still a travesty and blacks still come out on the wrong end of the stick. It’s unfortunate that after 9/11 there has been sentiment among some blacks that, “Oh, now it’s on Muslims,” and we get a little breather. But it’s still there, still naked use of force—it’s bullying, it’s official bullying by the powers that be against people who are weaker. I understand some of the sentiment about selling the guns back after Trayvon was killed, some for 200 or 100 dollars. But something in my gut didn’t like it.
There’s a closeness that the Panther movement had with the far-right movement—I look at Fox News from time to time because I want to know what they’re talking about—but this idea of being defenseless doesn’t hit me the right way, even though I don’t own guns now and haven’t for many decades. This is what I would like: I would like a society where the police don’t have guns and the people don’t have guns. If you want to hunt, then there’s some hunting preserve that you can go to and you pick up the gun when you go there—that kind of a thing. What about policemen being peace officers? I would love to get back to the policemen being there to help chase the cat out of the tree.
Guernica: Years later, and people are still complaining about the Oakland Police Department. How many years has it been since the Panthers were there saying that the OPD was racist? We’re still dealing with these issues and it’s frustrating.
Judy Juanita: But societal change takes a long, long time. Even if law goes in effect, like after Brown vs. Board of Education, it takes a long time to change.
We’re still trying to bring about the goals of the Constitution, we’re still in a society that’s an experiment. The Civil War rectified some of the problem with the three-fifths rule of a man considered a slave, but we’re still reeling in the South from the effects of the Civil War and this is a hundred and sixty years later, so we’ve got a ways to go.
Guernica: The folks in your book are now legendary—who did you get along with as a person?
Judy Juanita: Oh, we all liked Bobby Seale. Bobby Seale, hands down. Just the most down-to-earth, wonderful, nice, kind person.
Guernica: What were your recollections about the whole “Chicago 8″ [the group of students arrested during the 1968 Democratic Convention] business?
Judy Juanita: Bobby Seale is known for drinking the Bitter Dog, so we all were wondering how Bobby was going to do without his liquor. Bobby came through so beautifully and wonderfully, it was really a shining moment of his, so that’s what surprised us and heartened us.
Guernica: For the rest of us, it was watching this scene like a police state in action.
Judy Juanita: Absolutely, this was no surprise to us. We just knew that when the white kids got involved that would mean more media attention, more focus, and actually, more solutions would come about. It’s analogous to right now. The housing crisis, the economic downturn—when it affects middle class white people, then all of a sudden, attention gets paid.
When you’ve been in the outhouse for a long time, you get used to the smell.
Guernica: To some degree, that hasn’t changed. The fact that more African Americans in this country are out of work and oppressed because of the economic situation, and it’s only if white people get oppressed that anything changes?
Judy Juanita: I think it’s wrong, too, but the oppression is very deep in the black community and it’s almost a norm. When something is a norm, when you’ve been in the outhouse for a long time, you get used to the smell. But when you haven’t been in that outhouse, then the smell is abhorrent, and you’re not going to take it—that’s part of the dynamics of having white-skin privilege in this country. You don’t know how tough life is, until life comes up and bites you in the butt. But, it’s almost like black people—well, that butt gets bitten all the time.
Guernica: What do you see as the role of literature in terms of social change, or do you think it just stands by itself?
Judy Juanita: It’s key to giving people a common set of values or a common set of realizations. In my community, in the black community, the kind of novels that have come out since ’92 and Waiting to Exhale have been important, even though I’m not per se a “chick-lit” writer or a “black lit” writer in the realm of Omar Tyree, or Terry McMillan, or Sister Souljah. I think these works are very important, because reading is it. I tell my students all the time: “I don’t care what you’re reading—read.” Because you’re going to find something in a book that you can’t find in a conversation with people, you can’t find just walking down the street—reading is like a code, you know? It’s coded language. Coded language helps you develop mental skills all the time. Literature is very important however it gets in people’s hands.
Guernica: And in those days, was there an awareness of the importance of art among people like Huey Newton or Eldridge Cleaver?
Judy Juanita: Sure, and that’s why they gave primary attention to the works of Emory Douglas, the artist. Definitely people understood that poetry, song, music, and art were all important and they combined them into one whole. The poster art and the advertising, particularly Huey and the Peacock Chair, served as a graphic that helped develop the people’s consciousness.
Guernica: At the time, and it is mentioned again in Virgin Soul, you had the more traditional civil rights movement, but it was also necessary to have the more militant Panthers. Do you think a militant group, militant people, are still absolutely necessary for the civil rights movement?
Judy Juanita: Yes, I do. I think that you always need people who are going to push it—push the envelope, like ACT UP. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I don’t want anyone to die, but even in the Occupy movement we saw that people really paid attention when challenged. As long as you’re just sitting in a park playing a flute, nobody’s really going to do too much, but when you say “No, we’re going to close the port. This port cannot keep operating.” That’s militant; that’s pushing the envelope. Especially in our culture and our society where we have such rampant coercion and force used by the military, somebody has to stand up and say, “No, you can’t do this anymore.”