Loving the Black Panthers?

She studied PR and “Leadership Studies” at Hampton University, then got a Master’s Degree in “Music Business” at NYU. She’s now at Yale, earning another Master’s – this one in Divinity. She “loves good music, down time with friends, & ice cream!” Sounds like a good life.

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Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes

And she seems like a good person. Last year she and several other Yale Divinity School students went to Flint, Michigan, to “hold a pastors roundtable conversation on the intersection of ecology and theology and distribute water filters and hygienic items.” She explained her motivation as follows: “As a Christian, I find that everything I do is affected by my faith. In this instance, I wanted to see the Christian community rally around these residents to make change. I was seeing assistance here and there from other organizations but I didn’t see any support from the church universal. While the church does overseas mission work well, we sometimes ignore the needs of our own nation. I didn’t want to see that happen any longer.”

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Wilkes on The O’Reilly Factor

So it was a shame to hear what Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes had to say in mid February during an appearance on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor. Wilkes, a bright-eyed young black woman who exuded cheer and charm, was there to talk about a couple of Yale-related news stories. The first story concerned an effort by students and faculty to remove the name of John C. Calhoun from one of Yale’s residential colleges. Calhoun was one of the great statesmen of the nineteenth century, serving as Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Senator from South Carolina, and as Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately, he was also a slave owner, which is why a movement arose to change the name of that college. When asked by host Bill O’Reilly, Wilkes affirmed that she supported the change. But that’s fine – something that reasonable people can argue about.

On May 2, 1967, Black Panthers amassed at the Capitol in Sacramento brandishing guns to protest a bill before an Assembly committee restricting the carrying of arms in public. Self-defense was a key part of the Panthers' agenda. This was an early action, a year after their founding.
Armed Black Panthers take over the California State Capitol on May 2, 1967, to protest a gun-control bill

It was what she had to say on the second topic that was so disturbing. Wilkes, it emerged, was one of a group of students at Yale who wanted to hold a campus event marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Black Panthers. Some of them, including Wilkes, had recently crossed the country to attend what was apparently a sort of learn-in at the Oakland Museum. Their goal was “to learn the history” of the Panthers; they went, she said, “as student archivists.” “Did you come away with a favorable impression of the Black Panther movement?” asked O’Reilly. “Oh, absolutely!” gushed Wilkes. O’Reilly then played a tape of Black Panther co-founder Stokely Carmichael ranting about “the honkey” (a Black Power-era term for white people). After also mentioning the killings and violence committed by the Black Panthers, O’Reilly asked: “How can you look favorably upon that group?”

Not entirely seeming to grasp the question, Wilkes started to comment about the “long history of racism in this country.” Interrupting her, O’Reilly suggested that the Panthers themselves were racists. She rushed in quickly to insist that they weren’t anti-white but pro-black. “It makes me a little uneasy,” said O’Reilly, “that a very intelligent woman like yourself could even think that these people were worthy of being considered in Black History Month.” Wilkes either was genuinely surprised by this point of view or did a very good job of feigning surprise – or perhaps she was just mocking him: “Oh, that’s INTERESTING!” she replied. “Oh, REALLY?”

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The Black Panthers in their heyday

And that was pretty much the gist of it. O’Reilly was kind and respectful to Wilkes, apparently having pretty much the same reaction to her that we did: that while it’s disturbing to hear anybody praising the Black Panthers, it’s especially disturbing to see a young black woman who seems so decent and well-meaning celebrating their memory. Perhaps instead of devoting so much time to the study of PR, the music business, and so on, she would have done well at some point to read one or two honest, comprehensive histories of the Black Power movement. She wouldn’t have even had to go all the way to Oakland to find copies of them.

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