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Huey Newton

Huey Newton: the Most Hounded Man In the History of the Human Race Documented By the Hounders

By Paul A. Lee, PhD

In the early ‘70’s I found out that two of my friends, Gerd Stern and Richard Baker-roshi, were going to meet Huey Newton at his apartment in Oakland. Gerd was a friend of Bert Schneider, the Hollywood producer and contributor to the Black Panther Party, and an appointment was secured. I begged to go along. I had been a student of Erik Erikson’s at Harvard, who was my thesis advisor, and he had carried on a series of conversations with Huey at Yale organized by Kai Erikson and published with the title: In Search Of Common Ground. They were quite extraordinary. I had read Huey’s autobiography: Revolutionary Suicide and was struck by the admission that he was illiterate when he went to jail and taught himself to read by concentrating on one text—Plato’s Republic. I found this to be remarkable and astonishing as the theme of the Republic is the transition from oral to literate, from the Oral Culture of Homer to the literate and Rational self-conscious culture of Socrates/Plato. It was uncanny that he had picked just this text to learn how to read.

In the elevator on the way to Huey’s penthouse it was made clear that he lived there because of the tight security the building afforded. I had no idea he was under such scrutiny as to make him the most hounded man in the country if not for all time given the documentation of the hounding, some millions of pages on file at the FBI and the CIA. Huey was Public Enemy Number One.

He was dramatic beyond belief. He looked like a panther and he moved like one. Or a middleweight boxer, lithe and muscular. We sat around a conference table and above us on the wall was a huge painting of a black Buddha that Baker had given him.

Huey was keen to tell us about his notion of intercommunalism, an idea that reminded me of the universalism of the Apostle Paul—it had a very similar cast. I was completely taken by him, this Black Revolutionary, one of the most dangerous men I had ever met, a theologian in disguise.

Sometime later, some months later, I got a call from Huey. He had planned to go back to university and get his B.A. degree and go on to get a doctorate. He wanted to come to UC/Santa Cruz, where I taught philosophy, religious studies and the history of consciousness. His advisor was Herman Blake, a black sociologist and a member of the Panther Party. They had fallen out over royalties Herman thought he was owed for editing Huey’s autobiography: Revolutionary Suicide. Huey told me he wouldn’t be coming to Santa Cruz because of his feud with Blake.

I hesitated. It was one of those moments. I took the phone away from my ear. My Socratic daemon wanted to talk to me. I listened. Are you sure you know what you are doing? Do you want to make the unconditional commitment that will be demanded if you take on Huey and assume responsibility for his studies? Do you realize what that might entail? I thought for a moment and realized I did not know what it would entail, that it would be a big risk, but not hearing a “no” from my daemon, I said to Huey: “I’ll help you. I’ll be your faculty advisor.” And Huey said: “You will? O.K., I’ll enroll.”

And so Huey came to Santa Cruz. He was always driven by his bodyguard chauffeur, who was known as Big Man, a huge Black, six feet something and over 300 pounds and armed as well as his secretary sweetheart Gwen, a gorgeous woman utterly devoted to him.

My wife walked into the kitchen and Huey was looking for something in the refrigerator and he turned and said: “Hi! I’m Huey.” My wife said: “I’ll say you are!”

After he left I asked her what she thought and she said it was just like having Barbra Streisand for a visit.

He gave my daughter, Jessica, a recipe for watermelon pickles.

We became friends. Because of his entourage, I arranged for professors to come to my home for private seminars. It worked out fine. I particularly remember a session with Norman O. Brown, the most popular figure on the campus and the darling of the new age set, an avowed Marxist, who had had a nervous breakdown over the defeat of Henry Wallace. Page Smith, the American historian, my colleague and pal, sat in on the session. We were spellbound. They seemed to mount a dialectical ladder together—we saw them ascend in their exchange of views. The phone rang and I reluctantly went to answer it. When I returned I had the impression that a flower had bloomed in the room. It was a unique experience of intellectual compatibility and passionate conviction.

We were faced with a criticism. Huey was rumored to be enrolled, but where was he. There was even a moment when Huey actually attended a class on the campus when a blind student spoke up and said he had heard that Huey Newton was a member of the student body. “Well, where was he?” And Huey spoke up and said: ”I’m here.” The blind student was reassured.

I arranged for Huey to teach a class. It coincided with the Symbionese Liberation Army affair and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. He heard it on the radio on the way to my home and was bursting with the news.  He knew immediately that Cinque was a plant, a counter-revolutionary and the episode was a hoax and not to be supported. We went up for Huey to meet his class. A lumpenproletariat hanger-on, in a pea coat and a knit cap, you know the type, sat in on the class. He was not an enrolled student. I guess he thought he was a gadfly, an odd role to assume regarding Huey. He badgered Huey about his judgement on the affair. How did he know they weren’t genuine revolutionaries and worthy of support. Huey handled it and the class came to an end. The guy followed us out and got into Huey’s face. Huey was dressed in a white battle fatigue outfit and had enamel medals my wife had made for him. His full afro was out and he looked like a Martian. He said: “Get out of my face! “ I should have intervened, but I was too slow. Huey punched him. I thought the blow had come down from the sky above. I actually looked up. The guy’s nose bled a little. In a very plaintive and pathetic squeal, he said: “Huuueey!” We walked on and I thought the jig was up. Teachers do not punch students in the nose even though this guy was not a student. He was a pest. I thought Huey’s career was over once this was reported to the authorities, who were already nervous about his enrollment. Nothing came of it but the adrenaline rush that carried through until evening.

Huey was a brilliant student. I enjoyed tutoring him in Old Testament studies. I gave him books from my extensive library: Eichrodt, von Rad, Eissfeldt, etc. He spoke of wanting to become a minister and developing a church devoted to intercommunalism.

He finished his studies and got his degree. There was some commotion at graduation. He gave a talk or something, I can’t quite remember. Then the roof fell in on him. He was accused of pistol whipping his tailor and murdering a prostitute and he had to flee the country and find exile in Cuba. A friend helped him escape and another friend sailed a catamaran from Florida and picked him up in the Yucatan and sailed to Cuba. They approached the Cuban shore but were afraid to land so Huey and Gwen had to swim for it. Huey didn’t know how to swim. My friend threw him overboard as well as his luggage. They floated to shore and were carried in on a wave and on the beach Gwen’s suitcase opened up as it landed near her and her wedding dress flew out and covered her.

Time passed. Huey was able to return. He wanted to enroll in the History of Consciousness program at UCSC and wanted me to assist him. He had become friends with Burney LeBoeuf and his wife, Joanne. Burney was a professor of biology and a world expert on the sexual mating habits of male elephant seals. He was fun to introduce. We were invited to Oakland to discuss Huey’s plans for enrolling in the Fall. We were going to have dinner at his favorite place in Oakland: Pagan Lover’s Den. I think it was Philippine cuisine. We didn’t make it to dinner. Huey was late returning from Texas and we waited in the foyer of the building. All of a sudden he swept in with his entourage and we went up in the elevator with him. They were high as kites. He told us he had almost been murdered in Texas by Panthers who attacked him and Big Man and Gwen in a melee with broken chairs and general mayhem. He managed to escape to his hotel where he got the drop on some Panthers with guns and after beating them up and wrapping them in rugs, fled to the airport. They were still on an adrenaline rush. I became apprehensive. It didn’t look good, this evening supposedly devoted to discussing his academic future. We made ourselves comfortable in his apartment and he asked if we had met Elaine Brown. We said no. He called her and ordered her to make an appearance. He began snorting cocaine. He had a pile on the table. It looked like a small mountain. She came and left. I got more apprehensive. He started in on me. It was a kind of brilliant expose of my personality by some drug crazed analyst—no holds barred. I was both fascinated and appalled. There was nothing to be done but take it. He roamed the room like a caged panther. He had a telescope aimed at his former cell window—the prison was across the street.  He told us if we tried to leave he would have us killed. The door was locked. We sat tight. At three in the morning Burney said: “It’s getting awfully electrical in here.” I thought Huey was going to get violent and punch us out. At four in the morning I thought this is the worst evening of my life. The sun came up. It was getting to be almost ten in the morning and I said out loud: “hey, I have to feed my horse!’ Huey was startled and acted as though it was a sufficient excuse to let us go. We went to the door and he was about to open it when he asked us to wait. He left and returned with an enormous bible, his bible, a gift from Gwen. He gave it to me and said he was sorry and we fell into one another’s arms and sobbed. We were free to go.

You would think that would have been enough to break off relations, but no, not us. We forgot about it. It was a nightmare best left in the past. He was admitted to the His-Con program as it is called and proceeded with his studies. I called Norman O. Brown and asked for his assistance in directing Huey. He paused for a moment. I don’t think he was listening to his daemon; maybe hewas. He said: “Count me out. Count me out.” I hung up.

I have little recollection of this period but for a last course he took, a reading course, on Existentialism, with Haydn White, a famous professor. He wrote his paper and it was returned as a fail. He re-wrote it and it was returned again as unacceptable. He appealed to me. It looked like White was trying to sabotage Huey and prevent him from getting his PhD. The university was embarrassed by him.

I told him I would help and would draft a paper for him to submit. It was my specialty. I had studied Existentialism with Paul Tillich at Harvard. I had studied Kierkegaard at St. Olaf with Howard Hong and Paul Holmer at the University of Minnesota. I happened to have an unpublished translation of Kierkegaard’s notes from Schelling’s lectures in Berlin of l841/42. Hong had translated them and had sent me a copy. Tillich called the notes “the ur-text of Existentialism,” ur meaning primal or founding. I was certain White knew nothing of this. Huey passed and got his degree and was stamped as a person of intelligence and culture wherever two or three persons of intelligence and culture are gathered together in talk writing invisible definitions on blackboards with non-existent chalk.

I saw little of Huey after that, maybe not at all. He was sinking into the morass of his cocaine addiction and the pressure of his being hounded by the authorities. He had written his PhD thesis on the war against the party and gained access to the millions of pages of documents through the freedom of information act collected and preserved by the hounders. It was put on the shelf and forgotten at the university, although it has recently been published and is available: War Against the Panthers. A Study of Repression in America, by Huey P. Newton.

The last time I saw Huey was in Berkeley at Chez Panisse, the famous restaurant. I had gone there with some friends after attending a lecture at UC/Berkeley by Jacques Derrida. The café was full and we decided to leave but I had to go to the bathroom. As I am urinating, someone seizes me from behind and picks me up so I urinate all over the wall. It’s Huey. He insists we sit with him and his white librarian girlfriend. He has his suitcase with him having just flown in from Paris. He is in a rush. We join them in the booth and the rest is so terrible to tell I think I’ll skip it. Suffice to say that one of our party, a sensitive woman, was so upset over Huey’s behavior she left with a massive headache and stayed in bed the next day.

I was a witness to the tragedy that was Huey P. Newton. In some sense, the civil rights movement relating to Blacks ended with him. It certainly hit a cul de sac. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have tried to pick up the pieces from this broken dynamic. It is burned into my mind the photo of Huey lying on his back in his own blood on an Oakland street murdered by a cocaine dealer in a deal gone bad. What an end for a man of such talent and energy with a vision of intercommunalism that never went anywhere, somehow a victim of the hounding forces that never let him rest and that pursued him to the end.

A coda can be added regarding Huey’s relation to Robert Trivers, the famous professor of sociobiology who is known for his work on altruism in animals.

He and Huey proposed doing a book together on the topic of deception in animals and humans. It is one of my favorite themes going on to self-delusion. I gave Trivers the critique of Nietzsche’s ressentiment theme by Scheler. Trivers recently published his study on this theme and dedicated it to the memory of Huey.

I might also mention that my nephew, Willard Ford, when he was a student at UCSC, decided to write his senior thesis on Huey and his period at Santa Cruz. I helped him with it. Huey had been arrested at a contretemps at a bar in Santa Cruz and Willard made that one of the major episodes, demonstrating police harassment. The title: The War Against the Party, by Willard Ford.

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