Notes on Bobby Seale.
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
BOBBY SEALE (1936-): Born in Liberty, Texas. Seale’s family moved to Oakland when he was eight. In 1955 he was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force after three years of service for fighting with a superior officer. After becoming a sheet metal mechanic for several aerospace corporations, he went on to study at Merritt Community College until 1962. While at college he became interested in American black history and joined the Afro-American Association (the AAA), thanks to which he met Huey Newton. In October, 1966, he and Newton founded the Black Panther Party (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense).
In 1968 Judge Julius Hoffman sentenced Bobby Seale to four years in prison, not for conspiring to interfere with the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (where he was but minimally present), but for sixteen counts of contempt, four months each (totaling the four years). While in prison, thanks to Arthur Goldberg, a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Seale composed Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, a call for people to become advocates for equality. The cover of Seize the Time featured a frenetic drawing of Seale gagged and tied.
His story thereafter is fascinating: how he ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973, coming in second of nine candidates, then losing in a run-off to incumbent Mayor John Reading; his many appearances in documentaries; that he taught Black Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia; how he visited over five hundred colleges to share his experience as a Black Panther, always with the intent to spark social justice and community organization. He also authored a cookbook, Barbeque’n with Bobby (1987).
Now to take a step both back and forward. In 1978 James Baldwin wrote an introduction to Bobby Seale’s autobiography, A Lonely Rage, six years after my 1972 interview with Baldwin. It reveals Baldwin’s steady vital perception of Seale. Baldwin recalls first meeting Bobby Seale at Marlon Brando’s hotel suite in Atlanta on the day of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral: “[Seale] had been sleeping, was still groggy—was as tense and quiet as the air becomes when a storm is about to break. This was certainly due, in part, to the climate of the momentous day, but it was also due to a kind of intelligence of anguish living behind Bobby’s smoky eyes.”
In the last paragraph of Baldwin’s foreword, as the elder, he compares his era with Seale’s—a comparison which celebrates “the brutal and gratuitous folly with which we ushered in the atomic age, [which] brought into focus as never before, the real meaning of the American social contract and exposed the self-serving nature of the American dream. […] And one of the results of this exposure was that the celebrated ‘Negro problem’ became a global instead of a merely domestic matter.” My reading here is that Baldwin sees America shedding its isolationist cloak (recall that Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940 campaign promise had been to keep us out of Europe’s war). And so the “Negro problem” now will be subject to greater scrutiny. Though Baldwin is clear that this does not equate this with thinking that “the bulk of the American people had undergone a ‘change of heart’ as concerns their relationship to their darker brothers by the time Bobby Seale came down the pike.”
This perception sets the stage for Baldwin’s concluding paragraph:
It in this historical sense Seale’s era is to be considered more hopeful in spite of the horrors which he recounts, with such restraint in these pages. The beacon lit, for his generation, in 1956, in Montgomery, Alabama, by an anonymous black woman, elicited an answering fire from all the wretched, all over the earth, signaled the beginning of the end of the racial nightmare—for it will end; no lie endures forever—and helped Stagolee, the black folk hero Bobby takes for his model, to achieve his manhood. For it is that tremendous journey which Bobby’s book is about: the act of assuming and becoming oneself.
[On the off-chance you were blind as you read of “the anonymous black woman,” as I was on first reading, she is no other than the world-famous Rosa Parks.]