This interview was originally published on Public Books and is reprinted here with permission. The interviewer, Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination (2012) and is currently working on a book about Nina Simone. She is also the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based national nonprofit organization that uses art to end violence against all girls and women.
Lynn French was a member of the Black Panther Party from 1968-1973, working in Chicago, Berkeley, and Oakland. In the Party, she worked in newspaper circulation, labor, finance, breakfast programs, food and clothing giveaways, and was instrumental in starting child care centers in Berkeley and Chicago. Today, French serves as Executive Director of Hope and a Home, a transitional housing program for low-income homeless families, supporting efforts to develop affordable housing and equitable alternatives to gentrification. Salamishah Tillet spoke with French about the role of women in the Black Panther Party, and about the Party’s contemporary legacy.
Salamishah Tillet (ST): How did you join the Panther Party and what drew you to the Panthers in Chicago?
Lynn French (LF): When I graduated from high school in 1963 the world was so different from the way it is now. It seemed that the only options out there for African-American women were cleaning someone’s house, becoming a school teacher, or marrying someone who would take care of you. And none of those options embodied the vision I had for myself and my life. I come from a long line of women who knew themselves and spoke their minds, so it just wasn’t my concept.
By the time I joined the Black Panther Party, I was living in Chicago. I was a student and I met Bobby Rush and Fred Hampton when they were organizing the Illinois chapter. I’d been in a variety of organizations but this was the first that I saw as saying, “We have a vision for ourselves in this world and we aren’t asking for permission.” I also saw that within the Party women had equal status to men. It didn’t even occur to me that this was a feminist action, just that we were asserting ourselves to build the world that we would want to pass on to our children.
ST: The fact that the Panther Party, by the time you joined in 1968, was over two-thirds women struck me as amazing. The dominant images that we still have of the Party are of African-American men with leather jackets and berets. What do you think causes this disparity between the reality as you lived it and the public imagination?
ST: Another thing I’ve been thinking about based on what you’re describing is state suppression of the movement during the Nixon presidency.
LF: Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep in December of 1969 and a lot of people left the Party because they were scared. The police were really not making any bones about lashing out at black men. There’s a photo that I have—a powerful photo—of the policemen carrying Fred’s body, under a blanket, out of the apartment. The police are laughing. To this day the Chicago PD has this photo mounted on the wall. So it’s like they’re still celebrating the good old days when they murdered Fred and really got away with it.
It’s a very powerful, systemic thing they have going on in Chicago. Even today there is a place in Chicago where police will detain someone—mainly African-American and Latino males—take them to this place, torture them, and try to beat confessions out of them. And because the police haven’t yet officially arrested them there is no way to know where they are. So you could be looking for someone and call the Chicago police and say, “Do you know where Joe is?” And they’d say, “No, we don’t know where Joe is.” Meanwhile, Joe may be being held and tortured. This has been exposed and yet it still goes on. To me it’s a continuation from the time of the Great Migration, when people went from Mississippi to Chicago. The Chicago Police Department was like another KKK there, keeping people in place. I mean, what has changed?
ST: The Panther Party was also unique in its multiple programs: free breakfast programs, the health clinic, etc. So many aspects of the Party came out of a community of activists trying to think through what a family can look like—
LF: And what people’s needs were. The breakfast program was our first big program. At that time there was no such thing as free breakfast for children in schools. That’s one of the ways that we changed society. I hear from women who are young feminists, who say, “Well, serving breakfast, isn’t that women’s work?” But no, men and women were cooking up food and serving it to address the needs of children. From our perspective, you weren’t doing “women’s” work at a breakfast program, because we all pitched in together. The same with the day care center. Everybody, including men, shared in that responsibility.
ST: So even if the public image was heteronormative, the practice was really much more fluid.
ST: So I guess I have two additional questions. One is about black women who are also being killed by police officers—
LF: Like Sandra Bland.
ST: And then Rekia Boyd, who was killed by a police officer in Chicago in North Lawndale. Recently, Bland and Boyd have gotten attention, but usually when black women or black girls die at the hands of police officers it is rarely the catalyst for action. There’s sometimes a lag between the incident and when the movement—even in Black Lives Matter—catches up to these women’s deaths. How do you explain the time lag, even when these movements are primarily led by women, and when the origins are feminist in impulse?
LF: I just read something in the Washington Post about a young woman who, as a very young teenager, was raped. She knew the person and went to the police. After a lot of this, that, and the other, she ended up being charged with lying to the police. She was taken from her family and put in foster care. It is being written about now because she is now independent. They forced a review of it and the police chief had to admit that it was wrong and they are going to go back and reopen it. But when you think about the impact it all had on her life it is just horrifying. There was so much sexism within the police department that it was easy for them to say, “Oh, she’s just lying.” Or to buy into the idea of, “Oh, you can’t believe what this girl says.” That is troubling.
ST: And it’s obviously a pipeline for the incarceration of young girls. And being sexually assaulted is actually one of the key indicators of incarceration. A report recently came out from the Ms. Foundation stating that sexual assault is a precursor to being incarcerated for black girls and girls of color.
Do you view your current work as an extension of your work in the Panther Party? There was a report a couple of years ago about African-American men being pushed out of their homes due to disproportionate mass incarceration. But the report also said African-American women are disproportionately evicted, too. So you have these two groups that constitute working class African-Americans being either part of the state, because of incarceration, or homeless because they’re being kicked out of their housing.
LF: Yeah, that’s why I do the work I do. My last job working in city government was as the city’s homeless czar. That was during the period when the real estate market in Washington went crazy and property that had never been valuable before was suddenly worth a million dollars. Several nights a week there would be fires which I was sure had been arson. We have very strong tenant laws in Washington, so if the owner wants to change the use of the building, she has to give a certain amount of notice, give people money, and deal with various laws. So to avoid that, people are lighting up the buildings. I saw a disproportionate number of black women there with their children in what was once a functioning household. Invariably, if they didn’t have many resources, they would end up in a family shelter. After having been in a family shelter between 30 to 90 days I could see a family lose all the fabric of their family life. They’re living in substandard conditions and everything just deteriorates. That has become the norm in Washington now. And these are working women, women who work but don’t make enough money to pay rent in the city. So what I work for now is equitable development.
ST: I’m a mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old girl and a four-month-old boy and the other day I was listening to the radio in Flint and there was a mother who is an organizer there. She’s been a community organizer for a very long time and now has to think about leaving Flint. She talked about giving her daughter a bath and how the ritual of giving your child a nightly bath is no longer possible.
LF: I hope this isn’t offensive to people, but when things happened in Paris everybody said, “Je suis Paris.” Do you see anybody saying, “I am Flint?” And nobody has really yet come up with any solutions.
They’re still talking about real estate value. The last thing I watched on Flint, they were saying the houses in Flint aren’t worth as much as it would cost to replace the pipes in the houses. They don’t think that it’s a good investment to replace the pipes in Flint
ST: It seems to me that this is where the Panther platform was so useful. It enabled us to think about the various ways in which families, individuals, and communities are impacted by systemic racial violence, gender inequity, and capitalism, then came up with different types of solutions and programs to address those issues. It’s almost like a hydra with many, many heads. Today we have Flint, we have Chicago, we have Detroit, we have Baltimore. And yet to deal with these things honestly and sincerely requires so many different types of strategies, programs, and revolutionary belief. So I just want to thank you for that. This is why the Panthers are so important, because they gave us many answers.
LF: We were inspired by many things that are still happening. We felt that we should not accept them.