Elaine Brown's autobiography A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story provides a snapshot of life in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Brown briefly rose to the leadership of the Black Panther Party. In North Philadelphia born and raised, Brown dropped out of Temple University and traveled west seeking a musical career in Hollywood, much like another noteworthy figure from this period obsessed with the mass insurrection of America's black population, Charles Manson. Brown, however, ended up not at the Spahn Ranch but at the Pink Pussycat, working as a cocktail waitress in "the hottest spot in West Hollywood" (74). She soon acquired a white lover, who talks of Stokely Carmichael over a meal of "Piper Heidieck champagne, bottled in 1952…beluga caviar…cracked crab with a mustard sauce. Our dinner was lamb, served on skewers, with wild rice" (80). After this a "radicalization" rapidly occurred with Brown joining the nascent Black Panther Party and eventually rising to its leadership. But the chief value of the book is to demonstrate something that Brown admits late in the book: in her revolutionary struggle, "sexism was a secondary problem. Capitalism and race were primary" (381). In particular, a feminist analysis of Brown's political activities raises troubling issues about the patriarchal nature of the Black Panther Party, even under Brown's own leadership, and demonstrates her own belated discovery of feminism.
Brown traces her radicalization to a moment when a friend introduces her to the modish best-selling collection of essays Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, first published in the magazine Ramparts edited by David Horowitz. It is worth noting here that Eldridge Cleaver was a convicted rapist, as Brown notes when a friend buys a copy of his book:
She had purchased Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's book Soul on Ice….It was an incisive autobiographical excursion into the mind of a black man driven by racism to rape, for which Eldridge had spent nine years in prison. When we finished the book, we vowed we would meet him: the minister of information of the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver. When Sandra dropped me off at home early the next morning, I stayed up to write a poem for him. My mother, with whom I still lived, thought I was insane. (121)
Brown leaves unexamined Cleaver's claim that he was "driven by racism to rape," which frankly demonstrates even in 1992 a truly ghoulish willingness to accept this excuse. With the long view of history, analyzing Brown's text as a primary source, it is necessary to note that Eldridge Cleaver himself would later become estranged from the Black Panthers, convert to Mormonism, join the G.O.P., and run as a Republican in California's Senate race. (The man who did most to popularize Cleaver, David Horowitz, would later become a pro-Bush right wing culture warrior, with a particular animus toward tenured academic leftists and African-American advocates of reparations for slavery.) Brown alludes to these facts in her treatment of both Cleaver and Horowitz, noting near the end of her narrative that "We had held on past the era of mass rallies and demonstrations; after the Eldridge Cleavers were born again in other guises," referring to his surprising religious conversion (449). These facts are unimportant at the beginning of the narrative, unless they are adduced to give some sense of Brown as a judge of character.
For now, it is only important to note that Brown eagerly responded to Eldridge Cleaver's "insurrectionary act" of raping white women, sufficiently to join the Black Panthers. But the majority of the book reveals Brown's ongoing fascination with Cleaver, starting with her seduction of him as a teenager: "my eyes scanned the dark room for the captivating Eldridge Cleaver. We both spotted him and did all the stuff girls do when they want to impress" a convicted serial rapist (129). If this sounds like it will result in a bit of good old-fashioned feminist consciousness raising, it does. It is worth noting that Brown's early (and seemingly unwise) hero-worship of Eldridge Cleaver occurs in a context where the rape of black women by white men is attested to by oral tradition: Huey P. Newton's mother was "the product of a black woman and a Southern Jew named Simon" but "the question of…