[News] Safiya Bukhari's "The War Before"

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jan 8 12:01:43 EST 2010


January 8 - 10, 2010

Safiya Bukhari's "The War Before"

A Life Worth Saving


In 1968, Brooklyn College student Bernice Jones volunteered to work 
in the Black Panther Party's (BPP) breakfast program in Harlem, New 
York as part of her sorority's social service pledge.  This decision 
was to become the defining moment in her life.  Much like Kwame 
Toure's (Stokely Carmichael) decision to attend Howard University, 
Jones' volunteering to serve breakfast in Harlem would begin a life 
of revolutionary organizing.  Unable to go along with the BPP's 
politics at first, Jones' gradual understanding that poverty and 
police brutality was the order of the day for many US residents 
convinced her to join the Black Panther Party and become one of its 
primary New York organizers.  Let me emphasize, she was an 
organizer.  She stayed in the trenches and led by example.

Within two years, her decision would put her in the middle of the US 
government's war on the Panthers. This was a time of lies, rumors and 
murder--much of it engineered by the Department of Justice and the 
FBI--designed to destroy the Party once and for all.  Bernice Jones 
eventually took the name Safiya Bukhari and became a Muslim.  She 
spent time in prison and raised a child.  She died in 2005.  After 
her mother's death, Bukhari's daughter approached former Weather 
Underground member Laura Whitehorn with a collection of writings and 
speeches Safiya had saved and asked if she would edit them into a memoir.

The book, titled 
War Before, is an unconventional memoir.  It is composed of journal 
entries, articles, notes and speeches.  These writings were never 
necessarily meant to be published as a memoir.  Instead, they are the 
works of a relentless revolutionary organizer, prisoner, and modern 
African-American woman.  There is personal material here reflecting 
on Bukhari's conversion to Islam and her understanding of its place 
in her life as a revolutionary.  There are also descriptions of the 
politics and workings of the New York Panthers and the successor 
organization the Black Liberation Army (BLA).  There are speeches 
about political prisoners in the United States and memories of her 
life in the BPP.  Together, the sum is considerably greater than the 
parts.  Like a well-composed musical tone poem, the reader leaves 
this book with a sense of understanding and fulfillment like that 
experienced after a particularly rewarding performance of such a piece.

The history of the 1960s and 1970s remains a point of strong and 
divisive contention despite the best efforts of commentators, 
politicians and many historians to bury the period.  The flurry of 
outrage in 2008 over former Weather Underground member Bill 
Ayers'  tangential association with Barack Obama proves this.  In 
general, one is mostly presented with images of long-haired young 
white people smoking pot or protesting and African-Americans getting 
hosed by police or wearing leather jackets and carrying guns.  These 
images and the often wistful tales that accompany them ignore the 
essential reality of the period.  That reality being that the social, 
culture and political establishment throughout the world, especially 
in the West, was shaken to its foundations.  Despite the best efforts 
to delete this reality from history, it continues to hover around the 
edges of our current conversation, occasionally taking a place 
somewhere close to center stage.  In the United States, the Black 
Panther Party was an essential part of the elements that did the 
shaking.  Safiya Bukhari was an essential part of that Party.

The contextual narrative provided by Laura Whitehorn describes the 
world as it was perceived by many in the US Left during the period 
covered by Bukhari's writings.  It is a world where injustice exists 
in the daily lives of prisoners and in the hailstorm of bullets fired 
into Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by a death squad made 
up of Illinois law enforcement with the FBI's assistance.  It is also 
a world where personalities, politics and paranoia combined to make a 
stew stirred to a sometimes deadly boil by that very same FBI and its 
henchmen in the White House and elsewhere throughout the US 
political  and law enforcement establishment.  Simultaneously, it is 
a world where hope refuses to die and the struggle for justice and 
freedom continues despite incredible odds.

In the afterword to 
War Before political prisoner, journalist and former Black Panther 
Mumia Abu Jamal remembers Bukhari from when he was a teenage member 
of the BPP and working out of its office in the Bronx.  He writes of 
her relentless commitment and the lessons that such commitment 
provided to all, young and old.  Her untimely death was not the only 
tragedy in her passing, writes Mumia.  "The tragedy was that more 
people didn't know her, learn from her, or grow from her fund of 
hard-earned wisdom."  The War Before helps diminish that aspect of the tragedy.

Ron Jacobs is author of 
Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is 
just republished by Verso. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill Broonzy is 
featured in CounterPunch's collection on music, art and sex, 
in the Garden. His first novel, 
Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: 
<mailto:rjacobs3625 at charter.net>rjacobs3625 at charter.net

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