The Black Panther is an African Cat


Book Reviews


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Book Review

Lincoln Journal Star

The Black Panther is an African Cat™ advocates freedom, justice
BY FRAN KAYE / For the Lincoln Journal Star
Sunday, Aug 20, 2006 
The most arresting image in the photo collages that illuminate this book shows a large group of smiling young white men posed around the charred and still smoking body of a black man. This is the Omaha lynching of 1919, in which Will Brown was hanged and burned, according to historian Orville Menard (Nebraska History, Winter 1987), for an imaginary crime dreamed up to discredit the elected city administration.

Fifty years later, convinced that Omaha was still failing its African-American community, another young African-American man, David Rice, joined the Black Panthers. In 1970 David Rice, along with Ed Poindexter, was arrested for rigging a suitcase bomb that killed Omaha patrolman Larry Minard. Both men were convicted, though evidence originally suppressed at their trial forcefully indicates that they are innocent. It was not unusual for successful activists to be wrongly arrested at this time — Shirley Douglas, actress and mother of Kiefer Sutherland, was arrested under strikingly similar circumstances, but was never tried, probably because she was white, wealthy and well-connected.

The poems in “The Black Panther is an African Cat” have been written by Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa, the name chosen by the former David Rice, during his imprisonment, and they carry on his criticisms of American society — of all races — and his continuing advocacy of freedom and justice.

Mondo, as he is called, uses voices ranging from rap to an African demotic to a highly polished American Standard English reminiscent of Langston Hughes. In “Dressed in Black,” he explains both the image and the intent of the Panther chapter in Omaha.

Yeah we had guns but wasn’t trippin

wasn’t stuck in no death groove

picked up them pieces cuz justice was locked

in a box . . .

The guns and attitude were notice that the African American community would no longer tolerate injustice. The Panthers wanted to be a beacon for

. . . our people who were needin defense and protection

and relief from attacks that came so frequent and hard

Mondo never loses his focus on the institutionalized racism he sees in America — “the courts/ that dispense to us injustice/ . . . the schools committing mentacide on our children.”

 He also, however, critiques contemporary black entertainers and athletes who strut but show no respect for or responsibility to the African-American community that Mondo writes as “We” in contrast to the less significant “i.” He tells the gangsta rapper, “you got the pose allright/ the mean-mug down pat” but you “ain’t thugged no one with power. ”  Similarly Mondo chides athletes and others who “fear dying/ but can cope with being misled,” who need to be “safe” for “euro america,” and “entertain the crowds.”  Yet he also points out that one cannot blame people for thinking what they have been taught to think if no one challenges them.

 In the powerful poem “Shoshana’s Eyes,” Mondo empathizes with the pain and fear of a young African-American woman wounded early in the Iraq War, but then he asks “shouldn’t she know better/ and shouldn’t we” than to once again be “toting guns against those who have harmed us none,” the ordinary people of Iraq?

The poems focus on building and educating all Americans to the need for social justice in a society where Mondo’s 36 years of imprisonment for a crime he insists he did not commit is ongoing evidence of the continuation of racism.

Good poetry is a distillation of ideas and feelings into memorable words and images. If we are lucky, it may also bring us somewhere we have never traveled. Mondo’s Black Panther carries us to a heart of darkness that is still our Nebraska, our America. He challenges us to demand “liberty and justice for all.”

Fran Kaye teaches English and Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She also volunteers in several local and international peace and justice organizations.