En[gendering] Revolution: Baltimore Panther Women, Survival, and the "Making of the Black Radical Tradition"
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As a former nursing student and transfer to Goucher College, I decided to pursue a self-designed major in Health Equity Studies to understand the ways in which race, class, gender, sexuality, and migration status act as much more of a determinant of access to adequate health care than genetics. In my classes, I sought to discover ways of understanding health that disengaged with the biomedical model. I first became interested in the work of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and invested in its political project through reading Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. I concurrently was enrolled in a course entitled Black Geographies: Gratuitous Violence and the Freedom Drive, which traced the radical tradition of Black communities from enslavement to the present day. I was particularly intrigued by the Panther’s People’s Free Medical Clinics as a realization of what community self-determination could look like in regard to health. Their demystification of medical expertise and their placement of true knowledge in the hands of the people struck me as the necessary first step in divesting from the bourgeoisie biomedical model. After conducting extensive research on the Panther health clinics and sickle cell anemia foundation, particularly their direct ties to historical Black organizing against medical apartheid and experimentation, my interest in the Panthers expanded to its specific chapters across the country. This past year, I received a fellowship grant to conduct my senior thesis research on the Baltimore chapter of the BPP, which included spending the spring semester and summer traveling to former Panther sites in Baltimore as well as throughout the South and West. As a product of an Arkansas upbringing, I was fascinated by the origins of Panther organizing and leaders in the deep South that impacted their beginnings in Oakland, California. It was important for me to understand conceptions of space in my work, as it is one thing to write about a place and another to see it. Conducting a Panther tour of Oakland and visiting with a former Baltimore member there contextualized the Panther’s work within urban space. Along the way, I visited Panther sites and museums, spent hours combing through archives, and spoke to former members of the Baltimore chapter. The lack of visibility of women in Baltimore in particular stuck out to me, and because I knew women were central to the operations of the survival programs and because little was already written about Baltimore’s programs, I tightened my focus. First, this thesis seeks to tell a more complete history of the Baltimore chapter gleaned from a wider array of primary sources than previously has been conducted, adding names, places, and stories to a chapter’s story that has been overlooked. Second, by focusing on the role of women and their centrality to the survival programs in Baltimore, I will be adding to existing literature that seeks to contextualize local chapters within the broader movement and analyze women’s involvement in the everyday organizing of the Party. In doing so, I will argue that the Baltimore Panther women, in their centrality to the everyday operations of the survival programs, were central actors in the Black radical tradition because of the way they carved out space and self-determination in their own communities. Their navigation of gender, race, class, and motherhood in practice reflects the Black left feminism and its focus on the Black woman, subjugated by race, gender, and class, as the vanguard. In order to make this addition to the empirical literature, contextualize the work in Baltimore within the larger national framework, and shape this argument, I will engage with bodies of literature: The Black radical tradition, Black left feminism, and previous Panther literature.
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