Nothing went as planned.
Today, Spencer is an associate professor in Lehman’s History Department. And her area of interest, black social protest after World War II, was discovered when she was in college not becoming a doctor. Life upstate at SUNY-Binghamton was nothing like Brooklyn. Spencer had grown up in a racially homogenous neighborhood, one of many Black people. In school, she was also living in another racially homogenous area, but was now one of very few Black people in a predominantly white school. “It was like going to a different country in terms of racial politics,” she says. The science classes meant for her pre-med major were not sufficient to “help me understand the world I saw around me,” says Spencer, who began taking history and other social science courses.
For one class, she read, Assata, the autobiography of former Black Panther Assata Shakur, who is now living in exile in Cuba. “Learning her story, she grew up in ways I could relate to—it changed my life,” she said.
It was Spencer’s first time learning about the Black Panthers, the Black nationalist political organization that rose in prominence in the early 1970s. She wanted to know more, went to the library and read every available biography on the Panthers. It did not take her much time to get through them all.
It became Spencer’s mission to contribute to the dearth of literature. “When I decided to attend graduate school, I made it my assignment to take on the history of the Black Panther party and really investigate their legacy,” she said.
Consequently, as a doctoral student at Columbia University in 1995, Spencer began work on a dissertation about the Panthers. Her first interview took place in 1996 at a Panther’s reunion in Oakland, California. And now, two decades later, the dissertation has been adapted and published as The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender and the Black Panther Party in Oakland (Duke University Press). She will be giving a free reading to the Lehman community on November 29 in the Lehman Library.
Though it is a history text, Spencer’s book can be more for college students today who are growing up in the midst of burgeoning grassroots social movements. From Black Lives Matter to protests against president-elect Donald Trump, young people are organizing and using their political voice. Spencer believes there are lessons to be learned from the Panthers.
“I think people don’t think about the Panthers as an organization—but they were. There were systems, rules and disciplines. There was letterhead—if you wrote to them, someone wrote you back. They were an incredible organizational machine,” she said, adding that there was a “persistent struggle” against sexism and misogyny in the Panthers and this weakness was exploited by the F.B.I. She hopes current activists can learn from this as they build their organizations.
Today, some two-decades plus since she entered college, Spencer now teaches students who continue to have a fascination with the Black Panthers. She credits a rise in documentaries, biographies and other books with giving this generation more information than she had in the past. However, with The Revolution Has Come, she believes the “true understanding of the complexity of the Panthers still seems to allude us. That is what I hope to address.”
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