This synthesis of history and biography offers a cautionary corrective to less than candid Black Panther accounts like Elaine Brown's A Taste of Power and David Hilliard's This Side of Glory. Pearson, a writer and editor for the left-leaning Pacific News Service, began the book with the ``genuine curiosity of an African- American who came of age during the era of black militancy.'' The story he uncovers is sobering. After first sketching ex-Panther leader Newton's 1989 death in Oakland, apparently at the hands of crack dealers, Pearson takes a slow detour to describe the history of the city, which drew black shipyard workers during WW II; the strains in the civil rights movement; and the growth of Bay Area activism. He picks up his main thread in 1966, when Newton, a community organizer, college student, and buddy of street criminals, founded the Panthers with Bobby Seale. Offering more gun-toting public defiance than political education, the Panthers grew popular among powerless Oakland blacks and sympathetic whites while cutting deals with local criminals. Pearson consistently offers shadings on a mythic history: Though police harassed the Panthers, the Party's ``breakfast programs'' also indoctrinated hatred of cops; though agents provocateurs did damage the Panthers, the party's fall was also hastened by the genuinely disillusioned within its own ranks; though Newton exhibited both a fierce intellect and sense of moral outrage, he was capable of much cruelty against anyone in his path. By the early 1980s, the Panthers--and Newton--had declined, and their support of Oakland's underworld, Pearson argues, helped create the drug gangs linked to Newton's death. Pearson's charges are not altogether new, but his research buttresses his conclusion that Panther-like ``posturing'' will predominate over substance as long as some blacks promote themselves, with the collusion of the media, as ``pathological outsiders to the American mainstream.'' (b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour) -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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