Finding Big Man

By  |  June 12, 2018
“Liberation Soldiers” (1973), by Wadsworth Jarrell. From the collection of John and Susan Horseman. Courtesy of the artist “Liberation Soldiers” (1973), by Wadsworth Jarrell. From the collection of John and Susan Horseman. Courtesy of the artist

Brother Dynamite in reflection


 

Ifound Elbert “Big Man” Howard in a nursing home out in the wine country borderlands, at the end of a long fire season. Nearly two hundred fifty thousand acres had burned in California that October. A few miles away was a sprawl of charred trees and carbonized pickups.

He lived in a shared room that had a curtain divider. It was a small, airless space with dueling televisions, but he at least had the window. Closing in on eighty, Big Man was feeling his mortality. Diabetes and high blood pressure, for starters, and he was having trouble walking. In truth, that seemed the least of his problems. But he didn’t want to talk about it. What he wanted was to get the fuck out of there, away from the roommate and oppressively cheery staff. So we drove to an IHOP and ordered a pot of coffee.

“I never relaxed or felt it was over, because it never ends,” he said. “Those people, the FBI, COINTELPRO”—the bureau’s counterintelligence program—“they were doing their best to destroy me. It put a lot of pressure on me to keep from getting trapped.”

Big Man rubbed his eyes, as if it had all been a dream, as if the dream were still ongoing. “Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still here.” Across the booth, he lifted his coffee mug with crane-like slowness, a tremor in his hand. “I’ve lost so many friends, still got friends locked up, who’ve been locked up for decades.”

“How’d you survive?” I asked.

“Good ol’ mother wit. After a while, the work hardened you, put steel in your spine.”

Santa Rosa was gaining and losing twenty degrees depending on what the wind was doing, and Big Man wore a baggy winter coat, thick yellow socks, and a turquoise Carolina Panthers cap. He’s been “Big Man” since the Air Force, when he filled in at six foot one, two hundred sixty pounds. Although he’s slimmed down in his dotage and uses a walker to get around, he still projects nose-tackle immensity.

We weren’t far from the home that in better days he shared with his wife, Carole Hyams, whom he met in Oakland in the sixties. After a brief fling, they lost touch for thirty years, then reconnected through the internet and married in 2005. She visits most days, bringing Big Man breakfast, the papers, news from the outside world. “You might not see it now because he’s so frail,” Hyams had told me earlier, “but when I first met Elbert, he was just—how can I put it? He was quiet, shy, but you didn’t forget him.” 

During the wildfires, the nursing home was evacuated in the middle of the night, its residents bundled into staff cars. Whipped up by sixty-mile-per-hour winds, the fires jumped the 101. Dozens of city blocks were incinerated. When Big Man was wheeled outside, the trees behind the building were aglow, the enclosing hills outlined in flame.

To hear him tell it, the fires injected new air into Big Man. The sense of cohesion they demanded, the sudden bursts of courage, not least of all in the predawn hustle of the nursing home staff—Big Man hadn’t felt that since Oakland. It was there, sixty miles away, that in 1966 he helped found the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense—just him and Bobby Seale and Huey Newton at first, meeting after classes at Merritt College to talk Fanon and Mao and chew on issues of manifest urgency, namely: how to stop these pigs from shooting down our brothers in the streets. One question gave rise to another, and to more abiding commitment. Forget marching. No more protests. That’s what the guns were for.

 

There’s a photo from the early days, the only one of all six original BPP members together: Big Man, Newton, Seale, Bobby Hutton, Reggie and Sherwin Forte. They’re in a yard somewhere, the sun like a klieg light. I love this photo because it seizes such a sublime and overdue moment in American history (“We’re tired of waiting,” Stokely Carmichael put it in his metamorphic “Black Power” speech in ’66. “The question is, Will white people overcome their racism? . . . If that does not happen, we have no choice but to say very clearly, ‘Move on over, or we’re going to move over you.’”), and because it’s so hard to take its measure. Did one of them just happen to have a camera? Or did they sense they were about to step off the edge of something and wanted to document it? Did they think they would keep their lives? Their loved ones?

When I first saw it a couple of years ago, I recognized all but one of them by name: Big Man. Standing over Newton’s right shoulder, he was almost hidden. I’d read and reread the Panther autobiographies in college—Seize the Time, Revolutionary Suicide, A Taste of Power, Soul on Ice—partly, I suppose, out of morbid curiosity (they held the tinge of death), and partly as fan-boy (for their audacity of language, their literary hereticism). Seize the Time, Bobby Seale’s classic account of the Panthers, is still a desert island book for me. You have to imagine reading this as a white boy in the quasi-segregated, lily-white fishbowl of Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the self-congratulatory centrism of the Clinton years:

When Malcolm X was killed in 1965, I ran down the street . . . and I got six loose red bricks . . . I got to the corner, and broke the motherfuckers in half. I wanted to have the most shots that I could have, this very same day Malcolm was killed. Every time I saw a paddy roll by in a car, I picked up one of the half-bricks, and threw it at the motherfuckers. I threw about half the bricks, and then I cried like a baby. I was righteously crying. I was pissed off and mad . . . and I’m throwing bricks for a motherfucker. I thought that was all I could do. I was ready to die that day . . . I [said], “Fuck it, I’ll make my own self into a motherfucking Malcolm X.”

It was like a herald from another world, the actual world. And I couldn’t get enough. Who was I? How blinded was I by privilege, by prejudice? What could I do about it? Short of delivering answers, the Panthers pointed the way. So why hadn’t I heard of Big Man? It turned out he was one of only three BPP cofounders still living, and yet he seemed to be missing even from the scholarly histories of the party. I wanted a wider view of that photo, to nudge Big Man out from behind Newton’s lingering shadow before it was too late.

 

Big Man grew up in Chattanooga, in a part of town called Onion Bottom, near the East End switchyards. He called it “city-country.” His family kept hogs and shot rabbits for supper. Before he turned two, his father died, and Big Man was raised by his mother and a cadre of benevolent aunts. He was well loved, even doted on, but he also felt the terror of being black in the Jim Crow South.

“You were taught from a young age to fear white people. Certain parts of town you didn’t go to,” he said. “If you crossed a certain street, you’d have to fight your way out.” The Walnut Street Bridge, where two black men had been lynched by white mobs in previous years, was about a mile from his home. In Onion Bottom, the Klan burned crosses and rode around in bedsheets, menacing people. They came for Big Man’s uncle, bound him to a tree and horsewhipped him. 

“All of this was a catalyst for me joining the party,” Big Man said. “The Panthers were a way of correcting it.”

At sixteen, in 1954, Big Man joined the Air Force, a decade before the Vietnam War. He became a fireman on a crash-rescue team at an airbase near Verdun, France. It was, he said, “a dangerous ass job.” He remembered body parts of pilots scattered through flaming wreckage and seeing one pilot burned alive, his skin bubbling like soap. “You relied on your comrades, black or white, to see you through,” he said. But in the local village of Étain, “GIs built their own North and South,” divvying up hangouts by race. This was around the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, when Martin Luther King Jr. became a household name, even in Europe. 

“One night I went to a pub and some French girls were sitting there crying. They had the TV on showing a civil rights march, the police siccing dogs on people, turning hoses on them. These French girls had questions for me: ‘Why are they treating people like that?’ And I didn’t have any answers. That kind of sparked my consciousness.”

Discharged to Oakland in 1960, Big Man found himself in a city that had been lately remade by the Great Migration. From about 1910 to 1970, six million African Americans escaped Southern white supremacy for the North’s comparative calm—and its jobs (there were thirteen military contractors in the Bay Area in the forties and fifties, and with many working-class whites fighting overseas, lots of vacancies). Most of the Panther leadership—as kids—were among them. Huey Newton was from Monroe, Louisiana, where his father, a sharecropper, had a reputation for being “crazy” (read: he didn’t take shit from white folks) and was almost lynched; the Forte brothers grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and their maternal step-grandmother was injured in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; Bobby Hutton’s family was run out of Jefferson County, Arkansas, by the Klan; Big Man came from Onion Bottom; Seale from Texas; Kathleen Cleaver from Alabama via Texas; Eldridge Cleaver from Arkansas; Angela Davis and David Hilliard from Alabama. And so on.

“That glue, that consciousness,” of Southern beginnings, former Panther Billy X Jennings told me, was crucial to the party’s founding. Jennings’s own family migrated west from Anniston, Alabama, where a Freedom Riders’ bus was firebombed in ’61.

The Panthers were, of course, a different generation from their parents. “We were the children of Malcolm X,” Big Man once told a reporter. But they were also just upgrading an old civil rights idea: shooting back. What’s more, compared to a group like the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which had fought—with guns—to register black Alabama voters in ’65, and from which the BPP cribbed their panther emblem, they were rank amateurs. Lowndes was the brainchild of Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a vanguard civil rights group that had marched with King in Selma. You get a sense for how closely the Panthers’ modus hewed to their civil rights progenitors, and for how bruised the movement was by the late sixties, in a remarkable book by another SNCC activist, James Forman, called Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement. “If only we were in a shooting war with the crackers. If only we could kill some of them,” Forman writes. “We would get some of them if they got some of us. The war ought to be open.” Some scholars think even King was waffling on nonviolence toward the end of his life. All in all, the Panthers were merely stirring the pot. 

(I was mortified to find a distant relative of mine, Basil O’Connor, in a walk-in role in Forman’s book as a white-power-structure stooge. For reasons I don’t understand, he was a trustee of the all-black Tuskegee Institute, which Sammy Younge Jr. attended, and a refusenik to student demands for a black studies program. That there wasn’t a black studies program at an all-black college, that the very idea was dismissed out of hand, helps explain the Black Panther Party.)

It’s hard to fathom in Nancy Pelosi’s California, but back then, the state was an open-carry free-for-all. You could wave a loaded gun in the state capitol building if you felt like it (the Panthers did just that). Not so hard to fathom: only something like fourteen of Oakland’s roughly six hundred police officers were black. That was easy math. The Panthers armed themselves (and in an irony of ironies were stymied by then-governor Ronald Reagan, who ultimately nixed California’s open-carry law, in direct response to the sight of armed black men on Oakland’s sidewalks). It was Big Man and Seale, ex-military guys, who taught the Panthers about guns. Big Man kept a 9mm at hand and hung a rack in his truck for a Winchester 12-gauge. Their first order of business: the pigs. Carloads of Panthers started tailing police cruisers through Oakland, observing them—often with guns drawn—when they stopped black people. “Policing the police,” they called it. 

Around then, the party also put out its first Black Panther newspaper, with Big Man as its founding editor, going by the nom de plume Brother Dynamite. In an early piece, published just after Eldridge Cleaver had gone underground following a gun battle with cops, Big Man trotted out what would become his trademark style—a fat, sardonic middle finger to the Man: “The pigs are running around in a chaotic, mad, wild, oinking state of mind . . . [asking] Where is Eldridge Cleaver? What is he doing?”  

And that might’ve been it. Just an Oakland thing. A small storefront office. Giving the pigs hell. Except that in April of ’68, MLK was assassinated and the party blew up. By the end of the year, new chapters had sprung up all over the country. “We rode in on the wave of black awareness,” Jennings said. “It came down to what strategy we were going to use. When Martin got killed, people said, ‘Later for that nonviolent stuff, letting the dogs bite you, letting the police squirt you with hoses. Nope. It’s a new day. Reset!’”

 

Image-search the Panthers and you’ll eventually turn up Beyoncé’s halftime show at Super Bowl 50 (Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers), when she wore a black leather biker jacket with gold bandoliers, and her backup dancers had on berets with blown-out Afros, in apparent homage to the Black Panthers. (The day before, Beyoncé released the single “Formation,” her most political song to date, the video for which referenced police brutality and Black Lives Matter.) Actually it seemed more like a Michael Jackson tribute. Rudy Giuliani freaked out about it, though, calling it an “attack” on cops. 

What a lot of people don’t know is that the Panthers ditched the berets and black leather right away, as it made them easy pickings for the cops. The press never let them forget it. For a ’68 cover story on the party, Newsweek insisted on black leather jackets; the photographer had to run out and buy some (with Newton and Seale locked up and party spokesman Eldridge Cleaver in exile, he was left with the comparatively obscure June Hilliard, Donald Cox, and Big Man, the latter looking as suave as can be in crisp off-the-rack leather, aviator shades, and an impeccable Dock Ellis fade). And as Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. tell us in Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by early ’69, the Panthers had back-burnered armed revolution, which tended to alienate them from the masses, and morphed into a community service organization.

“We moved into a phase of inter-communalism,” Big Man said. “It wasn’t about the guns and violence and all that bullshit.”

With Big Man and Chief of Staff David Hilliard running things, the party rolled out a staggering menu of neighborhood “survival programs,” the idea being to fill in where the government had proven itself miserably inept, which was pretty much everywhere. As the party’s policy wonk, Big Man became a guiding hand, helping conceive and baby and steer the programs into being, sunup to sundown. The free-breakfast programs fed twenty thousand school kids a day—and became the model for the Department of Agriculture’s own initiative in ’75. Big Man ran work-study classes for black parolees and a free sickle-cell-anemia testing clinic. There were medical offices and ambulance services in communities where some people had never seen a doctor. Drug and alcohol treatment centers. Liberation schools. Renters’ assistance. Pest control. Legal aid. Everything free and for the people.

“It went back to my childhood in Onion Bottom,” Big Man said. “When somebody got sick and needed help, you helped them. It was a form of self-defense. The Panthers couldn’t just rely on the gun, because it didn’t address basic problems in the community, like education, food, health care. We decided to meet those needs, and to do that we had to get the community involved. We asked people to come and serve breakfast a couple times a week, volunteer in the schools, help out however they could. We all came together for survival.”

Imagine that. Sure, the guns were a draw for the party at first, and no doubt intended to induce some fear in White America (it worked). But it’d be wrong to think of the Panthers as animated by fear and not negotiating the far more outrageous terrain of kindness, and togetherness, and the opposite of whatever official lie the government was peddling.

Something I didn’t know about the Panthers: They were ahead of almost everyone on gender equality (sexism dies hard, even among revolutionaries, but women were key leaders—Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, Tarika Lewis, Elaine Brown, Afeni Shakur, Gwen Robinson, to name a few—and a majority of the rank and file), on gay rights, on protections for people with disabilities. They registered voters, ran for office, supported striking auto workers at a GM plant in Fremont, California, ditto the teachers’ union in Oakland, marched with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers during the Delano grape strike, and even allied with the redneck, flag-waving Young Patriots Organization for workers’ rights.

Free health care, wheelchair access, a living wage. It’s enough to get you killed. Oddly, it was breakfast that drove J. Edgar Hoover truly wild. “The [Breakfast for Children Program] represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP,” he wrote in a ’69 memo, “and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

The Panthers called ’69 “The Year of the Pig.” It’s when the FBI sunk its hellion fangs into the party’s jugular. We still don’t know the full scale of things. Most COINTELPRO documents remain secret or heavily redacted. But consider that in less than three years, the party lost much of its leadership, not to mention rank-and-file members, to death and prison. Billy X Jennings put the number of murdered Panthers at about twenty. This included Fred Hampton, the magnetic twenty-one-year-old leader of the Illinois chapter, killed in his own bed by Chicago cops—shot twice in the head at close range and dragged onto the floor—with an assist from the FBI (Hampton’s bodyguard, William O’Neal, a bureau informant, supplied a layout of Hampton’s apartment to police); and Bobby Hutton, seventeen, who died in a gunfight with Oakland cops two days after King’s death.

It bears repeating: This was a community service organization. And they were kids, most of them (at thirty-one, Big Man was a geriatric Panther), and didn’t see it coming. “We had no idea of the magnitude with which these people were organized against us,” Big Man said as we worked through a second pot of coffee. “They came at us from so many different angles.” Ericka Huggins, whose husband, John, was killed in a shootout engineered by the FBI, guessed that at one point, one out of five members of her L.A. chapter were police informants.

Some COINTELPRO files on the Panthers surfaced in 2000 and are available online. Looking for something human in them, a lone voice of reason or empathy, you’ll be disappointed:

In seeking effective counterintelligence it should perhaps be borne in mind that the two things foremost in the militant negro’s mind are sex and money. The first is often promiscuous and frequently freely shared. White moral standards do not apply . . .

They go on and on like that. A fog of senselessness. Kafkian burlesque. Had the results not been so horrific, you might be tempted to read these documents as the robotic drivel of a few racist nuts, instead of a quintessentially American work, an official indenture to the whole corrupt machine.

Big Man somehow emerged from all of this unscathed, at least outwardly. He was so often on the road—on fundraising stints overseas, tightening up chapters here and there, supporting jailed comrades, and generally busting his onions—that he was hard to pin down. “He was our international ambassador, so he wasn’t around much,” Jennings remembered. “It’s also why he went by ‘Brother Dynamite’ at first. In those days, nobody wanted to be pointed out. We were all paranoid.”

Big Man’s title, Deputy Minister of Information, undersells his ambidexterity. “Fixer” doesn’t quite say it either, but he was the guy you relied on to get shit done, and to carry a ton of weight, like, say, helping roll out two hundred fifty thousand newspapers a week while copiloting a national community outreach network. He lived nomadically, always waiting for the next call: “Go take care of it.” And he did. New York, Philadelphia, D.C., Algiers, Tokyo, Stockholm. He ran the defense campaign for Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale when they went on trial for the murder of a fellow Panther in New Haven (they were acquitted). For a solid year, he flew around Europe and East Asia, speechmaking and prying checkbooks open among the faithful. It’s a point of pride for him that he was formally expelled from Frankfurt, Germany, after giving a talk to black GIs there; he was put on a plane and sent to Paris, where he was taken in by Ellen Wright, widow of the novelist Richard Wright.

Hounded throughout by the Man, busted, shot at, Big Man managed to stay out of the jackpot. It probably helped that he was a quiet cat who played things close. He’s like that nowadays, not particularly keen on self-promotion, almost to a fault. He can be leery, circumspect. Sharing just isn’t his thing, let’s put it that way. But probably it’s why he’s lasted so long.

“Huey and Bobby [Seale] were so charismatic, Eldridge so crazy and unpredictable,” Kathleen Cleaver, the party’s former communications secretary, said, “that somebody as normal and intelligent and reliable as Big Man didn’t fit.” Big Man had another take: “I was known for not doing stupid shit.”

They were harrowing years. While visiting Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen’s husband, in Algeria in ’69, Big Man learned he was messing around with a government minister’s daughter. “Eldridge was nuts. I told him, ‘Man, you’re gonna get us killed,’” Big Man said. Sure enough, Big Man was strip-searched and carted off somewhere—to a desert execution, he figured—but eventually released. He was also in Attica’s D Yard in ’71 with Bobby Seale  for settlement negotiations but they happened to be outside when the slaughter of forty-three prisoners and guards there by state troopers went down the next day. “He was angry about that for a long time, that they couldn’t do more to help,” Hyams said. “The sights and smells of Attica have always haunted him.”

A couple of ex-Panthers had told me they suffered from something like PTSD—flashbacks, feeling keyed up in crowded places. “Oh yeah,” Big Man said when I asked about it. “There’s so many things you forget about, people you forget, or thought you forgot, but they surface again.”

In 1970, Big Man had his first child, a girl named Meredith, with a Yale student. For the kid’s safety, he and the mother parted ways. Big Man held his daughter just once, right after she was born, and never saw her again.

He finally called it quits in ’74, just cleared off and never looked back, flying away from Oakland and the pigs and the movement he’d given eight years to. He hated to leave. He’d passed the better part of a decade like some church goner spreading the Good News: THE REVOLUTION HAS COME! Leaving would be a kind of death, a plunge from a bridge in the dead of winter. But by ’74, the party itself was dying. The whole Panther family was shattered, its leadership murdered, driven underground, railroaded on bogus charges. Hoover had seen to that. Big Man’s great friend Bobby Seale had fled without so much as a goodbye. Newton had gone “cocaine crazy,” in Big Man’s words, and would soon be in exile in Havana. The party came under new management. It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions. Some brothers even approached Big Man about forming a rival faction. 

So he went east and started over, shedding the skin of his past life. He found work as a retail manager, bounced around Kmarts in the South, never staying put for too long. He raised a family, had another daughter, Tynisa. Some years down the road, a pair of suits tracked him to a store in Martinsville, Virginia. They asked him to step outside, handed him an envelope containing FBI memos from his Panther days, so much of it redacted as to be essentially meaningless. The message was simple: We’re checking in. Just letting you know—in case you wondered—we’re still here.

The hanging sword. It’s something the FBI labored to impart to the Panthers, those who survived: You were never really in the clear. What that feels like I can’t say, but it was there among the papers that Big Man had stashed away in his home in Santa Rosa. Hyams shared them with me, dumping a stack of file folders into my lap: typed notes and recollections, fugitive thoughts, photographs, chapter sketches for a memoir, and on the back of a white ruled sheet, a handwritten list of Big Man’s eleven “wisdoms”—the keys to his survival. Number seven: “Embrace silence. Forget your personal history.” Meaning that, until fairly recently, not even Tynisa knew her father had anything to do with the Black Panther Party. 

That changed about a dozen years ago, when Big Man moved back to California, deeming the weather—and wine—worth the risk. With his health failing, he decided to come clean about the Panthers. He attended a BPP reunion for the first time—the thirty-fifth, in Washington, D.C.—taking along twenty-one-year-old Tynisa and finally revealing to her the full shape of his life. Only one or two Panthers knew he was even alive. “Everyone kept coming up to me saying, ‘Big Man, we thought you were dead,’” he said.

 

We got lost on the drive back, found ourselves on some kind of ring road, where things started bleeding into the vineyards. I’d been on a self-reliance kick, trying to wean myself from GPS, and it wasn’t going well. Night was coming down.

Big Man talked about the Panthers’ legacy, how it lived on, or didn’t, via Black Lives Matter. The connection was obvious enough: fifty years on, black people—children no less—are being murdered by cops as a matter of course, and BLM’s Guiding Principles echo the Panthers’ Ten-Point Platform in important ways, both being anti-racist calls to action against police violence and welcome deflations of the bubble of white privilege, but also affirmations of love and enlightenment and freedom—freedom from fear, from brainsick tyranny. Which is why, it seems plain enough, BLM activists face the same kinds of state surveillance and intimidation the Panthers did.

Beyond that, the comparison was lost on Big Man. “They’re just protesting,” he said. “We had concrete programs to help communities. We weren’t running around reacting to things.” Still, he had no doubt that “whatever its name is today, the offspring of COINTELPRO is stalking Black Lives Matter.”

I asked if he’d seen the recent Black Panther film, if only because it felt strange not to ask. “Explosions and swords,” he recapped. Big Man remembered the original comic, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, coming out right when the BPP was getting started, in late ’66. (Lee has called it merely “a strange coincidence.”)

And then there it was, the nursing home, all lit up from inside.

“Back to prison,” Big Man muttered.

Earlier this year, his body had started to quit on him—chronic kidney disease, diagnosed two years ago, had gone mostly untreated—and Big Man had expected to die. But he had pulled through. What occupied him now was quitting the nursing home for good. He was even thinking of writing a book.

“I’m ready to get my life back,” he’d told me earlier, a flag of skin batting around his Adam’s apple as he spoke. “Everywhere I’ve looked, every situation I’ve found myself in, I’ve had an unfinished story to tell.”

In his room, we put on a documentary about Lee Morgan, the jazz trumpeter, and cranked up the volume on his roommate. As a schoolkid, Big Man fell big-time for jazz and blues. He saw all the greats when they passed through Chattanooga: Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Sarah Vaughan, Lightnin’ Hopkins. In his seventies, he’d deejayed at radio stations around Sonoma County. It’s where things might’ve led, all those years ago, had the movement not taken over.

He’s an old man now, with a hard road ahead. And yet, he had survived being black in America. No small feat. And how he’d lived! This black boy from Onion Bottom had become a revolutionary and endured the worst of it. Odds were, he should’ve wound up dead, or serving time, or like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, whose “life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Big Man said, “I’ve witnessed a lot of bloodshed, but I feel lucky to be alive. I’m on my way back . . . ” He drifted off, diverted by some distant thought. Lee Morgan wailed in an East Village nightclub, his wild insolent magic dulled by my laptop’s tinny whir. We sat listening, our faces reflected back to us in the window, the music reaching us as if through a funnel. Big Man was pressed right up against the glass, as close to being outside as he could get while being stuck in here, in long-term care, under modular florescence, his fate in someone else’s hands. 

I have another image of Big Man, a photo taken the same day as the backyard shot of the six original Panthers. This one’s just of him and Bobby Seale. I found it in Big Man’s papers, and Hyams let me keep it. It’s sitting right here on my bookshelf. Bobby’s wearing a collared shirt and jacket, hands on hips. Big Man’s holding a shotgun across his chest, expressionless, shoulders squared. He has no clear memory of that day. So much was happening, was about to happen. Again, the year is 1966. There’s no shade to speak of. The distance between them isn’t great. Possibly they knew, standing there, that the course of their lives hung in that moment. 


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John O’Connor is from Kalamazoo, Michigan, the original home of Gibson guitars. His writing has appeared in the journals Open City, Post Road, and Quarterly West. He has also written for the New York Times, GQ, Saveur, Men’s Journal, and the Financial Times, and for two years was a foreign correspondent for Japan’s largest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. He teaches journalism at Boston College.