Former member sheds light on Black Panther legacy

Replete with a black and white kanga and traditional African headdress, Mama Charles, a former member of the Black Panthers, delivered an inspiring account of her life’s work last Friday in the Paresky performance space. The talk, entitled “Reclaiming the Black Panther Legacy of Social Responsibility,” concerned her personal history of social activism both in the U.S. and Africa.

Mama Charles, a.k.a. Charlotte O’Neal, comes from a long history of participation in the civil rights movement, social activism and initiation of many welfare projects. Her husband Pete O’Neal and she were active Black Panther Party members and chose to move to Tanzania in self-exile when Pete was charged with carrying a gun across a state line.

O’Neal and her husband have been living outside Arusha in the Imbasen village for 38 years and have established a grassroots welfare organization called United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC). The UAACC aims to empower youth by teaching art, basic trade skills and HIV/AIDS education. The two helped improve the living standards of their small Tanzanian community with a series of small changes including encouraging the use of solar energy, starting water projects and teaching local residents more effective and safer building practices.

O’Neal, speaking in her Kansas City accent, explained the Black Panther legacy, attempting to dispel its reputation as a violent organization. She said that a large part of the organization’s role was to serve the community voluntarily, adding that it established programs like free breakfast for kids at schools and free health clinics. “This building and helping a community come together is the legacy of the Black Panthers,” O’Neal said. “Once a panther, you’re always a panther.” She explained that today, former Black Panther members remain some of the most active proponents of social change.

During the talk she showed two documentaries, one about a UAACC center in her village and another one focusing on a ghetto in Nairobi. The first documentary began by showing O’Neal playing with her band of locals from Arusha and went on to outline the various UAACC projects going on in the area. Featured in the documentary was one of O’Neal’s fellow band members, who had lived in destitution and near starvation his entire life until receiving help from UAACC.

The second documentary was a grim account of the ghettos in Nairobi which showed a group of musicians finding, in hip hop, a reason to live. According to the documentary, 60 percent of Kenya’s population lives in ghettos – vast slums of houses made of cloth and plastic. While the people there manage to find humor in maxims like, “Love your neighbor but rob him first,” the harsh reality is that many believe the slum “is all they’ll ever know.” The film’s subjects turn to the city’s flourishing hip-hop scene and establish radio channels as a distraction from their bleak living conditions.

O’Neal showed the documentaries in order to emphasize that one need not be rich or foreign to volunteer and help a community. “Change can come from within,” she said. “Even the youths can help by participating in programs like Engineers Without Borders and HIV/AIDS education programs.”

The speech concluded with O’Neal urging the audience to use her work as an example when dealing with issues such as global warming and climate change. She added that the youth are not only the ones who will identify key issues to tackle in the future, but also the ones who will be forced to address them. “Age and circumstance are no excuse,” she said.