Huey P. Newton As Practitioner of Semiotics

In the fall of 1966, two young twenty somethings in the Afkan(Afrikan Amerikkkan) community of Oakland, California set down and chartered what would become the 10-point program of the Black Panther Party. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale met each other with opposing views on the Cuban Missile Crisis at a rally held outside of Oakland City College by the Progressive Labor Party. Although, they did disagree, the energy and desire to forge a political conscious raising and organizing program amongst those in the poorer sections of Oakland brought them close. Huey’s understanding of Black culture from the perspective of the lumpen proletariat and the proletariat helped to him and Bobby forge a set of texts(communication mediums) that would change the language and political framing of Black vernacular even unto this day.

According to Steven C. Hamel in the preface to “Semiotics: Theory And Applications”: “Semiotics is the study of sign processes(semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, and is usually divided into three branches: Semantics, Syntactics, and Pragmatics. Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions.”

According to professor emritus of broadcast and electronic communication arts at San Francisco State University, Arthur Asa Berger, Ferdinand de Saussure’s work, A Course in General Linguistics, is one of the founding documents of semiotics(2010:50), what Berger dubs the science of signs. Berger quotes Saussure’s work,”in language there are only differences”(1966:120) and then continues to explain this:

“It is understood that concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.”(1966:117)

It is interesting that one of the most philosophical, and relevant to this study, chapters of Huey P. Newton’s autobiographical account of the Black Panther Party, “Revolutionary Suicide”, in chapter 22(entitled, “Raising Consciousness”), Huey begins(1973:173) in the second paragraph with an assessment of Nietzsche’s The Will to Power. In his words:

“Nietzsche believed that beyond good and evil is the will to power. In other words, good and evil are labels for phenomena, or value judgments. Behind these value judgments is the will to power, which causes man to view phenomena as good or evil. It is really the will to power that controls our understanding of something and not an inherent quality of good or evil.” (1973:174)

Huey continues:

“Man attempts to define phenomena in such a way that they reflect the interests of his own class or group. He gives titles or values to phenomena according to what he sees as beneficial; if it is to his advantage, something is called good, and if it is not beneficial, then it is defined as evil.”

He furthers his analysis of Nietzsche’s framework by explaining how the German ruling classes used the term ‘gut‘ to describe them Selves while using the term, ‘villein‘ to describe the underclasses. As Huey expounds, the term ‘gut‘ implies “good” or “god-like” while the phrase ‘villein‘ is taken to mean “evil”.

From this place of understanding, Huey elucidates the US use of the term “Black”. He explains how the term is mainly used in the West as a term of derision or evil and how the Afkan had to remold their consciousness and reframe the term “Black” as one of pride, strength, and solidarity. As Huey states(1973:175),”This is an example of Nietzsche’s theory that beyond good and evil is the will to power.”

As the theoretical framework of semiotics suggests, there is a need to consider the semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics of the signs and symbols. As I have shown, Huey thoroughly understood the semantic and syntactical usage of signs to contain and frame a particular mode(as well as mood) in a culture, in our case, a culture of oppressors. For the pragmatics, Huey gives us the understanding behind the development of the term “pig” from an anecdote. He initiates this discussion with the reasons for the need to develop the term from a practical sense.

He writes: “In the early days of the Black Panthers we tried to find ways to make this theory work in the best interests of Black people…One of our prime needs was a new definition for ‘policeman.’ A good descriptive word, one the community would accept and use, would not only advance Black consciousness, but in effect control the police by making them see themselves in a new light.”

As stated, this is Huey in pragmatic analysis of the semiotic formula. He starts by relaying that he and the Black Panther Party felt the need use the theories they imbibed from Nietzsche in the Black urban community where they were teaching self-defense, US law, and political theory.

He continues:

“We thought up new terms for them. At first I figured that the reverse of god — dog– woudl be a good epithet, but it did not catch on. We tried beast, brute, and animal, but none of them captured the essential quality we were trying to convey.”

As is particularly characteristic of Huey as he relates his actions is this necessary pronouncements of what did not work. I restrain my Self here from using the phrase,”fail”, as this is not the accurate attitude to have when discussing someone in self-critique. Part of pragmatism in this space is the delineating of what symbols and signs affected the people, and that affect may not be what the practitioner hoped for, but it still reveals an objective reality about the culture of communication those people have.

After detailing what did not work for them, Huey relays an anecdote,”One day, whie working on the paper, Eldridge [Cleaver] showed us a postcard from Bevelery Axelrod. On the front was the slogan ‘Support Your Local Police’; there was a sheriff’s star above the phrase, and in the center of the star a grinning, slobbering pig. It was just what we were looking for. We began to show policemen as pigs in our cartoons, and from time to time used the word. ‘Pig’ caught on; it entered the language.”

In furthering the understanding that Huey had of the power of symbols, I also quote Huey here writing of the significance of the term and the impact he expected from not only the culture of Blacks he worked within but also those he sought to target, the police.

Huey writes:

“This was a form of psychological warfare: it raised the consciousness of the people ad also inflicted a new consciousness on the ruling circle. If whites and police became caught up in this new awareness, they would soon defect from their own ranks and join us to avoid feelings of guilt ad shame.”

This essay is to show the magnitude by which Co-founder and leader of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton utilized the theories propounded by those that detail the science of semiotics. It is to encapsulate, in a cursory manner, the awareness of the power of symbols and signs historically among some of the Afkan(Black) culture. As I have, shown, not only was Huey P. Newton skilled as an organizer, but also a theorist and practitioner of semiotics.