By Alex Spanko
February 16, 2010
Safiya Bukhari was a premed student in Brooklyn in the 1960s when her
sorority traveled to Harlem to help local black youth. That one act
of community spirit - spurred by the burgeoning idea that young
blacks didn't have to travel to Africa to support the black diaspora
- launched a career of activism that led her to the Black Panthers
and to prison. Almost 40 years later, and seven years after Bukhari's
death at 53, her story comes alive in "The War Before'' (The Feminist
Press at CUNY), a collection of journal entries and other writings
edited by Laura Whitehorn, a former Weather Underground member.
The book chronicles Bukhari's evolution from college volunteer to
full-fledged Black Panther, a transformation that Whitehorn
attributes to Bukhari's growing resentment of the poverty and police
brutality she observed in 1960s New York. After she had served nine
years of a 40-year sentence on charges of armed robbery, Bukhari
focused her attention on counseling those she viewed as political prisoners.
That mission led her to Whitehorn, who spent 14 years in prison for
her involvement in bombings at several buildings in New York and
Washington, including the Capitol. The pair remained in touch until
Bukhari's death in 2003.
"It's not a memoir,'' said Whitehorn, who compiled the book at the
request of Bukhari's daughter. "It's a series of grapplings with
certain issues that face us as Americans. How do we actually achieve
democracy? And by democracy, she didn't mean the political process
where you have two parties. She means a democracy that feeds and
clothes the neediest people, where people have constitutional rights.''
Whitehorn said Americans today have the wrong idea of the Panthers,
fed by lasting images of members with machine guns and military uniforms.
"When people picture the Panthers, they see the picture the mass
media presented,'' she said, noting that the group also raised
awareness of sickle-cell anemia testing and organized schools for
Whitehorn also emphasized that the book isn't just about the
Panthers, or even Bukhari herself.
"It's about what the '60s were about. It's about the world that we
saw around us,'' she said. "It's about struggling to figure out
whether we were doing the right things.''
Whitehorn will discuss "The War Before'' - and possibly whether the
activist movements of the 1960s did the right things - Thursday at 7
p.m. at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge.