Ask the average person what comes to mind at the mention of the Black Panther Party. Odds are the answer involves armed African-Americans winding up in shootouts with police. Those images have overshadowed the Panthers' free breakfast programs, medical clinics and other efforts to improve poor Black neighborhoods in the late 1960s.
Also overshadowed is the fact that a handful of Asian Americans were heavily involved in the Panthers. One of them, Richard Aoki, was a friend of BPP founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and influenced their ideology and the contents of the famous Ten Point Platform. Aoki was among the first dozen BPP members, rising to field marshal status. During the same period, at least two Asian Americans in Seattle became Panthers as well.
Yet the stories of the "Asian Panthers" aren't well known even among scholars who study the Black power movement. Although BPP members were overwhelmingly Black, a handful were of Asian or Hispanic descent, says Dr. Diane Fujino, an associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara who's working on Aoki's biography. The non-Black members were few, and generally widely dispersed geographically, she says. And because Aoki kept his Panther membership hidden for more than two decades to protect his safety, some of the details of his involvement are murky. Fujino says she hasn't found any mention of Aoki in BPP documents or in newspaper stories from the party's early years, although Seale has confirmed Aoki's membership. Some of the general confusion over Aoki even resulted in a grin-toting character in the 1995 film "Panther" being portrayed as Chinese, even though Aoki's ancestry is Japanese.
Fujino says her students are intrigued by Aoki, a man who counters the quiet and submissive "model minority" image. "Richard is a role model to them, especially the Asian Americans" she says. "Not only are they fascinated with his muscular masculinity and his street lingo, they're angry that no one has taught them their history as Asian Americans, or that they've been taught a skewed history that doesn't include the radical resistance."
For his part, Aoki finds it "a little amazing" that Fujino's students, who are young enough to be his grandchildren, consider him inspiring. "Everything I did was out of the simple quest for freedom, justice and equality," he says. After joining the Panthers, he became one of the most prominent Asian American activists in the Third World movement, which fought to get an ethnic studies program established at UC-Berkeley. Aoki later became a coordinator of ethnic studies there, then spent another 25 years as a teacher, counselor and administrator at Peralta Community College District in Oakland.
Aoki was too young to grasp this country's racist climate when the government summarily rounded up all people of Japanese descent, including his family, in 1942 and forced them into internment camps amid the post-Pearl Harbor hysteria of World War II. Aoki began kindergarten during the internment. When he excitedly told his father he had been chosen to play President George Washington in the school pageant, the elder Aoki forbid it, raging that a Japanese would never be "father of this country," Aoki recalled in the 2000 book Legacy to Liberation, which profiles Asian American revolutionaries. After the internment camps dosed in 1945, Aoki's family moved to an Oakland ghetto. At the time, ghettos and barrios were among the few affordable places where Japanese could find acceptance. Although it took the young Aoki many months to adjust, he says his immersion in Black culture taught him more about segregation and racism, such as how the local police generally treated Blacks.
According to Fujino, Aoki was home schooled. After an eight-year enlistment in the U.S. Army Reserves, he returned to Oakland and worked a variety of blue-collar jobs. It was during that time that Aoki became friends with labor activists and socialists, who introduced him to the writings of Eugene Debs and John Steinbeck. …