Richard Aoki: The Asian American Black Panther

The poster for the documentary "Aoki" about Richard Aoki, the Japanese American who was a founding member of the Black Panthers.Here’s another reason why we wish we lived on the West Coast: “Aoki,” a new documentary about Richard Aoki, the third-generation Japanese American who was one of the founding members of the revolutionary African American Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, is premiering in Oakland (where the Black Panthers were formed) on Nov. 12.

At “Here and Now,” an event for Asian American non-profit organizations in San Francisco yesterday that Erin and I participated in, someone handed out cards promoting the premiere. And this morning, Angry Asian Man had more information about it.

Like most Americans, and probably many Asian Americans, I wasn’t aware of the role Aoki played in such a turbulent period of our history. It turns out (the documentary reveals for the fist time) that Aoki, a veteran by the mid-’60s, was the man who gave the Panthers their first guns, from his personal collection, and taught them how to use firearms. Although there were AAPI members of the Panthers, Aoki was the only one in a leadership poition, given the rank of Field Marshall.

He went on to be one of the leaders of the emerging Asian American consciousness of the 1970s. He died just this year.

It humbles me to learn how little I still know about the history of Asian America.

I’m glad people like filmmakers Ben Wang and Mike Cheng are making documentaries like “Aoki.” On the “Aoki” website you can read about see clips from the film.

Here’s some information about the movie from the website:

Filmed over the last five years of Richard’s life, this documentary features extensive footage with Richard and exclusive interviews with his comrades, friends, and former students. Viewers will learn about Richard’s childhood in a WWII Japanese American concentration camp, growing up in West Oakland, and serving eight years in the U.S. military. The film explores previously unknown facts about the formation of the Black Panther Party such as how Richard became intimately involved in its founding and contributed the first two firearms to the Party. AOKI highlights how Richard’s leadership also made a significant impact on individuals and groups in the contemporary Asian American Movement. Richard’s contributions to the groundbreaking organization Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) and its involvement in the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) student strike led to the formation of ethnic studies at U.C. Berkeley. Above all else, AOKI is a film that demonstrates the incredible dedication to justice that one man’s life has had and how the lessons of solidarity, commitment, and discipline can carry on from one generation to the next.

I can only hope the documentary will be available on DVD at some point, so those of us who live outside California can get to see it (I doubt it’ll make the rounds of Denver’s art cinemas).

A simplified history lesson: The Black Panther Party was formed in 1966 out of the growing frustration with Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach to civil rights. It followed Malcolm X’s more confrontational spirit and promoted “Black Power.”

Unfortunately, though, the Panthers expanded their politics to radical causes beyond African American empowerment, the party was plagued by an image of violence. They chanted slogans such as “The Revolution has co-ome, it’s time to pick up the gu-un. Off the pigs!,” and they were involved in a number of vioelnt confrontations with police, with both police and Panthers dying.

When I was a kid, the sight of the sunglasses-clad, beret-topped Panthers was a symbol to “mainstream” America of violence rising up from African American urban ghettoes. The Black Panthers ceased to exist by the late ’70s, but their influence in radical politics persists today, and if you ever saw the pioneering hip-hop group Public Enemy (with their slogan, “Fight the Power!”), they had uniformed beret-wearing members on stage holding plastic rifles in an echo of the Black Panthers. It’s a still potent image of empowerment, albeit maybe along a misguided path.

Learning about Aoki reminded me about the Asian American woman who was there the day Malcolm X was assassinated on the opposite side of the country, in New York City’s Harlem, in 1965, the year before the Black Panthers were formed in Oakland. She cradled him as he lay dying.

Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American like Richard Aoki, was a friend and supporter of Malcolm X and later, a supporter of the Black Panthers. Kochiyama was the subject of a documentary too, back in 1999, titled “Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice.”

Given the sometimes contentious historical relationship between African Americans and Asian Americans, it would be interesting to learn from the examples of these two pioneering activists who served as bridges between the communities.

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One Response to Richard Aoki: The Asian American Black Panther

  1. Thanks for the post, QB. I’ve been trying to read all I can about Aoki. I will definitely be checkin this doc out when I get the chance.

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