Her skin was very white. She was a porcelain doll, and just as delicate. I never resented what Masai felt for her. It was understandable. Jean Seberg was truly beautiful.
We had met Jean in the early part of that terrible year of 1969. David had “assigned” Masai and me to see her. She was another white movie star who wanted to help.
A small group of Hollywood helpers had already begun to astound us with their support for our chapter by the time we met Jean. If we had thought about it, it was a natural alliance.
Historically, artists were the traditional allies of movements for social change. In the twentieth century, the art of filmmaking had produced men like Charlie Chaplin, so progressive he became a personal target of J. Edgar Hoover’s anti-Communist campaign. There had been the Hollywood Ten, and tens more, who were blacklisted from the film industry for refusing to cower before U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist raid on America.
Recent history gave further testimony to that affiliation. The civil-rights movement, the most potent surge for social change in the history of America, had been vigorously supported by artists, black and white. When the latter-day Black Power people seized leadership of the black struggle, they shunned all white involvement, raising fists in white faces. White artists found their support of that movement rejected. Whatever the hazards of association, the Black Panther Party seemed to make a place in the sun for sympathetic whites. White artists were the first to come in out of the cold.
As Los Angeles and New York were the main homes of the artistic communities America fostered, the party chapters there began developing relationships with liberal and progressive white artists. In New York, there were such notable supporters as Leonard Bernstein. Our chapter in Southern California, however, was becoming the beneficiary of the support of the most powerful collection of artists in America: the Hollywood film industry’s actors, actresses, producers, writers, and directors.
People like Don and Shirley Sutherland, and the writer Don Freed, and actors like Jon Voight and Susan St. James and Jane Fonda, and, most consistent of all, producer Bert Schneider had begun lending us their homes for fund-raising soirees that produced thousands of dollars in hard cash. They subscribed to and helped obtain other subscriptions for our newspaper. They sent monthly checks for our breakfast program, and paid our incessant bails. As most black artists, along with other black professionals, steered around and away from us, we clutched Hollywood, and did not analyze it. We thanked our stars.
That was what made me so resentful of author Tom Wolfe’s wholesale appraisal of such white supporters with the epithet “radical chic.” The influential and popular Wolfe coined that phrase to characterize the rich and famous suddenly latching on to the Panther cause—with the added counterimage of the black Mau Mau, who operated a flimflam to privately exploit the radical chic.
The bevy of white “star” supporters were, the cosmopolitan Wolfe suggested, only casting themselves in a more interesting role, to enliven the boring comfort of life between their real roles. I thought his well-touted term was, at best, a superficial stereotype. At worst, that label, as it seeped into the lingo of the times, ridiculed our supporters with a judgment that could make them recoil.
It was true that some of those cinematic souls were motivated by something less than concern over the plight of poor and oppressed black people. It was equally true that there were ordinary black opportunists in our revolution, as in our ranks. Among those at the various parties and brunches our steady supporters sponsored, there were surely those who wanted to satisfy their curiosity about mythical black men. There were surely those titillated by the danger and daring seemingly involved in being near real black “militants.” There were surely those who imagined themselves vicariously linked to some dramatic revolutionary act. There were surely those who simply found it the thing to do in 1969.
None of that was the point. We were dying, and all of them, the strongest and the most frivolous, were helping us survive another day.