Five years ago I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Dr. Elaine Parker-Gills in person for an article about the variety of African American studies courses she teaches at Antioch Los Angeles. The other day, I had the chance to interview her again, now specifically about a course she is offering this summer: “The Rise of Black Power Movement & the Black Panther Party.” Once again, I was struck by how vital, fresh, and prescient Parker-Gills’ work is.
So much has happened over the last five years: we’ve weathered a global pandemic and hopefully are nearing its conclusion; a new president was elected; mass protests against police violence and racial injustices have brought inequality in the United States into mainstream focus. At the same time, not much has changed: inequality still exists, people are still suffering, and many of us weather heartbreak and heartache every day over the state of the world. It’s this mixed bag, this collective jumble of stunning progress along with the painful absence of it that shows just why Dr. Parker-Gills’ classes are so important.
One of Parker-Gills’ favorite quotes is from James Baldwin, who wrote, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” History—in this case Black history, which is also the history of the United States as is women’s history, immigrants’ history, etc.—continues to inform the present as bitingly as it ever has. Like an unfaced fear, an unresolved personal trauma, or an injured animal, our collective history has sharp teeth, and when it’s hurting, it bites. We might think the worst is over, that a terrible phase has passed, that a hurt has been put to rest or a wrong brought to justice. But time and again current events reveal that our nation is still draped in, and to a degree defined by and perpetuating, injustices rooted in the events and perspectives of the past. America’s history of violence and oppression, and the basis upon which it was founded—an economy which relied on and profited from the enslavement of African Americans and the genocide of Native peoples—has not yet been fully reckoned with. Reparations have not been made. Harm has not yet fully been repaired.
“If the founding fathers really loved freedom and were god-fearing as they said, we would all be in a different situation today,” says Parker-Gills. “Students appreciate candor and the truth. We see the fight taking place today, so we know it must be real.”
Educating to Overturn Stereotypes
Parker-Gills believes that a large part of what needs to happen for healing and change to occur on a grand scale is to collectively acknowledge and reckon with the past. In her classes, Parker-Gills provides a safe, inclusive, and inspiring place to do just that. She thinks it’s essential to re-examine history with an eye for the rich cultural heritage and the overwhelmingly positive aspects of Black history and movements that have been left out of the books. This has the potential to be more illuminating than focusing solely on the struggle and what went wrong.
For this latest class, Parker-Gills focuses on how the rise of the Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party are widely misunderstood. Mainstream records focus on what didn’t work and what went wrong instead of what went right and how they uplifted and enriched communities. To understand what really happened, one must look at the big picture.
Sourcing the most current interviews, documentaries, and texts she can find (and she’s always looking), Parker-Gills provides a multi-lensed, thorough examination of the events of the past, which in turn provide a framework for contextualizing what’s happening today. She regularly invites guest speakers to the class. The last time she taught “The Rise of Black Power Movement & the Black Panther Party,” Elaine Brown, a former chairman of the Black Panther Party, visited the class and spoke about her experiences as a female leader in the party. She talked to students about the important cultural and social service work the party did with and for communities. Brown also talked about how she went on to become an elected official and how she now is the founder of a group developing affordable housing units in the city of Oakland, California.
In my last interview with Parker-Gill in 2018, she made a statement that I think encapsulates the state of our country very well. “America has a great story, a phenomenal story. It is a wonderful experiment that started off horribly wrong.” This understanding underpins the current course on Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party, too. She believes that it’s precisely not knowing this history that makes it difficult to heal the things that are still broken. This is due in no small part to the whitewashing of history in the institutions of education and publishing, which has silenced too many voices and too many narratives. Reclaiming these narratives, seeking out the real stories, and bringing them into focus is a major aspect of participating in Parker-Gills’s classes: she doesn’t provide all the research. Instead, she gives students a solid grounding in the historical events of the time period, then sends them off to pursue the stories that interest them.
A Long, Rich History with AULA
Parker-Gills herself received her undergraduate degree from Antioch Los Angeles, back when it was located on Rose Avenue in Venice. She completed her graduate work at Pepperdine University, and then began teaching at Antioch Los Angeles when it was located on Fiji Way in Marina Del Rey. She has served for many years as teaching faculty in the Department of Undergraduate Studies.
Parker-Gills’s main work is in the field of education. She once founded a school, and she still works as a consultant in many sectors, including the film industry. This keeps her busy, but her weekly class at Antioch is of a piece with her teaching philosophy: one must keep on doing the work of education. Plus, she loves teaching at Antioch.
For Parker-Gills, this affinity arises from the freedom to teach using the experiential, community integrated approach that is signatory of the university. She also appreciates the support and inspiration of her colleagues. And of course the center of the work is her mutually beneficial rapport with her students. Her compassion and admiration for her students is palpable when she speaks of the atmosphere of respect for all in her classroom. She is emphatic that all her students desire not only to learn but to seek knowledge and understanding in their own right as citizens of the world.
An Interconnected Global History
To speak to one of her courses is to speak to all of them. As an educator she stresses that everything is interrelated. You can’t understand the Black Panther movement and how it came about without understanding the Harlem Renaissance and the work of Marcus Garvey, for example. And so on and so forth, and back and back and back to the transatlantic slave trade, which Parker-Gills views as foundational to any Black Studies course.
The first class she taught at Antioch was “The History of the Civil Rights Movement,” and she states that all subsequent classes, such as “History & Culture of the Black Church,” “Presidential Politics & Race,” “Washington to Hollywood,” “Historical & Contemporary Issues in the Schooling of African Americans” (a workshop course), “Watching Black on Network Television: From Amos & Andy to Blackish,” and “The Rise of Black Power Movement & the Black Panther Party” are all developed from facets of that very first course. One resource she now uses for all courses is “The 1619 Project”: the longform, ongoing New York Times Magazine initiative spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2019 that takes its name from the date when American slavery began.
Emphasizing Community In All Areas
Lecture is a very small part of Parker-Gills’ courses and workshops. Instead, much of what happens in class is group discussion of these topics. Parker-Gills also works to bring in guest speakers who have lived through and participated in the events being discussed, or are active in them today.
One former student of Parker-Gills, Clarence Williams, is currently a graduate student in MA in Urban Sustainability program at Antioch Los Angeles. “The thing that opened my eyes about the Panther course was getting more information,” says Williams. “I grew up in Jim Crow south in North Carolina. Their image was very negative. Through the course I was exposed to the legacy and importance of people like Fred Hampton, who became chairman at a young age. I learned about the involvement of women in the movement, apart from being in the shadow of men. At one time so many of the men were in jail, and women had to take over leadership roles. Elaine Brown, who was a former female chair, came to speak to the class. It was the most amazing class, and I was so happy was able to join in.”
Currently, Williams and Dr. Parker-Gills are both on the Messy Conversations committee, a recorded, cross-campus dialogue started by Kirsten Grimstad and David Tripp, also of the Undergraduate Studies Department, that brings people together to discuss challenging, timely issues.
Williams is a huge fan not only of Parker-Gills’s teaching style but also of her as a person. “Dr. Parker-Gills has lived and worked in Detroit and LA, was personally exposed to many aspects of the movement, and she knows activists. She has so many connections to so many real historical figures that the courses feel like real life first impressions of history. Her presentation is always engaging, with guest speakers and multimedia, TV and news accounts. She keeps it current. You can never ever be bored in her class,” he says. “Now, working on Messy Conversations, I’m the only student rep in group of professors, yet she treats me with the same respect and bounces ideas off of me, and I’m honored by her consideration.”
Another former student, Jacqueline Rose, especially appreciates the way Parker-Gills structures the class as a open discussion in a non-judgmental forum. “There is a keen sense of our responsibility as students to be curious, engaging, and respectful of history,” she says. “The Rise of the Black Panther Party course revealed the importance of understanding the structure of society, past and present, to strive for improvement through an invested effort by all. Socio-economic decisions, current gun laws, and the premise of our education in America are woven into the general practices of the Black Panther Party.” She thinks the class empowers students with the knowledge and inspiration to become active citizens.
Parker-Gills agrees that this is her intention. “W.E.B. Du Bois talked about pulling apart the veil, lifting the veil. He talked about us [Black people] being of two minds, at war with ourselves,” says Parker-Gills. “We are both American and Black. To grasp this paradox, cultural understanding is key.”