Long time gone

Former Kansas City Black Panther leader Pete O'Neal and his wife Charlotte reminisce over memorabilia in their home-in-exile in Tanzania.

Black Panther Pete O'Neal reflects on his exile in Africa

In 1970, Pete O'Neal, the outspoken, confrontational founder of the Kansas City Black Panther Party, left the United States and went into exile following his arrest for transporting arms across state lines - a trumped-up charge which might have resulted in his death had he turned himself in. Instead, O'Neal and his wife Charlotte joined other exiled Panthers in Algeria - then home to the group's international chapter - before settling in Tanzania where the couple still lives. The PBS P.O.V documentary, A Panther in Africa, shows the O'Neals three decades later as they continue their community development work while grappling with some difficult questions regarding their place in the world and what it means to be an African American in Africa.

As a young man in Kansas City, O'Neal was on a path towards becoming a small-time street hustler. His memories of this still pain and shame him. "It's something I know I can't undo," he says in the film. Community work became his salvation; becoming involved with the Panthers "turned my life dramatically around."

A panther in africa
10pm Tue, Sep 21
Channel 9, Cable Channel 10
The image of the Panthers etched into the memories of many people, black or white, is that of Black Men with Guns: Huey P. sitting on a wicker chair, holding a spear in one hand, a rifle in the other; the march on California's Capitol building; the revolutionary-cool dudes, armed with sunglasses and berets - imagery that played up and played with (still lingering) fears and prejudices. O'Neal says as much while reflecting upon an interview on national television he gave following his exile. He has no qualms about what the Panthers accomplished but concedes that some of the rhetorical posturing was unreasonable. "I could have handled it better," he reflects. "If that was how I felt then, it's not how I feel now."

In the flash and spectacle surrounding the black militants, their community work was often overlooked: feed-the-people programs and small-scale organizing projects that had immediate impact on the lives of ordinary people. The O'Neals continue to do this type of work today, in a place where access to running water is as important an issue as combating police brutality in the U.S.

Pete O'Neal as a young Black Panther, sporting the revolutionary look that sparked the imaginations and fears of white America.
In 1991, the O'Neals founded the United African Alliance Community Center, which feeds several hundred children a month in addition to providing medical care, HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness programs, and educational services. "What we're trying to do here is create a microcosm of what we feel the world should be," O'Neal says. The term "alliance," O'Neal believes, "better describes Africans from the continent and diaspora working together."

The documentary shows O'Neal interacting with scores of guests: youth groups, college students, tourists, and other visitors, including a pair of young African Americans and Geronimo Pratt, the newly freed ex-Panther political prisoner. Reflecting upon his reunion with his old friend, O'Neal observes how much his exile feels like "sort of a cultural and emotional prison." The full weight of his separation hits hardest when his mother visits for the first time in 10 years; poignantly, O'Neal realizes this will probably also be her last visit.

Charlotte, an innate optimist, appears to be at peace with her new home, and continually appreciative of the beauty of her surroundings, despite the hardships they face, including frequent bouts with malaria. In contrast, O'Neal continually wrestles with his exile. "The Kansas City I knew really no longer exists," he sighs to the visitors from his hometown. At 63, O'Neal should be at peace with himself and his surroundings. Instead, after three decades in exile he still finds himself trying to find his place between two worlds, struggling to hold on to his connection with other African Americans even as he accepts that "they are so different from what I know."

"I just can't grasp the values and mindsets of what African Americans are as easily as I did in the past. I don't want that to happen. I don't want to lose that." •

By Alejandro Pérez