The Phone Call That Led to My Face on a Black Panther Wall - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A group of women show their support for the Black Panther Party, 1969.
SourceRobert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because even if the revolution wasn’t televised, it was documented.

By Cheryl Dawson

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Cheryl Dawson
Brentwood, California

I’m 73 years old, and I received a phone call from my son telling me I got a message from Jilchristina Vest asking to speak with me.

When I heard about Jill’s project —  a historic 2,000-square-foot mural in West Oakland dedicated to the testimonies of the women in the Black Panther Party — I thought, “You mean someone wants to talk about our work as the poor Black women in the community?” 

People in the community who had a social advantage weren’t taking part. They were with the university joining sororities and keeping their social system intact. The onus and creativity of the mural project is the fabric of Jill’s activism.

My dogs are more safe than my grandson.

And so I told her yes, I would like to talk with her.

When she calls, I’m looking at my dogs. I have a beautiful puppy and a full-grown dog. They don’t go anywhere. My 14-year-old grandson is here too, and I’m thinking, “Oh God, I’m happy the dogs never get out.” Then I thought, “If this big dog were to get out, these dog lovers around here see the tags, they’d make sure that he got back.”

My grandson, on the other hand? He cannot go in those hills and run and train. I look at my precious grandson and say to myself, “This boy is not safe out here.” My dogs are more safe than my grandson.

So this was the framework that set the backdrop for my conversation with Jill.

Talking to her, I understood that heaven sent me a vehicle to move the work, share the work and encourage the people. Because of what I had been thinking and processing and writing and looking at with regard to our people, that phone call from her was pivotal, because it showed me how I could finally fold the past into the present and help direct the future. That’s is the objective, and should be of every conscious elder in our community. 

Which is why as a Black Panther from the Berkeley chapter I’ve worked to develop program opportunities to be a bridge for women. I’ve worked as an adjunct professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies teaching women’s spirituality and embracing this spirituality as the resistance I know it can be. I am also an ordained minister at Beth Eden Baptist Church in Oakland, where I taught and preached womanist theology. It is a core resistance for Black women and lends itself to the demands for equity.

The FBI followed me so consistently that I knew who they were.

I began a program for treating substance abuse in San Francisco County Jail in 1993. I teach women’s restorative justice — my work has always been dedicated to our people. Unapologetically.

The FBI followed me so consistently that I knew who they were. When I would leave my house in the morning at 4:15 and drive one block, there were agents parked farther up my block. And when I looked in the mirror after I made my turn, there they were.

These agents followed me everywhere I went. They followed me out to Cal State Hayward when I reenrolled there. Anytime I went to the bank, when I came home, my neighbors would tell me: “The insurance men were here today. And they were asking about you.” And I would tell my neighbors, “I don’t have any insurance.” If I moved and I ordered a phone, they always sent the FBI. And you could tell they were FBI because they didn’t know how to put the phone codes in.

As a Panther, I met young babies in the morning to prepare them to enter the world. It’s what I do. So I blended that and taught it and brought folks in this community to help teach it. So I see the mural as an extension of that, because as Black women, we are never, ever seen.

When I finished talking to Jill, I felt like I had a sister. I felt a sense of gratitude to my Creator for sending me a way to do the work that I know is pleasing to God. I felt hope. I felt that, when these names go on the wall and these illustrations go up to show how we were and who we were and when people look on that wall and they see the names and pictures, they will be encouraged.

And they can take that good vibe to deal within the system into their own home and use it as a steppingstone to go forward. That is what we need. 

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