More than 70 years ago, two Black families immigrated from Louisiana to the East Bay. Two sons from these families later became fast friends.
Paul Mooney went on to become a prolific, controversial comedian and writer, and his friend, Huey P. Newton, cofounded the Black Panther Party.
The two men’s lives began at the same point, but they went off in different directions.
Both died where they had lived, in Oakland. Mooney suffered a fatal heart attack May 19 at age 79, while Newton was shot to death on Aug. 22, 1989. He was 47.
On Saturday, a tiny museum featuring Black Panther exhibits will open in a converted house not far from the place in Oakland’s Lower Bottoms neighborhood where Newton received three gunshot wounds to the head.
Newton followed the path of Mao Zedong, namely, that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Mooney chose the comedy route, killing you with laughter.
The country is reflecting on the year following the George Floyd murder, the Black Lives Matter protests, the commemoration of the Tulsa massacre and the continuing racial reckoning. A year is too short a perspective. Let’s examine the racial ferment that began brewing in Oakland over the past 70 years. I know because I was there. Paul Mooney lived next door to my aunt on Grove Street in Berkeley. We grew up together.
Paul and Huey channeled their anger in different ways. The Black Panthers and Newton envisioned turning America’s urban ghettos into armed, self-sufficient Black bastions. Paul Mooney had another kind of anti-racist weapon, his wit, which proved sharper than a serpent’s tooth.
“I don’t want no bean pie. I want apple pie!” said Mooney. The bean pie was the most popular pastry sold in the Nation of Islam bakeries.
In 1964 Malcolm X, a leader of the separatist Nation of Islam, said America had to choose between the ballot and the bullet. “It’s time to stop singing and start swinging,” he said.
And sure enough, violence broke out, first in Watts in 1965, and it spread to other big cities. It flared up again after the Rodney King verdict in 1993, but large-scale urban violence subsided. Maybe, just maybe, Mooney’s jarring comedy style may have played a role in redirecting some of that anger. More on that later.
Mooney influenced the so-called Black Pack of comedians, which included in the 1970s Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Robert Townsend, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Arsenio Hall and eventually the later generation, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. Mooney never got a Showtime or HBO special. He stayed in the background, but he was the comic brain trust for 40 years, feeding scathing ammunition to the other comics who went on to stardom. Dave Chappelle acknowledged this when he wrote the forward to Mooney’s 2010 memoir, “Black Is the New White.”
Before Mooney, civil rights and the Black struggle were no laughing matter. But listening to Mooney, you’d laugh till your ribs hurt. He turned the stereotype inside out. (“I don’t drink. You get niggas drunk so you can sell ‘um.”)
Mooney’s influence emerged from the political ferment that unfolded in East Bay high schools in the 1960s.
At Berkeley High, one of Paul’s classmates was Robert George Seale, better known as Bobby Seale, who cofounded the Black Panther Party with Newton.
Three miles away, Huey attended Oakland Technical High School, graduating in 1959. Tech was remarkable for its legacy of brainy, introverted graduates, including poet Rod McKuen (Class of ’51) and Ronald V. Dellums (Class of ’53), the longtime Oakland congressman and political activist.
We don’t know what Mooney, Newton and Seale talked about during those early years, but it’s certain that racial issues played a role, because that was the time of the Emmet Till murder, the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, the “Birmingham Sunday,” when the Klan killed four Black children in a church bombing, and the 1963 March on Washington.
Enter Richard Pryor, whom Mooney met after he got out of the Army. Pryor recognized Mooney’s talent.
Record producer Naima Cochrane has written that Mooney brought Pryor into the orbit of the Black Panther’s nationalist rhetoric. (Read it here: https://bit.ly/3yMNmu3)
“In the safety of Berkeley’s counter-culture, Pryor and Mooney found Richard’s true comedic voice, one that broke an invisible performance wall for Black comedians — mixed and white audiences got the same jokes an all-Black crowd would get. That included very generous use of the word ‘nigga,’ which became a trademark of sorts for both men,” Cochrane wrote in Mic.
Mooney was no less militant than Seale and Newton, but he was militantly verbal. Mooney was like Caliban in Shakespeare’s Tempest, “You taught me language and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.”
“White folks made us tough, because they been terrorizing us for 500 years,” he said, “I’m going to open up a school, ‘How to be a nigga in America and survive.’”
Paul Mooney had been in failing health in recent years. The official cause of death was a heart attack. In January of last year, his son said, “He has dementia, old age, suffering from dementia and white people. He got white-itis.” Disabled, he was unable to staunch racism anymore with humor.
* William J. Drummond is a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and a former Los Angeles Times staff writer (1967-’79). He is author of “Prison Truth: The Story of the San Quentin News.”