The tumultuous period known as “the ’60s” continues to cast a long shadow across the contemporary American experience. Few, if any, of the seminal conflicts that drove the era — civil rights, war and peace, racism, women’s liberation — have been fully resolved today. Nor have all the key players in that national drama been tried, pardoned, punished, vindicated, or even allowed to come home.
Pete O’Neal as a Black Panther in 1970.
A Panther in Africa, a new documentary having its national broadcast premiere on public television’s POV series, is the story of Pete O’Neal, one of the last exiles from the time of Black Power, when young rebels advocated black pride, unity, community service and sometimes, violence. Facing gun charges in Kansas City in 1970, O’Neal fled to Algeria, where he joined other Panther exiles. Unlike the others, however, O’Neal never found his way back to America. He moved on to Tanzania, where for over 30 years he has struggled to continue his life of social activism — and to hold on to his identity as an African-American.
Pete O’Neal, the militantly outspoken founder of the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panther Party, was eating breakfast on October 30, 1969 when four A.T.F. agents broke down his door and arrested him for transporting a gun across state lines. One year later, he was convicted of the charge, which he has always insisted was trumped up as part of the federal government’s illegal COINTELPRO efforts — subsequently exposed — to imprison or kill Panther leaders. Before sentencing, O’Neal received warnings that he might not get out of prison alive, and decided to flee the country rather than submit to imprisonment.
A Panther in Africa is both heartening and heart-wrenching in its exploration of what life has held for O’Neal in the 30 years since he fled America. Still considered a criminal fugitive by the United States government, O’Neal continues to fight his conviction, refusing any deal that falls short of vindication. At the same time, while able to reflect on the excesses of 1960s radicals and his own past as a street hustler, O’Neal remains unapologetic about his Panther past. Even as he has worked to build a new and socially constructive life in Tanzania, O’Neal remains very much the man shaped by his youthful struggles — and very much an American.
In 1991, Pete and his wife, Charlotte, who followed him into exile, founded The United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC) in Tanzania. The organization sponsors an international exchange program for underprivileged American and Tanzanian teenagers. The O’Neals also coordinate study-abroad programs for several U.S. universities, bringing American college students to The UAACC to work alongside young Tanzanians while teaching them English, computer skills and HIV/AIDS awareness.
But the ironies, both painful and humorous, accumulate in O’Neal’s daily existence. Conversations with visiting white Americans from Alabama leave him uneasy about the country’s willingness to face its recent history of racism. Inner-city black teenagers from Kansas City — whose sojourn to rural Africa includes a ceremonial welcome by local tribes people — don’t share O’Neal’s enthusiasm. They complain of boredom and the lack of fast food, and adamantly assert that they are Americans and not Africans. They eventually warm up to their hosts, but O’Neal frets that he is increasingly remote from American realities.
Nor does he feel completely at home in Tanzania. Even after 30 years, O’Neal struggles to feel rooted in his adopted country, immersing himself in community work while drawing strength from the steady and optimistic Charlotte. But the fact remains that O’Neal is the only member of the Wameru tribe who enjoys CNN, Charlie Parker and Southern barbecue. Battling isolation, yearly bouts of malaria, and the many difficulties faced by any enterprise in the African bush, O’Neal remains an exile in fact and in spirit.
O’Neal’s anguish is partially relieved by two dramatic reunions that took place during the filming of A Panther in Africa. His 83-year-old mother, Florene, arrives for a rare visit. Also, a former Panther comrade, Geronimo Pratt, only recently freed from prison after 27 years on a conviction that was quashed because of FBI malfeasance, decides to build a home nearby. But the reunions also serve to emphasize how O’Neal remains a man caught between past and present, America and Africa. He knows he may well never see his mother again, or even be able to attend her funeral. And Pratt, like O’Neal, is another man trying to find his place after years of exclusion from American society. Will O’Neal continue his legal battle to clear his name? Will he ever be able to return to the U.S.? And what does O’Neal’s life of struggle and exile tell us about the American past and future?
“I view A Panther in Africa as a companion piece to my previous POV documentary, My American Girls: A Dominican Story, about one Dominican family and their experiences in Brooklyn,” says filmmaker Aaron Matthews. “Around the same time that the Ortiz family immigrated to the United States in pursuit of the American dream, Pete O’Neal was fleeing this country and combining 1960s values from America with African notions of the extended family. I think that the stories of Sandra Ortiz and Pete O’Neal both offer an opportunity to look at America’s past and present, and to explore the richness and complexity of being a modern-day American. Both Sandra and Pete struggle with their transnational identities but they also gain a tremendous amount of strength from their between-two-world status.”
“I also hope that Pete’s life in some way is a motivation for people,” Matthews continues. “At a time when most people are considering retirement, he has opened up his home and turned his whole property into a community center. In spite of his difficulties, he continually finds new ways to contribute to the community.”