Robert Hillary King
PM Press (2009)
Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar
Presenting one’s memoir consciously as that of a former Black Panther Party member, even as simply a factual statement, is bound to bring any such book into some heady company. Think Assata Shakur’s Assata, George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time and nearly a dozen other autobiographies and biographies. And though From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography Of Black Panther Robert Hillary King (nee Robert King Wilkerson) is no Soul On Ice (Eldridge Cleaver’s bubbling personal manifesto), King’s words percolate with the urgency and determination that made the Panthers once one of North America’s most revolutionary units.
King is best known, along with Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, as one of the Angola Three, leaders of a Black Panther Party chapter in Louisiana’s Angola Prison who served extensive portions (in the case of Wallace and Woodfox, 36 years) of their sentences in solitary confinement. Since his release, King has campaigned endlessly in support of the release of Wallace and Woodfox. He has also spoken out about the flaws in the criminal justice system, the reality of Southern racism that enjoys official support, and the disparities affecting people of African descent which in turn predicated his Black Panther Party membership. In revealing the details of his life, King employs an arresting writing style and welcomes you in to a world to which few have access.
Heap tells King’s story from his youth growing up in the racially stratified Deep South to incarceration, political engagement and quest for freedom. His prose in plain-spoken yet vulnerable, with accounts of a life lived with much forthrightness and few regrets, though seemingly myriad pains. Yarns like King boxing with a rival named Pugnose as a means of resolving a youth jail code’s double standard affecting boys and girls dating are symbolic of King’s way of storytelling. While his estimations are spot-on, King seems to prefer stepping back and letting the situation speak for itself. Going this course makes for teaching moments on how different society is from King’s teenage years and, in other ways, how the world has barely changed, if at all.
Those expecting harrowing prison tales will not find them so much in this book as there are accounts of the everyday life of a young man dealing with the criminal justice system, social inequality and his own hopes for himself. The delicate negotiations of prison life are plumbed certainly. The conditions the Angola Three dealt with and their decision to resist brutality, as well as the facility’s response to their demands for basic human rights, are frequently sorrowful. King’s courage is nothing short of extraordinary. But really Heap is about much more than politics, survival and adversity. Though Louisiana has yet to atone for the wasted years given by the trio of Black Panther organizers, Heap is one man’s shot at making sure a history and a struggle are not lost now or to future generations.