Pete O'Neal: Black Panther in Africa

Pete O'Neal

Pete O'Neal, former Black Panther in Kansas City, now a community leader with his wife Charlotte in Tanzania

Race is the great unresolved problem of American life. It's almost impossible to talk about without tempers becoming frayed and people unable to contain their anger, frustration, and sense of hopelessness.

It is no exaggeration to say that most white people are blind, deliberately or otherwise, to the plight of inner city America, where so many black people are prevented from reaching their full potential.

The inner cities of many American cities are ghettos, with boarded-up buildings, high unemployment, drugs, and violent crime. They are kept that way, with the violence more or less confined to impoverished neighborhoods.

Law enforcement and politicians step in when the violence threatens to spread to businesses or the suburbs -- or when black people organize themselves and refuse to participate in their own subugation.

Pete O'Neal

That's what happened to former Black Panther Pete O'Neal, leader of the Kansas City chapter, who was arrested for transporting a gun across the state line from Kansas City, Kansas to KC, Missouri.

Owing to a prior juvenile record, O'Neal faced four years in prison for carrying the weapon into Missouri. Preferring not to risk years in prison, and anxious to avoid police brutality, O'Neal fled on a false passport to Sweden, Algeria, and Tanzania, East Africa.

Pete O'Neal

Pete O'Neal. [See foreign movies]

Pete O'Neal

Pete and Charlotte O'Neal. [See foreign movies]

Pete and Charlotte O'Neal

Pete and Charlotte O'Neal. [See movie scandals]

Charlotte O'Neal

Charlotte O'Neal. [See Catherine Breillat movies]

O'Neal's life in exile in Tanzania, where has has lived most of his adult life, is the subject of an award-winning documentary entitled A Panther in Africa by Aaron Matthews.

With his wife Charlotte, an artist, poet, and community leader, he runs the United African Alliance Community Center, which offers classes for hundreds of Tanzanian children, exchange programs for America college students, and brings young men and women to Africa from troubled neighborhoods in Kansas City.

O'Neal is keen to point out that the Black Panthers, despite their reputation for militancy, were also about neighborhood improvement, offering classes and food to young African Americans.

Mellow years

After 30 years in Africa, O'Neal has mellowed. He does not express himself as violently as once did. His anger has tranformed into wisdom, able to tackle matters of race and justice even with white Americans who claim that racism is caused by black resentment.

In A Panther in Africa, O'Neal listens patiently as men from the south of the United States tell him that the anger of young black men holds them back from improving themselves.

He is calm when white men a little younger than himself tell him how hard it is to be white in America, that black people do not have a monopoly on hardship.

Building bridges

The young O'Neal would have verbally shot these men down, but he has learned you achieve more, and raise more money, by building bridges than destroying them.

O'Neal admits to his wife that he finds it difficult to listen to belligerent and ignorant comments from white Americans, but he tolerates the remarks, knowing that his community work in Tanzania depends on donations from well-meaning but often insensitive fellow Americans.

There are moments when A Panther in Africa is sad. O'Neal is increasingly aware of a growing gulf between himself and young African American men.

He says he loves their company, he identifies with their struggles, but it's more and more difficult for him to connect with young African Americans.

It is moving to see how much bigger O'Neal's world has become than America and its big city problems. But he is also not completely African. He sways between America and Africa. These days he is closer to Africa than the United States. But, even after more than 30 years in Tanzania, he is clearly a man in exile.

Ongoing struggle

Powers that be in the U.S. continue to battle Pete O'Neal. As recently as 2009, the American Embassy in Tanzania refused to renew his passport, making it impossible for him to travel to India for knee surgery.

There is a small hope that President Barack Obama will pardon Pete O'Neal so that he can return to the United States, albeit just to visit friends and family -- and perhaps undergo knee surgery.

There are far more dangerous Americans allowed to roam free in the United States than former Black Panther Pete O'Neal. Today, he is a man of peace, a community builder, able to bridge the painful barrier of race.

Armand Whyte's view All credit to Netflix for making a Panther in Africa available online. It is a must-see for all Americans. O'Neal has managed to overcome and heal much of his justified anger and turn it and himself into a messenger of peace and healing.

Buy A Panther in Africa.

By Armand Whyte