Happy Birthday, Chairman Fred

Lucy Gellman | August 31st, 2023

Happy Birthday, Chairman Fred

Books  |  Culture & Community  |  Arts & Culture  |  Whalley/Edgewood/Beaver Hills  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  BAMN Books  |  Possible Futures  |  6th Dimension Festival

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Nzima Hutchings reading Hampton's words. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The words floated over the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Hotchkiss Street. You have to understand that people have to pay the price for peace. A beat, as deep murmurs of assent drifted through the evening. And I’m telling you that we’re living in an infectious society right now. A bus rattled by, and no one paid it any mind. I don’t care if you got on nine uniforms, and 100 badges. 

At the mic, poet Nzima Hutchings swayed in time with the words, turning every sentence into a prayer. Somewhere beyond the veil, Fred Hampton was listening.  

Beside a new mural to abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, artists, neighbors, book nerds and budding revolutionaries—sometimes all one in the same—gathered at Possible Futures bookspace Wednesday night to celebrate and remember Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, who would have turned 75 years old on August 30. For four hours, collaborators transformed the corner into a vibrant remembrance of his life, complete with an altar, timeline, open mic, and free breakfast that sustained attendees well into the evening. 

“It’s about time,” said poet Sharmont “Influence” Little, a nurse, father and spoken word artist who later read poetry from the corner as the sun began to set, and the night cooled around him. “It brings me joy to see people coming together and celebrating this history and giving voice to the history. This feels great.” 

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BAMN Books Founder Ny. "I educated myself," she said of learning about the Panthers. 

Hampton, who championed the Panthers’ free breakfast program and fought for Black liberation and education until his final moments, was assassinated by the U.S. government in December 1969, eight months before his 22nd birthday. In the very early hours of December 4, 12 Chicago police officers—acting on orders from the FBI—raided the safehouse where he was spending the night, firing over 90 shots and killing multiple people before they left. 

Hampton remained unconscious for the raid, suggesting that he had been drugged earlier that evening. Hampton never got to meet his son, Fred Hampton Jr., who was born in a Chicago hospital a little over three weeks after he was murdered.  

In New Haven, where there was for years an active chapter of the Black Panther Party, community organizers and artists have been working for months to bring that history to light. Since the spring, Possible Futures has hosted “The Fred Hampton Project,” a collaboration with BAMN Books, Kulturally Lit, the 6th Dimension Afrofuturism Festival, and several artists and educators across the state. Wednesday, the birthday bash marked its culminating event, with additional support from the Black Infinity Collective, Fair-Side, the Inner-City News and Every Kinda Lady.

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DJ Ryan Brown.

From a pumping DJ set to an impromptu hula-hooping circle at the end of the night, it made ample space to both honor and grieve the weight of Hampton’s legacy. On one side of Hotchkiss Street, a timeline of Hampton’s life and work stretched across the brick  in green, red and gray, eye-catching over seven votive candles that flickered below. On the other, two dozen creatives milled around the sidewalk, cradling egg-and-cheese empanadas, tamales, roasted potatoes, and cups of orange juice.   

At a picnic table, artists Ruby Gonzalez Hernandez of Fair-Side and Alana Ladson of Rooted Collective had partnered for an artmaking session, creators chatting with each other as they turned paper plates into palettes, squirting paint carefully on to them as they worked.  Down the sidewalk, tables peeked out with stacks of books, handmade soap, and reams of white paper with writing prompts like How Will You Work Toward Freedom? 

At a table by a spray of ripening tomato plants, Black Lives Matter New Haven Co-Founders Sun Queen and Ala Ochumare both praised the Panthers, whose 10-point program became a template for their own advocacy when they were building BLMNHV in 2015. In the years since, they have been part of a movement that looks after the community, from winter coat and backpack drives to rallies that take over the highway.  

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Sun Queen and Ala Ochumare.

“Fred Hampton and Fannie Lou Hamer are my ultimates,” said Ochumare, who first learned about Hampton 15 years ago, and has been working to fold his vision for Black power and Black liberation into her own for over a decade. “Like, I want my work to be a child of their work.” 

“I hope I am,” chimed in Sun Queen when she was asked about carrying on Hampton’s legacy. “We have the power for what revolution can look like. People always say, ‘We need another Fred Hampton. We need another Malcolm X.’ It’s like, no. We need the people who are here.” 

She’s lived that firsthand, she added. As a kid growing up in New Haven, she never learned about Hampton, or any of the Black Panthers, despite the fact that her aunt was close with New Haven Panther George Edwards. It was doing her own research in middle and high school that opened her eyes to what Black liberation could look like—and had looked like, including in New Haven. Now, she works to teach younger generations about the depth and breadth of their history. 

“In Black History Month, you continually learn about the same people,” she said. “You learn about creatives, entrepreneurs, inventors … it’s almost like, people don’t want to talk about radical-ass people.” 

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New Havener Fallon Thomas.

As she stopped by their table, lifelong New Havener Fallon Thomas beamed at the books of Queen’s poetry, writing materials, t-shirts and tote bags on the table, many printed with the words Black Girls Are Sunshine. Born and raised in the city’s West Hills neighborhood, Thomas credited her family members with teaching her about her own history long before school ever did. At some point, the free breakfast program was part of that education. 

For Thomas, her parents and grandparents lit an educational spark. It was her grandfather, who moved from Georgia to work at the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, who encouraged her to watch Eyes on the Prize and documentaries on the life of Malcolm X. It sparked a curiosity that ultimately led her to pursue two degrees in history. 

Now, as a member of the Yale-New Haven Hiring Initiative, she’s a kind of advocate herself: she fights for her community by connecting New Haveners with jobs at the biggest employer in the city. 

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Tom Ficklin and Sharmont "Influence" Little. 

As they chatted on a nearby bench, Little and Beaver Hills Alder Tom Ficklin both reflected on the event. Growing up in the now-renamed Franklin Street Projects, Little didn’t learn about the Panthers in school, but from a father figure who raised and nurtured him.

“He wrote about knowing who you are,” Little remembered. Now, he sees it as part of his role to pass that history on to young people, which he does as a teaching and spoken word artist. 

“What did this person do at 21 years of age to mandate state-sanctioned assassination?” Ficklin asked aloud. “And today, what does that mean for us now in 2023? We have historic amnesia and we have to remind ourselves what our history is about.”

“It Gave Me The Love Of My People”

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Top: Curator Juanita Sunday. Bottom: Gary D.

Within moments, that reminder was on display just down the block, as Hutchings and 6th Dimension Curator Juanita Sunday kicked off an open mic portion of the evening. After christening the space with Hampton’s words, Hutchings turned the mic over to Gary D., a neighbor in New Haven’s Edgewood neighborhood who had never been by the bookspace. 

Wednesday just felt right, he said; he learned about the birthday bash only after he arrived.  

“The past three years have been a struggle,” he said, and murmurs of agreement multiplied across a growing crowd. “What I love is even in the struggle and the strife, we all find a way to love one another.” That’s where the revolution is, he said—that “no one had to give us the permission to be free.”  

“It’s amazing that people want to be mad about something as simple as feeding people,” he added during a later interview in the bookspace. 

It felt like a benediction, opening the space to a flow of poetry, prose, and off-the-cuff remembrances that lasted for the next half hour. Coming to the mic still in his scrubs, Little started with a call and response of “Why are we?/Great!” After a first anemic response from the crowd, he shook his head. 

“Oh no,” he said to laughs. “See, we outside. This is New Haven. I know you guys can be louder than that. One, two, three … why are we?”

“Great!” attendees roared back. 

“Oh, I like that!” he said. He turned to Gabriela Diaz, who had broken off the corner of a tamale while sitting cross-legged inside a hula hoop. “Tell me why you’re great.” 

“Because …” Gabriela paused for just a moment. “I help people and I don’t try to hurt others.”

“Alright!” Little said before launching into a spoken word poem. “Absolutely. Absolutely. So again, we have to feed positivity into our children.”  

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It was as if he had opened a door, and made sure that others could make it through. Melanie Gonzales took listeners back to picking dandelions, and the audacity and need of holding on to wishes. Lauren Anderson, who opened Possible Futures at 318 Edgewood Ave. a year ago, remembered Hampton with a birthday tribute she wrote during a workshop with Hutchings last month.

Olori Lolade Siyonbola, who identified herself as the Yale student who was harassed for sleeping while Black, spoke into being a cross-continental Black nation not scarred by colonialism and white supremacy. Writer Ryan Lindsay shared work from her collection Mine The Unseen, which captures the power and importance of choice and bodily autonomy in a country where they are often not garunteed. 

Hutchings herself, who is the founder of Hartford's L.I.T. and the Hartford Book Festival, returned to take listeners on a whirlwind tour of Black history and white violence, from the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 to the strength of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to the horrific, state-sanctioned murders of Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin.  

“Beware of the Klan’s sons and grandsons who are pledging to make America great again,” she read, and a few Mmms and Ooohs rose from the nearly two dozen listeners who had crowded in around the corner. FredHamptonBday - 11

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Writers Ryan Lindsay (top) and Olori Lolade Siyonbola (bottom).

Inside Possible Futures, the party showed no sign of slowing. At a back table, attendees finished off tamales, opened still-warm boxes of egg and cheese empanadas from Madeline’s Emanaderia, and caught up on each other’s summers. At one point, a chorus of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” went up from the front of the room, honoring both Hampton and sculptor Susan Clinard, who had walked in. Attendees milled around the space, some holding new titles that they’d picked up outside. 

From the space’s cozy couch, Greater New Haven NAACP President Dori Dumas remembered growing up in New Haven in the 1960s and 70s, and being a recipient of the Panthers’ free breakfast program. When she was five, her mother moved the family into a house on Admiral Street after a house fire. In the mornings, Dumas and her four siblings would stop at a Free Breakfast Program that the Panthers ran, and then head to classes at the Winchester School.   

“We went there to get have a good hot meal, but what we got there was learning about who we were,” she said. Every day would start with affirmations. “It was all about empowering us as young people. We didn’t realize that they [the Panthers] were planting seeds when society was not making us feel like we were loved or valued.” 

“It gave me the love of who I am,” she added. “It gave me the love of my people.”  

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Rosaly and Addy Reyes Ramos. 

Back outside, partners held space for Hampton even as they started to pack up, leaving the corner just as they had found it. At a station for her small business Tierra Soap Co., Addy Reyes Ramos said she thinks of the day as bittersweet. She’s glad that there’s the space to celebrate and learn about Hampton’s legacy, but also mourns his absence.

“I’m upset about the fact that he could have been alive and well at 75,” she said. And yet, “revolution is continuous.” The FBI did and could not not kill the power of a movement when they killed Hampton. When she thinks about the foundation of a revolutionary movement, “I believe it starts with love,” she said.  

“It inspires me to do a lot of different things for my Black community,” added her daughter, Rosaly, who is a sophomore at Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she spent much of the evening inside Possible Futures, completely absorbed in a book. Recently, she’s become interested in the history of the Panthers and of Hampton. 

“It’s sad that he could have been here—but happy that we can be out here safely,” she said. 

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Across the street, a small cluster gathered around the candles and timeline, their silhouettes aglow in the dancing orange light. No one seemed quite ready to take the last signs, the balloons, the black-and-purple outline of a panther down just yet.

Anderson, whose birthday is the 31st, looked over the display.

“Happy birthday Fred!” someone piped up from the group. The birthday wishes echoed over the street, hanging there for a moment before they disappeared into the night.