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Black Power, White Blood: The Life and Times of Johnny Spain

Black Power, White Blood: The Life and Times of Johnny Spain

by Lori B. Andrews

Conceived within a clandestine relationship between a black man and a married white woman, Spain was born (as Larry Michael Armstrong) in Mississippi during the mid-1950s. Spain's life story speaks to the destructive power of racial bias. Even if his mother's husband were willing to accept the boy—which he was not—a mixed-race child inevitably would come


Conceived within a clandestine relationship between a black man and a married white woman, Spain was born (as Larry Michael Armstrong) in Mississippi during the mid-1950s. Spain's life story speaks to the destructive power of racial bias. Even if his mother's husband were willing to accept the boy—which he was not—a mixed-race child inevitably would come to harm in that place and time.

At six years old, already the target of name-calling children and threatening adults, he could not attend school with his older brother. Only decades later would he be told why the Armstrongs sent him to live with a black family in Los Angeles. As Johnny came of age, he thought of himself as having been rejected by his white family as well as by his black peers. His erratic, destructive behavior put him on a collision course with the penal system; he was only seventeen when convicted of murder and sent to Soledad.

Drawn into the black power movement and the Black Panther Party by fellow inmate, the charismatic George Jackson, Spain became a dynamic force for uniting prisoners once divided by racial hatred. He committed himself to the cause of prisoners' rights, impressing inmates, prison officials, and politicians with his intelligence and passion. Nevertheless, among the San Quentin Six, only he was convicted of conspiracy after Jackson's failed escape attempt.

Lori Andrews, a professor of law, vividly portrays the dehumanizing conditions in the prisons, the pervasive abuses in the criminal justice system, and the case for overturning Spain's conspiracy conviction. Spain's personal transformation is the heart of the book, but Andrews frames it within an indictment of intolerance and injustice that gives this individual's story broad significance.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Johnny Spain was one of the "San Quentin Six," who was convicted of a conspiracy to escape the prison. His life story, reconstructed by lawyer and author Andrews, has moments both sad and stirring. The son of a liaison between his married white mother and a black lover, Spain was sent from Jim Crow Mississippi to live with a black family in California, but he found neither love nor peace. Convicted in 1966 of a murder committed during an impetuous robbery, Spain was thrust into California's prison system, where authorities cultivated racial animosities among inmates and where guards shot to kill. There, Spain learned the brutal ropes and became radicalized. Also, thanks to Black Panthers George Jackson and Elaine Brown, Spain grew to accept his white heritage. Despite strong evidence that Spain's conspiracy conviction was illegitimate, he gained no reprieve from the court system; rather, he became a peacemaker among prisoners, and ultimately reconciled with his mother. Finally, in 1988, he was granted parole. Spain now works in community relations in San Francisco. Given Spain's impressive journey out of prison, the reader wishes for more information on his doings since 1988 and his reflections on current debates about prison and race. Photos not seen by PW. (July)
Library Journal
Johnny Spain's life provides the raw material for a potentially fascinating biography. Spain, who was born in 1949, had a white mother and an African American father. As a child he did not feel fully accepted by members of either race. Early in his life, he became involved in various criminal activities and spent over 20 years in California prisons. There, Spain became a leader of the Black Panther Party and in the prisoners' rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Spain was released from prison in 1988 and currently works as a community organizer in San Francisco. Unfortunately, attorney Andrews's biography has serious deficiencies. It is not just sympathetic to Spain but sometimes borders on adulation, which limits the author's ability to analyze Spain's life seriously. Despite Andrews's many interviews with Spain, her depictions of some of the major events in his life are cursory and need further explication. An optional purchase for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/96.]Thomas H. Ferrell, Univ. of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette
June Vigor
The story of Johnny Spain, who rose to prominence in the Black Panthers organization from behind bars, is a jarring reminder of the human costs of institutionalized racism. The first part of the book, which tells of Spain's difficult beginnings as a biracial child in 1950s Mississippi and the events leading to his imprisonment for murder at 17, is a bit flat. Once inside the California penal system--where Spain spent 22 years--the story hits its stride, detailing the cycle of cruelty and violence that led up to his 1971 conviction on conspiracy and murder charges for his part in the San Quentin Six inmate uprising. Spain's subsequent involvement in the prisoners' rights movement began a metamorphosis, illustrated here through his poetry and correspondence, that brought him to terms with his racial heritage and the actions that led to his imprisonment. (Spain's second conviction was overturned in 1988, and he is now a community organizer in San Francisco.) Appearances by Huey Newton, George Jackson (author of "Soledad Brother", 1970), Angela Davis, and other luminaries of the Left contribute to a gripping and inspiring, if somewhat uneven, read.
Kirkus Reviews
A moving journey through a black activist's turbulent life.

Lawyer Andrews (Between Strangers: Surrogate Mothers, Expectant Fathers, Brave New Babies, 1989) chronicles the life and hard times of Johnny Spain, a Black Panther leader most famous for his part in the 1971 San Quentin Prison outbreak in which fellow Panther George Jackson was killed. Spain was the only defendant among the so-called San Quentin Six to be convicted. He had come up a hard road, the product of an affair between a black man and a married white woman in the postwar South, shunted off to live with a black couple in the Los Angeles ghetto. A bright student who "read intensely, though rarely what was assigned in school," Spain fell in with a gang and began to commit ever more serious crimes, finally murdering a victim in a 1966 stick-up. At Soledad he met the charismatic George Jackson, who taught Spain martial arts and revolutionary theory. But Spain recognized Jackson for what he was: "Johnny could read the message in his eyes: The man was a killer." Caught up in Jackson's intransigent politicking—and Andrews is good at translating the Black Panther Party's program for readers now far removed from those tumultuous times—Spain and the other "Soledad Brothers" were moved to San Quentin, where Jackson was gunned down trying to escape. Two guards died as well, for which murders Spain was tried and convicted in a decision overturned years later. He became a model prisoner, mediating racial tensions and negotiating for the rights of his fellow inmates. Released in 1988, Spain now works as a community organizer in San Francisco.

Andrews's prose is steeped in true-crime clichés, and her invented dialogues read as if written for a TV movie. Still, Johnny Spain's life story is so powerful, and so inspirational, that it overcomes its narrator's limitations.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.79(w) x 8.57(h) x 1.18(d)

What People are Saying About This

David B. Wilkins
In simple direct prose, Lori andrews captures a life lived as the crossroads of this century's most volatile and vexing issues—race, violence, justice, and redemption.
— (David B. Wilkins, Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law, Harvard Law School)
George Lipsitz
There is no better book about the Black Panther Party than Lori Andrews' shocking, gripping, and moving account of the tumultous life of Johnny Spain. Black Power, White Blood never shies away from hard facts and harsh realities, offering an unparalleled view of the prison system, its impact on young Black men, and the politics it produces among those it incarcerates.
— (George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness)
Wayne Kerstetter
A compelling story—a boy's perceived abandonment by his mother reslts in criimes motivated by anger. Remorse for murder results in increasing commitment to Black Panther ideology, and finally redemption trhough a recognition of his need and capacity to take responsibility for his own life. A parable for our time.
— (Wayne Kerstetter, Criminologist, University of Illinois at Chicago)

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