The Power of Candy: Celebrating Robert Hillary King's Freeline


Holly Genovese I Society & Culture I Commentary I June 29th, 2017



Freelines, a delicious candy make from large amounts of butter, sugar, evaporated milk, and of course, pecans, doesn't seem all that different from your standard New Orleans Praline. Much softer, and a bit sweeter, but if you didn't know any better you might think they were simply the homemade version of the mass produced French Quarter treat. But candy connoisseur and business owner Robert Hillary King has given these sweet, southern treats a life, and political purpose, of their own.

King was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Angola 3, a group of Black Panther members incarcerated in the Louisiana Stat e Penitentiary and falsely accused of the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. (They were given this moniker in the early 1970s when their mothers were organizing for their freedom). King, alongside Albert Woodfox and the late Herman Wallace, were Black Panther Party members sentenced to life in solitary confinement for this murder, which they ascribe to their association with the Panthers.

Can a piece of candy be an act of protest? Can it be intellectual work? Robert Hillary King believes so. And he manages, through one candy, to contest the legacy of the Black Panther Party, help to humanize the experience of the incarcerated, and to supplement his income.

King can talk for hours about the years he spent in the state penitentiary, his favorite books (Native Son by Richard Wright and the Bible rank high among them), and his most beloved intellectual influences (other incarcerated writers and activists). His home at the time I met him, a small Austin residence, was decorated with Angola 3-inspired art and ephemera.

Posters from events about the Angola 3 were alongside more singular art projects like an Angola 3 wall clock. His bookshelves were filled with books and articles about the Angola 3 and the New Orleans Black Panther Party. He gave me a few freelines (pronounced free-leans-like pralines) to take home, a candy he learned to make while incarcerated and began selling after his release because it was impossible for him to find employment. [1]

Freelines are a play on pralines, the French-inspired Louisiana candy common in New Orleans. [2] King shared how he learned to make his pralines with me. On his website, King describes his freelines and the process in which he developed them. King explained, "I had plenty of time to perfect the recipe from my cell in Angola Penitentiary. I created a make shift kitchen from a stove made out of coke cans and burnt toilet paper rolls to get heat. My friend 'Cap Pistol,' who was working in the prison kitchen, taught me how to make sugar candy and I gave them away, especially to the guys on death row."

King's freelines are packaged with a label that describes the process for making them and his education in prison, alongside "the story of the Angola 3." Next to the brief story is a Black Panther, symbolizing King's continued allegiance to the Black Panther Party, although it was officially disbanded many years ago.

Both the Black Panther Party and the story of the Angola 3 are central to the production and packaging of King's freelines - without them, they would seem like any other New Orleans candy. Even decades after the Black Panther Party officially disbanded, King engages with the party politically and intellectually. His activism is still informed by their ten-point platform, which emphasized the need for an end to the incarceration of African American men, education, an end to police violence, and an emphasis on ending economic suffering for low-income African Americans. King explicitly links the Black Panthers with the Angola 3 on his candy, and had done this while the other members of the Angola 3, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, were still incarcerated (Herman Wallace was released in 2013, 3 days before his death from cancer and Woodfox was released in January 2016). King saw the freelines as a way to garner support for their freedom. Black Panthers and the incarcerated are both stereotyped and remembered as violent militants. By protesting unjust incarceration and false perceptions of the original Party with candy, something both non-violent and associated with sweetness, King helps to subvert these dangerous stereotypes.

The case of King's freelines as an act of Black Power is particularly interesting because of his connection to the South as a native New Orleanian. While influenced by the French, the American praline originated in New Orleans, whereas black power is often popularly constructed as a northern and urban phenomenon (although the origins of both Black Power and the Black Panther Party are in the South). [3] By combining the pralines with the imagery of the Black Panther Party, King uses his candy to assert the connection between the Party, black liberation movements in America, and southern history. By doing so, he helps to reframe ideas about the Party and Black Power through this edible treat, while also creating awareness to the proud history of Black struggle in America.

King's freelines serve as a source of empowerment and protest for those who remain incarcerated. By altering this food in a way that made it possible to make in prison, King implicitly makes an argument for the innovation and creativity found within the Louisiana State Penitentiary. While King started selling them after he left prison, his adjustments to the standard New Orleans praline came about because of the limited tools and supplies he had available to him while incarcerated. This resourcefulness and creativity, which amounted to forging a stove out of coke cans and toilet paper roles, gives the Freeline a defining quality that cannot be matched.

But more than an act of protest, King's freelines are an act of survival. While many states and cities have taken action to "ban the box," (the checkbox referring to incarceration on job applications), it is still incredibly difficult for the formerly incarcerated to gain employment. [4] This amplifies tremendously in the case of someone like King, who spent 29 years incarcerated, much of which was in solitary confinement. Beyond prejudices towards the formerly incarcerated and African American men on the job market, King had missed almost 30 years of experience and skill building, time he couldn't make up. Because of this, King's freelines are an act of radical protest, as well as an act of economic independence. By starting a business out of his activism, while also writing his autobiography From the Bottom of the Heap and going on speaking tours, King defied the constraints placed on him as a Black man in America. This defiance should be celebrated.


Notes



[1] see Orissa Arend Showdown in Desire

[2] Pralines Are More Than Just New Orleans' Signature Candy, http://www.eater.com/2016/10/27/13422426/praline-new-orleans-pecan-candy

[3] Black Power was coined in 1966 Mississippi by Stokely Carmichael, then a leader in SNCC. While the Black Panther Party was founded in October 1966 in Oakland California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, students at Merritt College, they were both originally from the South. New Orleans in particular had an active Black Panther Party chapter, to which King and the other members of the Angola 3 were connected with.