In commemoration of a half century after the rise of the Black Panthers (and the selection of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party for One City/One Book), the San Francisco Public Library hosted what was supposed to be a panel discussion on the art and activism of Emory Douglas (born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1943), the Panther Minister of Culture, who illustrated the Black Panther paper and was one of the panthers who traveled to Algiers, He didn’t talk about that summit or about working with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, starting with the third issue of The Black Panther Community News Serice in 1967. Confident that he understood their anti-imperialist politics, they did not supervise his work, but left him to do whatever graphics he wanted.
(2014 Creative Commons photo by Amber Gregory)
Asked about influences on his art, he denied there were any, citing only the craft of two-color commercial illustration he learned at San Francisco City College. He went on for more than two hours reading any text in the illustrations, talking about the political background of some. He has not forgiven Barack Obama for running for Congress (unsuccessfully) against ex-Panther leader Bobby Rush and is appalled that someone going through a weekly kill list won the Nobel Peace Prize (as did one of his targets, Henry Kissinger). There were few weapons, few guns in his powerpoint presentation (lots of pigs, lots of children), but there are many in his book. Next week, political scientists Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. will talk about the San Francisco Reads current choice, Black Against Empire. I was given a copy and will at least dip into it It has a thorough index. There are images I like, even some with guns, though not the grotesque pigs.
Douglas reported that the icon came out of SNCC work in Lowndes County, Alabama (the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, led by Stokely Carmichael had been using a black panther logo, Carmichael keynoted a Black Power conference in Berkeley 29 October 1966). He worked at the San Francisco Sun Reporter for 30+ years after publication of The Black Panther ceased, and has collaborated with Sandinistas, UFW, Australian aborigine, and Maori activists. He showed some of this later work.
In “The Revolution Will Be Visualized,” Colette Gaiter wrote: “Douglas was the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto, concentrating on the poor and oppressed. Departing from the WPA/social realist style of portraying poor people, which can be perceived as voyeuristic and patronizing, Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and affection. He maintained poor people’s dignity while graphically illustrating harsh situations.”
Douglas said that the paper stopped using profanity after Newton communicated from prison that Malcolm X got his message across without it. He denied any influence from Mao, though they sold copies of the little red book to finance their programs.
I doubt that I was the only audience member who would have preferred some reminisces of working with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver to reading what was on his graphics. I’d have liked to ask him if he thinks Cleaver was always a con-man from Soul on Ice to his Moonie and Mormon conversions. I’m sure there was at least one person who’d have liked to ask his opinion (or knowledge!) of whether Newton became a drug dealer in later years. In contrast with them, Douglas is “keeping the [anti-imperialist, police-monitoring faith of the original Panthers.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray