Moving into the second half of the 20th century, we turn to visual culture and to the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers knew that arts and culture were critical to their work as revolutionaries, which is why they had a Minister of Culture within their organization. While this section focuses on the essential role of visual culture, it is also necessary to mention the lesser-known fact that the Black Panthers also had a revolutionary funk band called The Lumpen, which formed in 1970. Although the musical group was short-lived, touring and recording for just under a year, the visual culture of the Black Panther Party still lives on today. In his role as Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas created visual art for the Black Panthers, which was published in the Black Panther Party newspaper between 1967 and 1980.
As Douglas explained in his 1968 essay on revolutionary art, titled “Position Paper #1,” also published in the Black Panther newspaper: “We, the Black Panther artists, draw deadly pictures of the enemy—pictures that show him at his death door or dead—his bridges are blown up in our pictures—his institutions are destroyed —and in the end he is lifeless—We try to create an atmosphere for the vast majority of Black people—who aren’t readers but activists—through their observation of our work, they feel they have the right to destroy the enemy.”17
Not unlike speaking something into existence, Douglas wanted Black people to see the future into existence. Though he alone did not create that vision of the future, he played a major role in creating the visuals, which in 2021 still endure and inspire vision for a revolution in the future ahead of us. Inspired by the Black Panthers, the Young Lords also relied on visual art in their own newspaper, Pa’lante. Juxtaposing art by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords demonstrates their common vision for revolution, as well as the similarity of their visual art intended to inspire revolution.
The revolutionary future Douglas and the Black Panthers were envisioning was not just about destroying oppressive institutions or enemies. As Colette Gaiter synthesizes, “Although the Black Panthers were most closely associated with the call for armed revolution, perhaps their most persistent and resonant revolutionary activity was visualizing alternative aspirational standards for African Americans in the United States after the Civil Rights Movement.”18 As the Civil Rights movement came to a close in the late 1960s, despite some key victories, anti-Black racism continued to persist in every institution in this country. The visuals that white America put forward were ones steeped in racism and white assimilation. The Black Panthers resisted this through their programs and through their visual culture. As Gaiter explains:
Directly oppositional to images of smiling middleclass Black people assimilating lifestyles of their White counterparts in mainstream media, the Black Panther newspaper in 1968 visualized armed self-defense in response to police brutality in black communities. Over time the BPP’s focus shifted toward community building and self-reliance, presenting pictures of sustainable, even thriving lives in Black working class and poor communities. The paper’s images served two purposes: “to illustrate conditions that made revolution a reasonable response and to construct a visual mythology of power for people who felt powerless and victimized.”19
This speaks to the extraordinary power that images can have. How can seeing a reality in certain lights or frames help to make real the truth that has been right before our eyes all along? What role does seeing a vision of oneself liberated and a vision for a liberatory future play in manifesting it, in making it a reality?
Against the backdrop of a long history of racist imagery of Black people, Black Panther artists portrayed Black folks in beautiful and powerful ways, reclaiming the very embodied traits that had so long been degraded by white artists and media makers. As Gaiter writes, “Strategically, the BPP took the same visual devices that promoted, normalized and idealized racism in popular media and weaponized them for Black liberation. Douglas and the other Panther artists drew people with dark skin, broad noses, and thick lips to celebrate Blackness and allow Black people to see themselves in printed media representations that were at that time revolutionary.”20
These visuals were undoubtedly a catalyst for a cultural revolution whose reverberations are still felt today. The Black Arts Movement more broadly, including writers like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni, and artists like Elizabeth Catlett, members of AfriCOBRA, and Betye Saar, to name just a few, played a crucial role in reminding the world that Black is beautiful.
The Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas, and Visualizing Black Revolution - Questions, Connections, and Activities
- In what ways were the struggles of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords connected? In what ways did they differ?
- What role did visual and graphic arts play in the Black Panther Party’s movement for justice? What role did it play in the Young Lord’s movement?
- What were similarities and differences between the art of Emory Douglas and that of contemporaries such as AfriCOBRA members and artists like Elizabeth Catlett and Betye Saar?
- How can seeing oneself in powerful light or seeing a vision for a liberatory future be a tool for helping to manifest those visions?
- What role can visual and graphic arts play in movements for justice today?
- Black Futures, edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham
- Allied Media Project
- Miguel Luciano
- Maria Gaspar
- Gallery walk and chalk talk of art by Emory Douglas and the Black Panther Party; you may also choose to include artwork by other Black Arts Movement artists, such as AfriCOBRA, Elizabeth Catlett, Betye Saar, as well as artwork by the Young Lords Party (post artwork around the room and use suggestions from article linked in the resource section below, students interact with images and one another using post-its to write comments, questions, and responses to one another)
- Watch and discuss “Emory Douglas: The Art of The Black Panthers,” a short documentary (linked below in resource section)
- Students design a graphic/visual for a historic or contemporary social movement or campaign of their choice