Friday, January 04, 2008


Review: The Art and Ideas of the Black Panther Party

“The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service 1967-1980”

by David Hilliard Atria Books, 2007

“Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas”

Rizzoli, 2007

By Brad Duncan


It has now been 40 years since the ‘year of the heroic guerrilla’ when the militant spirit of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s found its most daring expression. Everywhere—it seemed—the revolution had come, and it was time to pick up the gun. The colonial world was shaken by a ‘tri-continental’ (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) armed independence movement and the inner cities of the major imperialist counties burned with rage and radical hope. Alongside the face of Che Guevarra no single image encapsulates these struggles quite like the stylized black panther, seen on thousands of berets, leather jackets, and movement newspapers. The Black Panther Party brought together serve the people volunteerism with a commitment to armed self defense in the face of extreme state persecution. They were at once an effort to meet the immediate needs of the urban Black communities and an attempt to foster hope for something much more radical.

Although their community ‘survival programs’ delivered clothes and groceries to thousands, the most successful Panther endeavor was their passionate effort to communicate the ideas of the Party and the movement through visual art and Party publications such as The Black Panther newspaper and the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service. Two new books, one collecting front pages and articles from the Party paper and one looking specifically at the art of Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, give an unprecedented look in to these facets of the Black Panther experience.

The two books cover much of the same territory, as Douglas’ art filled countless issues of the paper and epitomized its’ politics.

David Hilliard was one of the first Panthers, recruited to the nascent party by his boyhood friend Huey Newton. His new book looks at the Party’s newspaper and specifically hones in on the period between 1969 (dubbed ‘year of the Panther’ by the paper) and 1972, when the movement suffered a debilitating split. With very little in the way of additional commentary, save for a few introductory essays, we are left to read the papers as they appeared. The paper published for thirteen years without missing a weekly issue. The Panthers have no one but themselves to thank for that as they had to build their own press when commercial printers continually caved under state pressure and stopped printing.

Image by Emory DouglasImage by Emory Douglas

From owning their own press the Party grew the paper on an international level, with each weekly issue acting as a line of communication to movements internationally. Leftists and activists of color around the world subscribed or read handed-down copies. Subscriptions were the most essential revenue stream the Party had, especially as the movement begun to ebb in the early 1970’s. Although the paper could readily be found in shops in the Black community or in movement centers by far the easiest way to get a copy back in ’69 was to find one of the thousands of Panthers selling it on the streets of just about every major American city. Lenin would have been proud—the paper truly was the scaffolding of the Party.

Most history books end their look at the Panthers in the early 1970’s, and there is some justification for that. The movement was deathly effected by state harassment and murder as well as internal rifts, rendering the Party halved by 1973. By the mid 1970’s the Black Panther Party was simply no longer able to have a national impact the way they had in 1969-70. It will come as a surprise to some of you that the Party soldiered on until 1980, and so did The Black Panther Newspaper.

The issues of the paper featured in Hilliard’s book reveals in plain view both the incredible promise of the Party and the insidious handicaps the Party faced. The paper demonstrates the powerful solidarity that was being built between the Panthers and other liberation struggles, such as the Asian-American group I Wor Kuen (formerly the Red Guard Party) and the American Indian Movement. Clearly internationalism was infectious as news from the frontlines of Vietnam and Mozambique appeared in nearly every issue. It is also clear from these issues that the Panthers sought to extend their ideas and influence to every aspect of urban, working class Black life. There are of course the reports of the horrors of ghetto life, but in addition the paper ran extensive critiques of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, controversies in Black art, and reportage on health issues such as sickle-cell anemia and nutrition.

The political handicap most on display here is the cult-like appreciation for the central Panther leaders, namely Huey Newton. Not only is Huey’s face on nearly every masthead, but by 1971 the paper is referring to “the invincible thoughts of Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense and Supreme Commander…”. Undoubtedly the Party popularized movement heroes, but they also raised some to a level that no human being can reach. Invincible thoughts? The writing was on the wall and Panthers had a leadership-worship problem. This style of regime wrecked havoc on the movement internally.

Image by Emory DouglasImage of Huey P. Newton by Emory Douglas

Another key Panther misstep was the emphasis put on armed struggle. Although armed self defense against the police was a central feature of early Party life, changing gun laws and state violence meant that the Panthers used their weapons less and less as the Party matured and changed. But a glance at one of Emory Douglas’ posters or newspaper covers would suggest otherwise. There are machine guns in nearly every image, generally held high defiantly. This guerrilla pose did not match reality—not only was the American radical scene not ready for a guerrilla army the Panthers’ didn’t have one anyway. The posters and art work make it seem as if the Panthers were a mass paramilitary force with the power to win demands with physical force. It is very easy to understand why weapons were a powerful visual image for oppressed people in a time of repression and resistance. It is quite another for a political movement to make boasts it can’t follow through on. The Panthers had some shotguns, but they were never a real armed force. Emory Douglas’ beautiful guerrilla art could not change this. Nor could his powerful images of armed rebellion alone create the kind of conditions and popular consciousness it would take to lead a successful armed revolutionary movement in the US.

The front pages Hilliard chose to include give us a look at the Party’s rapid political development from a general ‘Black power’ standpoint, through a Maoist phase and guerrilla phase, and eventually to Huey Newton’s idea of ‘intercommunalism’. Each phase has its own contradictions, to be sure. This is illustrated by support for Soviet-allied African liberation struggles in one issue and a cartoon depicting the USSR as an equal imperialist power alongside the US in the next issue. This eclectic mix of radicalisms was not specific to the Panthers but rather ran through much of the New Left and subsequent New Communist Movement.

There are a dozen of more new books out about the Black Panther Party, including the excelled Black Panther Party Reconsidered published by Black Classics Press. But these two books say the most by presenting the Panthers as they presented themselves to the world--through their Party press and newspapers.

(below: issues of The Black Panther from 1969)

Image of Sam Napier by Emory DouglasImage of Burial at Folsom Prison by Emory Douglas

(below: fold out posters from The Black Panther by Emory Douglas)

Image of Woman with Rat by Emory DouglasImage of A Vote for Chisholm by Emory Douglas




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