The Revolution Will Be Visualized: Emory Douglas in the Black Panther
Issue #65, January 2004
Beret-wearing, gun-toting, angry young black men in black are the most persistent icons representing the Black Panthers from the 1960s and 70s. According to mainstream media accounts, their mission was essentially to scare white people about armed revolution in retaliation for discrimination. Mission accomplished — people were scared. J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI, declared the Panthers the greatest threat to American national security. The armed revolutionary icon was a carefully cultivated part of the Party's public image, but only part of their story. There was another part of the Black Panthers' visual campaign aimed at poor black people living in US ghettos and oppressed people around the world. According to Emory Douglas, the Panthers' Minister of Culture, who created the vast majority of those images, the messages to "the people" were the critical ones.
About thirty years after The Black Panther newspaper ceased publication, the work of Emory Douglas as a protest artist is not widely known. In contrast to the current climate of forced consensus in media messages and images, protest graphics of a generation ago are shocking in their directness. In revisiting them it is important to remember the conditions that made protest necessary. Even though institutionalized injustice, poverty, and official policies of government deceit still exist, today's political complacency is only possible because the protests of a generation ago succeeded in raising consciousness and improving conditions to some extent.
The beginning of 2004, a presidential election year, is a good time to take another look at Emory Douglas's work as a graphic designer, illustrator, poster artist, political cartoonist, and master craftsman of the Black Panther Party's visual message. In addition to designing and laying out the weekly Black Panther newspaper, he was its main artist. Douglas used a distinctive illustration style, cartooning skills, and resourceful collage and image recycling to make the paper as explosive visually as it was verbally. He was a one-man band, showing the same versatility with different visual styles and methods as a musician who can play several instruments as well as write the music.
On the back of each Black Panther weekly tabloid paper was a poster, usually created by Douglas. Like rap lyrics that layer "rhymes" to create images, Douglas's densely packed layered images told detailed stories.
In this back page poster, Douglas spanned a range of issues and condensed the anguish in American black communities into one mixed media collage.
When The Black Panther newspaper was first published, African Americans were virtually absent from the mainstream (white) American media landscape. Public images of black people were almost exclusively limited to roles of servants or cultural stereotypes. The black press, influential in African American communities because of segregation, followed the pattern of mainstream media in concentrating on the middle class. Black Panther Party leaders profoundly understood that an essential key to black liberation was creating and controlling images used to represent black people.
In The Black Panther newspaper, images of poor and working class black people proliferated. Although the Panthers are perceived as a male-dominated organization, Douglas often featured women in his illustrations.
Wearing a Panther button that says, "Serve the people, body and soul," this woman sits contentedly with a full bag of groceries (provided by the Panthers' Free Food Program). The title reads, "This year, I think I WILL vote." The message is that people can become politicized only after their basic needs are met.
"Hallelujah! The might and the power of the people is beginning to show." Wearing an apron indicating the type of work she does, this triumphant woman sports a button with the faces of political prisoners Bobby Seale and Angela Davis. Douglas often used "signs within signs" in his drawings — people holding signposts or wearing buttons, tags, labels, and other integrated messages.
The woman in this poster carries a generic "Vote for Survival" sign. The text at the top advertises "Chairman Bobby Seale for Mayor, Minister of Information Elaine Brown for Councilwoman, Ron Dellums for Congressman, Shirley Chisholm for President." Bearing a tag reading, "David Hilliard, People's Free Shoe Program," the shoes in her handbag were more evidence of the Panthers' community programs. Again, a poor woman became politicized after the Black Panther Party raised her consciousness and met her needs.
All Black Panther Party activities were based on their 10-point program for self-determination. The Ministers of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, and Culture, Emory Douglas, made sure all their messages referred directly to the ten points.
- We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities.
- We want full employment for our people.
- We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
- We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
- We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.
- We want completely free health care for all black and oppressed people.
- We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people, other people of color, all oppressed people inside the United States.
- We want an immediate end to all wars of aggression.
- We want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in US federal, state, county, city and military prisons and jails. We want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.
- We want land, bread, housing, education, and people's community control of modern technology.
Douglas reused images and turned them into icons. One favored visual theme, borrowed from religious iconography, Russian constructivism, and other hero-worshipping genres, is "beatification." Using a visual device often used to portray saints, holy people and powerful leaders, Douglas turned ordinary people into heroes. The radiating lines were a recurring graphic image and almost a signature on his posters. Previously ignored by almost everyone, in The Black Panther paper, poor people were prominent as icons of the newly politically conscious. Douglas showed respect and affection for the people he portrayed. His drawings maintained poor black people's dignity while focusing on their plight. There was no patronizing. He drew dark-skinned African-featured everyday people beaming with pride.
This more somber application of "beatification" collages poor people's struggles and again incorporates direct messages on signs within the image.
The main hero and most powerful icon of the Party was its leader, Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton. Attractive and photogenic, he was the natural choice to visually represent the party and its programs. In this image, the radiant lines communicated Newton's reverence and power within the party.
A murdered party member was posthumously "beatified," becoming a martyr.
Jail bars metaphorically and consistently reinforced the message that poor and oppressed people were imprisoned by their plight. The imagery also literally referred to the disproportionate and often illegal incarceration of black men. Douglas often used prison bars as design elements, even in editorial layouts.
This image responded to the Fred Hampton murders in Chicago, when police raided the Panther leader's apartment in the middle of the night. "Every door that the fascists attempt to kick down will put them deeper into the pit of death. Shoot to kill." This poster was clearly a directive for self-defense in the face of police brutality. Always empathetic with poor people, Douglas's drawing included missing plaster to indicate substandard living conditions.
"Misery Misery? Ain't we got a right to the tree of life?" Although the posters often portrayed harsh conditions, there was no self-pity. The woman in this drawing, hand on her hip in defiance, shared her home with an oversized rat.
Another packed image tells the story of a young child trapped in poverty, but she holds a picture of a boy in the Panther free breakfast program and stands in front of 1968 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. "A vote for Chisholm is a vote for survival."
Paradoxically, even though they graphically portrayed injustices and indignities, Douglas's messages were essentially hopeful. These posters were not meant for the mainstream public, or those inflicting the misery, but gave people suffering in ghettos assurance that the Panthers were working to help them improve their lives permanently. J. Edgar Hoover was correct in a sense. The Panthers' message was a direct and serious threat to the capitalist status quo. The danger was not that the group would manage an armed coup and take over the government. Empowering people to stop facilitating their own oppression was far more frightening.
For over ten years, Emory Douglas worked to make the Panthers' ten-point program a reality in the pages of The Black Panther. His prolific and aesthetically powerful work was meant to be a catalyst for change where it would have the most lasting effect — within the people themselves.
Colette Gaiter is professor of interactive media at Columbia College in Chicago, and a previous contributor to Bad Subjects.
All images Copyright ©2004 Emory Douglas.
Images used with permission from Emory Douglas and the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society Library and Archives.