Voices from the Collective: Response to "Roasts Pork"
Issue #67, April 2004
With all due respect, I think Mike Mosher was misreading my essay.
I said early on that the "revolutionary" images are the most remembered and documented of Douglas's work. Perhaps I should have specifically mentioned the infamous pig images. Obviously, I did not make it clear enough that I was focusing on a different aspect of his work — one that is less well known.
It would be easy to fill volumes on Douglas's work — just reproducing the images from the Black Panther. I was focusing on what I see as the "grunt" work of revolution. Marches and public protests and shocking political cartoon images have their place, but the work I showed was an essential part of his entire body of work.
Before I met and interviewed Douglas (last spring) I had my own teenage memories of the BP papers that my sister brought home from Howard University. What I realized after interviewing him was that I missed the part of his work that was most important to him — appealing directly to "the people" — poor black people. Not the angst of middle-class teenagers (like myself) in the suburbs, black and white. I did not live in a rat and roach infested tenement without enough food to eat. The images I showed make that reality visible. That is less easy to identify with than the legitimate anger at the system any conscious person understood and still understands.
I think the brilliance of the images I chose is that they make a poor black woman, wearing a tattered sweater and holding a sign encouraging people to vote as powerful as an armed revolutionary holding a gun to the head of a bound and gagged imperialist "pig." They are not about "dignity in suffering" and the "long-suffering saintly Negro awaiting her reward in the afterlife" stereotype.
When I talked with Douglas, he spent most of the time showing me photographs of Panther activities, in schools, with elders, children... free food, free clothing, rides to doctors, etc. He spent more time showing me those photos than he did talking about his work. My impulse was to steer him back into the "revolutionary" images, but I realized that these less glamorous and dramatic activities were what motivated him. This is what he wants his legacy to be, and I would like to respect that.
When I made a presentation about Douglas's work at a graphic design conference at the University of Minnesota last fall, I included some of the pig images. That is because not one person in the room had ever seen a Black Panther newspaper. For them, to see LBJ, Robert Kennedy, Dean Rusk, etc. as dead pigs hung from their necks was a whole new experience.
I thought Bad Subjects readers might be more familiar with Black Panther imagery and would not need to see those images again to define Douglas. For the essay, I left out the pig images, believing that they deserve more attention than I could give them in that amount of space.
I think my only omission was that I could have mentioned the pig images specifically — and why I was not addressing them — but this was in no way intended to be a retrospective of Douglas's work. I did ask Douglas about the pigs when I interviewed him, and perhaps I will address them in later work. It is my scholarly prerogative to write about a particular aspect of an artist's work without delving into other more popular ones.
I am trying to counter the hype. I am well aware that the anger and rawness of the pig images is dramatically effective. But, their unpleasantness also makes them ripe for subversion and misappropriation by the right wing. The Panthers were the Al Qaeda of their time — called by J. Edgar Hoover "the most serious threat to national security." Focusing on harsh images created in the anger and revolutionary spirit of the time simplifies the job of portraying the Panthers as anti-social anarchists with no redeeming qualities. The fact that the FBI appropriated the pig image for COINTELPRO (counter intelligence propaganda) activities makes those images even less interesting to me. They have been co-opted, misinterpreted and corrupted. I believe the pig images are too easily misused.
I have also heard too many spoiled middle-class young people rail against "the pigs" for their latest marijuana bust (after their parents dutifully bailed them out.) I have the same problem with middle class gangsta rappers and the "po-po's." Appropriated oppression. There are too many people being REALLY oppressed and it is offensive that their plights are minimized by the "wanna-be" oppressed. No one wants to be like the people in the drawings I showed. That is his point.
Erika Doss has an article in the anthology Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party. It is called "Revolutionary Art as a Tool for Liberation" and specifically addresses the pig images. Among other details, she recounts that Douglas spent time in a rural reform school as a youth and his job was to tend the pigs. That is how he was so familiar with them. She did a good job of covering Douglas's more disturbing revolutionary art, which deserves to be analyzed and documented.
I have decided to focus my research on the more benign activities. I want people to remember that most Panthers, Emory Douglas among them, were distributing food, helping poor people, and trying to change everyday life in the ghettos — places that were foreign to most of us armchair revolutionaries. It is important to not feed the hype or stereotype.
The 1960s and 70s counterculture gets blamed for every current social ill by conservatives. College students see the movements as they have been represented in popular media — self-indulgent, naïve, ill-fated efforts by "hippies and revolutionaries" to upset the American values that have "made us great", etc. etc. I remind students that most of their everyday behavior (clothing, sexual habits, social mores) would be considered unacceptable and would get them ostracized in the early 1960s. The notion that a black woman like myself would be teaching them would be completely unimaginable.
A major theme of all my work is that media reduces ideas to sound bytes and precludes subtlety, paradox, and ambiguity. Yes, Emory Douglas was the angry young man who perfected the art of turning perceived "pillars of society" into pigs. He is also the thoughtful and older man who wants to be remembered for helping people in their everyday lives.
There is room for more than one story to be written about Emory Douglas.
The images I wrote about show his graciousness to poor people in portraying them with dignity. They are not less important because they remind people of civil rights church-based images. I disagree with the current fashion of dismissing the civil rights movement as "not radical enough." Much of Douglas's work reflects the history of black people in this country at the time of the civil rights movement. It is not a coincidence that the work looks similar. His work is not about the "dignity of struggle," but the struggle to maintain dignity while those in power try to strip it at every turn. To minimize that struggle insults him and the people he portrayed.
I hope that many people write their interpretations of Douglas's multi-faceted work. I am sure some will directly contradict mine. This is further proof that Douglas's work continues to be controversial and enigmatic. I think these qualities increase the work's significance, aesthetically and politically.
Colette Gaiter is professor of interactive media at Columbia College in Chicago, and a previous contributor to Bad Subjects.
Credit: 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.